Research Paper on Modern Democratic Political Thought

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Outline

I. Introduction

II. Political Science and Modern Democratic Thought

III. Varieties of Modern Democratic Thought

A. Democratic Thought

B. Democratic Theory

1. Pluralist Theory

2. Participatory Theory

3. Liberal Minimalist Theory

4. Deliberative Theory

5. Agonistic Pluralist Theory

IV. Implications for Modern Democratic Practice

V. Directions for Future Research

VI. Conclusion

I. Introduction

Democracy is a venerable idea. Invented in ancient Greece more than 2,500 years ago, the idea of democracy continues to exercise a powerful influence over the modern mind. The theories and practices potentially included in the expansive category “modern democratic thought” are numerous. In this research paper, no attempt is made to be comprehensive. Rather, the field of inquiry is strategically narrowed to present a concise overview of modern democratic thought. The assumption that guides the organization of this research paper is that the reader is interested in academic political science and possibly curious about pursuing that interest further. Therefore, in this research paper, the ostensibly overwhelming topic of modern democratic thought will be tackled first by situating the concept of democracy within the context of American political science. Once our subject has been so contextualized, the functional distinction between democratic thought and democratic theory will be introduced. Next, the category of democratic theory will be subdivided into five categories, each representing one of the major theories of democracy extant today. The often fuzzy relationship between democratic theory and practice will be touched on and followed by some pertinent avenues for future research.

II. Political Science and Modern Democratic Thought

Systematic inquiry into democracy is as old as Aristotle’s investigation into ancient Greek constitutions and as recent as a research paper presented at the last meeting of the American Political Science Association (APSA). Since their Associations’ inception in 1903, American political scientists have been keenly interested in the subject of democracy. As chronicled by John G. Gunnell (2004), APSA has always consciously and unconsciously understood its mission in terms of democracy, whether it was to describe how democracy functioned in the past or how it functions in the modern present, to predict how it may function in the future, or to prescribe how it ought to function. The development of democratic theory as an academic subfield of political science co-evolved with that discipline. From the time of its founding, the theory of the state dominated the literature of what we would now call modern democratic thought. In the early 1930s, the theory of pluralism came into vogue. This theory was eventually supplanted by the theory of liberalism. In the 1950s, pluralism was (re)articulated in the context of internal methodological and ideological debates within APSA.

The debate among American political scientists is usually described as taking place between those who sought to transform political science into an empirical enterprise approximating the rigor of the natural sciences and those who saw political science as a more subjectively normative enterprise. Although this dichotomy is somewhat misleading, it adequately describes the disciplinary milieu in which American political scientists during the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s saw themselves. Subsequent theories of democracy developed in the 1980s onward have in one way or another been a reaction to the hegemony of pluralist theory. The theory of pluralism, developed chiefly by Robert A. Dahl (1956, 1961), reflects that debate in that it was understood to be an empirical theory of democracy, but also, somewhat paradoxically, to be employed for the very normative end of understanding and thus promoting American-style democracy at home and abroad. American political scientists have fundamentally shaped how scholars and nonscholars alike will think about democracy in the 21st century.

III. Varieties of Modern Democratic Thought

The distinction between democratic thought and democratic theory is admittedly a slippery one. It is, however, a distinction that can help us understand how political scientists approach the subject of democracy.

A. Democratic Thought

Democratic thought may be defined as a general category that encompasses less systematized political thinking. According to this definition, literature, historical works, political pamphlets, and sundry examples of loosely organized thoughts on popular participation in government may be described as democratic thought. Examples of democratic thought abound. The political thought of James Madison in the Federalist (Hamilton, Jay, & Madison, 1966) is an attempt to describe how the proposed U.S. Constitution of 1787 would be structured, explain how that Constitution would address the problem of faction, and predict how that Constitution would balance factional interest in a way that would enable the republic to endure. This is, no doubt, systematic political thinking of a kind. Yet even though democratic thought is often systematic, it does not usually measure up to the meticulous standards of modern political science. As every political science and U.S. history undergraduate knows, the Federalist is a collection of articles originally published in New York newspapers in an overtly political attempt to sway popular opinion in defense of the proposed Constitution. Modern political science demands empirical and analytical rigor and objective analysis. Therefore, while political thought is often seen to be connected to a very real political and therefore often ideological context, political theory—often with the prefix empirical or positive or analytic—is considered to be mainly free from ideological biases and more akin to pure scientific theory.

B. Democratic Theory

Democratic theory may then be defined as a more systematic attempt to describe or predict—often both—the behavior of a political phenomenon. Yet given the tension among political scientists as to their discipline’s ultimate objective, democratic theories are more appropriately conceived of as existing on a continuum between two poles: on one end empirical and on the other normative. Few political scientists would claim that a political theory can ever be purely empirical. Rather, the objective is to make it as value-free as possible. Still, democratic theory is generally more rigorously systematized than is democratic political thought. Predictably, then, democratic thought often serves as the inspiration for democratic theories. This is definitely the case with Dahl’s (1956) conversion of Madison’s political thought into pluralist theory.

Most contemporary democratic theorizing takes place within the academy and is the product of professional political scientists. A review of the literature on contemporary democratic theory will promptly reveal that five theories of democracy dominate the literature. While there are numerous theories of democracy, and much overlap among them, the five principal theories existing today are pluralist, participatory, liberal minimalist, deliberative, and agonistic. Every student who is intent on becoming conversant in modern democratic thought must understand the ways in which these five theories differ. Most of the theoretical debate among political theorists on topics of democratic theory involves one or more of these theories. Moreover, much of the debate among political scientists in one way or another involves these theories of democracy.

1. Pluralist Theory

In A Preface to Democratic Theory, Dahl (1956) formulates the democratic theory of polyarchy. Polyarchy is Dahl’s version of pluralism. Pluralist theory in American political thought and political science was not Dahl’s invention but rather has its roots in the political thought of James Madison. Building on Madison’s ideas, Dahl describes polyarchy as government by various groups in the context of a competitive political system in which each group is endeavoring to achieve its narrow objectives. The elementary tenets of polyarchy are basic citizen rights, including the right to vote (including self-government, majority rule, and political equality), freedom of expression and organization, a system of institutional checks and balances, a competitive electoral system with at least two political parties, and the right and ability of citizens to control the political agenda. Dahl subsequently illustrates how polyarchy functions in the American context in his classic study Who Governs? Democracy and Power in an American City (1961).

What is significant about Dahl’s work is his attempt to develop an empirical style of democratic theorizing consistent with the tenets of the positivistic behavioral approach popular at the time. Dahl assessed the state of democratic theory in the 1950s to be insufficient because there was no consensus as to the objective of democratic theory. Was the objective to describe or predict or shape political behavior? Dahl clearly stated his intention in A Preface to Democratic Theory (1956) to critically evaluate the two strains of democratic theory evident in American political history, the Madisonian and the pop ulist, and, highlighting the weaknesses of those descriptive theories, develop an empirical theory of democracy. Yet evident in much of Dahl’s Preface is a mixing of objective analysis and a normative defense of polyarchy. Dahl’s definitional characteristics of polyarchy reflect this. That Dahl identifies voting as a basic right of any authentic polyarchy is not necessarily unusual. But his recommendation for direct citizen control of the political agenda is somewhat inconsistent with pluralist theory; it is inconsistent because pluralists presumed that the political system (i.e., the rules of the political process) allowed citizens indirect control of the political agenda through their representatives, who, the pluralists assumed, would always act in their constituents’ best interests. Dahl is attentive to the plight of any minority— racial, economic, and so forth—that is shut out from the political process, and he seems to tacitly endorse non- “legitimate” participation in order to achieve access to that process. Dahl attempts to have it both ways: to be an objective political scientist and a partisan of the polyarchic American political system. This combination produces a pronounced tension in his work during the behavioral period. Given the academic context, critics were apt to attack this contradictory character of Dahl’s Preface.

During the 1960s and 1970s, the theory of polyarchy was thoroughly and effectively criticized. By the late 1970s and early 1980s, both Dahl and his collaborator Charles E. Lindblom had modified their theories. Lindblom (1977) argued that a key axiom of polyarchy was erroneous. Taking cues from neo-Marxist critics, Lindblom argued that the pluralist theorists of democracy were naive in assuming that powerful groups, especially big business, did not exert disproportionate influence over the political process. The “privileged position of business” in the polyarchical system enables corporations to disproportionately influence the political decision-making process on matters that often have profound consequences for the entire society. Correspondingly, Dahl (1986, 1989) acknowledged defects in the early theory of polyarchy. The dilemma of polyarchy is that it is a theory that recognizes the right of individuals and their organization to be independent and autonomous, but it also is aware that they may take advantage of that opportunity to serve their private interests, often at the expense of the public good. It seems clear that Dahl sought to address a key defect in the theory of polyarchy, namely, the assumption that all individuals and groups were roughly politically equal and could not subvert the public good without expecting an equally powerful countervailing response from other groups. It is increasingly obvious to Dahl that the individuals and groups that most needed to be controlled in defense of political equality and democracies were corporate officials and corporations. Dahl (1986) argued in A Preface to Economic Democracy that control over corporate enterprise in the United States ought to be in the hands of ordinary citizens. This would ensure their political and economic independence, which are both prerequisites for political and social equality and, hence, democracy.

As a testament to its enduring allure, the pluralist theory of democracy has been modified once again. Advocates for the “new pluralism”—chiefly William E. Connolly (Campbell & Schoolman, 2008) and Chantal Mouffe (Laclau & Mouffe, 1985; Mouffe, 2000, 2005)— argue that although various aspects of the “old pluralism” are valuable, a new conceptualization of the theory that modifies it in light of postmodernism, poststructuralism, critical theory, and feminist theory is now needed (see the account of Mouffe’s agonistic pluralism below).

2. Participatory Theory

The theory of participatory democracy has roots in the direct democracy of ancient Greece. Unlike proponents of the pluralist theory of democracy, who conceived of citizenship and political participation in terms of voting, interest group membership, and other conventional modes, participatory democratic theorists envisioned political participation in a much more expansive sense. Carole Pateman’s significant book published in 1971 marked the first comprehensive articulation of the theory of participatory democracy. Building on the political thought of J.-J. Rousseau, J. S. Mill, and G. D. H. Cole, Pateman contrasts participatory theory with pluralist theory and argues that active participation enables citizens to self-develop their defining rational capacities, as well as engendering positive psychological benefits, including feelings of political efficacy. Additionally, Pateman argues that a participatory society requires that the scope of the term political is extended to cover spheres outside the national government.

Accordingly, Pateman (1971) describes the system of workers’ self-management in Yugoslavia. Pateman intimates the potential social, political, and economic benefits of participatory democracy by offering this exemplar of a political system in which the industrial sector of society has been relatively democratized and citizens have been educated and empowered by the democratic participation they engage in at the workplace. The workplace, as Pateman argued, was thought to be a sphere in which existing undemocratic power structures could be supplanted by worker ownership and democratic decision making. Participatory democratic theorists argued that democratic participation conceived of in a broader way would produce myriad benefits unrealizable by conventional pluralist modes of democratic participation. These benefits included the following:

  • Psychological benefits: Human beings would be able to realize their full potential.
  • Political benefits: Citizens would experience a kind of empowerment that would enable them to break out of the apathy that seemed endemic to many political scientists in the 1950s.
  • Social benefits: The “private sphere” of society, namely, home and family life, which was considered outside the political sphere, would be democratized.
  • Economic benefits: The dangers that inequalities especially economic inequalities pose for democracy are acknowledged and addressed via workers’ direct control over their productive activities.

C. B. Macpherson (1977) further articulated the theory of participatory democracy by proposing a participatory parliamentary or congressional structure. Similar to Pateman, Macpherson argues that that the goal of participatory democracy is to enable members of the society to self-develop as human beings and as citizens while working toward a just society. Whereas Pateman made a case for participation in the workplace, Macpherson seeks to democratize already existing traditional political institutions. He envisions a hybrid of direct and representative democracy organized as a pyramidal system, with direct democracy at the foundation and delegate democracy at each level above. Although Macpherson is far from convinced that such a system is without its problems, he is nevertheless optimistic because the base of the pyramid rests on a firm foundation of direct democracy in the neighborhood and workplace. Thus, despite the inevitability that the further one travels up the pyramid, the less direct democratic participation, the system remains directly controlled by the citizens who are actively participating at its base. Delegates would be authorized to act in the peoples’ stead at higher levels of the pyramid, but they would be subject to recall if they did not act according to the people’s will. Political parties would likewise be subject to increased control by citizens.

Benjamin Barber’s (1984) Strong Democracy remains the most comprehensive statement of participatory democratic theory. On a philosophical level, Barber argues against the need for any transcendental foundations for participatory democracy. On a practical level, he develops a comprehensive theoretical model of a participatory polity. Barber reenvisions a participatory democracy to encompass all sectors and modes of political society. His vision is similar to, if more nuanced than, both Pateman’s and Macpherson’s. The theme of expansive participation is expounded on by Carole Gould (1988), who argues that democratic decision making can and should transcend the political sphere to include economic and social life, too. Nonetheless, although books on participatory democracy were being published in the early 1980s, by this time political scientists were losing interest. Increasingly, the participation in participatory democracy was understood in a more limited, deliberative sense. Therefore, today the deliberative theory of democracy is regularly conflated with participatory democratic theory. As we shall see momentarily, deliberative democracy does involve citizen participation, but it is a mode of participation that is less comprehensive and largely restricted to traditional political sectors of a society.

In spite of attempts at revitalization, the theory of participatory democracy has been superseded by liberal minimalist, deliberative, and agonistic theories of democracy. Although participatory democracy has not completely vanished from the literature of political science, it is ever more challenging to locate democratic theorists who actively further it by reiterating its normative principles, theorize participatory institutions, and search for evidence in support of its feasibility. According to Boaventura de Sousa Santos (2005), in the past decade, the practice of participatory democracy has increasingly become manifest around the globe. This is especially the case in South America. As described by Leonardo Avritzer (2009), the proliferation of participatory institutions in Brazil intimates that participatory democracy is viable. Despite the dearth of interest among American political scientists, it is intriguing to speculate about what they might learn by studying contemporary international manifestations of participatory democracy. Given the participatory trends in Brazil, a renewal of participatory democratic theory may be on the horizon.

3. Liberal Minimalist Theory

The appropriate text to begin is with Kenneth J. Arrow’s Social Choice and Individual Values (1962). Arrow’s is the seminal work of social choice theory. Although he does not address political issues directly, he identifies disturbing issues that trouble democratic theorists. Arrow’s famous impossibility theorem, or Arrow’s paradox, addresses a fundamental problem encountered by any political system that requires three or more choosers, or voters, to register their preference from a list of three or more alternatives in the formulation of public policy. Arrow presents a formal proof logically demonstrating the impossibility of creating any effective aggregation device. At the core of that proof is the second issue of cyclical majorities preference pattern. If we make the reasonable assumptions that voters have divergent preferences and that the issue that receives the majority of votes will win, the theory of cyclical voting reveals that the order in which issues are voted on will determine which issue wins. No matter what aggregation device is used, and no matter how fair the system of aggregating individual preferences is, the procedure will always yield an irrational result. Therefore, any attempt to amalgamate the individual preferences of voters into rational social policy is bound to fail.

The preeminent exemplar of the influence of Arrow’s thought on democratic theorizing is William H. Riker’s Liberalism Against Populism (1982). Riker is an influential proponent of rational choice theory in political science and a fervent critic of direct democracy. Understandably, then, his analysis of democracy originates from that specific methodological angle of vision. Riker evaluates the implications of social choice theory generally—and Arrow’s paradox specifically—for democratic theory and practice. In Riker’s view, democracy refers to both an ideal (participation, liberty, and equality) and to a method or procedure for aggregating individual preferences into collective social polity (voting). It has been assumed that the democratic ideals of participation, liberty, and equality could be achieved via the expression of the general will or common good through voting. But is this practically possible? Riker asserts that this important question has never been effectively addressed, but he also thinks that this vexing question can be answered by applying the analytic theory of social choice to democracy.

Riker (1982) begins his analysis with an assumption consistent with the rational choice theory principle of methodological individualism. According to Riker, citizens expressing their preferences at the ballot box are the necessary if not sufficient condition for democracy. Riker is quick to point out the irony. Voting is necessary for democracy, but unless it is simple majority voting between two alternatives—which it rarely if ever is—democracy becomes problematic (Arrow’s paradox). Riker expands on Arrow’s point by emphasizing the problems of strategic voting and agenda setting. Strategic voting occurs when a voter endeavors to use his or her vote in such a way as to render the final outcome of an election contrary to what it would have been if all voters had cast their ballots honestly. Riker uses the example of a plurality system in which a voter who favors a third-party candidate strategically votes for his or her second choice with the intent of defeating the major party candidate he or she opposes. Riker argues that this kind of strategic voting is a universal and “ineradicable” problem. Agenda setting is an equally vexing problem. Power to set the agenda is often exercised by party elites and occasionally by ordinary citizens. One example of agenda setting is the selection of candidates or issues that are presented to the voters. Often voters have little say in this preelection selection process, which—as Arrow and Riker note—is necessary for voting to function and yet also highly undemocratic. Because strategic voting and agenda setting are next to impossible to eliminate, and because they render voting results inaccurate and “manipulated amalgamations” rather than “true amalgamations” (Riker, 1982, p. 238) of the voters’ will, voting in most democratic political systems is inherently unfair and violates the principles of liberty and equality.

If we assume that voting is the “central act of democracy” (Riker, 1982, p. 5), as Riker does, we understand why he distinguishes between “liberal” and “populist” interpretations of voting. Voting is a protective devise employed by citizens to protect their rights from various forms of tyrannical and antidemocratic encroachment. The liberal minimalist does not assume that there is a “general will” or “common good” that is expressed by the people at the ballot box. Rather, democracy is a method by which citizens may exercise control over their leaders, thus preventing tyranny and preserving liberty and political equality. Furthermore, the liberal interpretation of voting is also consistent with the rational choice approach in that the means are considered rational and normatively valuable, but no judgment is made about the ends. The features of the liberal theory of democracy and voting are brought into relief when juxtaposed with its populist counterpart. The populist argues that participation in politics means participation in formulating and enacting legislation. Far from a negative function, the populist—who in Riker’s view naively assumes that the majority will not tyrannize— argues that participation is necessary for liberty. Indeed, liberty is the product of that participation, rather than, in the liberal view, only a means by which to protect it.

Riker’s (1982) solution to the problem of democracy and Arrow’s paradox is the rejection of populism and the embrace of liberalism. Why must populism be rejected? As we have already noted Riker’s theory of social choice suggests that it is impossible for the popular will to be amalgamated into a clear policy direction by voting. Instead, in a sleight of hand, Riker replaces the practice of majority voting with the idea of the popular will. There is, then, no possibility of majority tyranny because there is no majority to tyrannize the minority. This explains why Riker offers no real examples of majority tyranny. Only in an election in which the “issue dimensions are restricted” (Riker, 1982, p. 241) to allow citizens to choose between two binary issues, candidates, and the like, can populist democracy be considered viable. However, as Riker asserts, the manipulation of the political agenda necessary to reduce the voting process to a binary contest has already undermined the populist process. In other words, someone else—an elite of some sort—has stepped in and selected the two issues or candidates from a wider array.

Riker’s (1982) rational choice approach drives him to the conclusion that populism is not dangerous, and neither is it tenable. But Riker does not give up on democracy altogether. Can liberalism avoid Arrow’s paradox? The answer appears to be yes if by democracy we mean populist democracy, but the answer would appear to be no if by democracy we mean liberal democracy. Riker solves the problems of democracy raised by social choice theory by defining democracy as either liberal or populist, and then demonstrating how social choice theory renders only liberalism defensible. Riker dismisses the populist vision of democracy as “empty,” inconsistent,” and “absurd,” while praising the liberal version as the only kind of democracy that is practically possible. Liberal democracy is viable because, unlike populism, liberalism requires voters only to choose between two competing issues, candidates, or officials.

Gerry Mackie (2003) has recently written the most thorough and well-argued defense of democracy against the Rikerian social choice critique. Mackie argues that Riker mistakenly assumes that various enduring problems of modern democracy are insurmountable. Social choice theorists such as Riker unfairly stress the logical possibility of voting cycles, strategic voting, agenda control, and the other problems associated with aggregating preferences, rather than their empirical probability. In other words, Riker has based his defense of liberalism against populism on the theoretical and logical possibility that voting cycles, strategic voting, and agenda control will in fact occur. Riker cites a number of examples drawn from U.S. political history in an attempt to show that the logical possibility of voting cycles, strategic voting, and agenda control have actually occurred. Mackie defends populist democracy by carefully examining the historical examples Riker cites in support of the social choice critique. He argues that Riker’s evidence, when carefully examined, does not support his conclusion that populist democracy is impossible. Mackie demonstrates that at key points in Riker’s argument, logical and factual errors are made that skew the results in favor of the social choice critique.

4. Deliberative Theory

The theory of deliberative democracy emerged in the 1980s and matured in the 1990s. Deliberative democracy is seen by many political theorists as a replacement for the overly utopian participatory theory and as a response to the rise of the liberal minimalist theory of democracy. Jürgen Habermas (1984, 1987, 1989, 1996) is considered the philosophical father of deliberative democracy and is acknowledged as the thinker most responsible for reviving the emphasis on deliberation. Specifically, Habermas attempts to develop a theory of communicative action, the objective of which is to enable citizens to reach consensus over their shared reality and the norms that guide their actions. Ideally, communicative action would produce mutual understanding among citizens about their views of the world. The value of this process ought to be obvious to any student of democratic theory. Seeking to couch his theory in universal terms, he argues for a “transcendental-pragmatic” (Habermas, 1990, p. 130) method. He argues that this approach will free communicative action from any dependency on any specific culture or moral intuitions rooted therein. The transcendental pragmatic approach is then used to justify a “discourse theory of ethics” whereby the “ideal speech situation” (Habermas, 1990, p. 130) is theorized in which citizens are assumed to be willing and able to deliberate according to the rules inherent in language, and political judgments are made on the grounds that all participants in the deliberative process would, if they could, accept them.

On close inspection, it becomes clear that the central issues of the deliberative theory correspond to the core issues of the liberal minimalist theory. These core issues have to do with consensus over a common good, the aggregation of preferences, the source and malleability of those preferences, and the source(s) of legitimation of political procedures and of the political system as a whole. At the heart of the liberal minimalist theory is a conception of citizens as passive consumers who exercise control over their leaders by voting, and it understands the political process as a battle for power between competing interests instead of an effort toward a common good. The deliberative model is designed to encourage citizens to actively participate in the political process by seeking consensus about the common good in a public forum. Another assumption of the liberal minimalist theory is that citizens vote according to their preferences. Thus, the primary purpose of a political system is to aggregate preferences through some kind of voting procedure. But the question as to the origins of voters’ preferences, how they are formed, and whether they are fixed or mutable is often ignored by liberal minimalists. Deliberative democrats cite this as a fault in the liberal minimalist theory. To counter that defect, they theorize about the process by which preferences are formed. Deliberative theory assumes that a common good can be identified through citizen deliberation. Consequently, when citizens do register their preferences in the voting booth, the legislation that results can be seen as more than a mere registration of individual preferences and rather as a recognition and affirmation of a common good to which citizens each sublimate their private wills.

Habermas’s theory of communicative action is central to the theory of deliberative democracy, but it is also a problematic theory. The contentious assumption at its core is the claim that consensus among persons with divergent worldviews can achieve consensus on fundamental social and political norms. Such consensus requires the identification and justification of various universal moral principles that participants will freely consent to live by. These principles include the assumption that all citizens are free, equal, willing, and able interlocutors who are actively seeking consensus regarding social and political norms. Habermas derives these principles from his presuppositions about human language and communication. Thus, he argues that human beings implicitly consent to those norms when we seek to understand one another. It is here that Habermas’s theory runs into difficulties that continue to beleaguer deliberative democrats. The question remains, on what grounds can we assume that citizens will agree on those critical social and political norms?

Another persistent weakness of Habermas’s theory of deliberative democracy is inattentiveness to institutional application. Indeed Habermas recognizes this too, and thus Between Facts and Norms (1996) is, at its core, an attempt to show that the theory of communicative action and the theory of discourse ethics are inherent in human reason and language and thus provide deliberative democratic institutions with a transcendental-pragmatic foundation. Yet Habermas fails to articulate a persuasive plan for the institutionalization of deliberative democracy or to identify a sociological dynamic that makes deliberative democracy a historical possibility. In fairness to Habermas, institutional embodiments of his democratic theories are occasionally explicitly addressed. Even so, Habermas’s recent democratic theorizing offers at best only an attenuated vision of a deliberative democratic polity. Moreover, his work has done more to shift the debate in democratic theory further away from democratic practice, which is ironic, given his theories’ concern with democratic practice.

One of Habermas’s goals is to offer an irrefutable philosophic justification of democracy. Habermas argues that the principles of democracy are inherent in the rational structure of language and thus emphasizes the identification of philosophical foundations above the identification of a sociocultural, historical dynamic that would enable deliberative democracy. In so arguing, Habermas strives to situate democratic principles beyond public debate. This is problematic. Habermas theorizes a model of democracy in which debate about social norms is at the very core. Nevertheless, it appears that the norm of rationality and its linguistic expression via democratic deliberation are beyond debate. Indeed, as Habermas asserts, language itself demonstrates, in an a priori way, that such principles of democracy are transcendently given. Hence, Habermas is unwilling to subject some truth claims to debate—the claims of neo-Nazis, for example—because they violate the democratic principle. If Habermas were a democratic pragmatist in the tradition of John Dewey or Richard Rorty, he could not in good faith make such exceptions. But because Habermas does, he is compelled to justify his exceptions, with questionable success.

5. Agonistic Pluralist Theory

Mouffe (Laclau & Mouffe, 1985; Mouffe, 2000, 2005) is a radical democratic theorist and ardent critic of liberal minimalist and deliberative models of democracy. She is motivated by the belief that older versions of pluralism and of participatory, liberal minimalist, and deliberative theories of democracy are inadequate substitutes for the radical theories of democracy associated with Marxist and social democratic projects. Mouffe refers to her alternative to these theories as agonistic pluralism. Mouffe’s style of theorizing is in the tradition of Marxist, socialist, and neo-Marxist critical theory, but it has also been shaped by postmodern and poststructuralist thinkers. Most significant among these are Foucault, Derrida, and Wittgenstein. While agonistic pluralism is still neither as developed nor as influential as the liberal minimalist or deliberative theories, it has become increasingly influential during the first decade of the 21st century.

Theorists of agonistic democracy understand politics to be driven by conflict and not consensus. Their emphasis, then, is on encouraging and preserving social diversity rather than attempting to sublimate or eliminate various identities by means of the illusion of a common good or general will. They are not reformist but instead seek the radical democratic transformation of society through the formation of “counter hegemony.” Because the agonistic model of democracy draws on the postmodern model of society, agonistic democrats view politics as a sphere of intersections between myriad identity, lifestyle, and cultural discourses. All of these represent a challenge to the hegemonic discourse of neoliberalism, by which Mouffe means a political ideology that affirms the sovereignty of the market and privileges its logic in all spheres of society. Such a challenge ought to be encouraged, for it is the only process by which hegemonic discourses can be challenged and undermined. The objective, however, is not the substitution of one hegemonic discourse for another but the creation of a politics of radical indeterminacy and pluralism. In the radical pluralist public sphere envisioned by agonistic democrats, diverse social, cultural, and political forces coalesce around the values of cultural recognition, direct democracy, and performative resistance to the hegemonic discourse. Such resistance is perpetual and reflects the inherent agonistic character of human nature and of politics. It should not be denied or avoided but recognized as a necessary condition for radical democracy.

Mouffe posits an important conceptual distinction between “the political” and “politics” that helps to elucidate her critique of contemporary liberal democracy and the value of the agonistic theory of democracy.Whereas “politics” refers to a political system and sundry processes associated with politics, “the political” is a defining feature of human beings and of their societies. The concept captures and expresses Mouffe’s conviction that antagonism is a defining feature of every human society and therefore of every “political” practice and institution. Mouffe repeatedly acknowledges and employs the “political” as an essentially contested term. She argues that most political thinkers in the modernist Enlightenment tradition have attempted to eliminate this antagonism by appealing to universalistic rationalist principles that produce consensus. For Mouffe, such an attempt is misguided, probably impossible, and certainly dangerous for democratic politics because conflict is the product of identity pluralism, which remains a valuable and an inherent facet of the human condition. Thus any attempt to eliminate conflict from the democratic process can only endanger that pluralism.

Mouffe’s critique of liberal democracy, encapsulated in what she refers to as the democratic paradox, may be summarily illustrated by recounting her critique of Rawls’s and Habermas’s contributions to deliberative democracy. Mouffe concentrates on two issues that illustrate the weaknesses of deliberative theory. The first shortcoming is its attempt to banish value pluralism—a valuable source of agonism—from the public sphere. This is a prerequisite in achieving Rawls’s and Habermas’s goal of democratic legitimacy via some form of consensus. Mouffe argues that in attempting to do so, both Rawls and Habermas consign pluralism to a nonpublic sphere to insulate politics from its consequences. The consequences would be the reduction and/or elimination of conflict and agonism, which Mouffe, as noted, argues is the defining quality of “the political.” The second shortcoming is that both authors attempt to reconcile ancient liberty with modern liberty. From Mouffe’s agonistic perspective, the attempt to reconcile these two liberties denies the paradoxical character of modern democracy and an elemental tension between the logic of democracy and the logic of liberalism.

Agonistic pluralists argue that this tension is ineradicable, nor is it a problem. This move on the part of Habermas and Rawls is merely an ill-fated attempt to insulate politics from the inevitable effects of value pluralism. The objective of agonistic democracy is “the negotiation of that paradox” (Mouffe, 2000, p. 93). Consonantly, the goal of the agonistic democratic theorist is to acknowledge this inherent reality and theorize institutions that will not attempt to eradicate this tension but rather will “tame” it in a way that preserves a healthy element of conflict for democratic politics while controlling what is too destructive. Once “the political” has been acknowledged and democratic politics theorized with its exigencies in mind, the next logical step is to begin to consider how the political will manifest in “politics,” that is, what institutions will serve to tame the agonistic.

Critics have highlighted at least three significant problems with Mouffe’s agonistic pluralism. One criticismis that the legitimacy of an agonistic pluralist polity requires a collective consensus on its fundamental principles. This critique suggests that agonistic pluralism shares the same basic flaw that Mouffe identifies in the deliberative theory of democracy. Another criticism involves Mouffe’s recent argument that parliamentary democracy is the ideal political institutional embodiment for an agonistic pluralist polity. Thus, Mouffe’s endorsement of parliamentary democracy seems oddly status quo. Perhaps the most trenchant critique of Mouffe’s agonistic pluralism is made by Aletta Norval (2007). Although receptive to the postmodernism and poststructuralism that shapes Mouffe’s theory of democracy, Norval argues that Mouffe’s theory is excessively abstract and does not engage with the ordinary practices and grammar of political life. The solution is a modification of agonistic pluralism that Norval refers to as aversive democracy. Despite these criticisms, agonistic pluralism will likely solidify its place as a major theory of democracy and thus influential in modern democratic thought.

IV. Implications for Modern Democratic Practice

Despite the tenuous connection between democratic theory and practice, there are examples of praxis. Like the proverbial chicken and egg, it is not always possible to discern whether a particular theory of democracy has in fact influenced subsequent democratic practice. It is likely that democratic theorists draw on democratic practice to invent and refine their theories at least as often as—and probably more often than—their theories serve as the blueprint for novel forms of democratic practice. Placing the inherent difficulties with such speculations aside, several specific examples illuminate how contemporary democratic theory continues to affect modern democratic practice.

One example is the study of democratic transitions. Scholarly interest in understanding the problems associated with the political transition from an authoritarian regime to a constitutional democracy has exploded. After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989, and more recently after the removal of the authoritarian regime in Iraq, political scientists working in the subfield of democratic transitions frequently draw on modern democratic thought in an attempt to determine what form of constitution should be instituted in a particular country. For the most part, it appears that people in charge of constitution building find the liberal minimalist model most suitable. Although in some instances, political scientists have concurred, the field of modern democratic thought offers multiple alternatives to choose from. In the end, scholars often have very little or no direct control over what theory of democracy guides constitution building. Nevertheless, modern democratic thought enables us to explain and critique regimes that are identified as being democratic.

A second example involves one of the most contentious concepts employed by democratic theorists: participation. Democratic participation can take many forms: legislating, protesting, interest group membership, letter writing, and so on. What one democratic theorist may judge an exemplary act of democratic participation may be dismissed by another as inadequate or perhaps even dangerous. The various theories of democracy examined in this essay suggest that participation remains a key concept in modern democratic thought. Those who envision a democracy with high levels of participation across all spheres of society draw on the ideas of participatory democratic theory to challenge regimes that appear insufficiently democratic or clearly antidemocratic. Is voting a sufficient mode of participation in a democracy, as the liberal minimalists argue? Or, as the deliberative democrats would have it, are deliberation, discussion, and debate necessary for democracy? Then again, perhaps the participatory democrats have it right when they argue for an expansive theory of participation that includes the workplace and the household. The concept of participation as elaborated in sundry theories of democracy continues to inspire citizens to justify and criticize their democracy—as well as prompting them to act.

A third example of democratic theory influencing democratic practice is the deliberative polling technique developed by James Fishkin (1991). Deliberative polling, as the name implies, derives from the theory of deliberative democracy formulated by Habermas. In the early 1990s, Fishkin proposed that citizens be randomly selected from the population and assembled to hear experts speak about soon-to-be-voted-on issues. Participants would then discuss and debate among themselves before casting their vote. Evidence supports the claims of deliberative democrats that the deliberative procedure helps citizens formulate preferences that aim at the common good. Moreover, because the sample of citizens is representative, we can generalize from the particular to the general and conclude that how the sample size votes would be how all citizens would vote—if they had a similar deliberative opportunity. Recently Fishkin and Bruce Ackerman (2005) have proposed the idea of “deliberation days.” The authors recommend that citizens be provided at least 1 day a year during which they fulfill the deliberative democratic ideal: essentially a holiday for democratic deliberation. Although these proposals are relatively experimental, they hold great promise for modern democracy.

V. Directions for Future Research

There is no shortage of research projects in democratic theory awaiting future graduate students. Here is a selection of broad research topics that political scientists should explore further during the next decade.

One topic for future research involves the pluralist theory of democracy. The question that political scientists should be investigating is to what extent theory accurately describes modern democracies. Whereas the criticisms of the neopluralists were, for the most part, integrated into the theory of pluralism, the advocates of the “new pluralism” have argued that the theory of pluralism must be further modified in light of new philosophical insights. Just how that might be done is a line of inquiry that needs to be pursued. Second, the growing number of participatory institutions in Brazil and elsewhere around the globe portends a revival of participatory democratic theory. That theory can then be modified in light of the wealth of new data now available on participatory democracy. Third, some cursory research has been done regarding the potential synthesis of deliberative democracy and liberal minimalist democracy. More work needs to be done to highlight how deliberative procedures might engender the sort of public interest voting that minimalist theorists of democracy argue is not possible. Fourth, although a fair amount of research on deliberative polling has been conducted, a detailed investigation into its potential to deepen democratic practice is still wanting. Moreover, just what those mechanisms and institutions would look like needs further articulation (e.g., deliberative polling, deliberation days, and citizen juries).

Indeed these mechanisms designed to enhance (deliberative) democracy are but a few of many imaginative ideas that suggest a fifth area of research involving various democratic innovations, including participation budgeting, minipublics, direct legislation, e-democracy, and so on. And while such innovations often garner the most attention, the older and often less provocative idea of political representation—a sixth area for future research—is currently experiencing a renaissance that will likely gain in momentum over the next several decades. Finally, although agonistic democracy has been sufficiently theorized, the sorts of institutions that might be associated with that theory have yet to be articulated. Whereas a parliamentary form has been suggested by Mouffe, the case has yet to be made as to how agonistic parliamentary institutions transform antagonism into agonism. These are but a few of the numerous possible research topics. In short, there is much work yet to be done.

VI. Conclusion

Democracy continues to be a subject of supreme interest among political scientists. Consequently, the state of contemporary democratic theory is vibrant and will likely remain so indefinitely. It should be obvious now that students interested in pursuing a career as a political scientist (especially in the United States, but internationally as well) ought to keep in mind the discipline’s enduring interest in democracy. Prudent students will make a serious effort to become conversant with modern democratic thought. This entails becoming familiar with the various theories of democracy that have been formulated by political scientists and theorists over the past 50 years and understanding the contexts in which they have developed and the ways in which they conflict and overlap. The five most prominent theories, pluralist, participatory, liberal minimalist, deliberative, and agonistic, all contribute to our understanding of modern democratic thought. Because democracy is at the heart of American political science, one or more of these theories will likely enter into a political scientist’s research. Whether a student chooses to focus on comparative politics, international relations, American politics, public administration, political theory, or one of the relatively new subfields on the ever-expanding list, the topic of democracy will inevitably arise. In the 21st century, the defining characteristic of a competent political scientist undoubtedly will be a comprehensive understanding of modern democratic thought.

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