Words of democracy: Rescuing an abandoned science

The conventional introduction to democracy

To understand the significance of this displacement of “conventional theory”, let me go back to the early twentieth-century social scientist R.M. MacIver. He put it in his 1950 book The Ramparts We Guard, that “there are few books to which we can turn … that seriously try to enlighten us about the nature of democracy.” It was, therefore, from this need to provide the public introduction to the theory of democracy that two important books were published.

“Splendid fragments in splendid isolation”

The effects of this practice, exemplified by Dahl and Mayo, were summarised in the late 1980s by the political scientist Giovanni Sartori in his Theory of Democracy Revisited (1987). Taking stock of the previous decades of research on democracy, Sartori notes that this research has (a) left us with no singular theory of it; that, (b) consequently, the study of democracy is in shambles; and © this is explainable by describing the field as a “largely single-issue-minded” one that “leaves us with splendid fragments in splendid isolation.”

Leaving the stage

Democratic theorists of one stripe or another — deliberative, liberal, monitory, feminist, agonist, radical, and dozens more — have long been mounting their defences, asserting the exclusivity of their claims over democracy, and scrutinising the structures of other claims. They look for cracks in each other’s foundations, or windows to slip-in for some internal co-optation, or open doors through which to build partnerships (as is presently happening, for example, between representative democracy, deliberative democracy, and local democracy), or opportunities to introduce altogether new ideas.

Getting to the texture

Survival in the wilderness depends on facts. Where is the food, clean water, and shelter? How much food, for example, is there? In what state is it comestible or otherwise poisonous? Do two or more ingredients go well, or badly, together? The answers to such questions are descriptive, mundane even, and matter-of-fact, but essential to survival and therefore of vital importance.

Collecting words

In my opinion, the most promising way of approximating the total texture of democracy comes from words and the publications to which they point us. “Representative democracy”, for example, appears in tens of thousands of publications, while “Waldorf democracy” appears in about four. The meanings of democracy, and the practices they foster, are to be found within those publications.

Databases make a data mountain

Picking up Mayo and Dahl’s abandoned labour led to further difficulty because the meanings and practices that are written into the word “democracy” are also referred to by other words. They can be democratic, or instances of collective governance, or demoicracy, self-rule, demarchy, self-governance, isonomia, and the rule-of-none, among others.

Arbitrary democracy

Without this mountain of data, our answer to the question “What is democracy?” is strictly tied to ourselves and what we personally know — which means our answers are arbitrary. Robert Dahl recognised this at the outset of his publishing career, as did Henry Mayo. When they set out to tell us what this term “democracy” is all about, they realised that the answers were endless and that the only way to argue in the face of an undefined (but a still real and out there, somewhere) mountain of data would be to craft a justifiable, yet personalised and therefore arbitrary, definition of it.

What counts as democracy and democratic?

The central objection from theorists to my proposal is that there is more agreement as to what makes a butterfly over what makes a democracy. Put differently, there is going to be disagreement in the world over which words, meanings, and practices of democracy are actually or sufficiently democratic. My response is this is likely always going to be the case, which is why the words we collect have to be treated equally in their collection and not prematurely filtered out by our conventional understandings of what we think democracy is or is not.

The good that can come of this

Basic research on the words of democracy imparts at least one benefit: studying them encourages democratic innovation.



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”