🦋 Proposing a taxonomy for democratic theory

The Science of Democracy
5 min readNov 23, 2021


Petra Guasti, originally published by The Loop (https://theloop.ecpr.eu/proposing-a-taxonomy-for-democratic-theory/)

August, 2021

Petra Guasti takes inspiration from the natural world to propose a way to organise the taxonomy of democratic theory. In a joint effort, and using a three-step process akin to Linnaeus and Darwin, she suggests that democratic theorists could create an encyclopaedia of democracies

Jean-Paul Gagnon’s lively conversation starter on the science of democracy is testament to the concept’s enduring relevance and complexity. Gagnon kicked off our discussion with a call for scholars to map the ‘total texture of democracy’. His database, which now includes more than 4,000 concepts of democracy, is an excellent start.

The task for democratic theorists is to take the next steps. In this piece, I argue that what we need is an equivalent of Linnaean taxonomy for democratic theory.

what we need is an equivalent of Linnaean taxonomy for democratic theory

In his Systema Naturae (1735), Carl Linnaeus, building on Plato and Aristotle, proposed rank-based hierarchical scientific classifications for plants, animals, and minerals. He divided species of each of these three kingdoms into classes, orders, and genera.

Democratic theory needs its own taxonomy. Applying a hierarchical classification to concepts of democracy aligns with Sartori’s arguments about human reasoning in concept formation — classification and cut-points, while also considering Collier and Adcock’s argument about different forms of gradation and ordering.

Democratic theorists can adopt a taxonomy approach in three steps.

First step: Democracy and non-democracy

First, we need to distinguish between democracy and non-democracy. Defining the object of our study is akin to Linnaeus distinguishing between plants, animals, and minerals. Two approaches are possible — positive and negative.

Using a positive approach, we would define criteria a concept must fulfil to be classified as democratic. In contrast, using a negative approach, we could follow Sartori exploring the meaning of concepts by examining the opposites, and defining non-democracy (autocracy / totalitarianism / hybrid regimes) and its core exhaustive and mutually exclusive features.

Defining non-democracy is especially relevant in today’s polarised world where illiberalism is rising. Take Viktor Orbán’s ‘illiberal democracy’, hailed by the media as a novel concept. Yet it is neither a concept of democracy, nor new. Orbán’s illiberal democracy exploits the tensions within democracy to reduce democracy to a procedure for selecting a leader.

democratic theorists must bear witness that totalitarianism starts with hijacking the meaning of democracy

Following Carl Schmitt, Orbán proposes to separate liberalism and democracy in order to eliminate individual freedoms and minority protection. The leader rules in the name of the people unchecked, unaccountable, and unopposed. There is a clear line between Schmitt and Orbán’s illiberal democracy. History does not repeat itself, but it rhymes. It is the role of democratic theorists to bear witness to the evidence that totalitarianism starts with hijacking the meaning of democracy.

Second step: Identifying criteria for classes, order and genera of democratic concepts

Once we know what democracy is and is not, we must define criteria for dividing concepts into classes, orders, and genera. Here, democratic theorists could again find inspiration in biology — incorporating features from Darwin’s evolutionary taxonomy. The classes would incorporate concepts that are related by having evolved from a similar root.

Drawing on Dahl, one possible criterion could be the presence of competition between the government and its opposition. This example illustrates that no single criterion suffices — competition between the government and the opposition can be found in two types of regimes — in democracies and competitive authoritarianism. Hence, further criteria need to be added to avoid including non-democratic concepts in our classification.

One could argue that even a departure from Dahl and Sartori to a fully positivist ontology would be necessary. However, focusing on existing real-world democratic systems, operationalisation and measurement at this stage would add a further layer of complexity, and undermine the classification efforts.

Instead, we should pay attention to words that describe our concepts and their meaning — to scholars and, as Hans Asenbaum reminded us, the demos. Furthermore, incorporating elements of constructivism would enable us to incorporate normative theory, account for change over time and space, and recognise the role various fragments of knowledge play in the evolution of reflexive democratic theory.

Third step: Ordering our ‘species’

The final step would be to assign the individual ‘species’ to their genera. Here democratic theorists would likely depart from Linnaeus and Darwin in recognising the multifaceted structure and possibly contingent nature of the concepts of democracy.

Incorporating constructivist features would not prevent democratic theorists from defining classes, orders and genera into which to place our concepts of democracy. On the contrary, it would enable us to work with Western-centred concepts related to representative, participatory or deliberative democracy. It would also allow us to remain open to non-Western concepts — the roots of which might be very different — and to recognise that the meaning of Western concepts might vary significantly in a non-Western context. In incorporating meaning across space and time, we would broaden and deepen our knowledge of democracy.

Building an encyclopaedia of democracies

To account for historical and contextual nuances, classification of democracy’s total texture would have to bring together democratic theorists from around the world. In so doing, it should also find ways to enable the demos. Democracy can mean different things to different people. Our classification must therefore enable knowledge to be produced in top-down and bottom-up ways.

We can be Darwin and Linnaeus together, creating an encyclopedia of democracies while also strengthening the community of democracy theorists

The taxonomy of democracy and its meaning across time and space is not a task for a single person. We do not have a Darwin of democracy, but this discussion on The Loop shows engagement among democratic theorists.

Perhaps we can direct the discussion into a joint taxonomy exercise? We can be Darwin and Linnaeus together, creating an encyclopedia of democracies while also strengthening the community of democracy theorists — its pluralism and diversity.

This article is the eighth in a Loop thread on the science of democracy. Look out for the 🦋 to read more in our series



The Science of Democracy

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