WHAT IS DEMOCRACY? – Review by Cate Marquis

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Director Astra Taylor’s documentary What is Democracy? asks that question by posing it to various people – experts in Greek history, social scientists, academics, ordinary Americans – and comes up with some startling answers.

The most basic definition of “democracy”is that the word means people ruling themselves, yet that seems the least obvious answer, or preferred definition, to many in this intriguing, timely documentary.

This thought-provoking documentary gives us an array of ideas about what democracy is, some of them disturbingly, even alarmingly, far from the meaning of the word.

In her exploration, Taylor takes us to Greece, to learn from a Greek historian about democracy and Plato’s idea of the republic. Plato worried that majority rule could lead to bad decisions, such as choosing to be lead by a dictator, but Plato’s idea of a republic meant government by a self-less elite. But that oligarchy has its own hazards, because humans do have self-interest, and that elite can take the form of an aristocracy, a plutocracy, a technocracy, or a theocracy, and can lead to its own dictator, a monarchy or other autocracy.

Our Founding Fathers thought they had a brilliant solution, to combine two ancient systems for government, the Greek democracy and Roman republic, to create a new way, a democratic republic. For decades, Americans would use the terms interchangeably to describe the American system of government, but now democracy seems to mean something different to some Americans. One ordinary American woman on the street in the documentary defined democracy as “government tells you what to do.”

This wide-ranging documentary brings in a variety of voice to discuss “what is democracy,” including Dr. Cornell West, historians in Greece and Italy, philosophers, political and social scientists, activists, medical doctors, refugees and immigrants, and an array of ordinary people. The film touches on the past, on the present, and on what the future might bring, as it reveals the various ways people see “democracy.” Income inequality comes up, as does race and other topics. Many of the scholars and activists describe democracy as inherently unfair to minorities, because majority rule does not favor them, while other academics point out that true democracy must be based on justice and fairness to counter-balance that very tendency.

European and immigrant interviewees seemed more hopeful for the potential of democracy than Americans, who often seemed to think “democracy” is too broken to fix. Several American speakers saw “democracy” as a word associated with rule by a privileged group, wealthy white men, although that is actually an oligarchy Few solutions, except a different oligarchy like a technocracy, are offered. Many just seemed to want to let someone else handle it.

What is Democracy? is intriguing stuff but not very encouraging, putting one in mind of that old quote “Democracy is the worst political system, except for all the others.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: What is Democracy? is AWFJ’s Movie of the Week for January 11, 2019

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Cate Marquis

Cate Marquis is a film critic and historian based in the St. Louis, Missouri area. Marquis reviews film for the St. Louis Jewish Light weekly newspaper and Playback: stl website, as well as other publications. The daughter of artist Paul Marquis, she was introduced to classic and silent films by her father, as well as art and theater. Besides reviewing films, she lectures on film history, particularly the silent film era, has served on the board of the Meramec Classic Film Festival and is a long-time collaborator with the St. Louis International Film Festival, serving on various juries.