🦋 Reimagining democracy, one word at a time

Andreas Avgousti asserts that collecting democracy’s words gives us a window into the democratic imagination. He reads Jean-Paul Gagnon’s expanding database as an illustration of democratic virtues

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’.

Do today's crises expose the shortcomings of the normative ideal of democracy?

The global migration crisis has amplified the voice and decision-making power of ethnocentric political forces. The Covid-19 pandemic has exposed the shortcomings of public health systems. Both seem to corroborate Dunn’s view. Better political judgment can only be had, Dunn argues, when democratic citizens finally recognise that their regime is not equivalent to good government. They must recognise that the normative ideal of democracy is of limited use.

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’.

I bring up the Old Oligarch not to question Dunn’s friendliness to democracy. His immanent critique of democracy could only have been written by someone who truly cherishes it. My aim is to note that the ancient Athenian’s characterisations apply equally to Gagnon’s database. The words of democracy are unruly, friendly to the foreign, and composed of diverse elements.

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’.

The more outlandish terms in Gagnon's database are windows into the odd and playful mixture that constitutes the democratic imagination

Such unruliness leaves it up to the investigator to determine which term(s) warrant her attention. Individual entries mix democracy with outlandish (dare we say 'barbarian') adjectives, such as ‘shock-jock democracy’ or ‘lobster bucket democracy’. Instead of either dismissing these terms as ‘democratic marginalia’ or hinting that they might as well be made-up, we can treat them as windows into the odd and playful mixture which constitutes the democratic imagination. Indeed, insofar as democracy’s words are best treated as metaphors, they are of special importance for democratic peoples, as Rancière and Allen discuss.

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’.

Myths, which constitute the imagination of all peoples, illustrate this dialectical relationship. By myths I mean non-falsifiable narratives, or parts thereof. These are epistemic objects which cannot be readily refuted in dialectical contest, by reasoned argument, or even evidence.

Consider, for example, the founding myth of the United States. In the popular imagination of the US citizenry, the founding event is typically the Revolutionary War of 1776. But, as Nikole Hannah-Jones and others argue forcefully, we should date the founding of America to August 1619, when the first enslaved Africans arrived in Virginia.

Of course, it is unlikely we will see a change in the founding story of America within our generation. Historically speaking, change in the beliefs of peoples happens generationally. And this does not occur without severe and ongoing trauma to the collective psyche of the affected nations. The founding of Israel in 1948 and the reunification of Germany in 1990 are two of many such examples.

The overturning of democratic myths must meet further conditions. Defenders of the status quo must become disheartened, and there must accrue a critical mass of believers in what began life as a minority view.

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.

Contemporary oversaturation of the term 'democracy' illustrates the virtues of democratic judgment

For democratic partisans, this is reason to celebrate. It signals the victory of their cause, a victory which remains the exception in the recorded history of mankind. Democracy, we should not forget, was a word synonymous with disorder, rancour, envy, and the Great Unwashed. It was a term of opprobrium not only in ancient times but also in the Federalist Papers, which provide justification for the institutional design of the world’s pre-eminent democracy, the United States.

Efforts like Dunn’s aim at clarifying democracy and disabusing readers of their faith in its capacity to meet twenty-first century challenges. Democracy’s partisans might stake out a different position; that the contemporary oversaturation of the term is illustrative of the virtues of democratic judgment. These include embracing plurality in worldviews, the preservation of complexity in explanation, and an acknowledgment of the liminality between what is serious and what is not.

Number 49 in a Loop thread on the science of democracy. Look out for the ðŸ¦‹ to read more in our series 

This article presents the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the ECPR or the Editors of The Loop.


photograph of Andreas Avgousti
Andreas Avgousti
Research Affiliate, Stavros Niarchos Foundation Centre for Hellenic Studies, Simon Fraser University

Andreas studied political science at Columbia University, where he received his PhD in 2015; he holds a BSc in Government and History (First Class) and an MSc in Political Theory (Merit) from the London School of Economics and Political Science.

He was the inaugural Hellenisms Past and Present, Local and Global Postdoctoral Fellow at the SNF Centre for Hellenic Studies at Simon Fraser University, Visiting Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at Portland State University, and Lecturer in the Core Curriculum at Columbia University.

His research programme is motivated by contemporary democratic concerns regarding opinion in all its forms (viz. reputation, judgment, rumour) and is historically located in ancient Athens (Plato, Isocrates, Lycurgus) and late antique Antioch and Constantinople (John Chrysostom).

Andreas is the author of Recovering Reputation: Plato and Demotic Power (Oxford University Press 2022)

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