🦋 Confronting democracy’s foundational flaws

How should we approach a database of democracy’s words when many of these collected democracies fail to respect people’s moral and political equality? According to Anna Drake, if we want meaningful narratives to emerge, we must confront foundational challenges to democracy and centre these in our analysis

In an important effort to rethink how we approach democratic theory and practice, Jean-Paul Gagnon has begun an ambitious project to make a database of democracy’s words and give them a narrative.

This emphasis on gathering data widely gives a crucial grounding to our study of democracy. It also lends much-needed weight to the diversity of our conceptions of democracy. There is a great need for this work.

Recognising democracy’s harms

There is also need for caution. As Eva Cherniavsky writes, ‘it’s not so much the study of democracy that’s in shambles, so much as democracy itself’. More pointedly, democracy benefits and harms people in selective ways. It may be tempting to respond by focusing on greater inclusion or representation in our narratives. However, the problem with democracy is not merely one we might fix through democratic reform and more complex narratives. Rather, democracy’s flaws are foundational.

My concern in gathering these butterflies lies in the corrupted nature of democracy itself. To draw upon the metaphor, many of the collected butterflies may look beautiful and appear to offer engaging and fresh takes on democracy. The problem lies in the ways this mountain of data might distract us from looking beyond appearances to get at the harmful nature of the butterflies’ origin stories.

Many of the collected butterflies look beautiful and appear to offer engaging and fresh takes on democracy – but are they distracting us from the harmful nature of their origin stories?

The kaleidoscope of butterflies â€“ the data of Gagnon’s project â€“ is immense. This is, of course, what allows us to see so many possibilities. As Michael Saward notes, it ‘opens up radically what democracy might be (might have been, might yet be)’. However, within this collection are democracies that deliberately devalue groups of people. Here, two things are important.

Why do we â€“ and should we â€“ value democracy?

First is the need to return to democracy’s normative foundations. It is crucial that we look not only at what different conceptions of democracy do, but that we examine why, how, and for whom they function. We need to go beyond the ways democracies present themselves. We must push back against the gilding and acknowledge just how far from the normative point of democracy some democracies take us.

At democracy’s normative foundation, people are moral and political equals. This is seriously lacking in our lived reality of democratic institutions. Calls of freedom and equality that, in our foundational documents, claim all people are equals, belie the very deliberate ways democracy’s design upholds particular, and exclusionary, conceptions of power. These conceptions run counter to normative ideals of democratic equality.

Constructing narratives from this mountain of data is not enough when the data itself is malicious, when our democracies rest on assumptions that white men ought to have power

As Carole Pateman and Charles Mills discuss the sexual and racial contracts, they detail the ways our democracies rest on assumptions that white men ought to have power. The background context is, by design, one of white, cis, male supremacy. This translates into policies and practices that may evolve over time, but do so in ways that maintain deeply unjust exclusions.

What do we do with Dr Frankenstein’s butterflies?

It is not enough to construct narratives from this mountain of data when much of the data itself is malicious. Acknowledging that ‘democracy is written from the perspective of the winners’, as Marta Wojciechowska notes, and heeding Hans Asenbaum’s call to resist objectifying and naturalising normative concepts, we must ensure that recognition of this privilege and power frames our analysis.

The reach of democracy’s foundational problems

We cannot underestimate these foundational flaws of democracy. For instance, as one of the butterflies we gather, deliberative democracy stands on a pedestal. Its normative motivations rest on principles of mutual respect and justification, and its processes strive to include all people as equals.

However, deliberative democracy takes place against the backdrop of the real world, which leads deliberative democracy to embrace deliberative systems. The problem lies in the disconnect between the normative foundation of deliberative democracy, and the dehumanisation and devaluation underpinning structural racism. As much as deliberative democrats disavow racism, most of the literature focuses on inclusion in response. However, inclusion into a foundationally racist and sexist system only sustains core problems of political inequality.

Responding to foundational problems

Mary F. Scudder offers an excellent argument for the need to look beyond inclusion in deliberative democracy. When it comes to the data mountain, we need to do the same. We cannot produce a truly richer response to the question ‘what is democracy?’ by amassing normatively weak components. To do so would inevitably result in a ‘total texture of democracy’ that misses the normative point.

Not only collecting, but rehabilitating

Fortunately, part of Gagnon’s broader project is what we do with this database. Collecting butterflies may be the only way to rehabilitate them, along with our broader study of what democracy’s ‘total texture’ might, and ought, to be.

Moving forward, we need to examine, and split open, the core assumptions embedded in each conception of democracy. We must read conceptions of democracy together to reveal more information, much as Pateman and Mills use feminist and critical race theory to illuminate foundational democratic problems.

Moving forward, we need to examine, and split open, the core assumptions embedded in each conception of democracy; and we must be willing to tear down and rebuild what we have been working with

In many ways Gagnon’s project is about uncovering, or creating, what we have yet to see. This is a rich conception of democracy that is not only capable of providing a meaningful context in which to understand more niche democracies, but to push back against foundational flaws in our democratic institutions. Such a project begins with amassing what is out there.

But it will be in a better position to succeed if we are willing to tear down much of what we have been working with and to rebuild it. As Audre Lorde tell us: ‘the master’s tools cannot dismantle the master’s house’. If our kaleidoscope of butterflies, as we gather them, are all lacking, then no amount of rearranging and grouping will help. We need to centre the ways democratic design serves those with institutional power at the direct expense of those who are denied it.

Number 59 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 Anna Drake
Anna Drake
Associate Professor, Department of Political Science, University of Waterloo, Canada

Anna works in the area of democratic theory, with a focus on deliberative democracy, intersectionality, and activism.

Her current research examines structural injustice in deliberative theory and analyses ways deliberative systems might better respond to problems such as systemic racism and sexism.

Activism, Inclusion, and the Challenges of Deliberative Democracy

Activism, Inclusion, and the Challenges of Deliberative Democracy
University of British Columbia Press, 2021

Legislating under the Charter: Parliament, Executive Power, and Rights By Emmett Macfarlane, Janet Hiebert and Anna Drake

Legislating Under the Charter: Parliament, Executive Power, and Judicial Norms about Rights
with Emmett Macfarlane and Janet Hiebert
University of Toronto Press, 2023

Anna has published in a number of journals, including Contemporary Political Theory, Studies in Ethnicity and Nationalism and the Canadian Journal of Political Science.

She tweets @annamdrake

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