What should we expect from democracy, and how likely is it that democracies will live up to those expectations? In The State of Democratic Theory, Ian Shapiro offers a critical assessment of contemporary answers to these questions, lays out his distinctive alternative, and explores its implications for policy and political action.
Some accounts of democracy's purposes focus on aggregating preferences; others deal with collective deliberation in search of the common good. Shapiro reveals the shortcomings of both, arguing instead that democracy should be geared toward minimizing domination throughout society. He contends that Joseph Schumpeter's classic defense of competitive democracy is a useful starting point for achieving this purpose, but that it stands in need of radical supplementation--both with respect to its operation in national political institutions and in its extension to other forms of collective association. Shapiro's unusually wide-ranging discussion also deals with the conditions that make democracy's survival more and less likely, with the challenges presented by ethnic differences and claims for group rights, and with the relations between democracy and the distribution of income and wealth.
Ranging over politics, philosophy, constitutional law, economics, sociology, and psychology, this book is written in Shapiro's characteristic lucid style--a style that engages practitioners within the field while also opening up the debate to newcomers.
In this comprehensive and intelligent survey of democratic theory, Shapiro argues that the goal of democracy should not be to achieve a "common good," but rather to manage the "power relations to minimize domination." In presenting his evidence, Shapiro analyzes the political theories of dozens of philosophers and academics, from the celebrated 18th-century thinkers Rousseau and Madison to the more modern theorists Schumpeter and Foucault. His perspective is essentially pragmatic. Whether evaluating hierarchical relations, the exercise of governmental power or the position of the vulnerable, his primary aim is to assess how various theoretical frameworks ignore, or address, "the actual operation of democratic politics." What is most important, he believes, is to consider "what we should expect of democracy, and how those expectations might best be realized in practice." Such a down-to-earth approach is refreshing; however, Shapiro's dense, jargon-filled prose makes this book more appropriate for academics and specialists than for general readers.
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Princeton University Press
December 31, 2002
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Excerpt from The State of Democratic Theory by Ian Shapiro
THE DEMOCRATIC IDEA is close to nonnegotiable in today's world. Liberation movements insist that they are more democratic than the regimes they seek to replace. Authoritarian rulers seldom reject democracy outright. Instead they argue that their people are not ready for democracy "yet," that their systems are more democratic than they appear, or that the opposition is corrupt and antidemocratic--perhaps the stooge of a foreign power. International financial institutions may be primarily interested in countries' adopting neoliberal market reforms, yet they also feel compelled to call for regular elections and other democratic political reforms. Of course, different people understand different things by democracy, and every democratic order will be thought by some not to be functioning as it should, in the corrupt control of an illicit minority, or otherwise in need of repair. But the very terms of such objections to democracy affirm its obligatory character, since it is the malfunction or corruption of democracy that is being objected to.
Within democratic systems it is accepted that people are free to despise the elected government, but not its right to be the government. Christian fundamentalists may believe they are acting on God's orders, but the fact that they claim to be a "moral majority" indicates that, as far as political legitimacy is concerned, they understand democracy's nonoptional character. Constitutional arrangements sometimes limit democracy's range, particularly in separation-of-powers systems such as the United States. But constitutions generally contain entrenched guarantees of democratic government as well. Moreover, they are themselves revisable at constitutional conventions or via amendment procedures whose legitimacy is popularly authorized. Even liberal constitutionalists like Bruce Ackerman (1993b) agree that critical moments of constitutional founding and change require popular democratic validation if they are to be accepted as legitimate over time.
Nonetheless, democracy's nonnegotiable political status has long stood in contrast to the widespread skepticism about it among political theorists. Generations of scholars following Kenneth Arrow (1951) have questioned the rationality of its inner logic, and many others have been deeply skeptical of its desirability as a political outlook. John Dunn (1979: 26) captured this skepticism well with the observation that although most people think of themselves as democrats, democratic theory oscillates between two variants, "one dismally ideological and the other fairly blatantly utopian." The oscillation Dunn had in mind was between Cold War rhetoric masquerading as theory and arguments for egalitarian and participatory democracy that lacked convincing attention to how they might actually be deployed. Despite its legitimacy in the world, democratic theory did not then seem to be going anywhere interesting or worthwhile.
In the years since Dunn wrote there has been a revival of interest in the study of democracy, fed by the dramatic and unexpected increase in the number of democracies in the world in Africa, Asia, and Latin America--not to mention the countries of the former Soviet Empire. Between 1980 and 2002, some eighty-one countries moved from authoritarianism to democracy, including thirty-three military dictatorships that were replaced by civilian governments (United Nations 2002). Yet if the turn of events has rendered Dunn's opposition anachronistic, it is far from clear that democracy's underlying theoretical difficulties have been addressed satisfactorily. The time seems ripe for a reassessment of the state of democratic theory in light of the actual operation of democratic politics. That is the enterprise attempted here.
Assessments of this sort require yardsticks, two of which suggest themselves. One is normative, implied when we ask how persuasive the theories are that seek to justify democracy as a system of government. The other is explanatory, prompted by asking how successful the theories are that try to account for the dynamics of democratic systems. Normative and explanatory theories of democracy grow out of literatures that proceed, for the most part, on separate tracks, largely uninformed by one another. This is unfortunate, partly because speculation about what ought to be is likely to be more useful when informed by relevant knowledge of what is feasible, and partly because explanatory theory too easily becomes banal and method-driven when isolated from the pressing normative concerns that have fueled worldwide interest in democracy in recent decades. Accordingly, I take an integrative tack, focusing on what we should expect of democracy, and on how those expectations might best be realized in practice.