This Philosophy Legend Has Some Hard Truths To Tell You About Our “Democracy”

Charles Taylor, who just won the $1 million Berggruen prize for philosophy, says that dangerous things happen when regular people stop being able to affect the direction of their country.

This Philosophy Legend Has Some Hard Truths To Tell You About Our “Democracy”
[Photo: Jacob Creswick via Unsplash]

Whatever your ultimate reaction to the long, fractious, exhausting election campaign last year–whether you’re still sorry for Hillary, optimistic about what Trump might do on infrastructure and jobs, or just disgusted by Trump–we can agree on certain things, perhaps.


Though power did pass efficiently and peacefully from Obama to Trump, it did so under a cloud; or at least with question marks about the functioning parts of our democracy itself. The growing gap between elites and the general electorate, the rise of populist parties, increasing partisanship, a lack of trust in institutions (like the media, or election officials), a sense that mainstream parties, or Congress, don’t respond well to people—these are all manifestations of a democracy that isn’t working well.

The Economist Intelligence Unit recently downgraded the United States’s democratic process as part of its “Democracy Index” analysis. We’re now are at “flawed” status, according to the respected analytical arm of the London-based Economist magazine, seeing a “significant decline” in good-democracy points since 2006.

“The contemporary problems of democracy,” says the report, are not just “in Russia, China, the Middle East, or Africa. Democracy is in trouble in the West, in the mature democracies of western Europe and the U.S., which are no longer obvious beacons for those striving for democracy in the non-democratic world.”

We recently discussed this with Charles Taylor, a distinguished 85-year-old philosopher from Canada. Taylor, who has just won a $1 million philosopher-of-the-year prize, is expert in many fields of philosophical inquiry (what the New Yorker calls the “secret histories of our individual, religious, and political ideals“). But he’s also a foremost thinker on democracy–a subject we can surely use some schooling in at present.

“Democracy promises the people can decide,” he says. “But there are ways the elites are intervening and making it impossible. So there’s a kind of a loss of faith in what I call ‘democratic efficacy’ or ‘citizen efficacy’ of lots and lots of ordinary people, and that is one factor fueling the existing crisis, or tendency, you might say, to abandon democracy.”

“We’ve been failing to notice things were undermining our democracy. Since the 1970s, we’ve seen galloping inequality, while at the same time, people at the lower end of the scale feel, rightly, that the cause of their interests is not being taken seriously and served.”


Taylor sees Trump’s victory as the result of a “a lack of faith in democracy,” a loss of faith among people that they can decide their own futures. “When you lose any sense that there are any levers you can pull, and along comes a savior figure like Trump, and he says ‘you’ve been neglected, vote for me, I’ll get jobs for you,’ people are likely to fall for that,” he says.

If Taylor argues that democracy is nothing without equality–that is, everyone getting an equal vote and say in the process–it’s also nothing without inclusion, too. Trump’s appeals on white identity issues, on immigrants, and the coded language of “inner cities” and “American carnage” are fueling racial divisions once more, making democracy itself harder, Taylor says.

It’s hard to imagine the Berggruen Philosophy Prize Jury deciding on a more appropriate winner for its inaugural $1 million award. With several Nobel laureates including economists Amartya Sen and Michael Spence, and NYU philosophy professor/broadcaster Kwame Anthony Appiah, the committee made its choice well before the dramatic culmination of last year’s election. Yet, it managed to be prescient in the need for someone who’s thought about how democracies work.

Nicolas Berggruen is the American-German industrialist-philanthropist behind the prize. I ask him how he can justify spending $1 million year on philosophy instead of more concrete humanitarian missions, like, say, digging water wells in Africa. He told me that ideas are just as important.

“If we want to advance humans, it’s really through advancing our thinking. Any human effort comes from the application of a vision of the world, an application of an idea, including a humanitarian mission,” he says.

“The prize makes the value of thinking and of ideas equal, we think, to other prizes that value endeavors that maybe are more scientific, more concrete innovations. We think ideas can have a more profound impact on people.”


Berggruen is a generous man. And we can see now, with our democratic system on edge, how useful some ideas can be.

About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.