🦋 A specimen drawer to capture the evolution of democracy

Democracy is a living entity, evolving over time under the influence of environmental factors. Ernesto Cruz Ruiz argues that Jean-Paul Gagnon’s democracy ‘data mountain’ is of limited value if we do not understand democracy in this way. To achieve this understanding, he proposes a 'specimen drawer’

Democracy is more than words

As long as there is the need to make choices affecting others, different decision-making forms appear. A dictionary containing various definitions of democracy (and what is not democracy), can, in simple terms, help us locate distinct practices along the continuum between democracy and authoritarianism. Yet, beyond that, a dictionary of democracy might help us realise that democracy is, in fact, more than just a word. It is a living entity, like a butterfly.

Given this, we might want to make a specimen drawer of its practices. In so doing, we would document the environment and time in which any specimen (or type) was captured. Such circumstantial description might tell us more about the influence of actors, time, and environment on the specimen. We might discover, for example, its colours, extension, and the flutter of its wings.

Humans and the evolution of democracy

The documentation of specimens and their environments is crucial to understanding their evolution. However, that 'natural evolution' can be affected by humans. For instance, scientists have documented the effects of human activities on the environment and evolution of selected specimens. These activities include intensive agriculture, hunting, commercial fishing, and others. Our preferences for specific characteristics of the livestock and crops we put on the table have triggered genetic changes. The effects of industrial development in certain regions on butterflies' colour and shape, for example, are known as ‘industrial melanism’.

democracy theorists might want to collect specimens of democratic practices and assess the effects of context and actors on their evolution

Following suit, democracy theorists and practitioners might want to collect specimens of democratic practices and assess the effects of context and actors on their evolution. Such a specimen drawer would help those interested in fair and just decision-making to understand the life and types of democracy in time and across regions.

The need for collaboration and uses of a specimen drawer

The collection and creation of specimen drawers are time- and money-intensive. It needs hands to catch specimens in our time and others to dig up the ground to find fossils. This task of compilation is probably never-ending. A good start, however, might be to begin by focusing on regions, like north, south, east and west. If we sample and map democratic practices in different territories, we might start accounting for the effect of context, actors, and interests within a territory and across others. Mapping every practice and type of democracy might be exhausting. But starting at the regional level might be more feasible and less tiring.

If we map democratic practices in different territories, we might start accounting for the effect of context, actors, and interests within a territory and across others

For instance, we could sample and map democratic practices in different regions like the northern and southern hemisphere. In the first instance, this will tell us more about the types of practices. As in the case of butterflies, the first step might be mapping and getting to know more about the butterflies. It might tell us, for example, their colour patterns and the extension of their wings. In a second step, after sampling lots of specimens, description of the context should reveal the geography of the surroundings. Thirdly, after describing the what, how, and where, theorists and practitioners might have enough information to theorise and hypothesise about the causes and changes across time.

Variation and change across time and regions

The ultimate goal of a specimen drawer of democracy should be to explain its changes, and the causes for that change, in the same way that there are explanations of butterflies changing their colours with industrialisation and urbanisation. In the case of democracy we would be looking for the impact of contextual changes. Such changes include urbanisation, economic inequality, or technology. Besides, the mapping and construction of a database containing different democratic practices can inform us about the complementarity of different practices to achieve desired democratic ideals such as non-tyranny, political equality, and making fair and just decisions.

Such a database would provide for a more thorough analysis of democracy. This would most likely focus on its evolution through the propagation and institutionalisation of certain democratic practices. For instance, after studying a specimen drawer of monarch butterflies, a curious lepidopterist might want to study its intergenerational migration from their summer breeding grounds in Canada and the US to overwintering locations in Mexico. However, this type of study needs more than a single lepidopterist; it needs colleagues on the ground tracing the butterfly's migration route, where it lays its eggs, and where it mates. Modern democracy research needs that type of collaboration.

Beyond the democrats' bubble

Democracy theorists and practitioners stand to profit not just from sharing their dictionaries and specimen drawers with each other. They might find new perspectives through collaboration with other research areas to enhance their understanding of democracy and its practices. For instance, lepidopterists explained the intergenerational migration of the monarch butterfly, its routes, and where it roosted and mated, by collaborating with other research fields. These fields contributed with insights on the role of hormones and genetic information in coordinating intergenerational migration and navigation biology.

Democracy theorists might find new perspectives through collaboration with other research areas to enhance their understanding of democracy

Preserving the colours of democratic specimens

A global understanding of democratic practices and democracy is necessary to preserve and improve it. It is therefore necessary to analyse democracy's textures, geography, genetics, habitat, etc. Democratic theorists and practitioners can best do this by collaborating among themselves, and with other researchers from other disciplines, to enhance the study of democracy. That type of collaboration would complement the use of the dictionary or specimen drawer of democracy and democratic practices. It would facilitate a more thorough understanding of democracy and the influence of external factors on its emergence, development, demise and, most importantly, its preservation.

Number 34 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 Ernesto Cruz Ruiz
Ernesto Cruz Ruiz
PhD Candidate, Technical University of Munich

Ernesto’s research agenda lies at the intersection between deliberative and participatory democracy, and focuses mainly on the drivers of democratic innovations and the political effects of income and political inequality on democratic processes and institutions.

He is interested in finding the significance of citizen participation and deliberation in modern democracies from the Global North and the Global South.


He tweets @ecremx

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