We have arrived at a paradoxical historical moment when nearly everyone favors democracy, but apparently few believe that democratic governance can do anything.

—Iris Marion Young

How does one hold tight to democracy despite cynicism about its efficacy? Iris Marion Young’s book Inclusion and Democracy (2002) begins with the challenges of a moment of ordinary democracy. Reflecting on her participation in a referendum campaign for police accountability in Pittsburgh, she finds that neither police nor protesters were entirely happy with the review board formed after the citywide vote: the police union complained about oversight, while citizens argued that the board wasn’t investigating citizen calls sufficiently. Without resorting to toxic cynicism or naive idealism, Young thus examines the impossibility of our ideals of democracy. She addresses not only how the size of our democracy makes certain formations impossible (e.g., the town-hall metaphysics of presence rendered impossible by mass democracy), but also how structures of privilege and disadvantage (e.g., residential segregation) exacerbate the challenges of having a representative system. For Young, the former impossibility is necessary, but does not sacrifice democratic principles; the latter, however, is dangerous to democratic ideals. Inclusion and Democracy is smart and nuanced, yet readable: her typology of aggregative and deliberative democracy was perfect for a discussion of ideals of democracy with undergraduates in an introductory course. And although her argument does not advertise its radical possibilities, Young reminds us of the work of democracy: engagement as more than a vote at the ballot box or a signature on a petition.

The times of Young’s text are decidedly ordinary, though unjust. In contrast, many have emphasized what seems extraordinary about the present moment, including the resurgence of a quiescent white nationalism and an apparent return to a McCarthyist era. Revisiting the history of the institution I attend, I’ve turned to Ernst Kantorowicz’s short manifesto on the University of California’s loyalty oath. This oath to uphold the U.S. Constitution and oppose communism was pushed through California’s legislature by country-songwriter-turned-politician Jack Tenney in 1950. Even today, this oath is signed as a condition of employment for those within the UC system. Kantorowicz, a staunch conservative, explains in the manifesto why he was refusing to sign. The oath, he argues, is a form that conceals the true issue through its supposed harmlessness. Reminding us of the performative (and what J. L. Austin would call perlocutionary) power of the oath, Kantorowicz writes that “the oath hurts, not merely by its contents, but by the circumstances of its imposition,” which is a form of economic compulsion tantamount to blackmail. So he refuses the oath and turns to analysis, both rejecting the terms of debate and engaging.