🦋 Democracy is under threat, and we must use theory to save it

A false dream

Giovani Sartori and Jean-Paul Gagnon are both caught in a false dream of orderliness. Sartori was continually irritated by scholars who used their words loosely, failed to define their terms, and used concepts in idiosyncratic ways, apparently unaware of the damage to science they were inflicting. Gagnon appears to have similar worries, and suggests that the study of democracy can learn from zoology. After all, you can’t study butterflies productively without a shared definition of what a butterfly is.

A blossoming landscape

The second half of the twentieth century saw the growth and spread of democracy around the globe. This was in fits and starts, to be sure, but it had a clear trajectory. It was an era of optimism and ideology where measurement and improvement dominated the study of democracy. Empirical political science was preoccupied by questions of and disagreement about ‘what is democracy?’ This led to the development of multiple and competing indices, as well as a crowded field of definitions from Schumpeter to Dahl.

Save democracy rather than collecting butterflies

We are moving into a new era of democracy studies. This looks to be even more intellectually productive than the last. Democratic theory is responding to deep worries about the resilience of democracy in the twenty-first century. Crisis and backsliding have replaced expansion and growth as the engines driving innovative and important research. To stay with Gagnon’s lepidopterology metaphor, worries about extinction and species annihilation now take precedence over classification. Questions about why we value democracy and how we can save it are taking centre stage.



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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”