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- The Telos-Paul Piccone Institute
- The John D. Calandra Italian American Institute
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The 2024 Telos-Paul Piccone Institute Annual Conference
March 22–23, 2024
The John D. Calandra Italian American Institute, Queens College/CUNY
New York, NY
Co-sponsored by the John D. Calandra Italian American Institute, Queens College/CUNY
Deadline for submissions: October 15, 2023
Democracy is often presented as the sine qua non of politics today. Yet our own democratic political orders across the West consistently fail to deliver the desiderata they promise to provide. Does this failure arise in part from the theoretical insufficiency of conventional diagnoses of democracy's challenges and ills? As the primaries for the 2024 U.S. presidential election open, we invite participants to consider critically the status of democracy with an eye toward the concerns that have defined Telos over its 55-year history.
The main advantage of democracy over other political forms is that, by allowing broader participation in decision-making, it prevents domination of the many by the few. In theory, it also fosters decision-making that is comparatively effective and meaningful by allowing views and information from the many to be communicated efficiently to political leaders, while also holding the latter to account for their actions. At the same time, a major difficulty of democracy is that the rule by the many requires some procedure for translating a multitude of opinions into unified decisions and action. In addition, precisely by exercising its majority will, the many can trammel the integrity of the individual—the key threat that liberalism seeks to hold at bay.
These advantages—and, especially, these challenges—have produced two competing visions of democracy in the contemporary West. Their division reflects differences about the politics of representation and decision-making. On one hand, liberals view democracy as the following of appropriate procedures for channeling the opinions of the multitude through the election of representatives. On the other hand, populists might disregard such procedural restrictions to arrive at outcomes that are acclaimed by the people directly.
While both sides nod to the importance of the popular will, both are in fact willing to denigrate it. The liberal camp reacts in horror when democratic elections result in the election of populists, who are said to lack proper governing expertise, as in the 2016 victory of Donald Trump. The populist camp charges conspiracy when electoral results fail to reflect their own conception of the people's will, as in Trump's reaction to his 2020 ouster. Depending on which camp is describing the times, the false mediator of popular will is either the demagogue or the bureaucrat—Telos has long opposed both.
Different narratives, in turn, have taken hold about democracy's present challenges. From the point of view of the liberal proceduralist critique of demagogues, the means of moving from a multiplicity of opinions to a unified decision inevitably involves discourse within a public sphere. This discourse depends on a common understanding of historical facts, as well as a public sphere that allows different perspectives to face each other in debate. In our contemporary world, however, the breakdown of previous limits to accessing the public sphere has led to an inability to arrive at a consensus on the difference between fact and fiction, as well as an increasing tendency of citizens to exist within a social media echo chamber of their own views, undermining the common ground that a public sphere presupposes.
At the same time, public debate necessarily implicates values and identities that have an ultimately mythic basis that cannot be rationally determined. People's opinions, moreover, are invariably shaped by leaders as much as the people shape what leaders ought to do. Experts lament how this representational dynamic undermines the procedures that govern and channel the representation of the popular will. Yet the narrative aspect of representation is an ineradicable element of the way in which the popular will coalesces. The process of narrativized representation will never be an entirely rational one, and the prominence of media personalities such as Reagan, Trump, and Zelensky as politicians underlines the futility of attempting to rid the public sphere of drama and spectacle.
For the populist, by contrast, the primary threat to democracy lies in bureaucracy. In his 2016 end run around the political establishment, Trump’s electoral success was driven by a broader critique of the administrative state’s undermining of democratic process. The rise of the managerial bureaucratic state that was set in motion by the development of the welfare state in the twentieth century has created a class divide between managers and managed that has shifted decision-making power over the conditions of everyday life away from individuals and toward government and corporate bureaucracies. Because more and more of our economic and social welfare is under the direct influence of the state, the resultant bloated administrative state has now become prey to a frenzy of lobbyists, who further distance the people from political decision-making. The protections of minority rights that constitute the liberal aspect of today’s democracies have turned communities into special interests that lobby administrators to pass on privileges to favored groups. The result has been a growing restriction of freedom of expression in the public sphere and an eroding of a unifying basis for constructing a political order now dominated by the collusion of bureaucracy with corporations.
While the liberal critique of demagoguery resorts to more government controls that exacerbate the expansion of bureaucracy, the populist critique of bureaucracy has attempted to dismantle government without considering how to establish mechanisms that would take over the functions that bureaucracies have coopted. Focusing on opposition to government, the populist perspective often lacks any sense of alternative institutional structures that could remedy the administration and commodification of everyday life.
Both sides have contributed to a polarization of views that threatens the underlying consensus necessary for democratic politics. The political gridlock that has ensued from their diverging diagnoses has meant that our political orders consistently fail to deliver peace, prosperity, and accountable government. Moreover, regardless of the rhetoric or credentials of those in power, democracy today seems always to leave us with broadly the same basic policies, despite some of them being deeply unpopular.
We invite those who are interested in presenting at the 2024 Telos Conference to consider critically the status of democracy today by addressing one or more of the following questions:
- Does democracy have a value of its own independent of its practical consequences?
- What kinds of basic agreements on principles are necessary to maintain a democracy?
- Is there a limit to diversity in a democracy?
- To what extent is polarization itself a threat to democracy?
- What is the relationship between democracy and liberalism?
Democracy and the Administrative State
- To what extent is the consistent reality of all self-styled "democracies" of the world today a form of managerial governance that resists change from below?
- What role is left in an age of managerialism for the popular will?
- Might the appropriate response to managerialism not be more democracy, both at the level of the state but also inside corporate and workplace structures, e.g., through workers' self-management?
Democracy and the Public Sphere
- What is the role of representation in a democracy, and how do today's representational processes threaten democratic decision-making?
- How have social media and artificial intelligence changed the way in which democratic processes function, and what changes to these processes might be necessary in the future to accommodate these new technological developments?
- To what extent and in what ways does the public sphere function in today's democracies? What kinds of limitations are necessary to guarantee the functioning of the public sphere as a space for democratic debate and decision-making?
Democracy and Religion
- What role is there for religion in today's democracies?
- To what extent does either secularization or religion pose a threat to democracy?
Democracy and Authoritarianism
- What is the relationship between democracy and authoritarianism? Do the current ills of democracy promote a global shift toward authoritarian government?
- What are the key components of democracy that differentiate it from authoritarianism? Where do countries such as Hungary, Turkey, India, and Russia fall on the continuum from democracy to authoritarianism?
Whatever specific questions you address, we invite you to present your analysis with an eye toward the long-standing concerns of the Telos-Paul Piccone Institute and thereby to help develop a trenchant, independent view of democracy that can inform both critique and practical action within our present historical moment. Please submit a short c.v. and an abstract of up to 250 words by October 15, 2023, to [email protected] and place "The 2024 Telos Conference" in the email's subject line. Please direct questions to Professor Mark G. E. Kelly, Western Sydney University, [email protected].
The conference will take place at the John D. Calandra Italian American Institute in New York City from Friday, March 22, to Saturday, March 23, 2024.
February 29, 2024, 9:00am EST