🦋 The perpetual reinvention of democracy

Is the problem fragmentation?

Gagnon chides influential democratic theorists such as Robert Dahl and Henry Mayo for failing to develop a comprehensive account of democracy. But their neglect of ‘all or most of traditional theories about democracy’ was no mere oversight; it was a deliberate revolt. Dahl and Mayo, along with other postwar democratic theorists, dismissed what they called ‘traditional democratic theory’. They alleged it preached what democracy ought to be without regard for how it is actually practiced. As an alternative, they promoted an ‘empirical’ democratic theory that studied existing democracies to figure out what democracy is.

The fact-gathering mission…

The empirical democratic theory’s defining presupposition is that we must study the ‘what is’ and not the ‘what ought to be’ of democracy. Proponents of the empirical democratic theory believed that we can study democracy while ignoring its normative character, and that democracy’s empirical forms alone can reveal its nature. Both beliefs are wrong.

…and its limitations

Empirical democratic theorists like Dahl aspired to scientific neutrality, and prescribed a nonjudgmental approach to the study of democracies. Let’s stop arguing over whose conception of democracy is right; instead, let’s simply lay out facts and let those facts speak for themselves. So does Gagnon. He suggests that ‘the words we collect have to be treated equally … and not prematurely filtered out by our conventional understandings of what we think democracy is or is not’.

Scientific neutrality and its blind spots

Conceptual confusion is not the only concern. The exclusive focus on what is readily observable often makes us equate democracy’s empirical manifestations with what it can be, blinding us to the factors that constrain the fuller realisation of the democratic ideal. In the case of postwar democratic theorists, their description of America as a democracy in the context of the Cold War was necessarily an act of endorsement. As such, it had the effect of downplaying, if not concealing, problems that should have been interrogated most thoroughly to bring America closer to the democratic ideal — racial inequality, militarism, widespread political apathy, and so on.

The perpetual reinvention of democracy

We should be careful not to identify democracy with its empirical containers. Those containers do not simply give incomplete shape to the democratic ideal; they always distort and suppress it.



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”