What is democratic theory? In this article we treat it as a semiotic code – that is to say, a shared assumption – and argue that democratic theory enables people to think and talk about the idea(s) of democracy. Furthermore, the application of this specific code is highly political. For one, it is embedded in concrete contexts and discourses and used in arguments and narratives. In addition, the application of democratic theory has also substantial consequences on the lives of people. We illustrate this argument by reflecting briefly on Abraham Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address” and its recodification and consequences in different contexts.
Christian Ewert and Marion Repetti
Ali Aslam, David McIvor, and Joel Alden Schlosser
Urgent alarms now warn of the erosion of democratic norms and the decline of democratic institutions. These antidemocratic trends have prompted some democratic theorists to reject the seeming inevitability of democratic forms of government and instead to consider democracy as a fugitive phenomenon. Fugitive democracy, as we argue below, is a theory composed of two parts. First, it includes a robust, normative ideal of democracy and, second, a clear-eyed vision of the historical defeats and generic difficulties attendant to that ideal. This article considers how democratic theorists might respond to the challenges posed by fugitive democracy and the implications of such an understanding for future research in democratic theory.
Recent discussions by Martha Nussbaum and Steven Wall shed new light on the concept of reasonableness in political liberalism and whether the inclusion of epistemic elements in the concept necessarily makes political liberalism lose its antiperfectionist appeal. This article argues that Nussbaum’s radical solution to eliminate the epistemic component of reasonableness is neither helpful nor necessary. Instead, adopting a revised understanding of epistemic reasonableness in terms of a weak view of rationality that is procedural, external and second-order rather than a strong view that is substantial, internal and first-order can help political liberalism maintain an epistemic dimension in the idea of reasonableness without becoming perfectionist. In addition, political liberalism can defend a stronger account of respect for persons against liberal perfectionism on the basis of the revised understanding of epistemic reasonableness. Both arguments serve to demonstrate the strength of the political liberal project.
In two recent articles I offered a solution to an old problem in Kant’s account of the categorical imperative, that of finding a unitary interpretation of all four of the Groundwork’s applications of the Formula of the Law of Nature (FLN). In this article I bring out the unity of this solution and defend the principle of suitability interpretation of FLN from objections raised by Samuel Kahn.
Carole Pateman in Conversation with Graham Smith
Carole Pateman and Graham Smith
Carole Pateman reflects on her fifty years of scholarship in conversation with Graham Smith. The discussion focuses particular attention on Pateman’s work on participatory democracy and considers her contributions to debates on political obligation, feminism, basic income, and deliberative democracy.
Revisiting Arendtian Forgiveness in the Politics of Reconciliation
The idea of forgiveness is omnipresent in the transitional justice literature, yet this body of work, taken as a whole, is marked by conceptual, terminological and argumentative imprecision. Equivocation is common, glossing moral, theological, therapeutic and legal considerations, while arguments proceed from political, apolitical and even antipolitical premises. With forgiveness as a praxis linked to reconciliation processes in at least ten countries, concerns have grown over its negative implications for the relationship between the state and victims of state-authored injustices. Many of these debates reference Hannah Arendt. Drawing from a range of Arendt’s published and unpublished work, this article challenges the academic claim that forgiveness has no place in the politics of reconciliation. Through this ‘returning to the source’, it presents a promising mode of thinking about political forgiveness in contemporary Settler-colonial states.
Seven Conceptual Building Blocks
Rikki Dean, Jonathan Rinne, and Brigitte Geissel
The notion that democracy is a system is ever present in democratic theory. However, what it means to think systemically about democracy (as opposed to what it means for a political system to be democratic) is under-elaborated. This article sets out a meta-level framework for thinking systemically about democracy, built upon seven conceptual building blocks, which we term (1) functions, (2) norms, (3) practices, (4) actors, (5) arenas, (6) levels, and (7) interactions. This enables us to systematically structure the debate on democratic systems, highlighting the commonalities and differences between systems approaches, their omissions, and the key questions that remain to be answered. It also enables us to push the debate forward both by demonstrating how a full consideration of all seven building blocks would address issues with existing approaches and by introducing new conceptual clarifications within those building blocks.
How can we theorize about democracy? We can identify the major topics that form the focus of democratic theorists (and others traversing the field), such as democracy’s meaning and value. This article focuses on the methodological lenses through which the topics have been and can be viewed. Different lenses bring into focus different phenomena, questions, and problems of democracy. It is argued that the lenses that bring conventional democratic theory approaches into view can provide an unnecessarily narrow and restrictive perspective. Donning different methodological lenses can introduce alternative perspectives, such as renewed attention to value pluralism and the “everyday.” The article sketches four “circles” that capture different potential types of and sources for theoretical work, some of them radically unconventional. It concludes by discussing the specific example of how methods and assumptions of design theory can prompt promising new approaches to theorizing about democracy.
Dannica Fleuß and Gary S. Schaal
The article analyzes the (often implicit) understanding of democratic theory that is presupposed by scholars who engage in this practice and provides an answer to the question: “What are we doing when we are doing democratic theory?” We flesh out the core features of this scholarly activity by relating it to and differentiating it from assessments made from the perspective of political philosophy and political science. We argue that democratic theory aims at proposing institutional devices that are (a) problem-solving approaches and (b) embodiments of normative principles. This two-faced structure requires democratic theorists to engage in feedback loops with political philosophy on the one hand and empirical political science on the other. This implies that democratic theorists must adopt a dynamic approach: democratic theories must “fit” societal circumstances. In consequence, they must be adapted in case of fundamental societal transformations. We exemplify this dynamic character by referring to digitalization-induced changes in democratic societies and their implications for democratic theorists’ practice.
Rikki Dean, Jean-Paul Gagnon, and Hans Asenbaum
What is democratic theory? The question is surprisingly infrequently posed. Indeed, the last time this precise question appears in the academic archive was exactly forty years ago, in James Alfred Pennock’s (1979) book Democratic Political Theory. This is an odd discursive silence not observable in other closely aligned fields of thought such as political theory, political science, social theory, philosophy, economic theory, and public policy/administration – each of which have asked the “what is” question of themselves on regular occasion. The premise of this special issue is, therefore, to pose the question anew and break this forty-year silence.