Democracy, the Conceptual versus Working Definition

The trite political commentator will often state that a given political concept “works in theory, but not in practice.” Such a declaration is often an overly simplistic, even indolent, way of repudiating an idea. However, when discussing definitions, such a statement (ideally worded differently) can be legitimate. It is important to distinguish between conceptual definitions and working definitions – those that exist on paper and those that manifest in the political world. When discussing Democracy, we must remember that although it may seem abstract among the philosophical jargon of an expert, Democracy is nevertheless something that exists in practice. Thus, a definition of Democracy must be living, not merely allegorical – the definition must conform to the infinite variables and plausibility of the contentious political world.

Robert Dahl’s definition is flawed, to conform to the cliché, because it “works in theory, but not in practice.” To be more precise, Dahl’s definition is far too conceptual and lacking in real world application. Dahl asserts that a Democracy must allow citizens to, a) formulate their preferences, b) signify their preferences to fellow citizens and their government, and c) have those preferences weighed equally as to impede discrimination. For each of the three opportunities are 8 “guarantees” or definitions. Of course, a scale based on inclusion helps delineate that the characteristics of a Democracy are appropriately available to the population. If we view all these factors (which exist to various extents) as a machine, we must expect functionality. The conceptual framework must create a stable structure.

Yet, as Argentinian author Jorge Luis Borges points out, Democracy can be an “abuse of statistics.” Similarly, critics have described Democracy as “two wolves and a lamb deciding what to have for lunch.” The fatality of the lamb is the fatal flaw of Democracy in Dahls definition: it lacks the qualifications that account and factor for the inherent flaws of Democracy. Dahl’s Democracy enables the societal preferences to be heard and acted upon, but these are also aspects conducive to excessive Democracy. Dahl’s definition lacks a protection for all of the demo (people) of the Democracy and does not specify a means of accountability. To restate the flaw of Dahl’s Democracy; it’s far too conceptual of a definition and fails to translate into the contentiousness of political regimes and systems.

Schmitter and Karl propose a working definition of Democracy, one (unlike Dahl’s) easily transposed into the “real world”.  Crucial to Schmitter and Karl’s definition is a system of accountability, one where the rulers are held accountable for their actions. If we view Dahl’s concept as what Democracies “ought to do”, Schmitter and Karl also factor for what governments “ought not to do.” It’s important to remember that when leaders or rulers in a Democracy are held accountable for their actions, such as system isn’t really holding the leaders accountable. In a Democracy, rulers represent the preferences of the people. In essence a system of accountability doesn’t impede rogue politicians, but rather quashes tyrannical rule of majorities. As Schmitter and Karl affirm, “successful democracies tend to qualify the central principle of majority rule in order to protect minority rights.” In America we see the real world application of accountability and protection with a Constitution and Bill of Rights (although such a protection may take many forms). Essentially, the desires of citizens matter, yet crucial to a Democracy is an institutionalized system to prevent the undue weight of preferences.

Democracies always begin with good intentions, yet good intentions also line the road to hell. A proper definition of Democracy explicitly accounts for these innate flaws, guaranteeing that it not only work in theory, but also in practice. For Democracy is not just some conceptual allegory dreamt up by the political scientist, but a living and roaming beast to be tamed.

And that is why I prefer Schmitter and Karl’s definition to that of Dahl.

Recently, “pro-democracy” protests in Hong Kong have revitalized the timeworn battle between Democracy and Authoritarianism. If the inherent complexity of Hong Kong’s protests have reaffirmed anything about Democracy, it’s that at the crux of Democracy is the voice of the citizen. Tens of thousands of Hong Kongers, from all walks of life, have taken to the streets to voice their opinions. However, from there the working-definition of Democracy becomes more obscure. Democracy is a core Western value, seen as the best possible government for all nations. As a recent article East Asia Forum demonstrates, this Western notion of Democracy determines how the media “perceived, interpreted, and covered” events in Hong Kong. In truth many claims of the “pro-democracy” protestors are not democratic at all. Demands and methods of complaints differ greatly between protestors, suggesting that situation is far more complex than the media has perceived. As Ivy Lee aptly points out, “Western media outlets were not only biased, but failed to appreciate the complexity of the situation. Instead, they streamlined the coverage to fit into their preconceived notions about democracy”.

For the full article, click here:

As political scientists and comparativists, we must consider Democracy as something of a conceptual and living definition. Yet equally imperative is an understanding that the definition of Democracy is limited. Modern events are exceedingly multifaceted and ever-changing. To group events, changes, and conjunctures as “pro-democracy” or “anti-democratic” is to negate the intricacy of the political world. Systems and institutions rarely fall neatly on polar sides of the spectrum. If we truly would like to grasp the multifariousness of the political world, definitions must be applied wisely and prudently.


One thought on “Democracy, the Conceptual versus Working Definition

  1. This is neither an agreement nor a disagreement in regards to your point, but I wanted to consider something that I haven’t seen discussed in either post today. I think it’s challenging to compare these two definitions of democracy because the goals of each are quite different. Arguably, Karl and Schmitter are attempting to thoroughly define democracy “in practice,” while Dahl works to create a simple, theoretical framework that can be used to examine relationships between factors that increase/decrease the chances of a polyarchy. I highly doubt that Dahl would disagree with your argument that his definition is too conceptual; he admits immediately after stating his definition of democracy that, “Whether such a system actually exists, has existed, or can exist need not concern us for the moment” (2). Dahl deliberately oversimplifies in order to establish clearer variables and test probability based on those variables, something that I feel would be far more complicated to investigate with the added nuances of Karl and Schmitter’s definition. That said, I very much appreciate your conclusion that democracy has both a “conceptual and living definition.”

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