🦋 Collecting notions of democracy

Exploring different notions of democracy

Originally, the concept of democracy described a political system based on popular self-government. Since the mid-20th century, scholars have increasingly understood democracy as a normative concept, as described by Sartori:

Distinguishing real from fake democracies

But this approach does not come without problems. The notion of democracy has positive connotations. Nowadays, it is therefore hard to find any political system or organisation that would openly admit to not being democratic.

Defining the key features of democracy

The fact is that it is not possible to distinguish democracies from non-democracies without defining certain key features of democracy. And if we do that, we are back to the traditional approach of democratic theorists like Robert Dahl, which aims to define democracy by its key characteristics.

Democracy as a normative concept

However, the key features of democracy are not just categories of description — we can also understand them as categories of prescription. Indeed, Gagnon’s using the collection of democracies to address current problems of democracy rests on the view that democracy is a normative concept. Otherwise, it would not make sense to look for ways to improve the quality of a democracy or aim to democratise different systems of governance.

Why we need conceptualisations of democracy

In conclusion, it is easy to like and support the idea of collecting different notions of democracy. Such a collection will be an important resource for scholars of democracy. But we should not regard this approach as an alternative to, or a replacement for, more analytical and normative approaches (eg MacKenzie) in democratic theory. We need conceptualisations of democracy in order to use Gagnon’s collection to understand how democracy has been realised in different historical and political contexts.



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The Science of Democracy

The Science of Democracy

Republished essays, in chronological order, from The Loop’s short essay series on the “science of democracy”