Models of Democracy

There is a large debate in democratic theory about models of democracy, starting at least from Held’s famous book, Models of Democracy. Any theorist, it seems, starts with their own account of the dichotomy, trichotomy, or n-chotomy of democratic models, and then (surprise!) builds the n+1th model which overcomes their limitations. Thus, we get the classic, liberal, communitarian, republican, aggregative, deliberative, participatory, representative, neoliberal, conciliatory, agonistic, majoritarian, minimal, developmental, economic, consensus, property-owning, western, pluralist, socialist, thick, thin, epistemic, direct, … model of democracy. If you’re creative enough, you will find a new adjective for your own view.

Instead of plunging into these debates (admittedly, I have some ideas for my own new-adjective intervention), it’s time to stand back a bit and reflect on what this model business is all about. To start out, models of democracy are strangely two-faced entities: on the one hand, they look to empirical social science. They are meant to describe what actually happens in democracies, or at least to give us a reasonably realistic model of what could happen in them. Debating models of democracy in this way is like assessing models in the social sciences elsewhere: the question is whether any given model of democracy captures the relevant set of empirical phenomena, and which other theoretical virtues it has, like simplicity or elegance.

On the other hand, models of democracy are also commonly meant to play a normative role. As such, they identify what we value about democracy, and they play a diagnostic role in telling us how we should reform existing democratic institutions. Insofar as models of democracy play to this audience, one has to justify them through normative arguments—highlighting, for example, how a given model incorporates and explains core values such as political equality, individual autonomy, collective agency, and so on.

(Political scientists sometimes speak of models of democracy in a mostly neutral sense, where they are merely meant as empirical abstractions. In this usage, for example, we might speak of the “American” model or the “Swiss” model, without any presumption that we highlight these models as valuable. I set this usage aside, and will only focus on models which make some explicit or implicit claim that they also describe something normatively desirable.)

These two roles of models of democracy push against each other, however, and make assessing them a somewhat complicated endeavour. The empirical orientation of models of democracy, for example, means that models cannot be mere ideals—infeasible utopias we have no realistic chance of ever approximating. Because models of democracy are implicitly constrained by such feasibility concerns, and are thus somewhat oriented towards historical, economic and social realities, they are not easily dismissed through claims that they do not account for everything we value in democracy.

On the other hand, because of their partially normative orientation, models of democracy are not generally testable in any standard social-scientific sense, and they make no interesting or substantive predictions. Reality can diverge from the model significantly and robustly—even more so than any model is allowed to deviate from reality—as long as we think it has other qualities. The connection between a model and empirical observation then is rather loose: it should be compatible with core empirical findings about democracy, but only repeated failures to accord with reality will provide us with an objection.

Obviously, there will be disagreements between different theorists as to what the empirical phenomena and the normative principles are that a plausible theory ought to be compatible with. In particular, there will be debate about how optimistic or pessimistic we should be regarding democracy—for example, regarding the average competence of democratic citizens, the reformability of institutions, and the extent of the threat of sliding back into authoritarianism. More pessimistic assessments of the feasibility constraints will lead us to less normatively adventurous models of democracy.

Independently from these debates, there will also be meta-theoretical disagreements as to which of the two sides models of democracy should pay more attention to. Some theorists will push for a greater empirical focus, demanding that theories primarily capture the lived reality of democracy. Other theorists will start from normative considerations and, at the extreme, adjust models of democracy only insofar as they are violently out-of-touch with findings from empirical political science. Aggregative and deliberative democrats need not disagree about the realities of democracy (though I suspect that they normally do, too); their theories might simply be offered on different levels on the empirical—normative adequacy scale.

One might object, on this basis, that thinking about models of democracy is not a particularly useful endeavour, given how vague and contested the criteria for theory choice are. But this would be a mistake. Even though evaluating models of democracy proceeds in a more holistic, less clear-cut way—and we should be suspicious of “clear-cut”, monistic ways of theory evaluation at any rate—the criteria for model choice have some bite, even if we understand them rather minimally. Many models of democracy have difficulties, for example, to account for basic empirical facts about political psychology. This is the take-home message of Brennan’s, Somin’s, Caplan’s, and Achen and Bartels’ work, even if you do not agree with them otherwise.

Still, it is true that it is better to think of models of democracy as broad ideological formations rather than as any concrete set of claims that are directly to be proven or disproven. In that sense, it might be better not to call them “models”, but perhaps “research programmes” or Weltanschauungen, or whatever name you prefer for a densely connected cluster of views. If that is true, two further important dimensions across which we should assess models of democracy are their theoretical fruitfulness and their potential for explanatory unification.

With regard to the first, a model of democracy would be theoretically fruitful to the degree that it helps us discover new research questions, empirical and normative; that it draws our attention to empirical phenomena or normative dilemmas we might otherwise overlook; to the degree that it finds resonance with contemporary concerns about democracy; and so on. With regard to the second, one important question would be whether a model of democracy helps us to explain a wide range of normative intuitions and empirical research. Ideologies work by providing a mental framework which helps us sort and structure our thought about a large field, which would otherwise break down into a confusing multitude of seemingly unconnected findings and projects. The function of a model of democracy, then, would be whether the “view” it allows us in such a way enlightens more than it obscures.

Contrary to this tendency to see models of democracy as overarching, large-scale ideological clusters, it can also be useful to think about models of democracy in a much more pluralistic, localised way. One thing that Dani Rodrik emphasises, correctly in my view, in Economics Rules: The Rights and Wrongs of the Dismal Science, is that no subfield of economics works with any one model, but rather with a plethora of different models—each with its own set of simplifying assumptions, range of application, levels of complexity, and so on. Economic knowledge advantages through the comparison, interplay, and sometimes competition of these models. Each of these models tells only a “partial” story, and should be seen as such.

That is advice—though with respect to a different kind of model—which it is useful to remember in the current context. There has been a tendency, I think, for defenders of models of democracy to assume that the ultimate aim is for one model of democracy (theirs, normally) to “win”. But that imposes a highly rigid methodological view as to what models of democracy try to achieve. We might as well think that different models each tell a partial story of democracy, from both the empirical and the normative side.

On the other hand, we must abstain from simply comparing and contrasting models of democracy, while pretending that they’re all equally good models, or that choice between is a matter of arbitrary taste. (The latter might reflect some broader positivist confusions.) A pluralism of models does not preclude us from saying that some of these partial stories are better than others, some more explanatory than others, and that some should be simply rejected as implausible in some way or another. Indeed, insofar as I am a pluralist concerning models of democracy, only a tiny proportion from the available candidates would make it onto my short-list.

All this is a somewhat round-about way of saying that models of democracy are a useful way into the philosophy of democracy, but that a certain methodological carefulness is required in how one uses them. Because they look to both the empirical and the normative side, we should expect models of democracy to be particularly difficult theoretical entities to defend and build. But that also explains their lasting appeal: a working model which was adequate from both these perspectives, and told even a “partial” normative-empirical story about democracy, would be a great achievement indeed.

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