What is democracy? Since this deceptively simple question first came into my mind, I haven’t been able to shake it. We think we understand the word, but what are we really referring to when we talk about a system in which the people rule themselves?

The word democracy is all around us, invoked in almost every conceivable context: government, business, technology, education, and media. At the same time, its meaning, taken as self-evident, is rarely given much serious consideration. Though the headlines tell us democracy is in “crisis,” we don’t have a clear conception of what it is that is at risk. The significance of the democratic ideal, as well as its practical substance, is surprisingly elusive.

For most of my life, the word democracy didn’t hold much appeal. I was of course never against democracy per se, but words such as justice, equality, freedom, solidarity, socialism, and revolution resonated more deeply. Democracy struck me as mealy-mouthed, even debased. That idealistic anarchists and authoritarian leaders are equally inclined to claim “democracy” as their own only demonstrated its lack of depth. North Korea does, after all, call itself a “Democratic People’s Republic,” and Iraq was invaded by the U.S. Army in the name of bringing democracy to the Middle East. But today I no longer see the opportunistic use of the word as a sign of the idea’s vapidity. Those powers co-opt the concept of democracy because they realize that it represents a profound threat to the established order, a threat they desperately hope to contain.

After making a documentary film, What Is Democracy?, I now understand the concept’s disorienting vagueness and protean character as a source of strength; I have come to accept, and even appreciate, that there is no single definition I can stand behind that feels unconditionally conclusive. Though the practice has extensive global roots, the word democracy comes to us from ancient Greece, and it conveys a seemingly simple idea: the people (demos) rule or hold power (kratos). Democracy is the promise of the people ruling, but a promise that can never be wholly fulfilled because its implications and scope keep changing. Over centuries our conceptions of democracy have expanded and evolved, with democracy becoming more inclusive and robust in many ways, yet who counts as the people, how they rule, and where they do so remain eternally up for debate. Democracy destabilizes its own legitimacy and purpose by design, subjecting its core components to continual examination and scrutiny.

Perfect democracy, I’ve come to believe, may not in fact exist and never will, but that doesn’t mean we can’t make progress toward it, or that what there is of it can’t disappear. For this reason, I am more convinced than ever that the questions of what democracy is—and, more important, what it could be—are ones we must perpetually ask.

Right now, many who question democracy do so out of disillusionment, fear, and outrage. Democracy may not exist, yet it still manages to disappoint. Political gridlock, corruption, unaccountable representatives, and the lack of meaningful alternatives incense people across the ideological spectrum; their anger simmers at dehumanizing bureaucracy, blatant hypocrisy, and lack of voice. Leaders are not accountable and voters rightly feel their choices are limited, all while the rich keep getting richer and regular people scramble to survive. In advanced democracies around the world, a growing number of people aren’t even bothering to vote—a right many people fought and died for fairly recently. Most Americans will say that they live in a democracy, but few will say that they trust the government, while the state generally inspires negative reactions, ranging from frustration to contempt and suspicion. The situation calls to mind Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s observation from The Social Contract: “In a well-ordered city every man flies to the assemblies; under a bad government no one cares to stir a step to get to them. . . . As soon as any man says of the State What does it matter to me? the State may be given up for lost.”1

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A cauldron of causes generates an atmosphere of corrosive cynicism, social fragmentation, and unease, with blame too often directed downward at the most vulnerable populations. And it’s not just in the United States. Consider the United Kingdom vote to leave the European Union, the decision known as Brexit; the resurgence of right-wing populism across Europe; coups and reactionary electoral victories in Brazil; and the rise of fascism in India. Plato’s warning about democracy devolving into tyranny rings chillingly prophetic. The promise of self-rule risks becoming not a promise but a curse, a self-destructive motor pushing toward destinations more volatile, divided, despotic, and mean.

But this book isn’t about the pitfalls of popular sovereignty, though it certainly has its perils. Nor is it about the shortcomings of current liberal democratic political systems or the ways they have been corrupted by money and power—though they have been. That’s a story that has been told before, and while it will be the backdrop to my inquiry it is not the focus. This book, instead, is an invitation to think about the word democracy from various angles, looking back through history and reflecting on the philosophy and practice of self-rule in hopes that a more contemplative view will shed useful light on our present predicament. My goal is not to negate the sense of alarm nor deter people from action but to remind us that we are part of a long, complex, and still-unfolding chronicle, whatever the day’s headlines might be or whoever governs the country.

Taking a more theoretical approach to democracy’s winding, thorny path and inherently paradoxical nature can also provide solace and reassurance. Ruling ourselves has never been straightforward and never will be. Ever vexing and unpredictable, democracy is a process that involves endless reassessment and renewal, not an endpoint we reach before taking a rest (leaving us with a finished system to tweak at the margins). As such, this book is my admittedly unorthodox, idiosyncratic call to democratize society from the bottom to the top. It is also an expression of my belief that we cannot rethink democracy if we haven’t really thought about it in the first place.

One thing I’ve learned is that the people who are most averse to deepening democracy know exactly why they despise it (Plato, who helped invent political philosophy by railing against democracy, arguably began the trend.) A political science major told me that she doesn’t value democracy much. “The phrase that inspires me,” she said, “is the American dream and that ability to climb.” Opportunity mattered to her and her friends more than inclusion. I expected them to see democracy and capitalism as mutually reinforcing; instead, they perceived the two to be at odds in key respects: democratic demands, whether for progressive taxation or for liberal immigration policies, would diminish their social and economic distinction.

“In capitalism, there are going to be people at the bottom,” one young man enthused, confident of his place at the top and cognizant that his position was antidemocratic. Members of a privileged economic minority, these students recognized that impediments to popular sovereignty (such as the Electoral College, which handed two of the last five presidential elections to a candidate who had lost the popular vote) were necessary for the continued dominance of their class. (James Madison had as much in mind when he promoted the idea that the Senate should protect the “invaluable interests” of “opulent” landlords against expropriation by the more numerous masses.)

As much as I disagree with the students’ beliefs, this right-wing position is at least the consequence of sincere, if self-centered, consideration. In contrast, many people who say they value democracy have a remarkably difficult time defending the principle in a meaningful or substantive way. Platitudes routinely eclipse more profound or personal reflection: democracy amounts to “free and fair” elections, “the peaceful transfer of power,” or “freedom,” pure and simple. During the process of making my film, no one I met on the street suggested that democracy was a continuous process of egalitarian inclusion and power sharing made possible by tireless agitators, even though that’s a legitimate if long-winded way to define it. Nor did anyone respond with the classical description, that democracy is the rule of the people. (Though I did come across a number of men who, once they realized how little they actually had to say on the subject, told me, authoritatively, that thanks to the genius of the founding fathers America is not actually a democracy but a republic, as if that were enough to cease any further inquiry.)

We could conclude that people who struggle to speak about such an essential component of modern life are just ignorant or perhaps too distracted to be engaged, but I’m not sure it’s that simple. The problem stems, I believe, from that fact that democracy is something people rarely encounter in their everyday lives: certainly not during the media- and celebrity-obsessed, money-driven circus of national elections; nor at their jobs, where they are often treated like replaceable cogs in a machine and have to keep their heads down; nor at their schools or colleges, where they are encouraged to see themselves as consumers seeking a return on investment rather than as citizens preparing to participate in the common good. For all our lauded freedoms, democracy isn’t something we actually experience all that much. No wonder, then, that people can barely describe it.

Typically, democracy is considered to consist of one person, one vote, exercised in periodic elections; constitutional rights; and a market economy. On paper at least, there is no shortage of states that conform to this rather limited conception—by some estimates, eighty-one countries moved from authoritarianism to democracy between 1980 and 2002. Yet recent studies reveal that democracy, defined by the preceding attributes, has weakened worldwide over the last decade or so. According to one well-respected annual report, seventy-one countries suffered net declines in political rights and civil liberties in 2017, leading to an overall decrease in global freedom.2 In early 2018, the Economist warned, “Democracy Continues Its Disturbing Retreat”—this not long after the magazine’s yearly Democracy Index officially downgraded the United States from a “full democracy” to a “flawed” one.3

Yet democracy doesn’t retreat either of its own accord or by some organic, immutable process. It is eroded, undermined, attacked, or allowed to wither. It falls into disrepair and disrepute thanks to the actions or inaction of human beings who have lost touch with or, in some cases, sabotaged the responsibilities and possibilities that a system of self-government entails. While today it’s common to blame extremists for jeopardizing democracy, studies show that across Europe and the United States it is middle-of-the-road centrists who tend to hold the most hostile attitudes toward democratic practices, preferring strong and effective centralized decision making to messier, more inclusive processes. Less than half of Americans who identify with the political center view elections as “an essential feature of democracy” and only half of them, or 25 percent of centrists, agree that civil rights are crucial.4 Apathy, or even antipathy, toward self-government and the difficult daily work it requires is one of the stones that help pave the way to a more authoritarian society. That apathy is helped by the fact that the American system was never designed to be democratic to begin with.

As with many other liberalizing nations of the late eighteenth century, the republic did not consider the majority of its residents to be members of the polity. Enslaved and indigenous people, all women, poor white men, certain immigrants, and some religious groups were denied rights, including the most basic right of citizenship, the right to cast a ballot. These founding inequities, only fitfully and incompletely redressed, continue to shape our present. As numerous academic studies show, the national agenda is set by plutocrats and well-represented interests, while the preferences of the broad population have virtually no impact on public policy. The inequalities that plague us today are not an aberration nor the result of whichever party happens to be in power, but a plausible result of the political system’s very design, which in crucial ways was devised by a restricted and privileged class of men.

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In the fifth century BC, the celebrated statesman Pericles famously praised the political structure of Athens: “It is true that we are called a democracy, for the administration is in the hands of the many and not of the few.” Given the existence of slavery and the exclusion of women, Athens failed to meet the bar by modern standards. Yet as Plato and Aristotle noted, the overwhelming majority of people who made up the Athenian demos were not wealthy. Rule of the people, they observed, by definition means rule of the poor, since citizens of modest means are bound to vastly outnumber the rich.

This basic insight has been negated in our time as neoliberal capitalism and the massive financial inequities it creates dismantle hard-won democratic gains. Under a legal order where money qualifies as speech in the context of campaign spending and lobbying, the richest are able to purchase influence while everyone else struggles to be heard; in a system where the affluent can pass their assets to their offspring virtually untaxed, inherited wealth ensures the creation of an aristocratic class. If the last fifty years has demonstrated anything, it is that formal political equality, exemplified by the right to vote, is not enough to ensure democracy, as the wealthy have many avenues to exert disproportionate power. While earlier generations focused on expanding suffrage, today we face an arguably more formidable task: saving democracy from capitalism. Extending democracy from the political to the economic sphere is the great challenge of our age, and also the only way to protect political equality from the concentrated financial power that is proving to be its undoing.

A mere eight men—six of them American—hold the same amount of wealth as half the people on earth, their private fortunes built on mass penury.5 The United States, perhaps unsurprisingly, is more an oligarchy than a democracy. Year upon year, the vast majority of the income generated globally flows into the pockets of the top 1 percent of the world’s population, while the incomes of ordinary citizens have stagnated over the last four decades.6 Whereas an American born in the 1940s had a 92 percent chance of outearning his or her parents by age thirty, for those born in the 1980s, that likelihood has fallen to 50 percent; in some places in the Midwest, the odds are worse. A recent Federal Reserve survey revealed that almost half of Americans are too broke to cover a four-hundred-dollar emergency expense, and they would have to sell possessions or borrow money to do so.7

Even more shocking, given the veneration of the achievements of the civil rights movement, is that there has been no progress for black Americans with regard to unemployment, homeownership, and incarceration since the push for racial equality reached its peak fifty years ago. As the Economic Policy Institute reports, “In 2017 the black unemployment rate was 7.5 percent, up from 6.7 percent in 1968, and is still roughly twice the white unemployment rate. In 2015, the black homeownership rate was just over 40 percent, virtually unchanged since 1968, and trailing a full 30 points behind the white homeownership rate, which saw modest gains over the same period. And the share of African Americans in prison or jail almost tripled between 1968 and 2016 and is currently more than six times the white incarceration rate.”8 The financial crisis of 2008, which wiped out half the wealth of black households, contributed to this grim state of affairs.9 Yet, today, one of the few bipartisan issues uniting Democrats and Republicans in Washington involves repealing the meager Wall Street reforms passed following the crash.10 There may be elections and some safeguards of civil liberties, and we should be grateful for this, but the state is hardly run by or for the people it purports to serve.11

The forces of oligarchy have been enabled, in part, by our tendency to accept a highly proscribed notion of democracy, one that limits popular power to the field of electoral politics, ignoring the other institutions and structures (workplaces, prisons, schools, hospitals, the environment, and the economy itself) that shape people’s lives. This is a mistake. To be substantive and strong, democracy cannot be something that happens only in capitol buildings; self-rule has to be far more widespread. If we believe that democracy should serve all of society, how can we call ourselves democratic when workers juggle multiple jobs as record-breaking profits flow to owners and investors? When millions of people, disproportionately poor and people of color, are locked behind bars? When access to learning and lifesaving treatments are denied to those who can’t pay? When the planet may be rendered uninhabitable so that a small number of companies can maximize revenues from fossil fuels? When the global 1 percent are on track to control two-thirds of the world’s wealth by 2030?12 We can view these issues as distinct and unrelated, or we can understand them as fundamentally interconnected, as joint symptoms of the fact that those with money, not “the many,” rule.

When we to stop to ask what democracy means, we’ll notice that a good number of the practical and philosophical problems plaguing us are not exactly novel; they are as old as democracy itself. The challenges are timeless: Is democracy a means or an end, a process or a set of finite outcomes? What if those outcomes, whatever they may be (peace, prosperity, sustainability, equality, liberty, an engaged citizenry), can be achieved by nondemocratic means? If democracy means rule by the people, what is the nature and extent of that rule and who counts as “the people”? We may think we are on the cutting edge, charting a socially unprecedented course, but the fight for justice, freedom, and self-rule (and the profound difficulties of realizing these democratic ideals) necessarily entails grappling with age-old dilemmas anew.

Democracy, the classicist Danielle Allen told me, is “intellectually hard.” If you live in a monarchy, you can point to a picture of the king or queen and know that that is the person who rules. But if you live in a democracy, there’s nothing to point to, in a concrete way, that conveys the idea that the people are in charge. “The very notion of a democratic people is an abstract conceptualization,” Allen explained. “You have to understand what is this ‘people’? How can you have justice when you have something making decisions that doesn’t seem to quite exist?” Democracy demands everyone wrestle with these abstract questions and concepts.

This demand itself explains why democracy and political philosophy emerged at the same time in ancient Greece: in the absence of a powerful tyrant or a cabal of aristocrats making decisions from on high, democracy requires that people reason and reflect. Thus, Athens’s massive open-air assemblies obliged citizens to ask the great Socratic question “How should I live?” collectively. In these remarkable gatherings, thousands of ordinary people, the demos, were expected to consider what kind of society they wanted to live in and why. They would contemplate, discuss, and decide on laws, punishment, and whether to go to war. In conditions of a democracy, the onus is on citizens to be inquisitive and to question their own system of government. The political order became an object of intensive speculation and critique. (Democracy, in other words, made Plato’s antidemocratic musings possible.)13 But what makes democracy so compelling is that it is not just abstraction and intellectualization but also action. To be understood, self-rule must be enacted—it is thought and conduct, theory and practice, noun and verb in equal measure.

These seeming oppositions are foundational to democracy, which encompasses politics that are both unified and diverse, individualistic and collective, that mix egalitarianism with hierarchy and autonomy with constraint. More than oppositions, these are paradoxes, contradictory elements that, while liable to clash, must coexist. The most famous paradox of all, the product of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, is of the chicken-or-egg variety, addressing the problem of creating democratic subjects, people who incline toward and are capable of democracy. “For an emerging people to be capable of appreciating the sound maxims of politics and to follow the fundamental rules of statecraft, the effect would have to become the cause,” Rousseau mused. “The social spirit which ought to be the work of that institution, would have to preside over the institution itself.”14 Put more plainly, the question is what comes first: the society and institutions that mold democratic citizens, cultivating and educating them, or citizens who are able to create such a society and institutions? The paradox is that democracy appears to require, in advance, the very structures and sensibilities on which it needs to rely in order to emerge, persist, and thrive.

Democracy is rife with these sorts of occasionally discordant yet indivisible dualities: it always has to balance freedom and equality, conflict and consensus, inclusion and exclusion, coercion and choice, spontaneity and structure, expertise and mass opinion, the local and the global, and the present and the future. There can be no unambiguous resolution on one or the other side of the binary.

What follows is an inquiry into democracy as a balance of paradoxes, an exploration of opposites, a framework I’ve chosen in hopes of jolting us out of more well-worn paradigms. No doubt I’ve failed to include some important paradoxes; by design, this book could never be conclusive; as philosophy, it asks more questions than it answers. But one absence in particular is worth mentioning: the rich versus the poor. I see no reason to accept the gulf between the haves and the have-nots, the owning class and the laboring class, as an inherently necessary paradox or an insurmountable fact of society, especially given our technological capabilities and productive capacities.

This brings us to a definition of contradiction: for Karl Marx, a contradiction is a conflict within capitalism (the antagonism between private property and common wealth, for example) destined, at some date, to be resolved in such a way as to usher in a new economic regime. Marx saw democracy as “the solved riddle of all constitutions” because in a democracy, “the constitution appears as what it is, the free product of men.”15 In contrast, the paradoxes I’ve identified do not stand in opposition in a Marxist sense, because they are necessary and irresolvable facets of democratic life. Though I believe that the process of democratization involves moving toward an equitable distribution of power and resources (what some call socialism), I doubt all riddles will ever be perfectly solved. I aim to show that existing economic inequality intensifies certain sides of the paradoxes I’ve highlighted, increasing instability and suffering. Still, it is my view that even without capitalist exploitation, democracy would remain messy and conflicted, full of what Plato called “variety and disorder” (which, despite being democracy’s first and most acute critic, he regarded as part of its charm).16 Should we ever achieve a fully economically and socially egalitarian society, we’ll still have to strive to balance spontaneity and structure, for example, or grapple with how best to weigh our present-day desires against future needs.

By teasing out these conflicts, we might gain better insight into why the challenge of self-rule is so great. Indeed, what motivated me to undertake this project was an urge to understand why democratic principles are so difficult to put into practice, a quandary my work as an activist makes me intimately familiar with. Democracy cannot be reduced to a system of laws to abide, a set of “indicators” to meet, or a ten-point proposal to enact but is instead something more emergent and experimental, a combination of order and flux rooted in both procedure and principle, modes of production (how we organize the creation of goods necessary for our survival) and popular sentiment. As we shall see, for democracy to continue and transform, the two poles represented by the paradoxes explored in these pages must be held in thoughtful, delicate tension.

Tension—that’s the key word. Consider democracy’s dark history, from slavery and colonialism to facilitating the emergence of fascism, from the omnipresent threat of nuclear annihilation to the danger posed by climate change. Think of all the bad decisions made by democratic humanity: the disastrous referendums, the selfish attachment to bigoted beliefs, the stubborn refusal to evolve even when our lives depended on it. All this makes democracy a “leap of faith,” as the philosopher Cornel West calls it, one that requires “living in the tension,” the tension of paradoxes unresolved and arguably irresolvable. The history of democracy is one of oppression, exploitation, demagoguery, dispossesion, domination, horror, and abuse. But it is also a history of cooperation, solidarity, deliberation, emancipation, justice, and empathy. Which side do we fall on, where should the emphasis land? In the final hour, is democracy a lost cause or our last hope?

“There’s always going to be mountains of evidence to convince you that you must be losing your mind if you believe this demos is going to make good decisions,” West told me. “But on the other hand, you say, lo and behold, so many of the best ideas about how you treat human beings, best ideas about justice, often come from the very folk you thought you had no grounds for trusting in their ability to think and reflect. Cuts both ways. Living in the tension. I think that’s the key.”

I don’t believe democracy exists; indeed, it never has. Instead, the ideal of self-rule is exactly that, an ideal, a principle that always occupies a distant and retreating horizon, something we must continue to reach toward yet fail to grasp. The promise of democracy is not the one made and betrayed by the powerful; it is a promise that can be kept only by regular people through vigilance, invention, and struggle. Through theory and practice, organization and open rebellion, protecting past gains and demanding new entitlements, the inspiring potential of self-rule manifests, but it remains fragmentary and fragile, forever partial and imperiled. In the end, living in the tension, embracing the incongruities and possibilities of democracy without giving up, is the message of this book.


1. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract or Principles of Political Right (1762), book 3, chap. 15.

2. For a full account read Freedom House’s “Freedom in the World 2018” report, available at https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-world/free

3. This is based on the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index, which rates 167 countries scored on a scale of zero to ten based on sixty indicators. See “Democracy Continues Its Disturbing Retreat,” Economist, January 31, 2018.

4. David Adler, “Centrists Are the Most Hostile to Democracy, Not Extremists,” New York Times, May 23, 2018.

5. Oxfam International, “Just 8 Men Own Same Wealth as Half the World,” January 16, 2017, https://www.oxfam.org/en/pressroom/pressreleases/2017-01-16/just-8-men-own-same-wealth-half-world.

6. Oxfam International, “Richest 1 Percent Bagged 82 Percent of Wealth Created Last Year—Poorest Half of Humanity Got Nothing,” January 22, 2018, https://www.oxfam.org/en/pressroom/pressreleases/2018-01-22/richest-1-percent-bagged-82-percent-wealth-created-last-year. A report from the Economic Policy Institute has data on stagnating wages: Lawrence Mishel, Elise Gould, and Josh Bivens, “Wage Stagnation in Nine Charts,” Economic Policy Institute, January 6, 2015, available at https://www.epi.org/publication/charting-wage-stagnation/.

7. Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System, “Report on the Economic Well-Being of U.S. Households in 2015,” May 2016, https://www.federalreserve.gov/2015-report-economic-well-being-us-households-201605.pdf.

8. Janelle Jones, John Schmitt, and Valerie Wilson, “50 Years After the Kerner Commission,” Economic Policy Institute Report, February 26, 2018, https://www.epi.org/publication/50-years-after-the-kerner-commission/.

9. The fact-checking website Politifact verified these statistics after presidential candidate Bernie Sanders mentioned them during the PBS Democratic debate. Linda Qiu, “Sanders: African-Americans Lost Half Their Wealth Because of Wall Street Collapse,” February 11, 2016, available at http://www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter/statements/2016/feb/11/bernie-s/sanders-african-american-lost-half-their-wealth-be/.

10. David Dayen, “Revenge of the Stadium Banks: Instead of Taking on Gun Control, Democrats Are Teaming with Republicans for a Stealth Attack on Wall Street Reform,” Intercept, March 2, 2018, https://theintercept.com/2018/03/02/crapo-instead-of-taking-on-gun-control-democrats-are-teaming-with-republicans-for-a-stealth-attack-on-wall-street-reform/.

11. War and national security are other areas where there is quite a lot of bipartisan collaboration. Perhaps one of the strongest arguments against America’s claim to be a democracy is the president’s unilateral authority to launch nuclear warheads, a problem that long precedes Trump’s boasting about his supersize “nuclear button.” In 1976, the New York Times reported that two years prior, a drunken Nixon had boasted to two congressmen, “At any moment I could go into the next room, push a button, and twenty minutes later sixty million people would be dead.” Terrifyingly, he wasn’t wrong. That a solitary individual holds such enormous, sublime, and murderous power dispels any notion that we live in something resembling a democratic society.

12. Michael Savage, “Richest 1{068cdbfab37e4f27da76d005a9c3d7cc8b4ae1429371040bf09b1dfe920189b4} on Target to Own Two-thirds of All Wealth by 2030,” Guardian, April 7, 2018.

13. I recommend Ellen Meiksins Wood’s work on this topic for those who want to learn more, particularly the first chapter of Citizens to Lords (Ellen Meiksins Wood, Citizens to Lords: A Social History of Western Political Thought from Antiquity to the Middle Ages [London: Verso Books, 2008]).

14. Rousseau, The Social Contract, book 2, chap. 7.

15. Karl Marx, “Critique of Hegel’s ‘Philosophy of Right,’ ” in Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Collected Works, vol. 3 (New York: International Publishers Co., 2005), p. 29.

16. “Democracy, which is a charming form of government, full of variety and disorder, and dispensing a sort of equality to equals and unequals alike” Plato has Socrates say in book 8 of The Republic in Benjamin Jowett’s translation. The whole text is available at the MIT Internet Classics Archive at http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/republic.html.

Copyright © 2019 by Astra Taylor

Democracy May Not Exist, but We’ll Miss It When It’s Gone

The Web is regularly hailed for its “openness” and that’s where the confusion begins, since “open” in no way means “equal.” While the Internet may create space for many voices, it also reflects and often amplifies real-world inequities in striking ways.

An elaborate system organized around hubs and links, the Web has a surprising degree of inequality built into its very architecture. Its traffic, for instance, tends to be distributed according to “power laws,” which follow what’s known as the 80/20 rule — 80% of a desirable resource goes to 20% of the population.

In fact, as anyone knows who has followed the histories of Google, Apple, Amazon, and Facebook, now among the biggest companies in the world, the Web is increasingly a winner-take-all, rich-get-richer sort of place, which means the disparate percentages in those power laws are only likely to look uglier over time.

Powerful and exceedingly familiar hierarchies have come to define the digital realm, whether you’re considering its economics or the social world it reflects and represents.  Not surprisingly, then, well-off white men are wildly overrepresented both in the tech industry and online.

Just take a look at gender and the Web comes quickly into focus, leaving you with a vivid sense of which direction the Internet is heading in and — small hint — it’s not toward equality or democracy.

Experts, Trolls, and What Your Mom Doesn’t Know

As a start, in the perfectly real world women shoulder a disproportionate share of household and child-rearing responsibilities, leaving them substantially less leisure time to spend online. Though a handful of high-powered celebrity “mommy bloggers” have managed to attract massive audiences and ad revenue by documenting their daily travails, they are the exceptions not the rule. In professional fields like philosophy, law, and science, where blogging has become popular, women are notoriously underrepresented; by one count, for instance, only around 20% of science bloggers are women.

An otherwise optimistic white paper by the British think tank Demos touching on the rise of amateur creativity online reported that white males are far more likely to be “hobbyists with professional standards” than other social groups, while you won’t be shocked to learn that low-income women with dependent children lag far behind. Even among the highly connected college-age set, research reveals a stark divergence in rates of online participation.

Socioeconomic status, race, and gender all play significant roles in a who’s who of the online world, with men considerably more likely to participate than women. “These findings suggest that Internet access may not, in and of itself, level the playing field when it comes to potential pay-offs of being online,” warns Eszter Hargittai, a sociologist at Northwestern University. Put simply, closing the so-called digital divide still leaves a noticeable gap; the more privileged your background, the more likely that you’ll reap the additional benefits of new technologies.

Some of the obstacles to online engagement are psychological, unconscious, and invidious. In a revealing study conducted twice over a span of five years — and yielding the same results both times — Hargittai tested and interviewed 100 Internet users and found that there was no significant variation in their online competency. In terms of sheer ability, the sexes were equal. The difference was in their self-assessments.

It came down to this: The men were certain they did well, while the women were wracked by self-doubt. “Not a single woman among all our female study subjects called herself an ‘expert’ user,” Hargittai noted, “while not a single male ranked himself as a complete novice or ‘not at all skilled.’” As you might imagine, how you think of yourself as an online contributor deeply influences how much you’re likely to contribute online.

The results of Hargittai’s study hardly surprised me. I’ve seen endless female friends be passed over by less talented, more assertive men. I’ve had countless people — older and male, always — assume that someone else must have conducted the interviews for my documentary films, as though a young woman couldn’t have managed such a thing without assistance. Research shows that people routinely underestimate women’s abilities, not least women themselves.

When it comes to specialized technical know-how, women are assumed to be less competent unless they prove otherwise. In tech circles, for example, new gadgets and programs are often introduced as being “so easy your mother or grandmother could use them.” A typical piece in the New York Times was titled “How to Explain Bitcoin to Your Mom.”  (Assumedly, dad already gets it.)  This kind of sexism leapt directly from the offline world onto the Web and may only have intensified there.

And it gets worse. Racist, sexist, and homophobic harassment or “trolling” has become a depressingly routine aspect of online life.

Many prominent women have spoken up about their experiences being bullied and intimidated online — scenarios that sometimes escalate into the release of private information, including home addresses, e-mail passwords, and social security numbers, or simply devolve into an Internet version of stalking. Esteemed classicist Mary Beard, for example, “received online death threats and menaces of sexual assault” after a television appearance last year, as did British activist Caroline Criado-Perez after she successfully campaigned to get more images of women onto British banknotes.

Young women musicians and writers often find themselves targeted online by men who want to silence them. “The people who were posting comments about me were speculating as to how many abortions I’ve had, and they talked about ‘hate-fucking’ me,” blogger Jill Filipovic told the Guardian after photos of her were uploaded to a vitriolic online forum. Laurie Penny, a young political columnist who has faced similar persecution and recently published an ebook called Cybersexism, touched a nerve by calling a woman’s opinion the “short skirt” of the Internet: “Having one and flaunting it is somehow asking an amorphous mass of almost-entirely male keyboard-bashers to tell you how they’d like to rape, kill, and urinate on you.”

Alas, the trouble doesn’t end there. Women who are increasingly speaking out against harassers are frequently accused of wanting to stifle free speech. Or they are told to “lighten up” and that the harassment, however stressful and upsetting, isn’t real because it’s only happening online, that it’s just “harmless locker-room talk.”

As things currently stand, each woman is left alone to devise a coping mechanism as if her situation were unique. Yet these are never isolated incidents, however venomously personal the insults may be. (One harasser called Beard — and by online standards of hate speech this was mild — “a vile, spiteful excuse for a woman, who eats too much cabbage and has cheese straws for teeth.”)

Indeed, a University of Maryland study strongly suggests just how programmatic such abuse is. Those posting with female usernames, researchers were shocked to discover, received 25 times as many malicious messages as those whose designations were masculine or ambiguous. The findings were so alarming that the authors advised parents to instruct their daughters to use sex-neutral monikers online. “Kids can still exercise plenty of creativity and self-expression without divulging their gender,” a well-meaning professor said, effectively accepting that young girls must hide who they are to participate in digital life.

Over the last few months, a number of black women with substantial social media presences conducted an informal experiment of their own. Fed up with the fire hose of animosity aimed at them, Jamie Nesbitt Golden and others adopted masculine Twitter avatars. Golden replaced her photo with that of a hip, bearded, young white man, though she kept her bio and continued to communicate in her own voice. “The number of snarky, condescending tweets dropped off considerably, and discussions on race and gender were less volatile,” Golden wrote, marveling at how simply changing a photo transformed reactions to her. “Once I went back to Black, it was back to business as usual.”

Old Problems in New Media

Not all discrimination is so overt. A study summarized on the Harvard Business Review website analyzed social patterns on Twitter, where female users actually outnumbered males by 10%. The researchers reported “that an average man is almost twice [as] likely to follow another man [as] a woman” while “an average woman is 25% more likely to follow a man than a woman.” The results could not be explained by varying usage since both genders tweeted at the same rate.

Online as off, men are assumed to be more authoritative and credible, and thus deserving of recognition and support. In this way, long-standing disparities are reflected or even magnified on the Internet.

In his 2008 book The Myth of Digital Democracy, Matthew Hindman, a professor of media and public affairs at George Washington University, reports that of the top 10 blogs, only one belonged to a female writer. A wider census of every political blog with an average of over 2,000 visitors a week, or a total of 87 sites, found that only five were run by women, nor were there “identifiable African Americans among the top 30 bloggers,” though there was “one Asian blogger, and one of mixed Latino heritage.” In 2008, Hindman surveyed the blogosphere and found it less diverse than the notoriously whitewashed op-ed pages of print newspapers. Nothing suggests that, in the intervening six years, things have changed for the better.

Welcome to the age of what Julia Carrie Wong has called “old problems in new media,” as the latest well-funded online journalism start-ups continue to be helmed by brand-name bloggers like Ezra Klein and Nate Silver. It is “impossible not to notice that in the Bitcoin rush to revolutionize journalism, the protagonists are almost exclusively — and increasingly — male and white,” Emily Bell lamented in a widely circulated op-ed. It’s not that women and people of color aren’t doing innovative work in reporting and cultural criticism; it’s just that they get passed over by investors and financiers in favor of the familiar.

As Deanna Zandt and others have pointed out, such real-world lack of diversity is also regularly seen on the rosters of technology conferences, even as speakers take the stage to hail a democratic revolution on the Web, while audiences that look just like them cheer. In early 2013, in reaction to the announcement of yet another all-male lineup at a prominent Web gathering, a pledge was posted on the website of the Atlantic asking men to refrain from speaking at events where women are not represented. The list of signatories was almost immediately removed “due to a flood of spam/trolls.” The conference organizer, a successful developer, dismissed the uproar over Twitter. “I don’t feel [the] need to defend this, but am happy with our process,” he stated. Instituting quotas, he insisted, would be a “discriminatory” way of creating diversity.

This sort of rationalization means technology companies look remarkably like the old ones they aspire to replace: male, pale, and privileged. Consider Instagram, the massively popular photo-sharing and social networking service, which was founded in 2010 but only hired its first female engineer last year. While the percentage of computer and information sciences degrees women earned rose from 14% to 37% between 1970 and 1985, that share had depressingly declined to 18% by 2008.

Those women who do fight their way into the industry often end up leaving — their attrition rate is 56%, or double that of men — and sexism is a big part of what pushes them out. “I no longer touch code because I couldn’t deal with the constant dismissing and undermining of even my most basic work by the ‘brogramming’ gulag I worked for,” wrote one woman in a roundup of answers to the question: Why there are so few female engineers?

In Silicon Valley, Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg and Yahoo’s Marissa Mayer excepted, the notion of the boy genius prevails.  More than 85% of venture capitalists are men generally looking to invest in other men, and women make 49 cents for every dollar their male counterparts rake in — enough to make a woman long for the wage inequities of the non-digital world, where on average they take home a whopping 77 cents on the male dollar. Though 40% of private businesses are women-owned nationwide, only 8% of the venture-backed tech start-ups are.

Established companies are equally segregated. The National Center for Women and Information Technology reports that in the top 100 tech companies, only 6% of chief executives are women. The numbers of Asians who get to the top are comparable, despite the fact that they make up one-third of all Silicon Valley software engineers. In 2010, not even 1% of the founders of Silicon Valley companies were black.

Making Your Way in a Misogynist Culture

What about the online communities that are routinely held up as exemplars of a new, networked, open culture? One might assume from all the “revolutionary” and “disruptive” rhetoric that they, at least, are better than the tech goliaths. Sadly, the data doesn’t reflect the hype. Consider Wikipedia. A survey revealed that women make up less than 15% of the contributors to the site, despite the fact that they use the resource in equal numbers to men.

In a similar vein, collaborative filtering sites like Reddit and Slashdot, heralded by the digerati as the cultural curating mechanisms of the future, cater to users who are up to 87% male and overwhelmingly young, wealthy, and white. Reddit, in particular, has achieved notoriety for its misogynist culture, with threads where rapists have recounted their exploits and photos of underage girls got posted under headings like “Chokeabitch,” “Niggerjailbait,” and “Creepshots.”

Despite being held up as a paragon of political virtue, evidence suggests that as few as 1.5% of open source programmers are women, a number far lower than the computing profession as a whole. In response, analysts have blamed everything from chauvinism, assumptions of inferiority, and outrageous examples of impropriety (including sexual harassment at conferences where programmers gather) to a lack of women mentors and role models. Yet the advocates of open-source production continue to insist that their culture exemplifies a new and ethical social order ruled by principles of equality, inclusivity, freedom, and democracy.

Unfortunately, it turns out that openness, when taken as an absolute, actually aggravates the gender gap. The peculiar brand of libertarianism in vogue within technology circles means a minority of members — a couple of outspoken misogynists, for example — can disproportionately affect the behavior and mood of the group under the cover of free speech. As Joseph Reagle, author of Good Faith Collaboration: The Culture of Wikipedia, points out, women are not supposed to complain about their treatment, but if they leave — that is, essentially are driven from — the community, that’s a decision they alone are responsible for.

“Urban” Planning in a Digital Age

The digital is not some realm distinct from “real” life, which means that the marginalization of women and minorities online cannot be separated from the obstacles they confront offline. Comparatively low rates of digital participation and the discrimination faced by women and minorities within the tech industry matter — and not just because they give the lie to the egalitarian claims of techno-utopians. Such facts and figures underscore the relatively limited experiences and assumptions of the people who design the systems we depend on to use the Internet — a medium that has, after all, become central to nearly every facet of our lives.

In a powerful sense, programmers and the corporate officers who employ them are the new urban planners, shaping the virtual frontier into the spaces we occupy, building the boxes into which we fit our lives, and carving out the routes we travel. The choices they make can segregate us further or create new connections; the algorithms they devise can exclude voices or bring more people into the fold; the interfaces they invent can expand our sense of human possibility or limit it to the already familiar.

What vision of a vibrant, thriving city informs their view? Is it a place that fosters chance encounters or does it favor the predictable? Are the communities they create mixed or gated? Are they full of privately owned shopping malls and sponsored billboards or are there truly public squares? Is privacy respected? Is civic engagement encouraged? What kinds of people live in these places and how are they invited to express themselves? (For example, is trolling encouraged, tolerated, or actively discouraged or blocked?)

No doubt, some will find the idea of engineering online platforms to promote diversity unsettling and — a word with some irony embedded in it — paternalistic, but such criticism ignores the ways online spaces are already contrived with specific outcomes in mind.  They are, as a start, designed to serve Silicon Valley venture capitalists, who want a return on investment, as well as advertisers, who want to sell us things. The term “platform,” which implies a smooth surface, misleads us, obscuring the ways technology companies shape our online lives, prioritizing certain purposes over others, certain creators over others, and certain audiences over others.

If equity is something we value, we have to build it into the system, developing structures that encourage fairness, serendipity, deliberation, and diversity through a process of trial and error. The question of how we encourage, or even enforce, diversity in so-called open networks is not easy to answer, and there is no obvious and uncomplicated solution to the problem of online harassment. As a philosophy, openness can easily rationalize its own failure, chalking people’s inability to participate up to choice, and keeping with the myth of the meritocracy, blaming any disparities in audience on a lack of talent or will.

That’s what the techno-optimists would have us believe, dismissing potential solutions as threats to Internet freedom and as forceful interference in a “natural” distribution pattern. The word “natural” is, of course, a mystification, given that technological and social systems are not found growing in a field, nurtured by dirt and sun. They are made by human beings and so can always be changed and improved.

Astra Taylor is a writer, documentary filmmaker (including Zizek! and Examined Life), and activist. Her new book, The People’s Platform: Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age (Metropolitan Books), has just been published. This essay is adapted from it. She also helped launch the Occupy offshoot Strike Debt and its Rolling Jubilee campaign.

Excerpted and adapted from The People’s Platform: Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age by Astra Taylor, published by Metropolitan Books, an imprint of Henry Holt and Company, LLC.

Copyright 2014 Astra Taylor

Open Systems and Glass Ceilings