🦋 Beyond words: rescuing the democratic ideal

Viktor Orri Valgarðsson argues that words are not enough to understand the concept of democracy. 'Democracy' denotes an important ideal that we must not sacrifice on a mountain of words

Jean-Paul Gagnon’s mountain of words attached to the word 'democracy' is a fascinating and provocative venture, and the debate he has started here on The Loop is an excellent example of interdisciplinary dialogue. But it is primarily a conversation-starter, and we must not lose sight of the democratic ideal in the process.

Others in this debate have pointed out that the criterion for inclusion of terms on this mountain seems arbitrary. Anyone can throw around the word 'democracy' and thus climb the mountain. Meanwhile, truly democratic phenomena stay on the ground if they have not been explicitly called democracy. As Sor-hoon Tan points out, 'Chinese democracy' is on the mountain and Mao himself described his totalitarian vision as 'New Democracy'. With this in mind, Maija Setälä’s point that we need some basis to separate real democracies from fake ones seems self-evident.

The ‘Democratic People's Republic of Korea’ is neither democratic, a republic nor the people’s. But I cannot make this judgement from Gagnon’s mountain

I am happy to assert that Mao’s ‘New Democracy’ was not democracy. The ‘Democratic People's Republic of Korea’ is neither democratic, a republic, nor the people’s. But I cannot make this judgement from Gagnon’s mountain. For that, we need democratic theory: an analytical approach based on the history of the concept and its normative underpinnings.

Beyond words

A word does not a democracy make. The concept of democracy is based on a clear and essential ideal that we can use to distinguish between political systems in the real world: the rule of the people.

It is not fashionable these days to point out that the word democracy quite literally means ‘rule of the people’. Indeed, Gagnon himself has written elsewhere that referring to the will of the people is ‘the bastardisation of democracy’.

The concept of democracy is based on a clear and essential ideal that we can use to distinguish between political systems in the real world: the rule of the people

But this is not just about etymology. Robert Dahl is often cited as having defined democracy by several characteristics of modern representative democracies. However, those were in fact his definition of ‘polyarchy’. And Dahl wrote that such polyarchy 'unquestionably falls well short of achieving the democratic process'.

Instead, Dahl supported the notion of democracy 'as "rule by the people" or as rule by a demos, a citizen body consisting of members who are considered equals for purposes of arriving at governmental decisions'.

Similarly, John Stuart Mill famously considered representative government to be the best form of government in modern societies. Less famous is the fact that he actually defined democracy as rule of the people. He simply thought that it was not feasible in contemporary societies.

Democracy as a human right

But operationalisations and practical implementations of democracy in the real world do not change the meaning of the concept itself, or the ideal we strive towards, notwithstanding Joseph Schumpeter’s elitist argument to that effect. Any political concept will have diverse manifestations in the real world. That does not rob them of their essential meaning.

Of course 'rule of the people' is a broad phrase that we must develop further. Various ancient societies have practiced versions of the phenomenon, but the normative elaboration of the concept has its roots in John Locke’s treatment of natural human rights and the justification for government. Human beings are created equal (from a moral standpoint), and government derives its legitimacy only from an (implicit) social contract among equal human beings to delegate certain responsibilities and powers in their community to government.

From this, it follows that those individuals have an equal right to take part in that government. Or, as John Rawls put it: 'It requires that all citizens are to have an equal right to take part in, and to determine the outcome of, the constitutional process that establishes the laws with which they are to comply'.

A very real ideal

This is by no means an empty or abstract ideal. Of course it has, is and will always be, realised to varying degrees in real-world communities. But it is still an important yardstick by which we can judge a political system.

Using this yardstick, we can definitively say that North Korea is not a democracy. We can further say that political systems where citizens only choose the governed in periodic elections are more democratic than North Korea. Societies which allow citizens more effective and open opportunities for influence, however, are more democratic still.

Using this clear conception of democracy, we can measure the quality of democracy in a society. We can identify how citizens’ fundamental right to take part in governing their society is under threat today. Better yet, we can have a substantive debate about how striving closer towards that ideal might help meet the crisis of trust that many societies are now experiencing.

Unequal 'democracies'

In this light, Gagnon’s butterflies are useful. They help us understand the myriad ways in which the ideal of democracy has manifested itself in the real world in different cultures and contexts, and how we might implement it in new and exciting ways. As Eva Krick points out, organising the butterflies into coherent narratives about different forms of democracy are necessary next steps in Gagnon’s project. These steps could enlighten us all about the diversity of democracies in the real world.

We cannot rise to the challenge of authoritarianism if we lose sight of the meaning and normative value of democracy

But the butterflies cannot replace the ideal. 'North Korean democracy' is not on an equal footing to 'liberal democracy' on the mountain of democracy. And we need democratic theory to guide us through the wilderness of words.

Moving beyond analogies, authoritarianism is on the rise and democracy is in very real danger. We can hardly rise to that challenge if we lose sight of the meaning and normative value of democracy. To defend democracy, we must commit to the democratic ideal, not abandon it.

Number 45 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 Viktor Orri Valgarðsson
Viktor Orri Valgarðsson
Research Fellow, TrustGov, University of Southampton

Viktor’s research at the TrustGov project focuses on global trends and generational dynamics in political trust, support and participation; with a focus on what these trends mean for the state of democracy in the world and how our democratic systems should respond to them.

Within that broad remit, his research has touched on diverse topics such as declining voter turnout, post-crash party politics in Iceland, the role of trust in vaccine hesitancy and what British voters expect of their politicians.

His research has been published in the Journal of European Public Policy, Scandinavian Political Studies, Political Studies, Political Research Quarterly, Globalizations and Vaccines.

He tweets @viktor888

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