🦋 Making and keeping democracy visible

One aim of the sciences of the democracies is to find different ways of making and keeping democracy visible, argues Christoph Mohamad-Klotzbach. Practitioners and imaginers of democracies are doing this job. They help to understand and transform the realities of democracies – step by step – for the sake of democracy

Making reality visible

Through our daily thoughts and actions, we humans do two things. First, we make reality visible. Second, we reproduce, recreate, and reshape reality. As scientists we contribute to these processes by using various concepts, theories, and methods in our diverse disciplines to continuously make reality visible.

Scientists thus describe, explain, and understand the parts of reality that we – together – make visible. But at the same time, the part of reality that we have not yet thought about or empirically discovered remains hidden deep in the oceans of potential knowledge and wisdom.

What we know about reality so far is dependent on those very concepts, theories, and methods we have conceived and applied

What we know about reality so far is dependent on those very concepts, theories, and methods we have conceived and applied. That means the more we know, the more of reality we can perceive. We must critically question and further develop these tools of discovery again and again. By so doing, we will gradually succeed in getting to the bottom of reality.

Unfortunately, there are two problems associated with this approach. The first is that we know nothing about the extent of the reality still hidden from us. The second is that we do not know which parts of the reality we have made visible are true. Are they merely artefacts or illusions of the concepts, theories, and methods we have used to make them visible?

Democracy as an element of reality versus the realities of democracy

Democracy is an element of reality. It exists as a word. People use the word democratic to describe individual or collective actions and contrast it with other words like authoritarianism or dictatorship. Through this usage, democracy exists and shapes reality through its existence.

But we must also consider that there is not one reality, but many realities of democracy. For example, we can read volumes on democratic theory. We can look at the histories of real, existing democracies. We might collect democracy's descriptors to create a lexicon of democracy. Finally, we could study people’s definitions of democracy through various methodological approaches. This, then, is why we need the Sciences of the Democracies debate initiated by Jean-Paul Gagnon. We must bring these findings together, interpret them, and figure out what they have to tell us about reality.

The data mountain approach and its challenges

Gagnon's approach is to expand our understanding of the democratic reality. His goal is to collect all the concepts of democracy in existence. The mere fact that he has built a 4,000-word data mountain shows the inconceivable range of democracy's reality.

There is not one reality of democracy, but many, and to make it visible is a complex enterprise

At the same time, however, there are pitfalls associated with this approach. Rikki Dean makes clear that words not only describe reality but can also deceive and denounce it. Additionally, following Dannica Fleuß, the process of decolonising the research on democracy leads us to study the political and social realities through different languages. We can keep track of ideas that might not yet be recognised by the westernised sphere of political thought. And this means considering other words – like minben – seriously. Yida Zhai even argues that we need to study people’s understandings of democracy without using the 'd-word' at all.

These examples show that to make the reality of democracies visible, we should examine how we use the word in different languages. And we could ask: Should we even use the word democracy at all?

Making democracy visible

Clearly, the way to make democracy visible and to understand all the fabrics related to this one term is a very complex enterprise. It's like an open jigsaw puzzle: we put the pieces together and build a picture without knowing when it will be finished – or if it ever will be. This can be exciting and disturbing at the same time.

Some voices argue that the puzzle is already finished. These voices say it is crystal clear what the normative reality of democracy looks like (from a specific scholarly point of view), and that such a debate would only weaken the defence of democracy against authoritarian attacks. This of course implies that rediscovering and rethinking democracies using an open and democratic scientific approach is like opening Pandora’s Box. The consequence would be to stop these various approaches and to accept only one kind of democratic reality.

Keeping democracy visible

Such a decision might be a fallacy. The reality of practiced democracies has advantages and disadvantages. Therefore, two groups of people play a special role.

First, there are those who think of and experiment with various democratic innovations. These are scholars, members of civil society, politicians, 'normal citizens' and so on. They are trying to invent or reinvent institutions and practices which may improve the various shortcomings of real, existing democracies and they must convince those who want to stick to their 'known democracy'. Such scholars' work is based on old and new knowledge of how humans have been able to solve problems throughout history. These are the practitioners of democracies who form the reality of democracies through action.

Both practitioners and imaginers of democracy understand the dynamism of ideas, processes, and institutions

Second, there are those who imagine new democracies through speeches, texts, or art. These are also scholars, members of civil society, politicians, 'normal citizens' and so on. Their aim is to create an ideational space; a multiverse of democracies, of 'unknown democracies'. These are the imaginers of democracies who form the reality of democracies through thinking.

Both the practitioners and the imaginers of democracies are relevant to make and keep democracies visible. They understand that ideas, processes, and institutions have been dynamic throughout human history. Thus, it is important not simply to hold on to them. Rather, we must keep rethinking them to preserve their essence, whatever that may be. Only in this way can democracy remain visible, and be less likely to disappear altogether.

No.71 in a Loop thread on the science of democracy. Look out for the 🦋 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 Christoph Mohamad-Klotzbach
Christoph Mohamad-Klotzbach
Researcher, University of Würzburg

Christoph's research focuses on scientific concepts, the concept of democracy, political culture, statehood, political parties and survey research.

He tweets @ChristophMoham1

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