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.
Rikki Dean, Jean-Paul Gagnon, and Hans Asenbaum
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.
Five Lessons from the COVID-19 Pandemic
Afsoun Afsahi, Emily Beausoleil, Rikki Dean, Selen A. Ercan, and Jean-Paul Gagnon
As countries around the world went into lockdown, we turned to 32 leading scholars working on different aspects of democracy and asked them what they think about how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted democracy. In this article, we synthesize the reflections of these scholars and present five key insights about the prospects and challenges of enacting democracy both during and after the pandemic: (1) COVID-19 has had corrosive effects on already endangered democratic institutions, (2) COVID-19 has revealed alternative possibilities for democratic politics in the state of emergency, (3) COVID-19 has amplified the inequalities and injustices within democracies, (4) COVID-19 has demonstrated the need for institutional infrastructure for prolonged solidarity, and (5) COVID-19 has highlighted the predominance of the nation-state and its limitations. Collectively, these insights open up important normative and practical questions about what democracy should look like in the face of an emergency and what we might expect it to achieve under such circumstances.