In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Democratic Theory

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Journals
  • Reference Works and Bibliographies
  • Early Modern Republicanism
  • Enlightenment Liberalism
  • Enlightenment Republicanism
  • The Democratic Revolutions
  • Post-Revolutionary Democratic Thought
  • Contemporary Democratic Theory
  • Empirical Democratic Theory
  • Competitive Elitism
  • Interest-Group Pluralism
  • Contemporary Liberal Democracy
  • Communitarianism
  • Democracy and Capitalism
  • Civil Society and Democracy
  • Deliberative Democracy
  • Radical Democracy
  • Gender and Democracy
  • Global Democracy

Political Science Democratic Theory
Michael Laurence
  • LAST REVIEWED: 22 February 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 February 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756223-0162


Democratic theory is an established subfield of political theory that is primarily concerned with examining the definition and meaning of the concept of democracy, as well as the moral foundations, obligations, challenges, and overall desirability of democratic governance. Generally speaking, a commitment to democracy as an object of study and deliberation is what unites democratic theorists across a variety of academic disciplines and methodological orientations. When this commitment takes the form of a discussion of the moral foundations and desirability of democracy, normative theory results. When theorists concern themselves with the ways in which actual democracies function, their theories are empirical. Finally, when democratic theorists interrogate or formulate the meaning of the concept of democracy, their work is conceptual or semantic in orientation. Democratic theories typically operate at multiple levels of orientation. For example, definitions of democracy as well as normative arguments about when and why democracy is morally desirable are often rooted in empirical observations concerning the ways in which democracies have actually been known to function. In addition to a basic commitment to democracy as an object of study, most theorists agree that the concept democracy denotes some form or process of collective self-rule. The etymology of the word traces back to the Greek terms demos (the people, the many) and kratos (to rule). Yet beyond this basic meaning, a vast horizon of contestation opens up. Important questions arise: who constitutes the people and what obligations do individuals have in a democracy? What values are most important for a democracy and which ones make it desirable or undesirable as a form of government? How is democratic rule to be organized and exercised? What institutions should be used and how? Once instituted, does democracy require precise social, economic, or cultural conditions to survive in the long term? And why is it that democratic government is preferable to, say, aristocracy or oligarchy? These questions are not new. In fact, democratic theory traces its roots back to ancient Greece and the emergence of the first democratic governments in Western history. Ever since, philosophers, politicians, artists, and citizens have thought and written extensively about democracy. Yet democratic theory did not arise as an institutionalized academic or intellectual discipline until the 20th century. The works cited here privilege Anglo-American, western European, and, more generally, institutional variants of democratic theory, and, therefore, they do not exhaust the full range of thought on the subject.

General Overviews

A number of works have been published that provide overviews of the different historical and contemporary forms of democratic thought. Written by one of the most renowned democratic theorists in the United States, Dahl 2000 offers a brief and highly readable introduction to democratic thought that brings together normative and empirical strands of research. Crick 2002 offers another brief and accessible guide to the various traditions of democratic thought, while Cunningham 2002 presents a more comprehensive survey of the different currents of democratic theory and their historical developments. The text is notable for its discussion of theories of deliberative democracy and theories of radical pluralism, two of the more recent and popular trends in democratic theory. Held 2006 provides one of the most popular overviews of the various models of democracy coupled with a critical account of what democracy means in light of globalization. Another critical account of the field of contemporary democratic theory is offered by Shapiro 2003, while Keane 2009 provides a historical narrative of sweeping scope that tells the story of democratic governments and ideals as they have developed and transformed since classical Greece. Dryzek and Dunleavy 2009 focuses on theories of the liberal democratic state, while Christiano 2008 provides an introductory exploration of normative democratic thought. Dunn 1992 offers a collection of essays written by leading political theorists that charts the development and contemporary significance of the idea of democracy.

  • Christiano, Tom. “Democracy.” In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by Edward N. Zalta. Stanford, CA: Stanford University, 2008.

    An introductory survey of some of the major debates in the field of normative democratic theory. Emphasis is placed on the tasks of defining democracy, articulating the moral foundations of democracy, and explaining the requirements of democratic citizenship in large societies.

  • Crick, Bernard. Democracy: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

    A brief guide to the history of the major traditions of democratic thought from ancient Greece to the present. Included are discussions of some of the major issues surrounding republicanism, populism, democratic citizenship, and the conditions required for the institution of a democracy.

  • Cunningham, Frank. Theories of Democracy: A Critical Introduction. London: Routledge, 2002.

    Presents a summary of some of the major problems that confront democracies in the real world followed by a comprehensive discussion of historical and current paradigms of democratic thought.

  • Dahl, Robert. On Democracy. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2000.

    A brief but highly accessible and informative guide to the field of democratic theory written with both scholars and the general public in mind.

  • Dryzek, John, and Patrick Dunleavy. Theories of the Democratic State. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-0-230-36645-9

    An overview of the dominant contemporary approaches to understanding the modern liberal democratic state.

  • Dunn, John, ed. Democracy: The Unfinished Journey; 508 BC to AD 1993. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992.

    Consists of a collection of essays that traces the historical development and contemporary significance of the concept of democracy. The assumption is that to understand contemporary democratic life, we must first grasp the dynamic history and emergence of democratic ideas and practices.

  • Held, David. Models of Democracy. 3d ed. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2006.

    First published in 1987 and widely adopted as a text of choice for university courses in democracy and governance throughout North America. Provides an introduction to the central theories of democracy from classical Greece to the present. Places special emphasis on the challenges that globalization poses for democratic governance.

  • Keane, John. The Life and Death of Democracy. New York: W. W. Norton, 2009.

    A comprehensive and highly accessible historical account of the origins and development of democratic government and ideals.

  • Shapiro, Ian. The State of Democratic Theory. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2003.

    A critical survey of the state of contemporary democratic theory. Brings together the normative literature on democracy with debates from empirical political science and offers overviews of the literature concerning transitions to democracy, maintaining democracy, and democracy and distribution.

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