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Plato and Democracy

On Democratic Theories

Huong Nguyen considers current trends in democratic thinking.

Someone made a provocative and skeptical comment on democracy to me: “‘Democracy’ is a meaningless term. Communists have referred to their political systems as ‘peoples’ democracies’. Though often forgotten today, fascists and Nazis claimed that their regimes rested on ‘the will of the people’. Even among those today who subscribe to some version of liberal democracy, there is no agreement about what ‘democracy’ means or entails. Libraries are filled with volumes defending competing versions of democracy – deliberative, participatory, elite-based, and so on. Countries that call themselves ‘democratic’ are characterized by mindboggling institutional diversity – presidentialism vs parliamentarianism, federal vs unitary systems, and so on. So we’re probably better off discarding the term ‘democracy’.”

I’ll be disagreeing with this idea that democracy gets in the way of productive thinking about contemporary politics. On the contrary, because democratic theory continues to evolve, it effectively elucidates contemporary political practices and constructively contributes to finding solutions to contemporary political challenges. Democracy’s practical realization has never been perfect, but it thrives on imperfection. So I will first discuss the core meanings of ‘democracy’, before explaining how democracy should be best seen as a process, and that the competition of ideas is a normal state of affairs in this process. I will then show that democratic theories have contributed to productively thinking about contemporary politics. I conclude that discarding the term ‘democracy’ is not only unrealistic, but also undesirable.

The Meaning of ‘Democracy’

Democracy is not meaningless. Its meanings are certainly contested, but the core spirit remains constant. To John Keane, democracy is the “self-government of equals” (The Life and Death of Democracy, p.865, 2009). This implies that democracy is both a form of government and a way of life that upholds liberty and equality as its core values.

Concerning the form of government, in fact the original Greek word demokratia means the people (demos) rule (kratos). But who are the people? And how do the people rule? These are perennial matters for debate among democratic theorists and practitioners – hence the various democratic theories and institutional arrangements.

As a way of life, democracy implies a commitment to self-determination and equality. First, members of a political community commit to participate in the democratic process by voting to determine the laws and policies that affect their lives. The goals and motivations of their political participation may vary, but there is a shared attitude: maintaining control over their own lives and refusing to leave matters that profoundly affect their lives solely to the discretion of political leaders and bureaucrats. Second, a democratic way of life means a respect for other peoples’ political equality, and hence a respect for each individual’s liberty and autonomy in everyday interactions. A democratic attitude encourages people to hold one another in mutual respect, so that “all relationships, no matter how small or intimate the context, would be permeated by the principle that each person [has] equal weight” (Anne Phillips, Engendering Democracy, 1991, p.160). A democratic attitude also means being able “to put our own wishes and needs in perspective, to create some momentary distance from our enthusiasms and preconceptions so as to recognize the significance of what others have to say” (ibid, p.161).

So defined, democracy should be best seen as an ideal and a process: democracy is an idea in action. However, with democracy there are multiple ideas in action. In ancient Athens, Plato despised the notion of democratic equality – the capacity of the citizens to self-govern – and favored a hierarchical social order in which some are destined to rule and the rest are destined to be ruled. In the Italian Renaissance, Marsilius was optimistic about popular sovereignty and elective government; but Machiavelli placed the ‘reason of the state’, that is, protection and expansion of the state, above the rights of the individual and private morality. In contemporary democratic theories, too, we have elitist democratic theorists such as Schumpeter or Lippmann, who have no faith in the capacity of the people to govern; we also have participatory or deliberative theorists such as Carole Pateman, who believe in the educative, transformational and productive potentials of democratic participation and deliberation by the citizenry, and so on. The competition of ideas in this way should not mean democracy’s weakness or meaninglessness. Indeed, such competition is the essence of democracy, the normal expression of the free intellectual environment that democracy nourishes. It is also necessary to keep democracy relevant to changing social conditions.

Contemporary Democratic Responses

A ‘model of democracy’ refers to “a theoretical construction designed to reveal and explain the chief elements of a democratic form and its underlying structure of relations” (David Held, Models of Democracy, 2006, p.6). This means that a democratic model always has two elements: what the notion of ‘democracy’ entails; and the “underlying structure of relations” – the ambient economic, social and cultural conditions that support the construction of democratic ideals. Because of the embeddedness of democracy in the context of human sociopolitical life, I do think that various models of democracy can help us to think productively about contemporary political challenges.

Hands up everybody who wants democracy!

There are at least two major challenges of contemporary politics for which different models of democracy have tried to offer solutions: the tension between economic liberty and equality; and the question of how the people rule in complex modern society, especially in the era of communication technology and globalization. (The merit of the models that I will discuss is not the focus of my argument. What I want to show is that these models of democracy are about contemporary politics.)

The first challenge of contemporary politics is the tension between the ideals of economic liberty and social equality. The Occupy movement and the controversy over the electoral campaign finance regulation in the United States are examples of this tension. And democratic theorists have not stayed aloof concerning the problem of the inequality of distribution of resources and its implications for the inequality of political power. For example, Robert Dahl notes in A Preface to Economic Democracy (1975) that in America, contrary to de Tocqueville’s worry that equality would threaten liberty, economic liberty has produced an inequality of distribution of resources, and thus, of power; and that this threatens political equality, and the core meaning of ‘democracy’ (‘the people rule’) because the minority controls economic resources and so has the capacity to dominate, even appropriate, the political decision-making process. Dahl argues that nevertheless a democratic economic order is possible, and that the new models of self-governing enterprises he proposes – enterprises that would be controlled and managed by their employees – would help alleviate the vast inequality of the distribution of resources.

Dahl’s proposal can be seen as both democratic and constructive, because he builds his approach from an existing framework of liberal democracy. He does not propose a communist egalitarianism, for he rightly points out that that sort of outright redistribution of resources cannot be undertaken without undermining democracy. Instead his solution to vast economic inequality aims for something achievable within the framework of a liberal democracy which values private ownership rights and the free market. The government’s role would be limited to assisting the transition process, with loans and tax reductions, for example, or by implementing experiments in which the government takes over typical firms in several industries and sells them to employees to transform the firm into one of Dahl’s self-governing enterprises. This moderate yet experimental economic model is not evidently incompatible with liberal democracy. Even Frederich Hayek, one of the keenest defenders of liberal democracy, acknowledges that the government may intervene where the market fails to provide services for the common good (see Law, Legislation and Liberty, Vol. 3, 1979, p.41). Hayek also agreed that it is desirable to deprive the state of the power to protect big corporations when the latter are in the wrong sort of trouble (pp.82-3).

On the second challenge of contemporary politics, the question of how the people are to rule, our universal suffrage era has posed new challenges to government by the people: How can we ensure that the vast diversity of goals and interests of the electorate is well represented in the democratic process? And is periodic election the only desirable or possible mechanism of self-government?

Democratic theorists have not failed to keep up with the fast development and complexity of modern society. Just as in any period of the history of democratic ideas, different models offer diverging answers. Theorists such as Schumpeter and Lippmann argue that in this complicated world, the masses, being irrational, selfish, lacking interest in public affairs and ignorant of national and international matters, are incapable of governing (see for example Lippmann’s The Phantom Public, 1927). These authors place their faith in the elite to guide the public: either political leaders and skilled bureaucrats (Schumpeter) or political scientists (Lippmann); and the role of the public should be limited to choosing leaders or supporting political parties with their votes.

Some other theorists, such as Jürgen Habermas and John Dewey, would criticize this pessimism as failing to grasp the nature of the public or the interconnection between the citizenry and the state. In Habermas’s words, pessimistic views of public potential erroneously see the people either as “one encompassing macro subject” or as “many isolated private subjects” – either as “a collective actor that reflects the whole and acts for it” or as “individual actors [who] function as dependent variables in system processes that move along blindly.” (‘Three Normative Models of Democracy’ in Democracy and Difference, 1996, p.28). For Habermas, modern society is better seen as a ‘decentered society’ in which the “peripheral networks of the political public sphere” – various civic associations and spontaneous social groupings – exist side by side with and are sometimes tied to conventional representative political institutions. Thus, the focus of the democratic process, and of democratic institutions, should shift to the more informal networks of public life. The power of the public in this set-up is generated through communication – communication within one group, between different groups, or between the public groups and representative political institutions.

Dewey similarly rejected the ideas of the public as isolated individuals and the state as no more than a mask for the pursuit of private interests (see The Public and Its Problems, 1927, pp.21-22). For Dewey, individuals always act together: individuals esteem the consequences of and actively seek out joint actions, and thus form a political public. Again communication is what makes political life possible; an aggregation of isolated individuals and purely private interests cannot account for a political community.

Further Democratic Models

Participatory democracy and deliberative democracy models follow this pluralistic, associative view of the public, and also recognize the power of civic associations. Participatory theorists such as Carole Pateman argue that only if people learn to democratically participate at the local level will they be able to participate more effectively at the state level (see her Participation and Democratic Theory, 1970). Deliberative theorists such as Seyla Benhabib continue this line of argument, but focus more on specifying the conditions of public deliberation that might ensure democratic equality. For example, the ‘proceduralist’ model of deliberative democracy that Benhabib suggests privileges “a plurality of modes of association in which all affected can have the right to articulate their point of view” (Democracy and Difference, p.73). These associations can be political parties, citizens’ initiatives, social movements, voluntary associations, consciousness-raising groups, etc. Benhabib argues that such a pluralistic public sphere already exists, and that her model only seeks to elucidate contemporary democratic practices. Similarly, Jane Mansbridge argues that a ‘unitary’ model of democracy, where political deliberation among equals is possible, exists in small scale institutions (Beyond Adversarial Democracy, 1983).

Another deliberative democracy theorist, Joshua Cohen, also claims that his model emerges from observation of the challenges of contemporary politics (see ‘Toward a Deliberative Model of Democratic Legitimacy’, in Democracy and Difference). He claims that in areas of regulation in which the state encounters difficulties when acting alone, civic associations can play a constructive role through deliberation and cooperation. Regulatory domains where the state finds it difficult to act alone include workplace regulations (it’s difficult for the state to monitor compliance); environmental regulation (lack of appropriate means to achieve approved standards); industry standards on products or training processes (the state by itself cannot set appropriate goals); and issues of urban poverty, local economic development, or social services (the state here needs the cooperation and coordination of private actors). Instead of relying solely on the state to provide the solution, or on associations acting in isolation to, it is better to bring together people and groups who share some common concerns but who remain uncertain about how to address them, in order to try to find acceptable solutions. Cohen calls this strategy ‘associative democracy’.

One of the latest models of democracy, John Keane’s ‘monitory democracy’, confirms the inevitability of associative democracy in today’s “communicative abundance” world: the development of information technology makes long distance communication easier as well as faster, and this facilitates a ‘watchdog’ function of society upon representative institutions. And principles of representative democracy are taken up not only by government bodies or political parties, but in all spheres of social and political life by “a whole host of non-party, non-electoral and non-parliamentary bodies.” Keane claims that most recent major policy initiatives do not emerge from conventional politics, that is, parliamentary politics or political parties, but rather from civil society initiatives.

In today’s globalized world, as David Held notes, because the nation-state is no longer the sole center of democratic theory and practice, there are also new challenges of defining relevant political communities and appropriate accountability mechanisms. As he says, “there has been recently a further ‘internationalization’ of domestic activities and an intensification of decision-making in international and transnational frameworks” (Democracy and the Global Order, 1995, p.135). This displaces power centers away from and perhaps above the traditional nation-state. Accordingly, Held sketches out “a theory of the place of the state and democracy within the international order” (p.136).

Keane’s model of monitory democracy and Held’s model of cosmopolitan democracy are proof that democratic theory continues to contribute to the elucidation of contemporary political practices in the fast changing, globalizing world.


The multiplicity of models of democracy should not be seen as evidence of intellectual fantasizing. These models have been built from common intellectual building blocks, yet have enough innovation to make democracy continue to be relevant. The models are all within the framework of representative democracy; all they’ve tried to do is to make sense of new structural relations in society and their implications for democratic politics. These new structural relations could be the more decentered society that underlies the deliberative democracy model, the new information technology and actions of civil society that inspire the monitory democracy model, or the interconnected processes and changing power structures of the global system upon which the cosmopolitan democracy model is proposed.

Because of their intellectual relevance, these democratic theories can be helpful for thinking productively about contemporary politics. To discard the term ‘democracy’ is neither realistic nor desirable. It is unrealistic, because democracy has become a widespread and wanted form of government. It’s also undesirable, because the core meaning of democracy – the aspiration to live life in community with equal respect and self-determination for all – remains a noble value. So the usurpation of the term ‘democracy’ by twentieth century dictators should not be a reason to deny democracy altogether. Instead, it should serve as a lesson from history: that when only one model of so-called ‘democracy’ is allowed, there is in fact no democracy.

That said, the aspiration for democracy as an ideal is one thing; how democracy is actually implemented in a particular context is another matter. The focus should therefore be, first to clarify the core principles of democracy, then to adapt democracy to different and changing contexts. In other words, our intellectual labor should continue to invent “new ways of ensuring equal and open public access of citizens and their representatives to all sorts of institutions previously untouched by the hand of democracy” (John Keane, The Life and Death of Democracy, p.xxix). As I have demonstrated, democratic theorists have been doing just that.

Each of the various democratic models has its merits. They should and can be used to complement each other in different areas of contemporary social and political life.

© Huong Nguyen 2014

Huong Nguyen is a PhD candidate in Law and Democracy and a Research Fellow at the Center for Constitutional Democracy, Indiana University Maurer School of Law, Bloomington, Indiana.

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