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In Conversation: Toronto University Press Interviews Author Jacqueline Kennelly about 'Burnt by Democracy'

Drawing on interviews with young activists and young people who have experienced homelessness, Jacqueline Kennelly illustrates how growing wealth inequality has weakened democracy across five Western nations. Read the full Q&A about Burnt by Democracy by author Jacqueline Kennelly, here.



Who did you write this book for? Why do you think people must read this book?

Frankly, I hope this book reaches as wide an audience as possible. I have intentionally written it to be accessible to non-academic readers, even while using academic theory. More specifically, I’d love to see this book reach political scientists, even though that is not my field, as well as other scholars in my fields of sociology, education, and youth studies. I do believe it has something new to say about democracy, and particularly about how to more effectively address the growing civic participation gap between different populations. I also want this to be read by people engaged in social movements, civics teachers, staff at homeless-serving organizations, and anybody who is concerned about the effects of wealth inequality on democratic stability and social justice.


I think that anyone who has watched the growing division in political discourse, the eruption and suppression of social movements, the political paralysis around the climate emergency, and the increasing levels of homelessness and housing precarity across Anglo-American liberal democracies (and elsewhere) will have something to learn from this book. I believe it will help people to both understand HOW we have got here – with wealth inequality at all time highs, people crippled by student debt, the dream of home ownership all but dashed for this generation of young people – and will also help them understand what needs to happen to get us out of this mess. The solutions are quite simple, if not easy to make happen politically: liberal democracies need to stop worsening inequality and instead start taking active and progressive steps towards remediating the losses of the last forty years. Democracy is impossible without some degree of equality, decent social benefits, housing security, and reasonably well-educated citizens.


Was there anything difficult or surprising about writing this book for you?

Holding space for the difficult stories of young people who have faced homelessness is always an emotional strain. I have been doing that for a long time now, and that makes it slightly easier, only because I’m not shocked by the degree to which they have been forced into cruel and unnecessary suffering by the state. But it still makes me incredibly angry. At the same time, the resilience, humour, and kindness of people who have faced complete betrayal by the systems meant to support them is always humbling, and an important reminder of the capacity for people to flourish if only given sufficient support. What I hope to do with their stories is represent them in a way that helps readers understand their complex humanity, and to appreciate how some basic structural changes (affordable housing, raised benefit rates, lowered tuition) could significantly change their lives.


On the other hand, interviewing young activists is always a mixed pleasure. These are incredibly inspiring people who are doing amazing things to achieve greater social and climate justice for everyone. That said, I also want readers to appreciate that these young people didn’t just pop out of the womb with the ability to do this stuff. They were shaped by their class background, their family’s political knowledge, the presence of mentors, and the opportunities that arise largely through higher education to become knowledgeable and engaged democratic actors. The challenge in writing about young activists is always to represent them honestly, with both admiration and caution. We collectively have so little understanding of how social class shapes opportunities like this, that even activists can rarely truly appreciate the degree to which their ‘choices’ have been structured by the society in which we live.


Can you elaborate on your vision for our return to a robust and sustainable democratic system?

I am not sure there is a ‘return’ possible, as we haven’t ever really had a robust and sustainable democratic system. The last time we (in Canada, and similarly in the other liberal democracies I write about in the book) had widespread social benefits funded by the state was post World War II, up and into the 1970s. In Canada, this was when the vast majority of our current public housing stock was built, when socialized health care was introduced, and when public funding for building new universities and supporting students to attend was at its zenith. These are the basic conditions required for democracy, but during this period we couldn’t attain real democracy due to the structural inequalities that were still baked into the system, particularly against Indigenous peoples (and Indigenous women especially), racialized migrants, and members of the LGBTQ2S+ community (add to this Black Americans in the US context, still struggling under the Jim Crow laws of the period). With massive social movements throughout the 1960s and 1970s, these inequalities began to give way – although this is an ongoing effort, of course. But then the 1980s arrived and started the erosion of the structural supports that had been established after World War II. So I would say to get to a robust and sustainable democratic system, we need BOTH of these elements in place: state-funded structural supports that ensure everyone has housing, a reasonable income to meet basic needs, and access to high quality education, AND social, political, and cultural equity for all. This may seem impossibly utopian, and I haven’t even mentioned here the urgency of addressing the climate emergency, but I think we need to appreciate that democracy is a process, not an end. It won’t happen all at once, but can and should be happening in an ongoing series of efforts to ensure there is more democracy, more justice, and more equality.


What do you want your readers to take from your research and the stories of your interviewees?

First and foremost, I want readers to develop a deeper understanding of the degree to which social structures affect people’s everyday lives, and how deeply this then impacts their ability to participate meaningfully in current liberal democratic structures. That is, how rich or poor your family is, how supportive the social benefits systems are, how affordable higher education is, how accessible housing is – all of these create the conditions in which young people – and everyone – must live their lives and make their choices. The choices are not ‘free’ in the sense we like to pretend they are in liberal democracies. The choices are constrained, always, by the situations people find themselves in, through no fault of their own. We have been laboring for decades under this cultural myth of ‘freedom’ meaning the opportunity to make your own way without state interference. The problem is, we don’t start from the same place. The role of the state in a democratic country ought to be to generate the conditions for real freedom, which means working to flatten inequality. We do this by housing everybody, making sure everyone has access to decent education and health care, and providing sufficient resources to live a life of dignity. Then people actually have the ‘freedom’ to participate meaningfully in civic life, and we can have truly democratic societies which reflect the needs of more than just the elite.


To access the original link for the Q&A with UTP Author Jacqueline Kennelly: https://utorontopress.com/blog/2024/02/21/jacqueline-kennelly-burnt-by-democracy/ 

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