How Democracies Die

Inspired by a particular speech at this year’s Democratic National Convention, I have gone back to read the founding documents of the United States, starting with the Constitution.

Well, let me step back and give some context to this.

I am scheduled to teach a course in political philosophy, this fall, an assignment made both more interesting and more fraught with peril by the current political scene here in the U.S.

I will be modifying a course design I used a few years ago in which I introduced the students to three whole books: Locke’s Second Treatise, Rousseau’s The Social Contract, and Iris Young’s Inclusion and Democracy.

The question is: How are democracies supposed to work? More precisely, the interest is in whether and under what conditions democratic forms of government both work well and provide a legitimate basis for political authority. The three whole books correspond to three broad models of democratic government: liberal democracy, republican democracy, and deliberative democracy.

I was briefly tempted, though, to build the class around the question of how democracies die, often by their own hands. Continue reading “How Democracies Die”


Recent posts have turned my attention back to the role in ethical experience of recognition between people, and from this has emerged a new theme I’d like to explore: How we greet one another.

The possible importance of greeting came out in the story of the toddler in the farmers market:

“I’m here! I’m here!”

But I thought, yes, child, you are here!

Here you are! Welcome!

It also figured in my thoughts on encountering human drivers as distinct from self-driving cars: Continue reading “Greeting”


Today, for the second time, some officers of the NYPD turned their backs on Mayor de Blasio when he spoke at the funeral of a fallen comrade. They were protesting what they perceived as the Mayor’s failure to support rank-and-file police officers during a turbulent fall.

This strikes me as an especially delicate matter on which to comment, and one that is particularly complex. Was this a rightful protest by people with a legitimate grievance? Did it show disrespect to the fallen? Did it dishonor the uniform? All of the above?

I don’t have any settled view on this, but there’s one aspect of the situation worth paying attention to: it’s as much or more a matter of the relationship among offices as it is a relationship among people. Continue reading “Offices”

Politics v. Policy . . . and Politics

The breaking news about Cuba is electrifying: the last vestiges of the (old) Cold War may finally be starting to thaw.

(I was born in the late ’60s so, as far as my own experience is concerned, the U.S. and Cuba have always been at odds.)

It’s notable to me that little more than an hour passed between the first announcement of the breakthrough and the appearance of this in The New York Times online:

U.S.-Cuba Shift May Change Political Landscape, Too

(The original headline under which the article appeared was: “Obama Adds a Wild Card to the ’16 Political Deck”.)

As often happens, I found this too-quick turn toward presidential politicking to be more than a little grating. Continue reading “Politics v. Policy . . . and Politics”