Democracy is the most universal political ideal of our day. George Bush invoked it to justify invading Iraq; Obama congratulated the rebels of Tahrir Square for bringing it to Egypt; Occupy Wall Street claimed to have distilled its pure form. From the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea to the autonomous region of Rojava, practically every government and popular movement calls itself democratic.
But what is democracy, precisely? Is there a common thread that links all these different variants? And can any of them deliver on their promises?
In this critical appraisal, we trace democracy from its classical origins to its current ascendancy around the globe. Reviewing how democratic discourse has served recent social movements in the United States, Spain, Greece, Bosnia, Slovenia, and elsewhere around the world, we conclude by asking what it would mean to seek freedom directly rather than through democratic rule.