🦋 On not rescuing an abandoned science of democracy

Launching this series, Jean-Paul Gagnon made the case for ‘a database of democracy’ to grasp the conceptual complexity that other theorists have, he suggests, generally skirted around. Matthew Flinders disputes whether a taxonomical approach really is the answer to the question ‘What is democracy?’

I like words, I like butterflies and I have a passing interest in democratic politics. With this in mind, Gagnon's recent ABC Religion & Politics article on words of democracy caught my interest but left me with a strange sense of concern. Why?

Gagnon’s article – and his subsequent piece on The Loop – are as modest as they eloquent. They tackle a simple question: What is democracy?

Seeking the sunlit uplands

The problem, Gagnon suggests, is that democratic theorists have skirted around this question. Instead, they have generally provided only partial answers. And these answers fail to offer the ‘total texture’ in the sense of ‘a synthesis of everything that exists on the scientific record’.

Gagnon takes this notion of ‘total texture’ from the work of Sir Isaiah Berlin. Berlin was famous for his use of animalian metaphors (foxes and hedgehogs, no butterflies). This partiality and limited ambition have, it appears, frustrated Gagnon for some time and fuelled an unexpected intellectual shift.

In 1987, Giovanni Sartori described the literature on the theory of democracy and fragments as ‘splendid fragments in splendid isolation’. In response, Gagnon wishes to unite these fragments in an integrated approach: ‘a singular theory for democracy that could explain its total texture’. And here come the butterflies… For Gagnon, the answer to ‘What is democracy?’ lies in the world of words.

by retracing Gagnon’s steps back down his methodological mountain, we can establish whether his epistemological ‘sunlit uplands’ really exist

Collecting words therefore becomes the method through which Gagnon seeks to offer a topographical mapping of democracy. It is this knowledge of the full terrain rather than (to paraphrase Sartori) ‘fragments of fragments’ which, for Gagnon, delivers, if not a singular theory, then at the very least a ‘data mountain’.

This exercise is only worthwhile if the view at the top is truly revelatory. With this in mind, it's worth retracing Gagnon’s steps back down his methodological mountain. By so doing, we can establish whether his epistemological ‘sunlit uplands’ really exist.

A leap of intellectual faith

Point one. A Sartorian logic, positivist in approach, plainly underpins Gagnon’s approach. It is Sartori who responded to W. B. Gallie’s famous emphasis on essentially contested concepts with an emphasis on ‘taxonomical infolding’, ‘moving up-and-down’ the ‘ladder of abstraction’ to avoid ‘conceptual stretching’. This is an approach that embraces naturalist impulses and insights. As Mark Bevir and Asaf Kedar have argued, almost without question, this transfers them across into social-political life.

Such positivist assumptions, here defined through a focus on language and words, are key to producing simple answers to complex questions such as What is democracy?

Gagnon, ‘impersonating the biologist now’, makes the case for a taxonomical infolding of descriptions of democracy through comparison with the study of butterflies. Clearly, he is taking a major leap of intellectual faith. Can lepidopterology really transfer so easily to the realm of democracy?

Using taxonomy to 'mend democracy'

Point two. Is such an approach novel or likely to deliver fresh insight? Understanding the existence of different types, tools and systems vis-à-vis democratic governance may help identify how to mend the threadbare fabric of democracy. But charting and listing different descriptions, words and names? I’m less convinced.

I am not entirely convinced that simply listing democracy's descriptions and names can mend its threadbare fabric

Mending democracy in disconnected times – as Carolyn Hendriks, Selen Ercan and John Boswell have recently shown – demands an awareness of innovation, energy and disruptive forces. But would a science of democratic language create such sparks?

It’s exactly ten years since David Collier and Steven Levitsky published their seminal article, Democracy with Adjectives. Their research applied a Sartorian framework to the hundreds of democratic sub-types they identified. So, where is the evidence that theirs is an approach in need of rescuing?

Seeking democracy's 'total texture'

Point three. Collecting words and building databases will undoubtedly contribute to knowledge, but will it deliver the ‘total texture’? The answer, paradoxically, is provided by Gagnon through his distinction between democracy’s different ‘forms of existence’.

The first of these forms is embodied in human behaviour, culture and interpretation. It is fluid and complex, messy and mixed and therefore, as Gagnon notes, ‘difficult to capture’. The second, Gagnon suggests, ‘proceeds from the first but is exclusively concerned with what peoples leave behind. Words’.

This foundational focus on words provides the ‘form of existence’ through which the realm of relationships, the influence of ideas and the colouring of context is somehow grounded and made amenable to study. In so doing, Gagnon transforms the messy realities of democratic life into stable objects.

Spontaneous variation, not imposed pattern

Words may well provide a map of the total conceptual landscape, but in terms of a singular theory, I am less convinced. This suspicion is rooted in the work of Isaiah Berlin which Gagnon himself cites, yet his is a rather different interpretation of what Berlin meant by ‘total texture’. ‘For the total texture is what we begin and end with’, Berlin wrote in Concepts and Categories. In Berlin’s writing I sense a degree of doubt as regards naturalist assumptions:

 Since no solution can be guaranteed against error, no disposition is final. And therefore a loose texture and toleration of a minimum of inefficiency, even a degree of indulgence in idle talk, idle curiosity, aimless pursuit of this or that without authorization – ‘conspicuous waste’ itself – allow more spontaneous, individual variation (for which the individual must in the end assume full responsibility), and will always be worth more than the neatest and delicately fashioned imposed pattern

Political Ideas in the 20th Century, edited by Henry Hardy, pp.92–3

Jean-Paul Gagnon is undoubtedly a leading democratic theorist of international repute. His work is intellectually agile and his writing as bold as it is fresh.

But we are living through times increasingly characterised by democracies failing and falling into autocracy, despotism, and disrepair. It is therefore not an overstatement to say that we need to show our best approximation of democracy’s ‘total texture’. What might be overstated is to suggest that we need to build a new data mountain to do this.

This article is the fifth in a Loop thread on the science of democracy. Look out for the ðŸ¦‹ over coming weeks and months 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 Matthew Flinders
Matthew Flinders
Professor of Politics, Department of Politics and International Relations, University of Sheffield

Matt's research interests include modes of depoliticisation; governance and public policy; legislative studies with a focus on parliamentary scrutiny of the executive and the extended state; majoritarian modification and constitutional reform; territorial and functional decentralisation; the politics of patronage and public appointments; and a set of broader issues that rotate around the theme of political disengagement.

Follow him on Twitter @PoliticalSpike

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