How can we define democracy today given the continuous changes that modern societies are undergoing? What is the role of a democratic theorist? This paper articulates a threefold argument in responding to these questions by analyzing the term of democracy in vitro, in vivo, and in actu. The first step is to secure a democratic minimum and the core principles of democracy. The second step involves studying democracy as an ongoing project and examining how the principles of this democratic minimum are encoded. In the third step we deploy the basic premises of discourse theory of Laclau and Mouffe when evaluating a specific discourse of democracy, as this approach encompasses both discursive and nondiscursive practices. Utilizing this three-level evaluative framework for democratic theory will allow us to not only articulate normative principles but also evaluate them according to their mode of implementation.
Anastasia Deligiaouri and Jane Suiter
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.
Christian Ewert and Marion Repetti
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.
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.
Grounds for a Purely Procedural Defense of Majority Rule
This article proposes a critical discussion of an increasingly influential strand of contemporary democratic theory that attempts to justify majoritarian institutions on the grounds that they are the most adequate “epistemic” means for discovering and implementing an objective standard of normative truth. The analysis is divided in two parts. In the first I show that the appeal to such epistemic standards is unnecessary because it is possible to justify majority rule on the “purely procedural” grounds that it is the best way of instantiating the values of freedom (as consent) and equality (as impartiality). In the second part I suggest that the appeal to epistemic standards is also undesirable because it conflicts with three key democratic values: autonomy (as self-government), inclusion (as lack of discrimination in terms of political competence), and pluralism (as fair representation of conflicting interests within the political process).
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.
The South African Crucible
South Africa's post-apartheid context and a mix of African and non-mainstream Western political theory is felicitous for a positive critique of the two now predominant Western accounts of democracy. The context highlights how deliberative and aggregative accounts of democracy fall short in their attempts to make universal claims regarding democracy; and it provides the theoretical basis for an account of political democracy that better associates democracy with freedom, power, representation, and domination. The article argues that freedom is power through political representation, and freedom obtains if and only if the existing forms of representation manage power relations in order to minimize domination and enhance political judgement amongst representatives and represented. The article submit that, unless radical institutional change is carried out, South Africa will not rid itself of the legacies of these Western models and will be unable to generate the freedom and democracy its attainment of political freedom has now long promised.
Democratic Theory through an Agonistic Lens
This article seeks to explore democratic theory by focusing on the example of agonistic democracy, in which contest between citizens is valued for its potential to render politics more inclusive, more engaging, and more virtuous. Using Connolly and Tully’s inclusivism, Chantal Mouffe’s adversarialism, and David Owen’s perfectionism, the article discusses democratic theory as a critique, a series of normative proposals, and a potential bridge between political theory and public policy. It is this bridge that enables democratic theory to pull together critical and normative discussions with those surrounding public policy and institutional design.
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.