Philosophy Democracy
by
Thom Brooks
  • LAST REVIEWED: 08 October 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 13 January 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0161

Introduction

Democracy is widely understood to be the best form of government. This is where agreement ends. There remains much disagreement about several substantive issues, such as the justification for democracy and how democracy is best realized through political institutions. This article surveys the literature on normative democracy theory, with a focus on the philosophical debates about democracy rather than mere descriptive analyses. Generally speaking, democracy is a method of collective decision making by political equals. This definition is contested in several respects, concerning the method of democracy; the kinds of collectives to serve as the subject for democracy; and how we should understand political equality, along with the institutions that connect these normative considerations to practice. This article examines several general domains to highlight the leading work available in each. The article covers such topics as voting, the relationship between democracy and justice (including democratic authority), democracy and epistemology, democratic equality, deliberative democracy, democracy and pragmatism, and critics of democracy.

General Overviews

There are several general overviews on normative democratic theory. Christiano 2008 presents an informative online overview of democratic theory that offers an excellent first look at this subject. Perhaps the best classic text and one that has played a major role in debates about democratic theory since its first publication is Dahl 2006. A useful, brief introduction to the subject can be found in Crick 2002. Dunn 2005 provides a rich analysis of democracy’s historical and theoretical development. Harrison 1993 develops a historical and theoretical general overview of democracy covered through themes, such as autonomy and equality.

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

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    An informative online survey of democratic theory that offers an excellent first look at the subject.

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

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      A useful, brief introduction, with a focus on the historical development of democratic thought.

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      • Dahl, Robert A. A Preface to Democratic Theory. Rev. ed. Charles. R. Walgreen Foundation Lectures. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006.

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        A classic text that has figured prominently in debates since its publication.

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        • Dunn, John. Setting the People Free: The Story of Democracy. London: Atlantic, 2005.

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          A well-crafted, thorough analysis of democracy’s development in terms of its theoretical and political foundations.

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          • Harrison, Ross. Democracy. Problems of Democracy. London: Routledge, 1993.

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            Develops a historical and theoretical general overview of democracy covered through themes, such as autonomy and equality.

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            Textbooks

            There are many excellent textbooks on normative democracy theory. The most widely known is Dahl 1998, which includes an engaging examination of democratic theory ideal for use with students. Dahl 1989 considers democratic theory in light of key work in this area and how democratic theory may overcome several important criticisms in another widely used contribution. Held 2006 is another fine, wide-ranging text, with a comprehensive survey and analysis of democracy from several perspectives. Cunningham 2002 and Weale 2007 both provide a critical introduction to the development of democracy into the various forms that exist in the early 21st century. Shapiro 2003 offers a more advanced guide, developing insights into areas including domination and distribution.

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

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              A general introduction to democratic theory from a critical perspective.

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              • Dahl, Robert A. Democracy and Its Critics. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1989.

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                Highly popular text exploring democratic theory in light of key debates with critics and how democratic theory overcomes pressing challenges.

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                • Dahl, Robert A. On Democracy. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1998.

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                  The most widely known general text, containing a highly engaging examination of democratic theory ideal for student use.

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

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                    A wide-ranging text providing a comprehensive survey of democratic theories from a variety of perspectives.

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

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                      A more advanced guide to modern-day work in democratic theory.

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                      • Weale, Albert. Democracy. 2d ed. Issues in Political Theory. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.

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                        Clear text presenting a useful overview of and critical introduction to democratic theory.

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                        Anthologies

                        There are a few excellent anthologies collecting many of the best essays on democratic theory. One useful text is Dahl, et al. 2003, which offers a rich collection of classic writings and modern-day essays covering all major figures and topics. Copp, et al. 1993 presents a collection of essays covering several important themes concerning democracy’s historical and theoretical dimensions. Estlund 2002 is a highly recommended anthology composed of only modern-day research across a wide range of texts perfect for teaching.

                        • Copp, David, Jean Hampton, and John E. Roemer, eds. The Idea of Democracy. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

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                          A collection of essays covering several important themes concerning democracy’s historical and theoretical dimensions.

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                          • Dahl, Robert A., Ian Shapiro, and José Antonio Cheibub, eds. The Democracy Sourcebook. Cambridge, MA: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press, 2003.

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                            A rich collection of classic writings and modern-day essays covering a wide historical horizon, including all major figures and topics.

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                            • Estlund, David, ed. Democracy. Blackwell Readings in Philosophy. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2002.

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                              A highly recommended anthology, with key modern-day readings by leading figures, ideal for classroom use.

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                              Democracy and Voting

                              Voting occupies a central place in theories about democracy. Arrow, Downs, and Olson have put forth several classic contributions exploring voter rationality and preferences. Arrow 2012 defends Arrow’s impossibility theorem, which states that the ranked preferences of individual voters cannot be converted to a community-wide ranking when voters have three or more distinct options; we cannot construct community-wide preferences from the arbitrary preferences of individual voters. Downs 1957, using an economic theory of democracy, considers how democracy could work if voters were rational in light of information costs and the logic of voting. Olson 1965 explores tensions between individual rationality and collective decision making, such as the problem of free riding. Brennan 2012 argues that voting is an activity that requires informed decisions to avoid bad choices at the polls; if every citizen has a right to vote, then it might be best if most did not, because most may not be able to make a well-informed, well-reasoned choice.

                              • Arrow, Kenneth J. Social Choice and Individual Values. 3d ed. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2012.

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                                Defends Arrow’s impossibility theorem, which claims that we cannot construct community-wide preferences from the arbitrary preferences of individual voters.

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                                • Brennan, Jason. The Ethics of Voting. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2012.

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                                  Argues that voting is an activity requiring informed decisions to avoid bad choices at the polls; it might be best if most did not vote, even if all have a right, because most voters may be unable to make a well-informed, well-reasoned choice.

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                                  • Downs, Anthony. An Economic Theory of Democracy. New York: HarperCollins, 1957.

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                                    A rational choice examination of democracy that considers voter rationality and the logic of voting.

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                                    • Olson, Mancur. The Logic of Collective Action: Public Goods and the Theory of Groups. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1965.

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                                      A rational choice examination of the tensions between individual rationality and collective decision making.

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                                      Democracy and Justice

                                      Democracy is often linked with justice. Locke 1988 and Rousseau 1997 are key readings in the history of political thought: Locke claims that democracy is justified instrumentally through the use of majority rule, and Rousseau argues that democracy is justified instrumentally as a means to secure the general will. Mill 2010 provides an early and important discussion of representative democracy that remains influential. Shapiro 1999 examines the relationship between democracy and justice, asserting that they should be pursued together. An excellent collection of essays on this relation, exploring topics such as the common good and whether democracy is intrinsically valuable, is Dowding, et al. 2004. Sen 1999 contends that democracy best supports the capability of individuals to do or to be. A final approach offers noninstrumental justifications of democracy. Brettschneider 2007 presents a defense of democratic rights that seeks to bring together instrumental considerations within a rights-based framework. Shapiro 2011 evaluates the many global challenges facing democracy as a legitimate political institution by looking at its foundations and implications for long-standing debates concerning abortion, inherited wealth, judicial review, and public opinion.

                                      • Brettschneider, Corey. Democratic Rights: The Substance of Self-Government. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2007.

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                                        A defense of democratic rights that seeks to bring together instrumental considerations within a rights-based framework.

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                                        • Dowding, Keith, Robert E. Goodin, and Carole Pateman, eds. Justice and Democracy: Essays for Brian Barry. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

                                          DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511490217Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                          An excellent collection of essays on the topic of democracy and justice.

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                                          • Locke, John. Two Treatises of Government. Edited by Peter Laslett. Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1988.

                                            DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511810268Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                            A classic 17th-century text defending an instrumental justification of democracy through majority rule.

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                                            • Mill, John Stuart. Considerations on Representative Government. Cambridge Library Collection: History. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

                                              DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511783128Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                              Provides an early and influential discussion of representative democracy.

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                                              • Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. The Social Contract, and Other Later Political Writings. Edited and translated by Victor Gourevitch. Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

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                                                A classic text from 18th Century defending democracy as a means to securing political decision-making in line with the general will.

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                                                • Sen, Amartya. Development as Freedom. New York: Knopf, 1999.

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                                                  Justifies democracy as the best means to guarantee individual capability to do or to be.

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                                                  • Shapiro, Ian. Democratic Justice. Yale Institution for Social and Policy Studies Series. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1999.

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                                                    Examines the relationship between democracy and justice, asserting that they should be pursued together.

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                                                    • Shapiro, Ian. The Real World of Democratic Theory. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2011.

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                                                      Evaluates the challenges facing democracy, in both theory and practice, in light of several long-standing debates.

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                                                      Democracy and Epistemology

                                                      How reliable are the judgments determined through democratic procedures? There is debate concerning Condorcet’s jury theorem, which states that majority rule is more likely to provide correct answers than a community’s average member. This debate is explored in Estlund, et al. 1989 in an influential exchange about the problems and prospects of this theorem. Another classic contribution is Cohen 1986 and its discussion of epistemic populism. Anderson 2006 defends democracy for its norms of free discourse, dissent, feedback, and accountability, which together help secure collective, evidence-based learning from diverse knowers. Estlund 2008 argues that democracy is justified because of the wisdom of the crowds, whereby democratic decisions are more likely to achieve good outcomes. A second perspective concerns democracy and skepticism about political ends. Bufacchi 2001, through examination of alternative theories of the state, maintains that skepticism about decision-making outcomes best characterizes democracy. Brooks 2002 rejects the view that skepticism is specific to democracy alone. A third perspective is the place of individual equality in democratic thought. Talisse 2009 considers the problem of moral conflict for modern democratic politics and recommends a novel approach based on our most fundamental epistemic commitments, which give each of us reasons to uphold democracy.

                                                      Democracy and Equality

                                                      Readings in democratic equality comment on the relationship between democracy and political equality as well as the challenge from multiculturalism. Dworkin 2000 argues that egalitarian politics must be understood as a matter of responsibility rather than a dimension of wealth to be distributed to the members of a community. Christiano 2004 provides a powerful defense of the idea that people must have an equal say in collective decision making in order to be treated as political equals. Christiano 2008 contends that the principle of public equality grounds both our basic liberal rights and democracy. Mason 2006 critically examines the idea of democratic equality in terms of a level playing field. Galston 2005 defends liberal pluralism and its implications for real-world democratic politics for a pluralist polity composed of political equals. Smith 2011 considers democratic equality in terms of political recognition and how this may overcome problems concerning value incommensurability. A final perspective is the elite theory of democracy, advocated by Schumpeter 1976, which claims that democracy is not rule by the people, but by politicians.

                                                      • Christiano, Thomas. “The Authority of Democracy.” Journal of Political Philosophy 12.3 (2004): 266–290.

                                                        DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9760.2004.00200.xSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                        A powerful defense of the idea that people must have an equal say in collective decision making in order to be treated as political equals.

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                                                        • Christiano, Thomas. The Constitution of Equality: Democratic Authority and Its Limits. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.

                                                          DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780198297475.001.0001Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                          Contends that the principle of public equality grounds both our basic liberties and democracy.

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                                                          • Dworkin, Ronald. “Political Equality.” In Sovereign Virtue: The Theory and Practice of Equality. By Ronald Dworkin, 184–210. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000.

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                                                            Argues that egalitarian politics must be understood as a matter of responsibility rather than a dimension of wealth to be distributed to the members of a community.

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                                                            • Galston, William A. The Practice of Liberal Pluralism. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

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                                                              Defends liberal pluralism and its implications for real-world democratic politics for a pluralist polity composed of political equals.

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                                                              • Mason, Andrew. Levelling the Playing Field: The Idea of Equal Opportunity and Its Place in Egalitarian Thought. Oxford Political Theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006.

                                                                DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199264414.001.0001Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                Critically examines the idea of democratic equality in terms of a level playing field.

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                                                                • Schumpeter, Joseph. Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy. New York: Harper and Row, 1976.

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                                                                  A classic defense of the elite theory of democracy, claiming that democracy is rule by politicians in a competitive process involving elites rather than rule by the people.

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                                                                  • Smith, Steven R. Equality and Diversity: Value Incommensurability and the Politics of Recognition. Bristol, UK: Policy Press, 2011.

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                                                                    Considers democratic equality in terms of political recognition and how this may overcome problems concerning value incommensurability.

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                                                                    Deliberative Democracy

                                                                    Deliberative democracy is a conception of democratic thought in which the focus is public participation in democratic politics. One classic work is Pateman 1970, which argues for the importance of greater public participation. A second classic work, Putnam 2000, explores the decline of popular participation, with suggestions on how this may be reversed. Elster 1998 presents a classic collection of essays by leading figures, looking at the problems and prospects of deliberative democracy. The pioneering work Fishkin 2009 examines the importance of greater public participation in democratic politics and how this can be fostered. Gutmann and Thompson 1996 maintains that deliberative democracy can help overcome the challenges of moral disagreement. Parkinson 2006 is a critical, but sympathetic, defense of deliberative politics, with a view to a multifaceted deliberative system. Richardson 2002 gives an illuminating and novel account of democratic reasoning as a norm and as an institutional practice for securing democratic autonomy and avoiding bureaucratic domination. Hibbing and Theiss-Morse 2002 provides an insightful and thought-provoking critique of deliberative politics in light of US opinion studies suggesting that citizens lack the desire for the greater public participation that deliberative democrats wish to claim for them. Finally, Bohman and Rehg 1997 offers a wide-ranging and highly recommended collection of critical essays by leading figures.

                                                                    • Bohman, James, and William Rehg, eds. Deliberative Democracy: Essays on Reason and Politics. Cambridge, MA: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press, 1997.

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                                                                      A wide-ranging, highly recommended collection of critical essays by leading figures.

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                                                                      • Elster, Jon, ed. Deliberative Democracy. Papers presented at the conference “Modeling Deliberative Democracy,” held in Chicago in April 1995. Cambridge Studies in the Theory of Democracy. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

                                                                        DOI: 10.1017/CBO9781139175005Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                        A classic collection of essays by leading figures, looking at the problems and prospects of deliberative democracy.

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                                                                        • Fishkin, James S. When the People Speak: Deliberative Democracy and Public Consultation. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

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                                                                          A pioneering work examining the importance of greater public participation in democratic politics and how this can be fostered.

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                                                                          • Gutmann, Amy, and Dennis Thompson. Democracy and Disagreement. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996.

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                                                                            Maintains that deliberative democracy can help overcome the challenges of moral disagreement.

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                                                                            • Hibbing, John R., and Elizabeth Theiss-Morse. Stealth Democracy: Americans’ Beliefs about How Government Should Work. Cambridge Studies in Political Psychology and Public Opinion. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

                                                                              DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511613722Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                              An insightful and thought-provoking critique of deliberative politics, suggesting that citizens lack the desire for the deliberative politics that many deliberative democrats advocate.

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                                                                              • Parkinson, John. Deliberating in the Real World: Problems of Legitimacy in Deliberative Democracy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006.

                                                                                DOI: 10.1093/019929111X.001.0001Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                                A critical, but sympathetic, defense of deliberative politics, with a view to a multifaceted deliberative system.

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                                                                                • Pateman, Carole. Participation and Democratic Theory. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1970.

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                                                                                  A classic work that argues for greater public participation in democratic politics.

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                                                                                  • Putnam, Robert D. Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2000.

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                                                                                    Explores the decline of popular participation, with suggestions on how this may be reversed.

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                                                                                    • Richardson, Henry S. Democratic Authority: Public Reasoning about the Ends of Policy. Oxford Political Theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

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                                                                                      Gives an illuminating and novel account of democratic reasoning as a norm and as an institutional practice for securing democratic autonomy and avoiding bureaucratic domination.

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                                                                                      Democracy and Pragmatism

                                                                                      There is important work concerning the pragmatist tradition and democratic theory. Dewey 1954 is a classic text exploring the theoretical and practical tensions between the individual and the political collective in an influential analysis. Tan 2003 argues that it is possible to bring together Confucian ethics and Deweyan democracy to advance an intercultural theory of Confucian democracy. Talisse 2007 rejects Deweyan democracy in favor of a democratic pragmatism inspired by Charles Sanders Peirce that might better account for pluralism in modern societies. Posner 2003 critically assesses research on deliberative politics and popular participation in a pragmatic defense of a more robust view of existing democratic institutions. Talisse 2005 defends a pragmatist theory of deliberative democracy that distinguishes itself from other pragmatist accounts, such as those of Rorty and others.

                                                                                      • Dewey, John. The Public and Its Problems. New York: Holt, 1954.

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                                                                                        Explores the tensions between the individual and the political collective in a classic work of pragmatism and democratic theory.

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                                                                                        • Posner, Richard A. Law, Pragmatism, and Democracy. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003.

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                                                                                          Critically assesses research on deliberative politics and popular participation in a pragmatic defense of a more robust view of existing democratic institutions.

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                                                                                          • Talisse, Robert B. Democracy after Liberalism: Pragmatism and Deliberative Politics. New York: Routledge, 2005.

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                                                                                            Defends a pragmatist theory of deliberative democracy that distinguishes itself from earlier pragmatisms of others.

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                                                                                            • Talisse, Robert B. A Pragmatist Philosophy of Democracy. Routledge Studies in Contemporary Philosophy. New York: Routledge, 2007.

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                                                                                              Rejects Deweyan democracy in favor of a democratic pragmatism inspired by Charles Sanders Peirce that might better account for pluralism in modern societies.

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                                                                                              • Tan, Sor-hoon. Confucian Democracy: A Deweyan Reconstruction. Albany: State University of New York, 2003.

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                                                                                                Argues that it is possible to bring together Confucian ethics and Deweyan democracy to advance an intercultural theory of Confucian democracy.

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                                                                                                Critics

                                                                                                Democracy has been subjected to serious criticisms concerning its justification and desirability. Plato 1992 presents the earliest and most historically important arguments against democracy. The antidemocratic arguments of Plato and similar claims by G. W. F. Hegel are defended in Brooks 2006 in an account that develops further the elite theory of democracy. Schmitt 1985 is the work of an important, if controversial, modern critic of democracy, who offers powerful criticisms of representative democracy. Le Cheminant and Parrish 2011 explores the ways in which democratic decision making is open to manipulation in an excellent collection of essays by leading figures. Finally, Mackie 2003 provides a comprehensive analysis of the various criticisms of democracy and a thoroughgoing defense of democracy.

                                                                                                • Brooks, Thom. “Plato, Hegel, and Democracy.” Bulletin of the Hegel Society of Great Britain 53/54 (2006): 24–50.

                                                                                                  DOI: 10.2139/ssrn.932555Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                                                  Presents and defends antidemocratic arguments made by Plato and Hegel in an account that develops further the elite theory of democracy.

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                                                                                                  • Le Cheminant, Wayne, and John M. Parrish, eds. Manipulating Democracy: Democratic Theory, Political Psychology, and Mass Media. New York: Routledge, 2011.

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                                                                                                    Explores the ways in which democratic decision making is open to manipulation in an excellent collection of essays by leading figures.

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                                                                                                    • Mackie, Gerry. Democracy Defended. Contemporary Political Theory. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

                                                                                                      DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511490293Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                                                      Provides a comprehensive and thoroughgoing review of leading criticisms of democracy and a discussion of why these claims fail to undermine the justification of democracy.

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                                                                                                      • Plato. Republic. Translated by G. M. A. Grube. Edited by C. D. C. Reeve. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1992.

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                                                                                                        The earliest and most historically important arguments against democracy.

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                                                                                                        • Schmitt, Carl. The Crisis of Parliamentary Democracy. Translated by Ellen Kennedy. Studies in Contemporary German Social Thought. Cambridge, MA: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press, 1985.

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                                                                                                          English translation of Die geistesgeschichtliche Lage des heutigen Parlamentarismus, originally published in 1923 (Berlin: Duncker und Humblot). An important, if controversial, modern critic of democracy offers powerful criticisms of representative democracy.

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