Sharing Democracy

Sharing Democracy

Sharing Democracy

Sharing Democracy


It is frequently assumed that the "people" must have something in common or else democracy will fail. This assumption that democracy requires commonality - such as a shared nationality, a common culture, or consensus on a core set of values - sets theorists and political actors alike on a futile search for what we have in common, and it generates misplaced anxiety when it turns out that this commonality is not forthcoming.

In Sharing Democracy, Michaele Ferguson argues that this preoccupation with commonality misdirects our attention toward what we share and away from how we share in democracy. This produces an ironically anti-democratic tendency to emphasize the passive possession of commonality at the expense of promoting the active exercise of political freedom. Ferguson counteracts this tendency by exposing the reasons for the persistent allure of the common. She offers in its stead a radical vision of democracy grounded in political freedom: the capacity of ordinary people to make and remake the world in which they live. This vision of democracy is exemplified in protest marches: cacophonous, unpredictable, and self-authorizing collective enactments of our world-building freedom.

Ferguson develops her radical vision of democracy by drawing on Hannah Arendt's account of how we share a world in common with others, Ludwig Wittgenstein's later philosophy of language, and Linda Zerilli's critique of the essentialist/anti-essentialist debates in feminist theory. She juxtaposes critical readings of democratic theorists with readings of authors in related fields, such as Benedict Anderson, Robert Putnam, and Charles Taylor. Her theoretical argument is illustrated and informed by interpretations of political events, including the Arab Spring, the integration of Little Rock High School, debates over Quebec secession, immigrant rights protests in the US in 2006, and the Occupy movement.


The essence of the protests in the Arab Spring is that people can imagine an alternative.

—Anthony Shadid and David D. Kirkpatrick

Because the Obama team never found the voice to fully endorse the Tahrir Square revolu
tion until it was over, the people in that square now know one very powerful thing: They
did this all by themselves. That is so important. One of the most powerful chants I heard
in the square on Friday night was: “The people made the regime step down.”

—Thomas L. Friedman

The spring of 2011 was hailed as the Arab Spring because it appeared to mark the rebirth of democracy in North Africa and the Middle East. Yet as the headline of a front-page analysis in the New York Times ominously declared that May: “Promise of Arab Uprisings Is Threatened by Divisions.” Only a few months after the Arab Spring began, the optimism brought on by early democratic successes in Tunisia and Egypt had waned in the face of the brutal tribal and sectarian repression of rebellions in Yemen, Syria, and Bahrain, and the beginnings of what became a bloody civil war in Libya. Even in Tunisia and Egypt, old divisions had resurfaced with sometimes violent results, as conflicts broke out between religious groups. Shadid and Kirkpatrick, the authors of the analysis, question whether these Arab peoples possess the sense of common purpose necessary to make a successful transition to democracy, in spite of their differences. As they see it, “The question of identity may help determine whether the Arab Spring flowers or withers.” While the uprisings offer “a new sense of national identity built on the idea of citizenship,” this unifying identity “is being tested as the enforced silence of repression gives way to the cacophony of diversity.”

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