Everybody Goes to Harvard

The future of higher education in America is online

by Sean Cooper
Fringe With Benefits? The Case for Welfare Capitalism.

Maybe we need an evolution, not a revolution

by Michael Lind
Everybody Goes to Harvard

The future of higher education in America is online

by Sean Cooper
Fringe With Benefits? The Case for Welfare Capitalism.

Maybe we need an evolution, not a revolution

by Michael Lind
The Science of Risk

Who knows best how to avoid harm?

by Steven Landsburg
The New Truth

When the moral imperative trumps the rational evidence, there’s no arguing

by Jacob Siegel
Williamsburg’s Jewish Liberated Zone Declares War on Clown Mayor de Blasio

Woke nonsense, bigoted targeting of their community, can’t keep children out of their playgrounds

by Armin Rosen
Invitation to a Beheading

What can American statue-topplers learn from Europe?

by Vladislav Davidzon
Love and the Police

Do I want to be policed not by the police, but by my neighbors?

by Michael Walzer
Socialist Revolution Storms the Bronx

Democratic congressional primary wins by Jamaal Bowman and Mondaire Jones sweep old-guard Jews from power in New York

by Armin Rosen
We Are Individuals, Not Victims

Seeing African Americans, or Muslims, or Jews, as part of victimized minority collectives is a toxic formulation that ensures that we are never treated fairly as individuals—and denies us the ability to exercise real power

by Zaid Jilani
The Battle of Chicago, 1968

A half century after the political upheaval around the Democratic National Convention that changed America, a former editor from ‘Ramparts’ magazine sees worrying echoes today

by Sol Stern
Cops and Riots

‘When the voices of citizens are muffled they use their bodies and go into the streets’

by Jonah Raskin
The American Soviet Mentality

Collective demonization invades our culture

by Izabella Tabarovsky
Hub City Riot Ninjas

A young overclass gets dressed up to join the burning

by Michael Lind
Fifty Years After the March on Washington

In honor of a moment of awakening: April 17, 1965, when we got serious about ending the war

by Todd Gitlin
The Great American Breakup

Political scientist Louis Hartz accurately described the United States’ underlying cultural hyperindividualism. Is the next logical step the dissolution of the centralized federal state to become more like the EU?

by B. Duncan Moench
Our Deathwish

How we got to the new normal

by Jacob Siegel
Welcome to the Revolution You Paid For

The one thing that is undeniably the fault of the rich

by Edward N. Luttwak
Bringing the Middle East Back Home

The American Orientalist Class attempts to paint a fantasy Middle Eastern landscape on the American canvas

by Tony Badran
Health Advice

from Jules Feiffer's American Follies!

by Jules Feiffer
The State of Emergency as a Paradigm of Government

Is the ‘state of exception’ now the rule?

by Giorgio Agamben
Making Holocaust Education About Jews and Anti-Semites

We must find a balance between overly universal or hyperspecific approaches to ensuring ‘never again’

by Bruce Abramson and Jeff Ballabon
Obama to the Rescue

The real candidate running under the ‘Joe Biden’ label is his former boss, which is why none of Biden’s public stands and votes matters

by Lee Smith
How Facebook Ate the News

Why Mark Zuckerberg is America’s Public Enemy No. 1

by Lee Smith
Master Cleanse

Why social justice feels like self-help to privileged women

by Kat Rosenfield
The Heresies of Albert Memmi

The Tunisian-born writer died in May at 99. He leaves a rich, important, and complicated legacy of colonial and postcolonial thinking.

by Jonathan Judaken

Michel Foucault understood that truly free people must be willing to choose death, like the fighters of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. What would he make of the restrictions on liberty in our efforts to safeguard life from COVID-19?

by Blake Smith
Philip K. Dick’s Last Great Obsession

The Dead Sea Scrolls blew the sci-fi writer’s mind

by Shalom Goldman
Drugs, Sex, and Rock ’n’ Roll

New biographical works show how Philip Roth’s and Robert Stone’s hedonism fueled their art-making

by David Mikics
Albert Camus and the Secret of Le Chambon

Did the rescue efforts in the French hamlet influence ‘The Plague’?

by Patrick Henry
A Conversation With Paul Auster, Jewish Poet

Early poetic works of the novelist and filmmaker, in ‘White Spaces’

by Jake Marmer
Three Lies

Filmmaker Pierre Sauvage and the daughter of Holocaust rescuer Peter Bergson talk about people who put their lives at risk to save others

by David Samuels
Double Exposure: Jean-Pierre Melville

The ambiguities and darkness of Nazi-occupied France propelled him to flee his country, take a new name, fight in the Resistance, and then invent film noir. But the past continued to haunt him.

by Adrien Bosc

An affair—‘the pain of creation, yet without the creation’—by the great 20th-century Brazilian writer, from the ‘Complete Stories’

by Clarice Lispector
Some Notes on My Father’s Cousin, Joseph Roth

The great Austrian-Jewish journalist and novelist, chronicler of prewar Europe, still has much to tell us

by Barbara Probst Solomon
Moral Cruelty and the Left

The late scholar Judith Shklar warned that liberalism can degenerate into a cult of victimhood that permits our sadistic desires to be passed off as unimpeachable virtue. Her warning is newly urgent today.

by Blake Smith
My Favorite Singer Brother, I.J.

Was Isaac Bashevis’ older brother Israel Joshua Singer the better novelist?

by Dara Horn
Consider the Ostrich

Some words of advice from a man who’s been self-isolating since 2001

by Shalom Auslander
Turning Babi Yar Into Holocaust Disneyland

How Russian movie director Ilya Khrzhanovsky took control of Ukraine’s Babyn Yar Memorial Project, and what should or can be done about it

by Vladislav Davidzon
My Roy Cohn, and Ours

Two recent documentaries, one of them streaming tonight, try to unpack the McCarthyite Trump-whisperer—progenitor of the postmodern political world we now inhabit

by J. Hoberman
Ben Katchor’s Dairy Restaurant

The artist of the decade-in-the-making graphic compendium of a lost Jewish world talks about the ‘milekhdike,’ the power of the Yellow Pages, and the utility of a good place to eat

by Jacob Siegel
Virginia and the Woolf

A drive across Hitler’s Germany and Austria in May 1935 made Leonard Woolf’s Jewishness real

by Jonathan Wilson
The Ontology of Pop Physics

A slew of popularizing science books delve into the basic mismatch between being and human being

by Adam Kirsch
Jews out West

19th-century Jewish American writers described America’s vastness in lyrical—and liturgical—terms

by Michael Hoberman
The Russian Rothschilds

A new biography of the Gunzburgs reminds us that not all Russian Jews were persecuted revolutionaries

by Joshua Meyers
The Wandering Star of Yiddish Lit

Debora Vogel was a brilliant multilingual poet and aesthete who is best known as the muse of Bruno Schulz. But her work deserves a reading—in German, Polish, Hebrew, and especially Yiddish.

by Mersiha Bruncevic
My COVID-19 Adventures in Sexy Weimar Berlin

A German noir export on Netflix leads viewers into the Jewish-inflected Babylon of a legendary sin city

by Jeremy Sigler
The Twinned Evils of ‘Nosferatu’

The great film and social document illuminates a primal fear—that of foreign contagion

by J. Hoberman
The Brilliance of Batya Gur, Israel’s Greatest Detective Author

The late writer’s best work reflects the larger anxieties of a society trying to shield its founding ideals against threats from hostile populations

by Sean Cooper
After the Coronavirus, Who Do We Want to Be?

‘It’s a good bet that, for better or for worse, tomorrow’s world will not be the same as yesterday’s’

by Bernard-Henri Lévy
Letter From Arsuf

On Israel Independence Day, reflecting on more than 20 years of living on a cliff overlooking the Mediterranean

by Robert Rockaway
The Philip Roth Archive

A fan’s obsessive rummage through the letters and papers of the writer who died two years ago today reveals a playful, funny, brilliant man

by Jesse Tisch
Coronaspection: Introspection X

Shrivatsa Goswami, Karma Lekshe Tsomo, Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg

by Alon Goshen-Gottstein
Coronaspection: World Religious Leaders Look Inward During a Time of Global Hardship

One of the most important insights of the Coronaspection project, which brings together 40 world religious leaders for their insights on faith during the time of the coronavirus, has to do with the sense of solidarity and interconnectedness of humanity. Unity is one outcome that almost all participants recognize, and this unity extends also to some significant dimension of unity across religions. United in their struggle with the spiritual challenges of one virus, religious leaders of different traditions share their particular vision across religious boundaries.

by Alon Goshen-Gottstein
Civil Rights: The View From an Orthodox Yeshiva

Halachic thoughts on the present unrest

by Cole S. Aronson
Becoming a Man

How expectations around gender and sexuality led me to embrace Orthodoxy—and then leave it

by Lance Tukell
Transgender Rites

Creating practical guidelines for rituals around death and burial for transgender and nonbinary Jews

by Paula Jacobs
The History of the Zoom Dilemma

Forward-thinking rabbis have been anticipating today’s halachic questions about how technology can be used for more than a century

by Shlomo M. Brody
‘We Must Engage the World Right Now’

Rabbi Norman Lamm—theologian, orator, and my grandfather—believed that in the struggle against racism, Jews should both teach and listen

by Ari Lamm
Eating Our Way to Holiness

The spirit and the letter of keeping kosher

by Mary Lane Potter
Why We Didn’t Circumcise Our Second Son

Our first son got the traditional brit. But not this time around.

by Yagi Morris
Choosing Life

After giving birth to a stillborn baby, finding comfort in Jewish ritual and scripture

by Kate McGee
What My Kippah Means to Me

As a butch lesbian, wearing a yarmulke connects me to my people—and to myself

by Olivia Swasey
The Battle of the Baal Shem Tov

What I learned as a child, listening to my father and grandfather argue over the founder of Hasidic Judaism

by Alter Yisrael Shimon Feuerman
Learning Hebrew—at Last

Without knowing the language, there was no way to fully participate in my community—not in the way I wanted to

by Roseanne Benjamin
A Sign Upon Your Arm

Why I stopped wearing tefillin—and why I put them on again

by Shloimy Notik
Secular Synagogues Take Root in Israel

by Paula Jacobs
The Orthodox Jew and the Atheist

by Rebecca Klempner
Pants, Pants Revolution: How My First Pair of Jeans Redefined Modesty for Me

When I bought jeans recently, I redefined what ‘tzniut’ means to me as an Orthodox woman

by Simi Lampert
Lost and Found

How I lost my Mormonism and came to embrace the Jewish way

by Nathan Steiger
Why a Conservative Female Rabbi Decided To Pull Away From Her Male Friends

‘I had to dial back my friendships with men, for the sake of my marriage’

by Rachel Miller Solomin
My Father and the Jews of Iraq

On the 79th anniversary of the Farhud, a look back to Yahya Qassim and his fight for Iraqi Jews

by Raad Yahya Qassim
Bringing the Middle East Back Home

The American Orientalist Class attempts to paint a fantasy Middle Eastern landscape on the American canvas

by Tony Badran
A Rabbi in Riyadh

The first Jewish faith leader received by a Saudi monarch recounts his visit with King Salman

by David Rosen
Lebanon’s Interwoven Fantasy Worlds All Lead to War With Israel

How much should America pay to maintain the fraying fabric?

by Tony Badran
Qatar’s State-of-the-Art Foreign Lobbying Campaign

Think tanks, universities, museums, newspapers, and key congressional committees are all pieces in a game of 3D chess that the tiny Gulf state is playing with its rivals, using Washington, D.C., as its game board

by Lee Smith
Annexing the Jordan Valley

Israel’s coalition government contemplates redrawing the country’s borders, with America’s blessing. Senior ex-diplomat Dore Gold gives the inside scoop on how and why the status quo may not last long.

by Armin Rosen
Inside an Israeli Coronavirus Hospital

How Galilee Medical Center in the northern town of Nahariya is tackling COVID-19

by Hillel Kuttler
How Iran Became a Global Vector of Infection for COVID-19

The authoritarian theocracy faces specific challenges in dealing with the coronavirus

by Noam Blum
When May Day Was a Major Event in Israel

In some Israeli communities, the international workers holiday was just as important as the Jewish holidays

by Armin Rosen
A Q&A With Dorit Rabinyan, the Wonder Woman of New Israeli Lit

In a landscape vacated of the two literary giants Aharon Appelfeld and Amos Oz, Israeli fiction ushers in the rise of a new generation of women writers. The author of ‘All the Rivers’ talks about sabras in New York, American Jewry’s allure, and learning to listen for the perfect watermelon.

by David Samuels
The New MMA Hotbed: Israel

A father passes the fighting torch to his prodigal son, and a new generation of combat athletes makes a name for the Promised Land

by Hillel Kuttler
How Osama Bin Laden Outsmarted the U.S. and Got What He Wanted

The point of Sept. 11 wasn’t to terrorize the West. It was to get the U.S. out of the Muslim world—and it worked.

by David Samuels
Bibi, King of Israel

The most talented politician in Israeli history cracks his demented foes like walnuts

by Liel Leibovitz
Q&A With Israel’s Former Prime Minister Ehud Barak

A conversation with the Israeli leader on the cusp of an election that he hopes will restore his center-left political coalition to power and once again put him in charge of Israel’s future

by David Samuels
Obama Passed the Buck. Trump Refused to Play.

The Iran deal was never meant to stop Iran from building a bomb—it was supposed to delay it until disaster happened on someone else’s watch

by Lee Smith
One Last Interview

Three weeks before his death in 2016, Shimon Peres sat for what he intended to be a Rosh Hashanah-timed discussion about the state of the world. It was also his final one

by David Samuels
The Jews Make it to the Moon

But not without misfortunes

by Armin Rosen
Malley in Wonderland

How Obama’s ‘progressive’ foreign policy vision—to backpedal away from the Middle East, fast, while kicking our former allies in the region to the curb—became consensus in D.C.

by Tony Badran
Spies in the Basement

The extraordinary true cloak-and-dagger tale of how a chance encounter in a London bookstore made peace possible, on the 25th anniversary of the Israel-Jordan accords

by Haim Be’er
Arafat and the Ayatollahs

The PLO’s greatest single contribution to the Iranian Revolution was the formation of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, but the Palestinian leader’s involvement with Iran didn’t end there

by Tony Badran
Saying Goodbye to Seafood

When I converted to Judaism, I left behind part of my Norwegian heritage

by Nina Lichtenstein
Kneading Is Fundamental

Learning to make challah during quarantine

by Erik Ofgang
A Land Without a Bagel

My search for my favorite breakfast while studying abroad in China

by Jordyn Haime
The Cake That Unites—and Divides—Israelis

Everyone loves no-bake biscuit cake. But how, exactly, to make it is up for debate.

by Flora Tsapovsky
Eating Our Way to Holiness

The spirit and the letter of keeping kosher

by Mary Lane Potter
The Ashkenazi Version of Mac and Cheese

While holiday and Shabbat specialties fill Jewish cookbooks, we often forget the pleasures of seemingly ordinary, everyday food—like egg noodles with cottage cheese

by Leah Koenig
The Trouble With Tsimmes—and How to Fix It

This stew of root vegetables and dried fruit is a staple of Ashkenazi cooking, but it doesn’t have to be the bland, gloppy mess we’ve come to know

by Leah Koenig
How to Make Kosher Prosciutto

The Jews of Italy used goose instead of pork to make their distinctive charcuterie

by Benedetta Jasmine Guetta
A Tart Taste of Summer

This French dessert will change the way you think about rhubarb

by Joan Nathan
A Pepper Salad That’ll Have You Seeing Red

This Tunisian recipe makes a perfect dish for a summery Shabbat dinner—or anytime

by Joan Nathan
Beet the Heat With Borscht

How to make a perfect cold coup for summer

by Joan Nathan
Saying Goodbye to Bacon

Deciding to keep kosher really meant grappling with one meaty addiction

by Liel Leibovitz
How To Make Homemade Lox

It saves money. You can play with different flavors. And it’s easier than you think.

by Peter Barrett
A Prescription for Sauerkraut

Exploring the health benefits of fermented foods

by Erik Ofgang
Back in Black: The Forgotten Radish

Once a staple of Eastern European Jewish kitchens, the black radish is ripe for a comeback

by Leah Koenig
The Best Jewish(ish) Books About Summer Camp

If you—and your kid—are in mourning for Jewish camp, maybe a literary visit will help

by Marjorie Ingall
The Ethics of Takeout

How do we balance the seemingly contradictory virtues of supporting our local businesses and protecting workers during the pandemic?

by Marjorie Ingall
No Home Away From Home

For queer kids, summer without camp can be particularly tough

by Josh Marcus
A Welcome Excursion for Bosnian Jews

After months in quarantine during the pandemic, Sarajevo’s community once again gathers for an annual pilgrimage

by David I. Klein
My Nonbinary Journey

After years of confusion around my gender identity and sexuality, I realized I wasn’t gay or bisexual, or a man or a woman. And as I led my congregation through Yom Kippur services, I finally showed up as myself.

by JB Levine
Becoming a Man

How expectations around gender and sexuality led me to embrace Orthodoxy—and then leave it

by Lance Tukell
How to Talk to Your Kids About Police Brutality

And how to talk to them about anti-racist protesting

by Marjorie Ingall
Our True Colors

Coming face-to-face with racism in the Jewish community

by Marra B. Gad
Civil Rights: The View From an Orthodox Yeshiva

Halachic thoughts on the present unrest

by Cole S. Aronson
What It Feels Like to Sit Shiva Alone

I wanted to be comforted by friends, and to hear stories about my dad. The COVID pandemic made that impossible.

by Jamie Betesh Carter
The Resilience of Rituals

Attending a virtual shiva, I saw how Jewish traditions still hold up under the most extraordinary circumstances

by Alanna E. Cooper
Missing My Dad’s Yahrzeit

When my shul closed during the pandemic, I lost the place where I usually commemorate my father’s death and say Kaddish for him

by Leonard Felson
Shul in the Time of Coronavirus

With COVID-19 pushing synagogues to consider virtual gatherings, we should understand what it means to come together physically

by David Zvi Kalman
Welcome to Your Quarantine Summer Camp: Camp BaBayit!

As if pandemic home-schooling were not enough, now parents have to be camp directors, too?

by Marjorie Ingall
A Jew Named Christine

People say the darnedest things to us converts. Please stop.

by Christine Beresniova
Lessons From Jewish Sexual Law (in a Sexless Pandemic)

Judaism has something to say about enforced sexual separation, and not just for the Orthodox

by Merissa Nathan Gerson
Day School Bullies

I was ridiculed and physically abused for being the wrong kind of Jewish boy. As a result, it took decades to come to terms with my identity.

by Aaron Hamburger
My Crushes on Rabbis

My youthful admiration for religious teachers, and my desire to please and even emulate them, ultimately helped me connect with myself as a Jewish adult

by Alter Yisrael Shimon Feuerman
Among the Mourners

As a woman, I felt left out of Jewish mourning rituals after my father died. Thirty years later, I found a new place where I finally feel like I count.

by Anna El-Eini
Sex and the Religious Girl

Growing up in a religious family where premarital sex was forbidden and sex wasn’t discussed, I wasn’t taught how to deal with the dangers I’d face

by Yona Rose
Headband Nation

A different kind of head covering—not a kippah, not a ‘sheitel’—gains popularity among non-Orthodox women

by Alyx Bernstein
The Best Jewish Children’s Books of 2019

This year’s list features culinary espionage, dragons, and a purse shaped like a french-fry takeout box

by Marjorie Ingall
Judaism During—and After—the Pandemic

Social distancing has, in a way, allowed us into each other’s homes more than ever. Will being apart end up bringing Jews together?

by Micah Streiffer
The Butcher, the Baker, and the Newspaper Seller

A lost documentary captures the old Jewish shopping district of Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill

by Mark Oppenheimer
The Last Thing He Taught Me and the First Thing I Learned

How I stopped worrying and learned to lie to the most important man in my life

by Boris Fishman
The Life of a Court Jew

Glikl of Hameln's writings say much about Jewish commercial families in Central and Western Europe in the 17th and early 18th centuries

by Natalie Zemon Davis
Is It Permitted to Flee the City?

The coronavirus creates an unsettling tunnel in time between 21st-century New York and the world of 16th-century rabbis

by Tamara Morsel-Eisenberg
Three Coins and You’re Married

A manuscript sheds light on a 16th-century tale of Jewish love and betrothal

by Ann Brener
How Think Tanks Became Engines of Royal Propaganda

What their French origins, and their waning and rising relevance to the power structures over the centuries, say about the new Washington

by Jacob Soll
Turning Away From Poland’s ‘Dark Past’

Should the law be invoked to confront the Holocaust?

by Antony Polonsky
The Maharal of Prague and the Republic of Letters

Science and humanism—and Jews and Christians—collide in early modern Europe

by Joanna Weinberg
Trotsky the Jew

Joshua Rubenstein’s new biography obscures the Russian revolutionary’s violent extremism while overemphasizing his Jewishness

by Richard Pipes
Safed Kabbalah and Renaissance Italy

How Lurianic mysticism made its way to Europe—and back to the Middle East

by Moshe Idel
The State of Emergency as a Paradigm of Government

Is the ‘state of exception’ now the rule?

by Giorgio Agamben
A Beast of Unknown Origins

The surprising Jewish origins of the animated character who taught a generation of Soviet children to be good communists

by Maya Balakirsky Katz
The Satmar Rebbe and the Destruction of Hungarian Jewry: Part 2

The late Rabbi Yoel Teitelbaum and his disciples’ interpretation of his decisions and actions during the Holocaust

by Menachem Keren-Kratz
Unveiling the Ka’ba

A meditation on the coy symbolism of the shrine’s hidden truth

by Elliot R. Wolfson
About Time

How early modern European calendars changed Jewish conceptions of time

by Anthony Grafton
The Satmar Rebbe and the Destruction of Hungarian Jewry: Part 1

by Menachem Keren-Kratz
Hannah Arendt’s Answer to Paul Berman on the Contemporary American Left

The latest entry in a Tablet feature analyzing the state of the American left, inspired by Paul Berman’s series of essays on the subject. Here, a ‘Dissent’ editor asks, ‘patriotism, what’s it good for?’

by Tim Shenk
‘Prairie Fire’ Memories

What does the Weather Underground’s 45-year-old manifesto have to tell us today?

by Jonah Raskin
Jan Gross’ Order of Merit

The groundbreaking scholar of Polish anti-Semitism is caught up in a toxic new nationalism that seeks to edit shameful persecution of Jews out of history

by Anna Bikont
A Mighty Empire Brought Down by Plague

We have seen this story before, says Kyle Harper’s brilliant ‘The Fate of Rome’

by Edward N. Luttwak
Up next
Tisha B’Av
Sundown: 12:14 AM
1 month, 4 hours, 5 minutes until sundown

What is Tisha B’Av? It’s the day, the ninth of the Hebrew month of Av, on which a series of Jewish tragedies took place, notably the destruction of the First Temple in 586 BCE and the destruction of the Second Temple 656 years later, in 70 CE.

When is Tisha B’Av? Tisha B’Av 2020 begins at sundown on Wednesday, July 29, and ends at sundown on Thursday, July 30.

What’s it all about? We Jews should’ve known this day was no good when, on it, Moses’s spies came from the Promised Land with reports of a terrible place littered with walled fortresses and roamed by angry giants. Moses ordered his doubting emissaries killed, but the curse of Tisha B’Av lived on: the First Temple was destroyed on this day in 586 BCE. The Second Temple suffered the same fate exactly 656 years later, in 70 CE. Sixty-five years after that, in 135 CE, the Bar Kokhba revolt failed, its leader was killed, and its flagship city, Betar, was destroyed. Then, one year later, Jerusalem itself was burned, the Temple area plowed, and the fate of the Jews sealed for millennia. As if further insult was needed, in 1492, King Ferdinand of Spain signed the Alhambra Decree, setting Tisha B’Av as the deadline for all of Spain’s Jews to leave for good.

Coming at the end of the Three Weeks of mourning, which began with the 17th of Tammuz, Tisha B’Av signifies the conclusion of the period known as Bein Hameitzarim, a time of reflection and abstinence from pleasure.

What do we eat? Nothing. But unlike Yom Kippur, most rabbis tend to be a bit more lenient about fasting, making exceptions not only for those whose lives are seriously at risk but also for the ill and the generally unwell.

Any dos and don'ts? Don’ts, mainly. Anything that gives us pleasure is prohibited, which rules out, among other things, bathing, wearing leather shoes, and carnal pursuits. If you thought maybe you’d replace the day’s heavy petting with Torah study—think again. Reading our Book of Books is considered a supreme joy and is therefore forbidden on Tisha B’Av. So is laying tefillin, as phylacteries are referred to as pe’er, or glory, and this is a decidedly inglorious day for the Jews.

Anything good to read? We’re compensated for the day’s prohibitions with two splendid literary masterpieces: the Book of Eicha (Lamentations), which is read in the evening, and the Kinnot, poems of lamentation, in the morning. Taken together, these two are a powerful lesson in mourning. Eicha, while lyrically describing the ruin of Jerusalem, also speaks of a hopeful future, a time when the children of God, chastised, will learn their lessons and return to their former glory. The Kinnot, a vast and changing collection of works written through the centuries, strikes very much the same tone. The most famous author to work in the form was Rabbi Yehuda Halevi, who forever changed the genre’s focus from weeping over the tragedies of the past to looking expectantly at a brighter future. Be sad, these texts tell us, but not for long.

Learn more about Tisha B’Av →︎
Rosh Hashanah
September 18, 2020Sundown: 10:59 PM
Yom Kippur
September 27, 2020Sundown: 10:44 PM
October 2, 2020Sundown: 10:36 PM
Shemini Atzeret Simchat Torah
October 9, 2020Sundown: 10:24 PM
December 10, 2020Sundown: 9:29 PM
December 25, 2020Sundown: 9:34 PM
Tu B’Shevat
January 27, 2021Sundown: 10:08 PM
February 26, 2021Sundown: 10:43 PM
March 27, 2021Sundown: 11:19 PM
May 17, 2021Sundown: 12:18 AM
Illustration: Tablet Magazine

Nobody Understands Democracy Anymore

A wave of recent books warning about a ‘crisis of democracy’ reveals that even our experts are confused about how democracies actually work

Shany Mor
August 13, 2019
Illustration: Tablet Magazine

Book after book in recent years has alerted us—as if we couldn’t tell by reading the news and absorbing the panicked media—that democracy is in crisis. Did it start with Trump or with Brexit? In Europe or the U.S.? The diagnosis varies among authors of different backgrounds and political persuasions, as do their prescriptions on what to do now. Not all of the books even share the premise that the loss of democracy is such a bad thing—at least one recent work argues that the real crisis was a democratic surplus.

What the books have in common, beyond their shared subject matter, is a common confusion over what democracy actually is. This confusion about the differences between democracy’s complementary functions like lawmaking and voting is, in its own way, rather illuminating, as the shared shortcoming in the books suggests a broader breakdown in democratic understanding that helped engender the very crisis they were written to address.

Probably the best, and certainly the most talked about entry in the “crisis of democracy” catalogue, is Yascha Mounk’s The People vs. Democracy.

Mounk was, at the time of the book’s release, a Harvard lecturer, and his well-timed tome has catapulted him into the world of celebrity academics. This clearly came as no surprise to his publishers at Harvard University Press, who put the book out with no fewer than four gushing blurbs from an exhaustive array of celebrity intellectuals ranging all the way from a Harvard AB (Dani Rodrik), a Harvard Ph.D. (Francis Fukuyama), a Harvard JD (Anne-Marie Slaughter), and all the way to a current Harvard professor (Michael Sandel).

The book is organized into three parts. The first lays out the “crisis of liberal democracy,” the second endeavors to explain the origins of the crisis, and the third proposes a set of remedies that are remarkably moderate in scope relative to the severity of the crisis outlined in Part 1. Though Mounk denies it throughout, his book is clearly informed by a certain nostalgia for the postwar consensus of strong but limited liberal tolerance, a welfare state undergirded by a broad social solidarity, and a deference for cultural and political elites enforced by shared media that were occasionally publicly owned and nearly always publicly minded.

It is the first part of the book that contains the most original and the most compelling argument, and it is this argument that has received the most attention. Mounk identifies two long-term trends in the practice of democracy that have the same theoretical point of departure, namely the decoupling of liberalism from democracy. First there is the much-ballyhooed rise of “illiberal democracy.” What’s nice about this term is that it is more or less understood by everyone, and is used by both political theorists and everyday commentators to mean the same thing. Even better, it is mostly free of judgment. People like Mounk who are terribly worried about illiberal democracy call it that, while Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban uses the exact same term to champion his own political vision.

The second trend that has Mounk’s attention is the mirror image of illiberal democracy. “Undemocratic liberalism,” in addition to being less catchy also lacks the obvious tie-in with the twin electoral traumas of 2016 in the U.S. and U.K. or with the fashionable concern with rising populism, whatever that term is supposed to mean now. 

The book’s title (The People vs. Democracy) and it’s even more dramatic self-helpy subtitle (Why Our Freedom Is in Danger and How to Save It) reference only one of the two trends. In the Trump-Corbyn era that’s clearly good marketing, but it’s also an injustice to a book and a scholar far more sophisticated than the cover lets on.

When Mounk peers out at the state of advanced democracies today, he sees a rising tide of both illiberal democracy and undemocratic liberalism—and, perhaps most worryingly, how each trend feeds off and then fortifies the other. This is Mounk’s greatest insight and his fundamental contribution to the conversation on contemporary democracy.

But the elegance of the argument gets the best of him, occasionally. Under illiberal democracy he includes phenomena such as populism, xenophobia, majoritarianism, and attacks on the press. His enumeration of the characteristics of undemocratic liberalism starts out strong, including things like judicial review and global civil society. But then it veers off into some sociological observations about political elites which, while cogent and mostly accurate, don’t seem to be particularly “liberal” problems. Finally, still under the rubric of undemocratic liberalism, Mounk gets to the perversions of money and corruption in politics. This, too, is undeniably important and clearly “undemocratic” about this, but I have no idea what precisely is “liberal.”

There’s a beauty to an academic hypothesis built on two contrary macrotrends occurring simultaneously, but not everything fits gracefully into Mounk’s categories, and he appears, at times, reluctant to rework his organizational concepts to accommodate realities. The distortion of big money in politics is real, but it’s not really a case of illiberal democracy or of undemocratic liberalism. A more analytically robust presentation might lose some of the elegance, but that is a price worth paying.

The same is true of the recurring two-by-two matrix which is supposed to serve as a handy visual aid but only ends up obfuscating. As an illustration of how liberalism and democracy are conceptually separate, a matrix with each concept on a separate axis could be helpful (though arguably unnecessary). Where things get tricky is that each box in the matrix has the name of a country (or even the European Union) in it.

This all seems a bit shallow in comparison to the more careful argument that the text of the book is advancing. The problem with advanced democracy in the early 21st century is not that we are becoming too much like Poland or Canada or Switzerland (or some superficial stereotype of Poland or Canada or Switzerland). It is, rather, that certain putatively democratic forces are undermining the rule of law and at the same time certain putatively liberal forces are undermining popular sovereignty. This confluence of reinforcements manifests itself differently, to be sure, in Warsaw than in Brussels. But the subtlety of the argument, and the trap the status quo lays for democracy, is contradicted by a visual aid that ignores or even contradicts the thesis of the book.

The rest of the book is dedicated to explaining the origins of the democratic crisis, which Mounk locates in the rise of social media, economic stagnation in general and social inequality in particular, and the growth of identity politics. All these trends are noteworthy (if not particularly earth shattering), but where we place them chronologically will determine how we separate cause and effect. The economic stagnation chapter, by far the book’s shortest, is a familiar lament about the decline of the social democratic order that, whether it went under the name New Deal or Postwar Settlement, underpinned mid-20th-century social solidarity. At times Mounk presents his views on these issues as controversial or daring, but in fact they are fairly conventional and likely shared by most of his readers.

In Mounk’s analysis, the rupture in news-consumption habits that precipitated the democratic crisis begins with the rise in social media. This, however, may be the wrong framework. Clearly, social media and the internet have wrought profound changes in how we consume news and interact with current events, but they may still have been less harmful to democratic norms than the privatization of broadcast news and the rise of cable television that occurred decades earlier. Until the early 1990s, most television in the advanced democracies was publicly owned and publicly minded. Even in the U.S., the three main networks, while owned by private corporations, operated as civic-minded institutions, with news divisions often losing money (before remote controls this made sense as it drove viewers into more profitable programming after the news) and political content regulated by “equal time” provisions of the FCC.

It seems like a small point, but it’s not at all. Surely all these changes had an impact and hunting for one inflection point—one year that supposedly “changed” our media world—is a kind of vanity. Except that if all that matters is Twitter and Facebook, then economic stagnation and new media are distinct problems to be understood separately and remedied separately. But if it was privatization and cable television that changed our relationship to the news and opinion formation, then maybe the media shift isn’t coincidental to the socio-economic changes of the last 40 years, because the inflection points on both trend lines are roughly the same. Maybe both outcomes are outgrowths of the same across-the-board undermining of the foundations of social solidarity. Privatizing media and eliminating gatekeepers went hand in hand with the anti-regulation market boosterism known on the right as libertarianism and on the left as neoliberalism that provided an ideological justification for growing income inequality and social self-segregation. In fact, it wouldn’t be hard to put the rise of “identity” politics under that rubric too.

Our collective complacency about the well-being of our fellow citizens is just part of our complacency about our democracies. Perhaps seeing our institutions threatened so openly as we have recently will be the jolt we need to rise to their defense. Yascha Mounk passionately hopes so, and I hope he is right.

But not everyone shares such hopes, and that includes at least one person among the handful publishing hot new takes on democracy. The most provocative and entertaining of this lot is without a doubt Georgetown professor Jason Brennan. His book, the pithily titled Against Democracy, contains not a single reference to Trump or Brexit, as it was published just before all that unpleasantness supercharged the conversation on democracy. Still, it’s safe to assume that nothing about those electoral traumas (or the ones that followed) has driven Brennan to rethink any of his conclusions.

Democracy, for Brennan, is something of a tragedy. It asks people who are ignorant, misinformed, impulsive, and shortsighted to make fateful public decisions. It doesn’t actually empower people and doesn’t solve conflicts. If anything, it makes us hate each other more. These are bold and unfashionable claims but Brennan backs them up with a wealth of survey data and cognitive psychology.

The key word running through all the various nuances of Brennan’s argument is “competence.” Voters lack competence to make political decisions, but citizens are entitled to something called “competent government.”

But is any of this what democracy is about? Brennan never distinguishes between different kinds of competence. His book is full of amusing examples and hypothetical situations to illustrate his point. But it’s never clear in his examples if his arguments are about people as citizens, or authorized decision-makers as political actors, or institutions as such. He switches from masses to elites as the examples suit him. The book never adequately differentiates the competence to make important public decisions from the competence to participate in an election, but these surely are not the same skill set.

There is an elementary distinction between democracy as a regime type or a social arrangement and democracy as the act of voting, but Brennan treats these two radically different (if occasionally coincident) practices and their different deficiencies, as interchangeable where it suits his argument. We might ask, for example, why nine Supreme Court justices vote on a decision. Is 5-4 really any way to make such essential interpretive decisions? Maybe they should deliberate to unanimity or be allowed to bundle unrelated decisions or, conversely, build majority coalitions for parts of decisions taken separately. All of these possibilities touch on democratic proceduralism but they do not fundamentally call into question democracy as a political practice. The rules of the Supreme Court could change in any number of ways but the underlying reality would remain that critical authority invested in unelected and unrepresentative judges.

The extent to which citizens are competent to participate in general elections and to have their votes equally counted is a different discussion from how Supreme Court justices assemble a majority. Especially since the public at large is so rarely asked to actually decide on anything; it usually just appoints people by means of election.

Voting is not the same as democracy. Ruling is not the same as electing. Competence is not the same as suffrage. Governing is not the same as lawmaking. And appointing, even by election, is not the same as representing. Yet, throughout his book, Brennan continually conflates or elides these differences. The last two are not unique to him. Mounk, too, never makes any allowance for the difference between public decision-making on routine everyday matters on the one hand, and the rather unique form of public decision-making that creates general norms on the other hand. Governments aren’t empowered to do whatever they see fit, just as the people at large in a functioning democracy are not. They are there to apply general norms to specific policy problems. To give just one dramatic example of the difference, the process for adding a new amendment to the constitution is considerably more difficult and involved than that which is necessary to pass new noise regulations in a public space. That governments and societies operate in conditions of law—even laws that are subject to change and revision—is a fundamental aspect of modern statehood that can’t just be chalked up to a straitened category like “undemocratic liberalism.”

And if we are to understand what is special about law as such, we’ll need to understand what is special about the representative assemblies where laws are made. But this too barely features in Mounk and Brennan or any of the other contemporary discussions of democracy. Representation is rarely mentioned, and even then only as a practical convenience. No distinction is made between the process of appointing someone to a position of authority via election and sending someone on behalf of a voting public to a large plural body where he or she will deliberate and bargain and ultimately legislate (to say nothing of oversee the same authorized figures who are charged with governing).

No theoretical engagement with democracy is complete without a starring role for both law and representation, yet both are absent from all four books under review here and from nearly all the rest I have encountered.

It’s a deficiency that slips past the boundaries of political theory. Perhaps we have lost the capacity for thinking about the element of lawmaking in a representative assembly in our popular conceptions of democracy. It’s an alarming loss but recognizing it illuminates the source of some overwrought concerns as well as to some poorly thought out institutional changes.

What happens when we lose this fundamental understanding of how democracy operates and what it is supposed to do? We might stop worrying about what laws can and can’t do. We might stop thinking of governments as complicated corporate entities that mix varying levels of expertise and accountability in their day-to-day operations, and we might forget that legislative assemblies are places where ritualized argument and collective decision-making on binding general norms take place. We might instead reduce our political lives to loud, sloganeering entertainment, and take complex fateful matters directly to the public for heedless one-off votes as though institutions, norms, negotiations, and compromise all have no place in politics. We might, in short, embark on something that would look like former Prime Minister David Cameron’s wild adventure with British democracy.

Like every reckless gambler, Cameron started small and took the absence of immediate failure as a sign that he should keep raising the stakes. He unleashed on the British public three referendums in the space of five years each of which had the potential of upending the British constitution in dramatic fashion. Each vote arose as a way to appease a coalition partner or quell a potential internal schism. When, in 2011, voters rejected the Alternative Vote electoral reform referendum to change the rules for electing the House of Commons, Cameron was emboldened to try a referendum on Scottish independence in 2014. When that prospect was rejected as well, Cameron put all his chips on the Brexit referendum.

Had he succeeded a third time in using a sloppily worded and hastily crafted referendum to tamp down a noisy domestic insurgency, Cameron might have bought the British establishment, including his own Conservative Party, a decade or more of quiet. Or maybe he would have kept gambling and held a referendum on the monarchy or nuclear disarmament or disestablishment of the Church of England or a switch to a presidential regime. We’ll never know.

Nor, thankfully, will we know quite how risky the Scottish referendum was. A shift of 5% in voter preferences would have given Scottish independence a majority, rending the union with no clear roadmap. The U.K. would have committed itself to redrawing its borders and reconfiguring all of its international defense and treaty and trade relations based on a vote in a referendum in which 91% of U.K. citizens (those residing in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland) were ineligible to participate—and where, weirdly, Scottish 16-year-olds did have the vote. It’s not the case that the Scottish government and the U.K. government negotiated a treaty for independence or federalism or something in between and then brought it to the voters for approval. It would have been, like Brexit, a binding resolution to do something drastic where no one really knows what that something is.

Instead Britain is tearing itself apart over the result of an equally ill-considered referendum, and every option from here on out is bad. Ignoring the result would be an assault against the people’s will. A new referendum is almost as insulting, and none of the people proposing such a course of action can agree on how to word it or how many options there should be (approve the deal, leave without a deal, remain after all, etc.). Crashing out would be an economic disaster. A soft departure from the EU satisfies no one, as it would necessarily involve the worst aspects of both remaining and leaving with the benefits of neither. And negotiation is impossible when Britain self-declared endgame leaves it with no leverage. Government ministers pursue a policy they know is wrong, opposed by an opposition just as committed to that disastrous policy. Forty-eight percent of the public may have opposed Brexit in the referendum, but that voice has very few options to express itself in parliamentary elections. How did we get to this?

The Brexit referendum, in the view of Cambridge politics professor David Runciman, shows “how easily the popular demand for more democracy can end up having the opposite effect.” His new book, How Democracy Ends, is the only one of the recent crop to take institutions and not just procedures seriously. But even Runciman’s work never seriously engages with the twin problems of law and representation—the latter a particularly disappointing oversight as he co-authored a short book on the topic in 2008.

It is a fun read, though, avoiding the alarmism that generally characterizes the genre. The exclamation marks on the chapter titles (“Coup!” “Catastrophe!” “Technological Takeover”) are the principal reminders that the issues at stake are deadly serious.

Runciman never resists the temptation to make clever counterintuitive claims, but most of these are then backed up with reasonably plausible arguments. He argues, for example, that Trump’s electoral victory should be seen as a vote of confidence in the institutions of the American constitution because, if anyone was genuinely worried that Trump could actually get his way he could never have assembled a winning coalition. Either there is a “safety net … or the whole thing is a sham.” Either way, the risks are smaller than advertised.

While everyone else is implicitly focusing their trepidation on comparisons with the 1930s, Runciman asks us to look back even further to the golden age of populist democracy in the 1890s. It was a decade of conspiracy theories, unpopular wars, immigration panic, and financial crashes that eventually gave way to a decade of democratic reform. In this reading of history, elected politicians were forced to confront and assimilate populist anger by expanding the franchise and erecting the rudiments of the welfare state. Populists came close to undermining constitutional government in the U.S. and France (and possibly Britain, too), but were beaten back when their anger was challenged into a progressive agenda. It’s one possible outcome, but clearly not the only one.

Runciman begins his book at the H-hour of today’s democratic crisis, high noon on Jan. 20, 2017, with the inauguration of President Trump. But his sweep is broad as he takes us through all the conceivable ways democracy might (and maybe even should) end, whether by coup, catastrophe, or unplanned consequence of technology. Like Mounk, he sometimes adheres too rigidly to his own categories, and the metaphor of democracy’s “midlife crisis” is fun the first time the reader encounters it, but loses some of its spark with each repeated use.

If democracy is having a midlife crisis, then John Dunn didn’t wait for the flashy sports car and hair piece to appear before diagnosing it. Dunn, an emeritus professor of political theory at Cambridge, adapted a lecture series he gave at Yale into a short and alarming book on democracy back in 2014. If that seems hopelessly out of date, think again. Almost everything about our present crisis is spelled out patiently and urgently in Dunn’s Democracy: A History.

Where the other books want us to look at the new authoritarians in the democratic countries, Dunn broadens his geographical and historical scope. If we want to unpack the connection between democracy and good government—“happy accident” or “magic formula”—we need to look at evolving institutional practices in decidedly nondemocratic China and in Asia’s democratic behemoth India.

Dunn’s book is very much a pre-2016 work, but a post-2011 one, too. His concerns about democracy’s direction don’t have the bitterness of political disappointment and aren’t obsessively steeped in the latest tweets or crises. Dunn fretted about democracy before it was cool. Though China and India get a lot of attention in the book, it is the Arab Spring, only casually mentioned, which casts a dark shadow that lingers over nearly every page.

Dunn asks us to decouple our notions of good government and democracy and consider that much of what we positively attribute to democracy may be little more than a historical coincidence, bound in place and time.

His is an elite project with no catchy subtitles or mass audience in mind. His anger, in the book’s final pages, is not directed at Twitter but at universities. It’s the universities, in Dunn’s reckoning, that have failed to ask the difficult questions about our political arrangements and their evolution.

If that is the case, as I strongly believe it to be, then maybe our trauma as scholars of democracy isn’t 2016 or even 2011, it’s 1989 when the Cold War ended. A shocking failure against the Soviet Union might have caused some soul-searching but, instead, success bred a smug complacency that dulled any interest in democracy and set political theorists off on a hundred other pursuits (global justice and rights being the biggest). It all seemed so easy at the time but history has made a mockery of such pretensions. By the early ’90s, Liberal democracy was destined to take over the whole world, but in reality failed to take hold in most of the post-Soviet space, while the few central European success stories today constitute the go-to examples of illiberalism riding into power on democratic horses.

When regimes fell or reformed in other theaters, there were very few political theorists on hand to offer lessons on what to avoid. To take perhaps the most glaring example, no one seems to have seen fit to warn of the dangers of a presidential regime as it careened toward its first free election. The idea of handing over all executive power to a party that wins just over half the votes in a country almost evenly split between ardent supporters of Islamist fundamentalism and terrified opponents of it would have been bad enough in a country that had a tradition of repeated electoral contests. In a country that had none, this was a guarantee that the first election would be the last.

Nor were we as alert as we should have been to the insidious encirclement of our best practices in the established liberal democracies, in particular the hollowing out of the powers of representative assemblies and the concomitant rise of executive and judiciary power. Without a firm grasp on what laws are supposed to do and what governments are supposed to do (not the same thing!) we couldn’t see the problem with handing legislative prerogatives to civil society and international institutions and subjecting crucial public decision-making to increasingly authoritarian leaders or the frenzies of privately mobilized public passions.

Political thinkers have come to see governance as yet another market mechanism where preferences can be aggregated and efficient outcomes determined. If people disagree, they must be ill-informed or prejudiced. But disagreement is a fundamental condition—the fundamental condition—of politics. And the most important practice of democracy isn’t voting, but rather proscribing norms for the habit of legitimate disagreement. Representative assemblies, with their large numbers of diverse members and their ritualized speech acts and decision-making rules engender these habits, particularly when their proceedings and decisions are at the center of public attention. Twitter can’t replace that; cable news can’t replace that; referendums can’t replace that; liberal high courts, international organizations, pious human rights groups, and the free market can’t replace that; and authoritarian populists certainly can’t replace that.

To measure democracy against some Athenian ideal, or to criticize it in those terms, is to miss the point. We are not Athenians, not because we can’t be, but because we don’t want to be. Our smartphones, our social media apps, our almost unlimited access to information and platforms have all given us the means to subject our politics to a daily public decision-making process free of all gatekeepers and constraints. And yet we still, most of us at least, prefer to live under the rule of laws. We prefer it even as we lose our grip on the democratic institutions that have historically yoked the most powerful members of society to the same laws that the rest of us must abide. Law can’t just be a nondemocratic means for imposing a liberal agenda, if only because it will eventually become a nondemocratic means for imposing an illiberal agenda.

As long as our discussion of democracy treats representation as though it were some kind of rounding error or approximation of the real thing, and law as though it were just another policy outcome, we won’t have a fully formed sense of what this democracy thing really is—or, as the subtitle of Mounk’s book would have, how to save it.


Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.

Shany Mor is an Associate Fellow at the Hannah Arendt Center at Bard College and a Research Fellow at the Chaikin Center for Geostrategy at the University of Haifa. He served as a Director for Foreign Policy on the Israeli National Security Council.