🦋 Reimagining democracy, one word at a time

Democracy’s spellbinding power

Motivated by a sense of moral urgency at the ebbing fate of democracies worldwide, Jean-Paul Gagnon’s call to collect the words of democracy is a response to the partial and parochial state of democratic theory. We also find this sense of urgency and the aim ‘to de-parochialise the [American] understanding of democracy’ in John Dunn’s book, Breaking Democracy’s Spell. For Dunn, democracy is spellbinding because it imbues its citizens with a ‘faith’ in its power. This blinds them to the realities of ‘ecological degradation, the threat of poorly understood climactic imbalance, the manifold political and economic instabilities of the world trading and financial systems, and the increasingly dysfunctional politics of all the major democratic states and their coordinating institutions’.

What critics of democracy get right

Historians of political thought may locate such arguments in a long tradition of anti-democratic thought, friendly and not-so-friendly. In a political pamphlet from late fifth-century democratic Athens, the anonymous writer known to us as the Old Oligarch argues that poor judgment is endemic to democracy. He bristles that ‘in the common people there is the greatest ignorance, unruliness, and wickedness’. The demos gives resident aliens ‘equal freedom to speak’. Moreover, ‘whereas Greeks normally adhere each to their own dialect, lifestyle, and dress, the Athenians adopt a mixture of elements taken from everyone, Greek and barbarian’.

A database with a democratic character

The database mimics and pays tribute to the only regime which values equality so highly. It imposes a formal equality upon the words of democracy, awarding each its own cell in a spreadsheet. Nothing in the database indicates that ‘party democracy’ is better or superior to or more hallowed than ‘polite democracy’.

From democracy’s words to democracy’s myths

Just as the database points to democracy’s boundless capacity with respect to adjectival qualifiers, it also implies the implausibility of applying these words to other regime types. Ironic aristocracy? Hallucinatory oligarchy? Dominated tyranny? If such terms fail to register with us, it is because of the nature of linguistic artefacts. These are not merely mental constructs, but also and at the same time, part of the environment into which they are born. As William Sewell has argued, there is ‘a reciprocal constitution of semiotic form and material embodiment’.

A cause for celebration!

Gagnon’s words-of-democracy database offers access to myths that lend the regime of the people its spellbinding power. Granted, we can discover democracy’s myths in other ways. However, what the database proves beyond doubt is that we live in a time when democracy is oversaturated with meaning.

--

--

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
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”