What is a democracy? – 04/07/2016

Just over a week ago, UK citizens and Commonwealth citizens resident in the UK have voted on a referendum on the question whether the UK should remain a member of the EU, or whether it should leave the EU. The outcome – 52% leave, 48% remain – caused turbulence in British and European politics. One of the questions currently under scrutiny in the British public sphere is: should Britain actually leave the EU as a result of this referendum? Legally, in the UK, a referendum is not binding, it is advisory. In principle, parliament can respectfully put the outcome of any referendum aside. But what is the democratic thing to do? Some say that ignoring the outcome of the referendum would be undemocratic. The people have spoken, and the majority have voted Leave. The democratic thing to do is to do what the majority says we should do, so therefore we should Leave the EU. According to this position, a referendum is a decision. In a democracy, the majority decides. And what the majority decides, should happen. To disrupt that process or to let any other principle than the majority principle decide compromises democracy and is a concession to a form of authoritarian, aristocratic tyranny. According to this view, a referendum is the paradigmatic democratic institution, and a direct democracy is always more democratic than a representative democracy. Proponents of this view might concede that a representative democracy is a workable alternative for practical considerations (it would be madness if we had to vote on each and every little decision), but in their eyes it nonetheless remains a compromise; the really pressing issues should be decided by means of a referendum, and the outcome should be decisive.

In the wake of the EU referendum in the UK, several challenges have been raised to this position. Some accept the claim that a referendum is indeed the paradigmatic democratic institution, but that this particular referendum did not meet the criteria because, so they argue, had been lied to and/or were unable to cast an informed vote due to lack of relevant information. They point out that many Leave-voters regretted their vote in light of new information or the withdrawal of promises made by political leaders. Others reject the democratic legitimacy of a referendum as such. They point out that a referendum is not the paradigmatic democratic institution, but that, instead, a parliament is. It is more democratic to choose experts who we trust to represent our values, views and interests in parliament, than it is for voters to decide directly on pressing matters. Our representatives in parliament thus have a mandate to make decisions on our behalf, and so they should, because they have access to the information necessary and the skills and people needed to navigate that vast amount of information, so we, the citizens, can all get on with our day jobs. This camp argues that our real interests and values have the best chance to find expression in laws and institutions in a parliamentary democracy rather than a direct democracy. Therefore, a direct democracy is less democratic than a representative democracy, according to this view.

Then, of course, there are others, such as Plato, Hobbes and Nietzsche, who reject the very idea of democracy as something worth striving to. They think that citizens should have no say in the governance of their society at all, because they are ill equipped due to lack of education (Plato), natural rivals in need of absolute authority for social stability (Hobbes) or weak herd animals who will follow demagogues if you let them, so best to let a superior elite lead the way (Nietzsche).

But what is at stake here? What makes something more or less democratic? In times like these, it may be a good idea to review three rival conceptions of democracy. It will become clear that people might have quite different things in mind when they make an appeal to a democratic ideal.

I will discuss three alternative conceptions of democracy: aggregative democracy, deliberative democracy and radical democracy. In each of these three views, democracy is a mode of governance. It describes the way in which groups of people make decisions on issues of common concern. These decisions are binding, affect individuals in the group or the group as a whole and require cooperation. The central idea that characterises a democracy, as opposed to other forms of governance, is that those who are affected by these decisions also have a say in the decision making. Each conception has strengths and weaknesses, but ultimately I personally place myself in the deliberative democracy camp. Feel free to disagree.

Aggregative democracy

In his essay “Democracy Is Not Intrinsically Just”, Richard Arneson states that he takes “the idea of democracy” to be the following:

In a society governed democratically, elections determine what laws will be enforced and who will occupy posts that involve political rule. In these elections, all adult members of society have a vote, and all votes are weighed equally. All adult members are eligible to run for political office in these elections, or can become eligible by some non-onerous process such as establishing residency in a particular state or federal division. Majority rule determines the outcome of elections. Political freedoms including freedom of association and freedom of speech are protected in the society, so the group or faction that currently holds power cannot rig election results by banning or restricting the expression of opposing views. (Arneson 2004, p.46)

This view of democracy is an aggregative conception of democracy. There are various aggregative theories of democracy, some are majoritarian (what the majority wants or votes for should be done) and others are utilitarian (what satisfies the best results for the largest number should be done). What these theories have in common is that they focus on preferences: the better preferences of citizens are taken into account (in equal measure, most theorists would add), the more democratic the governance. Politics is thereby characterised by competition of conflicting views, preferences and interests and, in the case of indirect democracy, competition for administrative power. This model is analogous to the model of a market; candidates for administrative positions compete for the vote of citizens like producers compete for the money of consumers.

The aggregative model is appealing because it describes democracy as a reasonably fair procedure for the management of conflicting preferences that, if followed, always leads to an outcome. Let me introduce this aggregative model by means of an example. Imagine a group of seven friends, who agree that they will go on holiday together for a week this summer. There is consensus on every aspect of their holiday, except the destination. The friends want to come to a democratic decision. They start by expressing their preferences. Some have a destination in mind, such as Sweden or Mallorca, others express preferences like “as long as there’s sun and sea” or “somewhere quiet, with impressive natural landscapes”. Perhaps the friends try to persuade each other to support their proposal, but at some point, they vote, and the destination that suits the preferences of the majority wins. If necessary, this process can be repeated, but in the end the friends will have a holiday destination.

Insofar as the preferences of the friends are given equal weight and they grant each other an equal chance to persuade others, this process is fair. But it is not necessarily any fairer than an elitist decision making process. Suppose one of the friends – Jennie – is better equipped, in terms of talents, virtues and expertise, to do the decision making. She finds out what her friends really prefer to do on their holiday, and she happens to know best which destination suits those preferences. As long as she gives each friend, including herself, equal weight, it would be no less fair to leave the decision making entirely to her. Also, because she has better insight in the matter, the result might be better for all concerned than the result of a vote.

The problem with the aggregative model of democracy is that it is not intrinsically valuable or just. If Jennie is better able to decide on behalf of all her friends and find a holiday destination that will suit the group best, then it would be rational for her friends to just trust her with that task and leave her to decide, forfeiting their democratic right to have a say in the matter. With the aggregative model in mind, it is easy to see that an aristocratic model, whereby an elite makes the decisions, might lead to better decisions. Just as we have good reasons to leave science to the experts, why not leave our political decision making to an expert elite as well? Precisely for that reason, Plato argues that a democracy is not a good idea; we should leave the task of governing to the philosophers instead, he says. They know better what’s in the best interest of all citizens than the citizens themselves.

Moreover, an aggregative democracy is vulnerable to the objections raised by Nietzsche and Hobbes. In a democracy like that, one can only win a ruling position by winning the votes of the people. And people are easily swayed by the wrong sort of reasons voiced by a demagogue, a charismatic individual who cleverly plays the suppressed emotions of large groups of people in order to advance his or her own position. This also holds the danger of causing social instability, which is what Hobbes feared so much, that he thought a democracy was very dangerous and should be rejected in favour of a totalitarian autocracy.

It is fair to say that the aggregative model is what most people mean when they have a democracy in mind.

Deliberative Democracy

Advocates of a rival conception of democracy – deliberative democracy – point out a further flaw aggregative model: it lacks answers to important moral questions about fair governance. Aggregative democracy is consistent with existing unequal power relations, and gives no standards by which to decide whether or not such power relations are fair (Gutmann and Thompson 2004, Forst 2005 and 2011). This makes aggregative democracy vulnerable to problems like the tyranny of the majority, where the preferences of the majority cause rights violations or oppression of minorities.

In an aggregative democracy “there still is an unacknowledged competition between morally grounded human rights and the principle of popular sovereignty.” (Habermas 1996, p.94)

As individuals, each of us is due moral respect. Human rights are an expression of that (we’ll leave aside the discussion of whether rights are indeed the appropriate expression of our moral worth, for the moment). We are due moral respect, Immanuel Kant famously argued, because we are autonomous beings. We are the kind of being that can think for itself and decide what we want to do with our lives and what kind of person we want to be. We are also responsible for our own actions. That means we are not entitled to use others for our own gain, because others have as much a claim to their own autonomy as we do. Autonomy, for Kant, is the foundation for all morality.

Autonomy means that if anyone aims to coerce us, they’ll have to justify this to us, otherwise it isn’t moral. If the justification for coercion is based on good reasons, then we would, if we were rational, agree with it anyway and that would mean we no longer need to be coerced. The same counts for state coercion, Habermas argues. Our autonomy means that we are owed a justification when the state coerces us.

But according to Kant every human being could, were they truly rational, sit in an armchair and reason for themselves what the best decisions would be. Kant, therefore, could not really explain why a democracy requires the real involvement of the citizens instead of a perfectly rational and benevolent dictator. According to Habermas, what should really guide our justifications for political decisions is what he calls the force of the better argument. The force of the better argument has an irresistible effect on every rational human being, but it can only have that effect in the context of open, unobstructed, intersubjective communication. It is only in a discursive context that citizens are invited to take an impartial stance, to transcend their own particular preferences and interests and to consider what might be the best thing to do from a moral point of view. Such communication takes place in the public sphere: not only in parliament, but also in the media, at schools and universities, on the bus and around the dinner table.

For this reason, Habermas argues, a society is more democratic if there are institutions that facilitate this deliberation about matters of public concern in the public sphere. An independent press, affordable public education and the right to demonstrate are examples of such institutions. The aim of public deliberation is consensus, even if that is unattainable in practice and only a regulative ideal. Since a consensus would mean that a vote is no longer necessary, Habermas is not a fervent proponent of voting as a decision making process, although he does acknowledge that it is sometimes necessary in the absence of a consensus. All the same, in Habermas’ eyes there is nothing democratic about a referendum as such.

Other proponents of the deliberative model of democracy are John Rawls, Amy Gutmann, Dennis Thompson, Cheryl Misak and Rainer Forst.

Radical democracy: agonistic pluralism

Chantal Mouffe shares with deliberative democrats the concern that the aggregative model is too thin. However, she contends that the deliberative model, too, has its flaws. Her critique of deliberative democracy is twofold. Firstly, she argues that deliberative democrats assign too much weight to rationality and underestimate the ineradicable role of power, passion and conflict in the nature of the political. Secondly, she argues that deliberative democrats still fail to resolve the tension between democracy and justice, and that we should relinquish the hope that this tension can be solved. As an alternative, Mouffe argues that a satisfactory model of democracy should let go of the ideal of consensus and embrace conflict and pluralism (Mouffe 2000, Laclau and Mouffe 1985).

According to Mouffe, the nature of the political is pregnant with power relations, passions, emotions and conflict. These factors are constitutive of the social relations that enable political action and collaboration, but also political struggle. Political practices, including deliberative practices, cannot be abstracted from these factors; these non-rational factors cannot be eliminated. To acknowledge this is to acknowledge a number of consequences: (a) consensus cannot be achieved, because identity-constituting factors are contingent, they differ among groups and individuals, and they cannot be transcended, (b) an ‘ideal speech situation’, in which actors are guided by no force other than the ‘force of the better argument’, is not only practically impossible, but conceptually impossible; the very social relations needed to be able to speak of any communicative context at all, are constituted by various forces other than the force of the better argument. An imaginary context in which such powers and passions are bracketed is abstract beyond the point of intelligibility; it becomes meaningless and can therefore not serve as a normative ideal.

Based on the same logic, Mouffe maintains that the tension between justice and democracy cannot be resolved, but must instead be acknowledged in a satisfactory theory of democracy. In my view, Mouffe is in danger of contradicting herself here.

According to Mouffe, an inevitable part of politics consists of us/them-constructions. The key question for democracy theory is then not how to dissolve these constructions, but how to enable these constructions in such a way that they are compatible with democratic practice:

Envisaged from the point of view of “agonistic pluralism”, the aim of democratic politics is to construct the “them” in such a way that it is no longer perceived as an enemy to be destroyed, but an “adversary”, i.e. somebody whose ideas we combat but whose right to defend those ideas we do not put into question. This is the real meaning of liberal democratic tolerance, which does not entail condoning ideas that we oppose or being indifferent to standpoints that we disagree with, but treating those who defend them as legitimate opponents (Mouffe 2000, p.15).

The question is: why would we? Why would we tolerate the adversary rather than oppress the enemy? Why would we treat our agonistic opponent as legitimate opponents, whose “right to defend those ideas we do not put into question”? I’d say: because that is just. Morally just. So ironically, by successfully solving the tension between justice and democracy, Mouffe proves herself wrong on this point.

The next question could be: why is it more just to treat your opponent as an adversary who has the right to defend her position, than as an enemy to be destroyed? Mouffe answers:

because we have a shared adhesion to the ethico-political principles of liberal democracy: liberty and equality. But we disagree on the meaning and implementation of those principles and such a disagreement is not one that could be resolved through deliberation and rational discussion. Indeed, given the ineradicable pluralism of value, there is no rational resolution of the conflict (p.15)

Since we have now seen that Mouffe commits to liberty, equality and the right to defend one’s position, and that she claims that democracy serves these values, I take it that justice and democracy are thereby not in tension.

Of course, there can be endless deliberation about how liberty and equality are best explained. Then we can also have conversations about how we can best institutionalise these ideals. There will be many alternative takes on these questions. Will we reach consensus? Maybe, maybe not. Perhaps we will reach consensus on some topics, but not on others.

The important insight Mouffe gives us, however, is that while we’re busy disagreeing about what the basic tenets of justice is, justice unfolds. It unfolds because our mode of disagreeing, of deliberating, constructing us/them relations with respect for “them”, passionately committing to values and acknowledging the right of others to passionately commit to conflicting values and so on, is just. It demands tolerance, it recognises the autonomy of individuals, equality and liberty.


Democracy is cultural. Societies can be to a greater or lesser extent democratic. Corruption in society is less democratic than transparency and trust is more democratic than suspicion. Dogmatism is less democratic than intellectual honesty and critical disagreement is more democratic than uncritical agreement. Transparency and trust and other virtues and institutions are not things one can ‘implement’ the way one can organise an election. Voting as such does not define a democracy. A society is not only democratic on the day the citizens vote, but it is democratic all year round. The way I treat you as a citizen can be more or less democratic. Democracy happens on the bus and at the family dinner table as much as in parliament.

The more democratic a society is, culturally, the better. I agree with Habermas that democratic culture is more just than undemocratic culture. Skills, virtues and institutions that encourage engaged rational deliberation among citizens are more democratic and therefore more desirable than practices that discourage such deliberation. The ability to take an impartial perspective is such a skill. We may not be able to bracket our ethical commitments, but we can certainly get better at answering questions like: “why should someone who does not share my ethical commitment be bound by this law?” I agree with Mouffe, however, that for these questions to arise, for us to take position and to be able to reflect on our position, we need an adversary. In this respect, we can compare democratic practice with a game of chess. Your opponent is truly an opponent and you do all you can to win the game and make her lose. But you both agree on the rules of the game of chess, and you need as many opponents as you can get hold of, and good ones indeed, if you hope to get better at chess. The democratic game, if you like, is all about finding the most justified laws. The special feature of the democratic game, however, is that every potential reason-giver you encounter can turn out to be an opponent. The game is never over.

And that, that is democracy.



Arneson, Richard, ‘Democracy Is Not Intrinsically Just’, in Justice & Democracy, ed. by Robert E. Goodin, Keith Dowding, and Carole Pateman (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), pp. 40–58

Benhabib, Seyla, ed., Democracy and Difference: Contesting the Boundaries of the Political (Princeton University Press, 1996)

Forst, Rainer, Das Recht Auf Rechtfertigung (Suhrkamp Verlag KG, 2005)

Gutmann, Amy, and Dennis Thompson, Why Deliberative Democracy? (Princeton University Press, 2004)

Habermas, Jurgen. Between Facts and Norms: Contributions to a Discourse Theory of Law and Democracy. MIT Press, 1996.

Laclau, Ernesto, and Chantal Mouffe, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics (London: Verso Books, 1985)

Misak, Cheryl, Truth, Politics, Morality: Pragmatism and Deliberation (London and New York: Routledge, 2000)

Mouffe, Chantal, ‘Deliberative Democracy or Agonistic Pluralism’, Political Science Series, Political Science Series, 2000




Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s