In This Review

Degenerations of Democracy
Degenerations of Democracy
By Craig Calhoun, Dilip Parameshwar Gaonkar, and Charles Taylor
Harvard University Press, 2022, 368 pp.

Many scholars have traced the crisis of Western liberal democracy to the rise of authoritarian and populist leaders. Three distinguished theorists argue that the problems run deeper. They say that liberal societies are witnessing the long-term erosion, or “degeneration,” of their cultural and moral foundations. Wealth inequality and economic stagnation have exacerbated political divisions, but the bigger problem is the fraying of the civic solidarity that knits citizens together across lines of difference. The authors pay particular attention to the experience of disempowerment. Citizens no longer feel that they are participants in a political system thanks to the breakdown of social institutions such as trade unions, churches, youth sports leagues, and social service associations. The authors stress the importance of a shared identity to generate “social inclusion.” This works as a sort of invisible glue without which inherent dysfunctions and divisions in society become more apparent. The authors argue that the key to reversing the degeneration is to think of democracy as a centuries-old political project. It survived in earlier eras through political movements and coalitions that made societies more inclusive and responsive to human welfare, and it must do so again.