For centuries, democracy has held many meanings, but they have not been collected and studied as a whole. This, argues Jean-Paul Gagnon, leaves us with only a partial knowledge of democracy. It's one that limits our options for democratisation in an increasingly authoritarian world
In 1950, Robert Morrison MacIver wrote that 'there are few books to which we can turn… that seriously try to enlighten us about the nature of democracy'. It was from this need that two important books were published. These were Robert Dahl’s Preface to Democratic Theory and Henry Mayo’s Introduction to Democratic Theory.
Yet in the introduction to his book, Dahl claims he has 'made no effort to survey all or most of the traditional theories about democracy'. And Mayo makes a similar disclaimer, in the preface to his introduction, that he did not 'present and analyze the medley of democratic theories, noting their differences and points of agreement'.
there are few books to which we can turn… that seriously try to enlighten us about the nature of democracyRobert Morrison MacIver
This is an unusual way to introduce anyone to anything. Such an approach may have satisfied Dahl’s and Mayo’s interests. But it did not introduce the public to what Isaiah Berlin would term the 'total texture' of democracy. Rather, their efforts introduced the reader only to partial textures.
Giovanni Sartori notes in The Theory of Democracy Revisited that this research convention, which Dahl and Mayo emphasised, has left us with no singular theory of democracy; that the study of democracy is in a shambles; and that the field of democracy studies is a 'largely single-issue minded' one that 'leaves us with splendid fragments in splendid isolation'.
The most promising way of approaching the total texture of democracy is through words, and the publications in which they appear. 'Representative democracy', for example, appears in tens of thousands of publications; 'Waldorf democracy' in about four. We can find the meanings of democracy, and the practices they foster, within those publications.
We cannot get this information from asking people because they don’t know about democracy’s words: black, white, brown or maroon democracy, pirate democracy, Tlaxcallan democracy, and several thousands more.
Most of these words, their meanings and practices, haven’t yet entered into global, public, cognition. They are not essential to conventional studies and training, or to popular understandings and practices of democracy.
The most promising way of approaching the total texture of democracy is through words
The only way to navigate successfully this complicated terrain is to build separate databases. This will help us understand the meanings and practices embedded in each of these different words.
We must create this mountain of data so anyone can explore it in response to the question 'What is democracy?'. We would then be able to say, perhaps: 'Well, this grouping over here is all about protecting people from arbitrary power... That selection over there is entirely concerned with staying close to the ideal of material equality and redistributive justice... This lot — now they’re rather interesting — are trying to raise the quality of communication between people in person and online so we can reach better decisions together as honeybees do… But did you know of this rare version from pre-Columbian Tlaxcallan? Priests trained the politicians and they worshipped the god Tezcatlipoca who, in turn, revered those persons who put the need of their polity, of their peoples, before their own? Imagine if we did that!' And on it goes.
Without this mountain of data, our answer to the question 'What is democracy?' is strictly tied to ourselves and what we personally know — which means our answers are arbitrary.
Robert Dahl recognised this at the outset of his publishing career, as did Henry Mayo. When they set out to tell us what 'democracy' is all about, they realised that the answers were endless. The only way to argue in the face of an undefined (but a still real and out there, somewhere) mountain of data would be to craft a justifiable, yet personalised and therefore arbitrary, definition of it.
That is all we have in the study of democracy: a litany of arbitrary fragments of knowledge about it. These fragments are of differing qualities and justifications, built from intuition, from personal observation, from convention. We have not, to date, even come close to approximating the ever-growing mountain of data in the form of words that authors across the ages have left behind.
Democracy’s words lie scattered across the world. They are mostly unknown and forgotten
The point to all of this is that a biologist can, for example, describe all known butterflies, locate them on a map, and point out where they suspect new butterflies might be. Our community, in the study of democracy, cannot do the same. All we can offer to the public, to governments, to businesses, to ourselves, are arbitrary, fragmentary, understandings that some of us have claimed to be democracy — or worse, fragments that have been mistaken by their audiences as democracy itself.
Democracy’s words lie scattered across the world. They are mostly unknown and forgotten. We need to gather them up; label, organise, and digitise them. Ultimately, we must give them a narrative, in precisely the same way that scientists go about their work.
Basic research on the lexicon of democracy encourages democratic innovation. This could be lunar democracy’s requirement that we govern our largest satellite democratically. It might be Hélène Landemore’s theory of 'open democracy', which asks us to increase the 'democraticity' of all our institutions. The more words we know, the more democratic possibilities we have to work with.
In contrast, the fewer the words we know, the fewer possibilities there are to work with. This means a narrower, more constrained outlook on the utility and value of democracy. Hello authoritarianism. It should not be this way. We simply need to conduct our basic research.
This article is the first in a Loop thread on the science of democracy. Look out for the 🦋 over coming weeks and months to read more in our series