How Should We Think About Democracy?

Samuel Bagg—

The concept of democracy is critical to the Law and Political Economy approach, yet its precise meaning is not always clear. On the left, “democracy” often functions as shorthand for the opposite of whatever has most recently earned our wrath: be it oligarchy or neoliberalism, marketization or regulatory capture, technocracy or inequality. Even when the culprit seems to be democracy itself—as per the adage penned by Jane Addams—the solution is still more democracy. But what might this ambiguous demand really mean? This post surveys developments in my own field—democratic theory—in hopes of sharpening LPE thinking about this question.

Electoral Democracy as a Baseline

The first step is to understand the crucial yet limited role of formal democratic procedures—and here, the empirical research is sobering indeed. Political scientists have long observed, for one, that free and fair elections are perfectly compatible with all of the ills listed above, and scholars of political psychology, political economy, political sociology, and social choice theory have all helped to explain why. Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels have recently integrated much of this research in an important book called Democracy for Realists, concluding that elections will never produce responsive government. Even in the best of conditions, that is, persistent features of social life and human cognition will always render the idea of a coherent “will of the people” little more than a fairy tale.

Nevertheless, it is no accident that liberal democracies tend to be much better places to live than non-democracies. Accounting for their many limitations, for instance, Adam Przeworski traces the value of elections to the effects of orderly competition for power, while Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt offer all-too-relevant warnings about what happens when electoral competitiveness is undermined. Expanding beyond this focus on competitive elections, finally, Charles Tilly presents a compelling portrait of democratization in terms of the integration of trust networks into a high-capacity state.

Adjacent to this social scientific literature is the work of normative theorists who have taken its humbling lessons to heart. Recent work on representation by Lisa Disch, Michael Saward, and Laura Montanaro, for instance, transcends the naïve “principal-agent” model whereby elected officials take orders from constituents with consistent and well-founded preferences. Instead, these theories consider the dilemmas that arise when “representatives” must partially create their constituencies. Amid the precipitous decline of traditional political parties, meanwhile, theorists have begun to appreciate parties’ crucial role as both mediators of conflict and “agents of popular sovereignty.”

Others have articulated more comprehensive assessments of contemporary mass democracy. Though hardly complacent about their limitations, for instance, Ian Shapiro defends majoritarian institutions as a more reliable protection against domination than supposedly impartial elite-driven alternatives such as courts. Meanwhile, Pierre Rosanvallon emphasizes the importance of popular “vigilance” and “oversight” that takes place outside of elections, and Jeff Green develops a particularly creative account of the democratic power of spectatorship, whereby the people exercise sovereignty with their eyes rather than their voices. Building on these insights, my own work concludes that the real function of electoral democracy is simply to prevent various factions and elites from entrenching their power and capturing the state for themselves.

We must be careful to distinguish these accounts from the varieties of “minimalism” that earlier generations of democrats rightly rejected. Despite their real contributions to our understanding of elections, Joseph Schumpeter and other minimalists have tended to regard further democratization as ill-advised if not dangerous. By contrast, the purpose of much contemporary “democratic realism” is to enable a wider conception of democracy, writ large. By desacralizing formal democratic procedures, in other words, we allow a much broader range of actions to count as potentially democratizing—from the court rejecting gerrymandered districts to the organizer building oppositional community power. The key task for partisans of democracy, then, is to make tough choices between democratic priorities, deciding which of these avenues for deeper democratization are most promising.

Democracy as Deliberation?

Perhaps the most common approach over the last thirty years has emphasized deliberation. With roots spanning American pragmatism, the Frankfurt School, analytic philosophy, and civic republicanism, the theory of deliberative democracy maintains that a process of reason-giving among equal citizens lies at the heart of the democratic ideal. Evils such as oligarchy and technocracy thus represent deformations of this deliberative process, and ought to be addressed by proliferating deliberative institutions—a recommendation that has generated countless policy proposals and even some real-life reforms—as well as realizing the background conditions deemed necessary for deliberation on equal terms.

Of course, critics have long raised objections to the deliberative approach, and in recent years have begun to gain the upper hand. In practice, critics have shown, practices of reasonable deliberation can often advantage privileged groups, and they ultimately pose an inadequate challenge to entrenched power. At a normative level, therefore, deliberative theory diverts attention from more pressing demands to redistribute power, and the non-deliberative means often required to accomplish this feat.

These critiques should strike a familiar note with readers of this blog, where resistance to dichotomies between state and market (or public and private law) is a foundational commitment. Critics of the deliberative paradigm reject its focus on subjecting public power to collective decision procedures on similar grounds: i.e., that it obscures the many ways private power inevitably shapes our collective lives.

In their account of the “second republican revival,” for instance, LPE scholars Sabeel Rahman and Ganesh Sitaraman note a “fundamental shift”—vis-a-vis the first republican revival of thirty-odd years ago—“from virtue and deliberation to power and economics.” Yet this trend is not limited to republicanism: democratic theorists of all stripes increasingly see their proper scope as extending far beyond traditional electoral and deliberative institutions.

Beyond Elections and Deliberation: Dispersing Social and Economic Power

This is especially apparent in the call of realists like Green and John McCormick to develop and institutionalize a plebeian popular consciousness, as well as the emphasis on social movements adopted by John Medearis, Marc Stears, and Deva Woodly, and the studies of grassroots organizing by Jeffrey Stout, Laura Grattan, and Vijay Phulwani. All of these strategies aim at fomenting oppositional mobilization in one form or another: i.e., directly contesting the concentrated public and private power of elites by building countervailing sources of popular power.

Of course, such assertions of popular sovereignty against a predatory elite can invite “populist” threats that we are unwise to ignore. On Jan-Werner Muller’s account, however, anti-elitism becomes populist in the dangerous sense only when it is combined with anti-pluralism: i.e., vilifying one’s opponents as outside the scope of the authentic people. This standard enables us to distinguish democracy-preserving anger from proto-authoritarian resentment, and thereby also to rebut misguided fears about genuinely democratic movements.

Relatedly, democratic theorists have also turned their attention to the difficult balance that must be struck between expertise and popular participation. This centrally includes LPE’s own Sabeel Rahman, whose book steers a deft course between the twin dangers of technocratic “managerialism”—which is highly susceptible to capture by elite interests—and laissez-faire hostility to all regulation. By adopting a “structural” approach focused on limiting the concentrated power of particular firms and industries, while subjecting regulatory decisions to increased oversight by ordinary citizens and other stakeholders, he argues that we can safely turn the administrative state towards democratic ends.

This does not mean tightening the control of elected legislatures over administrative bureaucracies. As Rahman and other recent advocates conceive it, rather, citizen oversight represents an alternative mechanism for ensuring that public actors serve the public interest, usually as a complement to electoral competition. In particular, interest in using “sortition” or “lotteries” to staff review boards and other political bodies with randomly selected citizens has exploded in recent years.

A final trend that resonates with LPE concerns is the drive to democratize social and economic life more broadly. Most democratic theories are consistent with significant areas of life being organized along non-democratic lines—through hierarchical bureaucracies or decentralized markets, for instance—and some even emphasize the democratic potential of “exit” rather than “voice.” Yet as proponents of “economic democracy” have long insisted, power relations in the workplace are especially threatening to individual freedom as well as democratic culture. Without valorizing collective decision-making as the answer to every problem, therefore, we can appreciate that alternative schemes for ownership and control are especially desirable in this context.

Most generally of all, this means that the dispersion of social and economic power must be seen as fundamental to democracy—including not only the redistribution of wealth but also the elimination of white supremacy and other entrenched hierarchies. In classic LPE fashion, these demands confound political philosophy’s traditional separation between “substantive” matters of “justice” and the “procedural” concerns that are properly within the scope of democratic theory. Democracy requires electoral competition and other formal procedures, but they are not its only demands, and we cannot always grant them absolute priority.

Law, Political Economy, and Democracy

Where does this leave us, then, in terms of defining democracy? Many of the authors cited here develop sophisticated answers to this question, claiming to capture what democracy is really about. Perhaps a better lesson to draw from this survey, however, is not to overstate the importance of such conceptual definitions. Perhaps the work of democracy, in other words, just is about contesting concrete evils like oligarchy, marketization, and technocracy.

As Jed Purdy and David Grewal have written on this blog: “What would it mean to make economic and political life more democratic? One way toward an answer is by getting more precise about how they are now undemocratic.” Though it may be unsatisfying for partisans of philosophical abstraction, this strategy has the advantage of suggesting a diverse range of concrete remedies, rather than forcing us to deduce all democratizing action from a single ideal. It also lines up nicely with recent efforts to expand our conception of democratic thought to include non-Western sources.

On this model, indeed, contributors to this blog are already doing democratic theory. In uncovering how law entrenches elite power through everything from contracts and torts to gender violence and racial capitalism, LPE scholars catalogue its undemocratic features. And in articulating tactics for resisting these structural power asymmetries—ranging from administrative restructuring, tax policy, and procedural hardball to social movement engagement and legal support for organizers—they also proliferate new modes of democratic action.

My own view is that the key feature uniting democracy’s enemies is concentrated power—and that at the broadest level, therefore, democratizers should march under the banner of the dispersion of power. Others, of course, will prefer to locate freedom, equality, self-rule, or non-domination at the heart of the democratic ideal, and there are real issues at stake in a debate among these alternatives. Yet we should not overstate our differences. In practice, the demands of democratization are generated by an endless stream of concrete challenges that is unlikely to abate anytime soon. What matters most is how we answer them.


Samuel Bagg is a democratic theorist and postdoctoral fellow in Political Science at McGill University.

 Twitter: @samuel_e_bagg