A Few Thoughts about Democracy, on this Election Day (from Alan Keenan)

Since it’s Election Day, I thought I’d share this passage with all of you today, as we watch the elections unfold. This is from his article, “Twilight of the Political: A Contribution to the Democratic Critique of Cynicism,” from Theory & Event (2) 1 (1998):

Democratic politics is constituted out of a series of tensions, even paradoxes, to which there are no final answers, but at best more or less satisfactory negotiations. The simple demand that the people rule themselves, without any prior definition of who the people are or how they should rule, produces the difficult, often frustrating democratic experience of having to abide by a rule that the community must develop in the very attempt to follow it. Thus the classic debates over direct or representative democracy, over the particular forms of representation, over voting, citizenship or language qualifications, over where and how to draw internal political boundaries; the difficulties that attend to “the people”‘s self-construction, and the uncertainties they raise about the legitimacy of any rule in their name, are endless.

[available at Project MUSE at http://muse.jhu.edu.ezproxy.lib.uh.edu/journals/theory_and_event/v002/2.1keenan.html]

Keenan’s book Democracy in Question: Democratic Openness in a Time of Political Closure (Stanford University Press: 2003) contains an interesting reading of Rousseau’s temporal paradoxes in the construction of the social contract. It is well worth looking at, though this article is really an offshoot of that discussion. I found Keenan very helpful for my own thinking about cynicism.

One last point: Keenan’s description of the temporal problems of decisions and decision-making in democracies, the problem of interminable debate, or deliberation that leads nowhere, seems to be the flip side of the “social imaginaries” described by Charles Taylor and McKeon, as these virtual communities struggle to become visible and to have their opinions registered in the formal political process.

Best wishes,


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