Prepared for Presentation at the XXXIst Annual Meeting of the Finnish Political Science Association
Turku, Finland, January 14-15, 1999
Contemporary Democratic Theory as American Theory of Democracy Democratic theory today is very much an American endeavour. It has been mainly Americans who have been eager to justify democracy theoretically as well as to evaluate its success in other countries. To say this does neither diminish the European heritage of democratic thinking, nor does it deny that there are European scholars who write about democracy. But the discussion is framed in many instances by Americans. A good example is David Held́s much acclaimed treatise on Models of Democracy (1987). Beginning with classical democracy in Athens and after rampaging through centuries of development of democratic theory in Europe, Held finally focuses on contemporary theories of democracy, which are mainly American: competitive elitist democracy, pluralism, neo-pluralism, legal democracy and participatory democracy.
Of course one can argue that many of these theories are the product of European scholarship and political activity. Even Held looks at Max Weber as a generator of competitive elitism and takes Joseph Schumpeter as its main representative. And he discusses mainly the works of Carole Pateman, Nicos Poulantzas and C.B. Macpherson when dealing with theories of participatory democracy. But there is a difference. Many of these European thinkers have been critics of democracy or at least existing Western democracy. And although, for instance, Weber was a monumental thinker, he was more interested in power than in democracy. Many of these European theorists have also been influenced by Americans. Take, for exanple, Joseph Schumpeter, who at the time his "Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy" (1942) was published, was already an American citizen, professor at Harvard University and, as Theodore Lowi has noted, "the foundations (of the book, E.B.) were laid almost entirely by ordinary American political scientists" (Lowi 1985: xiv; cf. also Medearis 1997).
Social sciences in the 1950s and 1960s were almost totally dominated by Americans. These decades were also dominated by a theory of democracy which has been labeled as pluralism and which became accepted as the dominant paradigm above all in political science (Manley 1983: 368). So much so that the discussion about the nature of democracy often was waged between pluralists and its critics. The 1970s and early 1980s, on the other hand, were characterized by the emergence of neo-pluralism, theories of corporatism, marxist theories of the state and German critical theory, but these theories either put pluralism into a new form or concentrated on the critique of existing theories and practices of democracy. At the same time genuinely new ideas came again from the United States. Much of the new discussion reflected an American division between the Right and the Left. On the Right, Robert Nozick offered a philosophical justification for a minimalist state at the same time when public choice theorists, notably the so-called Virginia School, made other arguments for dismantling the welfare state (see, e.g., Mitchell 1988). On the Left, new participatory democracts built upon a growing practice of direct democracy in the United States (e.g., Barber 1984).
In the 1990s the growth of the information superhighway has given new ammunition for proponents of direct democracy. At the same time many of the critics of existing American democracy have been influenced by postmodernism which often has been blended with political demands for multiculturalism. So much so that today the discussion about multiculturalism very much defines the political and intellectual discussion in the United States (e.g., Melzer, Weinberger, Zinman, eds., 1998).
A preoccupation of Americans with democratic theory is an interesting question in itself. It is surely based on the heritage of America as the first new nation and on the idea of Manifest Destiny. The purpose of this paper is not, however, to analyse systematically the relation between American society and American democratic theory. It will mainly argue that the dominant ideas of American democratic theory are answers to the special nature of American society and politics, which has always been more open for different groups to advance their interests than European societies have thus far been. It is no wonder that the American political system has been conceptualized as pluralism. So much so that pluralism has often been discussed as it would be purely an American phenomenon, because no other country has so thoroughly aadapted pluralist theory (Graziano 1993). In this sense it is important to note that pluralism did not develop in the United States only after the Second World War, as often has been presented. The central ideas of pluralism can be found already in the 1920s and certain basic features of pluralism can even be traced back to James Madison and other Founding Fathers (Gunnell 1996).
Pluralism has been advanced in many forms, but one of the basic themes has been the problematic relation between interests of individuals and interests of society in democracy and how this relation affects the proper functioning of the political system. This problem is manifest today in the debate on libertarianism versus communitarianism and it is also an important part in discussions about multiculturalism. Although these debates are linked to problems of American society and can be understood only in their own context, it is important to be aware of them also in Europe. Because Europe is moving rapidly towards multiculturalism of its own and the American-like interest-based politics has already taken hold on the continent, pluralism in its many forms is more relevant than it has been earlier in explaining also European political processes.
A Model of Democracy To explicate the key features of any democratic theory, it is useful to look at different aspects of democracy and the foundations the theory is based on. Democracy as a political system contains two different aspects which it is important to differentiate. First, democracy is an institutional arrangement for political decision-making, the form of democracy. Secondly, democracy refers to practice within the given form and is dependent on values, attitudes and activities of people. Two countries may have similar democratic institutions, but the other one may still be considered more democratic than the other.
Democratic theories are also based on certain pre-assumptions. In this sense it is important to differentiate democratic ideology, assumptions on conditions for democracy and democratic theory proper. Democracy itself cannot be understood without a theory, i.e., an analysis of how democracy works. Theory is, however, always dependent on the ideology of democracy, consisting of a definition of democracy, its goals and its justification. Because the ideology of democracy always contains a definition of democracy, it also contains its negation, what democracy is not. Furthermore, because the theory is always dependent on the ideology, the theory is also an evaluation (a justification or a criticism) of existing democracies, consisting of both descriptive-explanatory and normative statements (cf. Held 1987: 7). In a sense there is no democratic theory, only democratic theories (cf. Dahl 1956: 1).
Both ideology and theory contain assumptions on conditions for democracy. Some of these conditions are inherent in the definition of democracy itself (freedom of opinion, freedom of association), some are contested by others (e.g., social equality) and some are claimed to be necessary but not sufficient features of democracy (e.g., responsiveness). These distinctions can be presented with the model in the next page.
Distinctions between different aspects of democracy have been noted by many. It must be remembered that already the ancient Greeks used the concepts of Isonomia (the equality of all before the law), Isegoria (the right of citizens to take part in the meetings of the assembly) and Isomoiria (equal division of the land) when discussing about democracy (Resnick 1991). But the relation between these different aspects of democracy has not been analysed systematically. A good example is Robert A. Dahl who has explained his use of the term polyarchy by referring to two (sometimes confusing) "usages of the term 'democracy': one to describe a goal or ideal, an end perhaps never achieved and possibly not even fully achievable in actuality, and the other to describe the distinguishing features of the actual political systems commonly called 'democratic' or 'democracies' in the modern world" (Dahl 1984: 229). Dahl does not, however, differentiate between form and practice (for him they are parts of democratic process) nor theory and ideology (maybe because of his philosophy of empirical political science).
-freedom of opinion
-freedom to organize
-the right to take part in decisionmaking
-equality before the law
-responsiveness of the political system
-social values (welfare, happiness)
Democratic Democratic Form Democrati Ideology -representative - direct Theory
-definition (inclusiveness, method) -how
-goals -rules guiding: democracy -justification -legislative works
-judicial to its own
branches of government premises
(political culture and
the functioning of
Form, practice, ideology, conditions and theory comprise, however, an integral whole: existing democracy is a result of democratic ideology and theory as well as political practice. The politics of democracy is, on one hand, explained by theories of democracy, and, on the other hand, changes in form and practice of democracy are bound to alter the ideology and the theory. Iit is no wonder that democracy has always had many meanings. It has, for instance, referred to majority rule in decision-making with or without guarantees for civil rights or it has referred to the fulfillment of peoplés preferences with or without their own participation (Anckar 1984: 15). Besides, democratic systems can be arranged in many ways. One of the basic conflicts has always been between those adhering to direct democracy and those adhering to representative democracy.
Pluralism as Theory of Democracy Politics is about interests. Citizens have different values, attitudes and opinions and somehow these differences must live together. In a sense, democracy is a difficult form of political organization, because it must produce legitimate outcomes out of this plurality of interests. This is also a basic meaning of pluralism, because "pluralism signals a theorized preference for multiplicity over unicity, and for diversity over uniformity" (McLennan 1995: 25).
It is no wonder that many political scientists after the Second World War defined pluralism as the process of group conflict and compromise (Gunnell 1996: 253). But American pluralism has a longer history. Pluralism developed after the First World War as the pluralistic theory of the state criticizing what it understood as the monistic state theory (e.g., Ellis 1920; 1923, Coker 1921). The latter had been interested in the sovereignty of the state, while the new pluralists claimed that the state was only one political authority among others and different groups were able to demand political loyalty as well.
Although the pluralistic theory of the state had also a European background (Gierke, Duguit, Maitland, Figgis, Laski, etc.), its impact on democratic theory was most noticeable in the United States, because the theory seemed to portrait American political conditions so well. It must also be noted that philosophical bases for pluralism were first laid out in the works of William James and John Dewey (Eisenberg 1994) and James influenced for instance Harold Laski, who became the chief proponent of a new pluralism while teaching at Harvard. Already at the beginning there developed an inherent division between pluralists (Eisenberg 1994). On the other hand there were empirical social scientists, who were mainly interested in interest-group politics and tried to explain the functioning of the political system. Laski himself can be placed in this category and later this brand of pluralism developed into the study of pressure groups in American politics in the 1920s. (e.g., Herring 1929; Odegard 1928). Later David Truman and Robert Dahl continued this tradition with a more theoretical twist.
The other tradition stemming from the work of William James was interested in the influence of groups on identity. This was one of central concerns of John Dewey and was given much attention by Mary Parker Follett. In fact, this aspect of pluralism has only recently re-emerged with the rise of identity-politics and multiculturalism. The basic feature of multiculturalism is just that it is mainly interested in dignity and self-esteem of members of different subcultures. On the other hand, it is in many ways part of pluralist tradition, although it radicalizes (and often Nietzscheanizes) the liberal ideal of tolerance (Melzer, Weinberger, and Zinman 1998: 4; cf. also McLennan 1995: 77-97). In this sense, multiculturalism is often at odds with liberal democracy (Berns 1998; Ceaser 1998).
Tolerance, in fact, is one of the cornerstones of liberal pluralism. Nicholas R. Miller (1983) has made a division into: 1) pluralism as dispersed power, 2) pluralism as group politics, and 3) pluralism as dispersed preferences. The first two forms of pluralism often coincide with each other (but not necessarily), while the third form of pluralism is partly independent from others. In this sense pluralism as dispersed power refers to the study of political power and acceptance of various, but unequal, elites, pluralism as group politics to the empirical study of political groups and pluralism as dispersed preferences to the relevance of different political attitudes to the stability of democratic government.
As Giovanni Sartori has argued, pluralism in the third sense has emerged in the gradual acceptance of tolerance and it rests on the acceptance of difference (Sartori 1987). Sartori himself traces the roots of pluralism to the aftermath of the wars of religion after the 17th century, but the idea may be found also in Machiavelli, who in Discourses claimed that discord can strengthen the state and states do not need moral cohesion (Crick 1970: 33). The contemporary idea of political tolerance as the acceptance of difference was, however, developed within American political theory during the 1920s and 1930s.
Edward A. Purcell, Jr. (1973) has noticed this by arguing that a new theory of democracy began to develop in the United States in the 1930s, a theory which he calls "A Relativist Theory of Democracy". It was, among other things, a condemnation of the authoritarian implications of moral absolutism. It was a negative justification of democracy in a sense that democracy could be defended only by a need for an agreement to disagree.
There are above all three men who Purcell names as the most important contributors to the new theory of democracy, T.V. Smith, Carl Friedrich and Pendleton Herring. Purcell claims that T.V. Smith was a man who perhaps more than any other person emphasized that an unbending moral attitude brought only confusion and disruption in politics. Smith was always fascinated with American politics which he understood as the politics of compromise. Friedrich, on the other hand, had started to argue in the late 1930s that people are bound together not by any formal agreement on fundamentals, but by a common way of acting (Purcell 1973: 215). Herring, on his part, accepted Smith's agreement that absolutes had no place in democratic politics, agreed with Friedrich on the necessity of a common cultural basis for democracy, and added to the new theory an acceptance on non-voting and passive political participation as elements of stable democracy. This thesis was advanced especially in Herring's "The Politics of Democracy: American Parties in Action" (1940) (Purcell 1973: 208-216).
David Ricci has also noted that a "new theory of democracy" began to develop in the 1930s. Ricci refers also to Herring, but adds John Dewey and Francis G. Wilson to his analysis.. Wilson preceded Herring by arguing already in 1930 that the vote may be understood as a check on those who govern and the low voter turnout does not necessarily violate the principles of democratic government (Ricci 1984: 109). This claim, however, seems to have been up in the air and it can be found also in the writings of other political scientists already in the 1920s (e.g. Corwin 1929: 577).
Ricci's analysis reminds in many respects that of Purcell's, but he adds to it the notion of democracy as a method. According to Ricci, Dewey was responsible for the view that democracy is only a mode of government, a practice for selecting officials (Ricci 1984: 104). However, although Ricci is right in the fact that one of the elements of a new theory of democracy was an understanding of democracy as a method, he seems to be too keen on attacking Dewey and it can be shown that Ricci has not read Dewey carefully enough, because Dewey makes a distinction between democracy as a social ideal and political democracy as a system of government (Dewey 1954; orig. 1927).
Democracy as a method leads of course to the work of Schumpeter and in that way adds the role of elites to the pluralistic canon. It is interesting that although a new theory stressed the importance of accepting the basic rules of democracy and otherwise praised difference, it, however, made at the same time an argument for the role of responsible elites.
The basic ideas of the new theory of democracy were well presented in an article by John D. Lewis on “The Elements of Democracy” (1940). Lewis criticized those (Graham Wallas, Walter Lippmann) who had doubted the possibility of rational participation in government by the mass of individuals, because that claim was exaggerated by a mistaken idea of the role of both voters and their representatives in democracy. According to Lewis, “voters need not be experts, representatives need not be experts, but administrators must have expert knowledge of what can be done and how it can be done most efficiently” (Lewis 1940: 470). It is the task of representatives to educate their constituents and seek advise from experts.
This system of democracy had pluralistic consensus as its goal, because “the representative and parliamentary systems in a democratic state are, then, devices, not for discovering a common interest or common will, but for formulating a common interest by free discussion and compromise - for evolving through discussion and compromise a policy that will be acceptable to at least a majority of individuals. The function of elections and of parliament then becomes a positive integrating function. The basis for this integration on the ground of a common interest must exist, but finding the integrating formula is a creative function of democratic parliamentary machinery” (Lewis 1940: 477).
In brief, American pluralist theory of democracy that developed in the 1920s and 1930s understood an agreement on "the rules" as the basis of democracy. On the other hand, it was good that political culture was not too homogenous. People had to be different in their preferences and acting (for instance, a certain amount of political passivity was necessary in stable society). Praise of compromises and denial of absolute values in politics were also elements of the theory. But there was also a role for elites. It was their task to guide society for a better future.
Pluralist theory of democracy that emerged in the 1950s and 1960s was based on this earlier tradition of pluralism. Empirical studies on politics and a new methodological awareness among social scientists gave new nuances to the theory, but basically it remained the same as before. What is interesting, however, is that the theory is interested mainly in democracy as practice. Most representatives of the theory have accepted the basic features of American constitutional system and possible disagreements have mainly dealt with the relation between form and practice. This applies also to multiculturalism today (McWilliams 1998: 123).
The above historical sketch of pluralism is not meant to cover all the different aspects of debate on pluralism. It only aims to illustrate some of the basic (and even contradictory) ideas in pluralist theory of democracy, while hopefully convincing a reader that the history of pluralism does not begin in the 1950s, but that pluralism has been present in American democratic thought for decades.
The Challenge of New Pluralism Pluralism in different versions runs through American political thought and science. Reasons for this may be found on the nature of American state and political system, in which the Federal government has always been weak, while states and cities have had a more important role for citizens. The centerlessness of American society has also offered groups and social movements a ground to operate in a fashion different from politics in other countries. Besides, the nature of political parties has been different compared for instance with European political parties. when the practical nature of American politics without any Grand ideologies is added to the situation, it is no wonder that pluralism has always been an integral part of American politics and democracy. Existence of different groups (and cultures) without any integrating ideology has compelled to focus on democracy as the bases of authority.
Although this characterization of American politics is still valid, recent political change in the United States has made it more problematical. American political scientists have taken notice of this change and many have been worried about it. Robert A. Dahl has even argued that a new political order has been created in the United States over the last thirty years (Dahl 1993). There exists more conflicting and independent interest-groups than ever before, while the governmental institutions have in many respects become weak. The President and the Congress are not able to adapt any reasonably consistent set of policies any more. The fragmented system has made it also hard to determine who is responsible for a given policy. This is also due to the increased plebiscitary nature of American politics which has lost its representative and deliberative aspects. The operation of the political system has become more difficult to understand and failures of the system are seen by many to be the fault of individual politicians. Elites have lost their capacity to lead.
Americans no longer trust in representative democracy. The popularity of mechanisms of direct democracy (initiative, referendum and recall) has increased during the last two decades. Nowadays voters in twenty-six states, the District of Columbia and hundreds of local communities have the right to put measures on the ballot and fifteen states as well as the District of Columbia allow also recall of elected state officials (Cronin 1989: 3-4) and these devices are also frequently used. Another indicator is an increased citizen participation at a local level. These forms of participatory democracy may be neighborhood associations (Portney, Berry and Thomson 1990) or they may be experiments with "teledemocracy" (Arterton 1987).
These developments signify the diminishing role of group processes in politics and change politics into a process between individuals and state. Politics has also become more confrontational. It is hard to make compromises any more. A common political culture seems also a phenomenon of the past. Its very idea has been challenged above all by multiculturalism, whose adherents vigorously seek legitimacy for different subcultures, a right to gain entry into the political system (cf. Dahl 1986: 186).
The diminishing role of groups, the distrust in elites, the new ideological awareness with the denial of compromises and the disintegrating political culture have already now changed the old pluralism into something new. The system is still pluralist, maybe overpluralist, but the real question is, is it still able to function reasonably well. One of the problems of multiculturalism, for example, is that it is in danger of creating a society where different subcultures form their own life-spheres and identities, rather than participate in "negotiating the complexity of public and private identities" ( Ehlstein 1998: 259).
But the furure is open. In contemporary discussions about the postmodern political condition there are also voices that remind pluralist theories of the 1920s and 1930s. In an interesting article about the modern democratic revolution, John Keane argues that postmodenism "impliesthe need for democracy, for institutional arrangements which guarantee that protagonists of similar or different forms of language games can openly and continuously articulate their respective forms of life" (Keane 1987: 13). There is a need for mechanisms of conflict resolution in the form of active and strong political institutions which are necessary for preserving democracy (Keane 1987: 13-14).
Keanés argument is important, because the role of state is nowadays under attack in American political discussion, both on the Right and on the Left. Because American society is a highly individualistic society, this means that that democracy is mainly understood from a perspective of an individual with her/his rights. American theories of democracy have also concentrated mainly on democratic practice and they have not conceptualized the role of democratic form in the use of power. To develop a new theory of democracy it is necessary to combine, however, form and practice. Furthermore, there is still much to be learned from the pluralist writings of the 1920s and 1930s.
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