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Recent Concepts

In the first half of the twentieth century democratic theory was devoted to addressing the claims of elitists such as Mosca and Michels. First Joseph Schumpeter (1883–1950) and later Robert Dahl (b. 1915) tried to devise a theory that would account for the empirical reality of democracy (the necessity for elites) and simultaneously retain its ideals. Schumpeter saw democracy as an institutional arrangement of elite competition for the electorate's favor guaranteed by legal and procedural mechanisms. Twenty years later Dahl saw democracy as a polyarchy of social groups whose competition was also guaranteed by procedural arrangements, while Samuel Lipset and Barrington Moore Jr. distinguished between the empirical and normative criteria of democracy. They too discerned a contradiction between the claims of majority rule and the empirical reality of mass electoral politics. The attack on the classical democratic theory produced a fundamental reinterpretation of democracy itself. Democracy no longer means rule by the people, or rule by the many. The majority legitimate power and consent to it, but organized elites rule. Whether the many rule is not as important as whether the system provides free and open elections guaranteed by civil liberties and civil rights.

Democracy as a political form and as an ideal arose from the conflict in society between the few and the many, between the wealthy and the poor. The cycle of violence and instability produced by this conflict led to attempts to establish political structures that would address the egalitarian and just demands of the many while simultaneously maintaining the rule of law. It is from the struggle to resolve the opposing interests and values of these two antagonists that the social and political ideals associated with modern democracy emerged and developed.

Today democratic theory centers on critiques of liberal democracy and on devising alternatives to it. Critics such as Hannah Arendt (1906–1975), Jürgen Habermas (b. 1929), and John Rawls (1921–2002) identified an elitist, inegalitarian, and antiparticipatory core in liberal theories of democracy. They questioned the validity and desirability of liberal democracy's major principles: interest aggregation, economic utility, rational choice and game theory, methodological individualism. Most important, they objected to the reduction of political activity to economic categories and lamented the use of the market as the model for democratic politics. While retaining the procedural and constitutional guarantees so important to liberal theory, its critics aspire to a democracy where the people may come together as citizens and participate in public deliberations and discussions.

The criticism of liberal and elite democratic theory has produced two major schools of thought: civic republicanism and deliberative democracy. Both share a classical Aristotelian belief in the possibility of achieving a common good by means of an egalitarian politics of participation. They believe that political activity is crucial to developing a well-rounded and educated citizen. Civic values, civic engagement, and open discussion help create a public space in which the business common to all citizens may be conducted. Civic republicanism and deliberative democracy, by emphasizing such ideas as the common good, virtue, common action, and political education, delve into the ways that a public-political space may emerge and grow. They also recall the ideals of political virtue and political participation first enunciated by classical thinkers, and later reclaimed by Machiavelli and Rousseau.


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Benedetto Fontana

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Cyanohydrins to Departments of philosophy:Democracy - Greek Origins, After The Polis, Age Of Enlightenment And Revolution, Threat And Promise Of Mass Democracy