Democratic Theorists in Conversation: Turns in Contemporary by Jean-Paul Gagnon (auth.)

By Jean-Paul Gagnon (auth.)

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There are three distinct features to democracy, or, if you like, three incarnations of it. It is a word; it is an idea; and it’s a set of institutional structures which purport to instantiate the idea and which are now quite frequently referred to through the word. The question of exactly what the content of the idea is has always been very open, very indefinite, and the question of how far institutional structures satisfy the requirements of whatever its content is assumed to be has always been politically very moot.

It is not just that it’s a big puzzle that our brains aren’t up to solving, but that it’s also a big threat. That sounds like an essentially temperamental response. People with more sanguine temperaments feel more the exhilaration than the threat itself. So some people like to feel the exhilaration, but the threat remains real whereas the exhilaration may be completely hysterical – maybe induced by an intellectual group equivalent to consumption of noxious substances. Politics does excite some people and sometimes it’s even reasonable to think of that excitement as being inspirational.

That is so just in terms of the historical record. I think it is very odd to take Rome, even republican Rome, as model of democracy as against a model of political order in which there is some separation of powers and as a contest between the orders in society with no one order so to speak dominating all the others. Of course one of the reasons I think why that narrative became embedded is that a number of democratic movements saw themselves as standing in the tradition of the ancient Greek republics.

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