Breaking Democracy’s Spell

 “It is hard to see the citizenry of the United States at present as especially successful in furnishing themselves with good government under their uniquely time-tested and elastic democratic formula,” John Dunn, the English political theorist, observes in his profoundly unsettling book Breaking Democracy’s Spell.[1] He goes on to ask: “Is American government today so confused, so fractious, and so dysfunctional despite democracy or because of democracy?”[2] Americans are confused, he says, about what democracy means and what it can do. The idea of democracy has become a baffling maze with many dead ends. Democracy is in a state of disorientation.

Published in 2014, Breaking Democracy’s Spell is based on lectures Dunn had delivered at Yale University three years earlier.[3] If Dunn was right in his judgment on American politics in and 2011 and 2014, he is proven even more so today in 2020. The Trump administration’s response to the coronavirus pandemic has made the current lack of good government in the United States all too obvious. That is particularly jarring when one compares the American  response to the pandemic with China’s. After some fumbling, China’s authoritarian regime managed to get the spread of the virus under control, whereas the United States has failed spectacularly both at the federal and the state level. The pandemic has exposed serious fissures in the American healthcare system, deep social and racial inequalities, the incapacity of the incumbent president to deal coherently with an unexpected situation and the ideological blinders of his party. Add to this Trump’s lack of will to deal with an ever more urgent environmental crisis, his neglect of the national infrastructure, and the increasing noise of an aggressive nationalism that he has promoted and you are facing a disturbingly malfunctioning political system. How can one avoid Dunn’s questions about the state of American democracy? Why is American government so confused, fractious, and dysfunctional and how does democracy contribute to its inability to solve even its most pressing problems?

Dunn’s concern stems from years of reflection on democracy and the state of global society.[4] Democracy, he concludes in Breaking Democracy’s Spell, has become “the master idea” in terms of which we seek to understand and assess almost all politics today. But in this process the concept has lost its precise contours. Dunn is convinced that “we need to learn to understand democracy very differently, hear it with less self-congratulatory ears, recognize more accurately where its real potency comes from, and face up to the limits of its capacity to direct our political purposes.”  As we find ourselves confronted with numerous intractable problems and, in particular, with threats to the survival of the entire human species,  “we need to find a way out of the maze democracy has become for us and face the awesome decisions that lie ahead as directly and lucidly as we can.”[5] The financial crisis of 2008, the uncontrolled  turmoil of the Middle East, and the nuclear disaster at Fukushima serve him as evidence that nothing less is needed than a determination “to reconsider and reengineer the entire causal web within which our species now lives.”[6]

In addressing his American audience in 2011, Dunn’s had meant to dislodge what he took to be a wide-spread American complacency about its political system. “It is natural for Americans … to think of democracy as a synonym for good government,” he writes in Breaking Democracy’s Spell.[7]  The Americans have seen themselves, in fact, as uniquely blessed by their democratic form of government. “The American Dream has exerted astonishing power over a large and extravagantly variegated population across an impressive arc of time.”[8] But not everyone shares this view. “To others in lands at varying distances away, the power held and exerted by the United State has usually seemed very different… It has looked and felt far less mesmerizing and also often quite menacing.”[9] It is necessary therefore to break the mesmerizing spell that the idea of democracy still exerts on the American imagination because it prevents a realistic, sober, and properly skeptical assessment of democracy.

Dunn’s book is not limited to a critique of the American conception of democracy and of the American style of politics. The problem Dunn seeks to identify is rather inherent in the very idea of democracy. He argues that the term democracy has acquired for us an equivocal meaning in that it refers to both an abstract ideal concerning the exercise of power and to a particular conception of the practical arrangement of government. And: “A term that equivocates in this way between an authoritative standard of right conduct and the practical character of an existing regime,” Dunn argues, “is a ready source of confusion even for those professionally dedicated to keeping their own thinking and speech clear.”[10]

The confusion matters for all of us, because all other forms of rule – monarchical or oligarchic in the broadest sense – have become “obsolete and inherently implausible.” We must face then “the deep unclarity and instability of the master idea through which we seek to take our bearings.”[11] What does democracy as an ideal or standard come to? Dunn seeks to avoid idealizing all hyperbole and describes democracy as being fundamentally “a formula for imagining subjection to the power and will of others without sacrificing personal dignity or voluntarily jeopardizing individual or family interests.”[12] All exercise of governmental power “asserts, requires and imposes” and thus calls for subjection. But “subjection is an inherently distasteful and degrading condition.” The allure of democracy is that it promises to ensure the service of the interests of the citizens better than other regimes and thus makes subjection to power more bearable. But in reality, democratic government has “sometimes come out badly wrong and will surely often do so again.”[13] The promise of democracy is for that reason always tentative.

Dunn’s characterization of democracy assumes an original and prevailing inequality among human beings. Subjection to power is inevitable but the inequalities on which it operates can be mitigated. Dunn’s formula bypasses the idea of self-rule as constitutive of the concept of democracy. He writes: “Collective action very much remains, and is certain to continue to prove, an inherently puzzling project.”[14]  Such action is conceivable only if there exists a demos. But how can a demos exist? “There is a clear and perhaps unwelcome answer. It can do so only where shared sentiments, perceptions, and beliefs arise and persist in time and space, and by doing so, create at least the possibility of a common interest.”[15] And there is no guarantee that there is such a demos.  “Where there is no such reasonably convergent orientation (no clear common interest), what emerges from democratic decision is either contingent confusion or, at best, a lucky fluke.”[16] It is, in any case, true that a demos “plainly cannot in practice now rule in the United States or anywhere else.”[17] (p. 28) It does not help much to think about democracy in terms of the notion of the sovereignty of the people.


Democracy is also not the same as the rule of law and “the rule of law is, still more evidently, not democracy.” Dunn is convinced that, “on balance, the populations of Europe and North America today probably value legality quite a lot more than they do democracy.”[18] The benefits of legality are, in any case, often more direct and more tangible to the individual than those of democracy. It follows, if Dunn is right, that this preference may incline people in favor of authoritarian and non-democratic forms of government as long as that government can more or less guarantee the rule of law – at least, for a substantial number of the population.

Democracy is also not the same as a socially and culturally tolerant liberalism; it is equally not the same as adherence to a free market capitalism, even though these have come to be associated for us, and, in particular, in the American imagination with the idea of democracy. What we have in the American understanding of democracy is a historically contingent amalgam consisting of the minimal conception of democracy contained in Dunn’s own formula, an unrealistic belief in the sovereignty of the people, in the rule of law, in policies of toleration, and in a free market system. If we are to achieve a better understanding of democracy, Dunn s convinced, we need to sort out how these components may come into conflict with each other and how they are, in fact, doing so in the United States and other places.

Democracy, it turns out, ”has not proved a dependable heuristic for a latent normative order in any society we know.”[19]  The result is a deepening sense of political disorientation. “All this too is part of democracy’s disorientation – the degree to which it confuses our efforts to judge collectively and the intimidating impact of the consequences of that confusion on our disposition even to try to.”[20]

Our problem is ultimately a cognitive one and as such a problem that goes far beyond the issue of democracy. “We do not understand the world we so precariously share, and we do not understand it, in very large measure, because of the severely limited degree to which we understand one another or grasp what virtually all the world’s other inhabitants really care about or why they care about it as they do.”[21] Dunn seeks to remind us of the cognitive limitations of our understanding of our social and political reality. “That cognitive constriction is not an intellectual failure of the present membership of our species (or professions), which might in principle be remedied by future enhancements of our performance.  It is an ontological feature of the world, given by where and what we are, and we cannot hope to move briskly beyond it.”[22]

Dunn ends his book with sobering words: “Could human beings do any better in the face of the chaos they have made together? The answer to that can only be yes. Will they do any better, and, above all, will they do better enough? Quite probably not… How far can human beings learn? In the end they will find out.”[23]



[1] John Dunn, Breaking Democracy’s Spell, Yale University Press, New Haven & London 2014, p. 44.

[2] Ibid., p. 135

[3] Recordings of these lectures, delivered under the title “Beyond the Democratic Maze,” are available on YouTube:

[4] Western Political Theory in the Face of the Future, 1979; Democracy: the Unfinished Journey, 1992; The Cunning of Unreason, 2000; Setting the People Free: The Story of Democracy, 2005.

[5] Ibid., pp. 151-152

[6] Ibid., p. 156.

[7] Ibid, p. 9.

[8] Ibid., p. 83

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid., p. 135

[11] Ibid. p. 10

[12] Ibid. p. 14

[13] Ibid., pp. 17-18

[14] Ibid., p. 145

[15] Ibid. p. 24.

[16] Ibid., p. 132.

[17] Ibid, p. 28

[18] Ibid. p. 33.

[19] Ibid, p. 129

[20] Ibid., p. 131

[21] Ibid., p. 53

[22] Ibid., p. 69

[23] Ibid., p. 162

2 Replies to “Breaking Democracy’s Spell”

  1. I have not read Dunn’s book, but I have followed you for a while (ever since first hearing you on Entitled Opinions some years ago).

    I worry about critiques of democracy.

    So many of these are currently coming from the Right, even as there are threats to its existence all over the world

    How would you answer the question in the last paragraph of your blog post?

  2. I should, perhaps, have emphasized more strongly that Dunn is concerned with a critique of how have come to THINK about democracy not with a critique of democracy. He believes, in fact, that democracy is now our default position in politics and that alternatives like monarchy or aristocracy (and their many variations) are for us no longer viable. He devotes a part of his lectures to an examination of the current Chinese political system but concludes that it is not a realistic option.

    At the same time Dunn highlights the failures of democracy, its inability, for instance, to deal with matters of war and peace and, even more disastrously, its inability to address the looming environmental crisis. And this, he argues, adds urgency to the question how to think realistically about democracy.

    While I am sympathetic to these concerns, I am less certain than Dunn that democracy is now our default system. I fear that a new political order may be taking shape behind the façade of our democracies which one might call “techno-plutocracy.” This possibility makes it even more urgent for me to think realistically about the prospects and promise of democracy.

    In the course of his discussion, Dunn raises some broad philosophical questions about how well we are able to understand our political reality. This is for me, probably, the most intriguing part of his book. An epistemology of politics and political thought is still waiting to be formulated.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *