🦋 What democracy should be for us

by Agustín Goenaga, The Loop
October 27, 2021

Jean-Paul Gagnon’s project to collect a ‘lexicon of democracy’ is promising. But not for the reasons he himself states, writes Agustín Goenaga. His database documents how thousands of people have thought about democracy. We can use those insights to reconsider what democracy should be for us

Jean-Paul Gagnon has proposed to build a lexicon of democracy. His proposal has sparked a discussion about the promises and pitfalls of applying positivist research methods to elucidate the nature of democracy. I agree with those who think that a ‘data mountain’ will not get us closer to answering what democracy is. But it may nonetheless help us address two other pressing questions: What shapes people’s ideas about democracy? And, what should democracy be for us?

Democracy as an ideal

Many in the profession appear sceptical of Gagnon’s proposal. But their scepticism seems to be less about the data and more about the question he proposes to answer with it.

Gagnon argues that without a full understanding of the myriad ways people have talked about democracy, we can draw only incomplete, partial and arbitrary pictures of what it is. This presupposes there is a definition of democracy we could grasp if only we collect, measure and classify every way democracy has been conceived.

However, the problem is not only that democracy is complex and multi-dimensional, and thus difficult to capture in its every manifestation. The problem is also that it is a normative concept. Definitions of democracy are partial, not because they are incomplete, but because they entail subjective judgments that emphasise certain values, institutions, practices, or social relations, and downplay others.

When political scientists ask ‘what is democracy?’, they often seek to clarify the shared understanding of democracy among members of a specific epistemic community. Or, they set out to propose an alternative view of what they think democracy is about. In both cases, the goal is to provide an ideal yardstick against which to evaluate ‘actually existing’ political arrangements.

Robert Dahl aimed to develop a normative ideal to evaluate political regimes based on preferences for certain values and practices

Take, for example, Robert Dahl’s work. Dahl did not survey all theories of democracy because his purpose was not to build a definition of the concept that could capture every specimen. His goal, rather, was to develop a normative ideal to evaluate political regimes based on his preferences for certain values and practices. He famously coined the term polyarchy to describe societies that approximated that ideal but inevitably remained short of attaining it.

What positivist research methods can do

Positivist research methods focus on the collection and analysis of empirical data. As such, they are not well suited to adjudicate between competing normative ideals, such as those that feed debates about what democracy is or should be. Positivist methods’ contribution to the study of democracy lies instead in their ability to identify and explain empirical regularities. Through them, we can better understand what factors push communities closer or further from whatever ideals we settle on.

Gagnon’s data mountain will not tell us much about what democracy is. However, it can put on display the range of normative ideals that others have attached to democracy

Hence, Gagnon’s databank of the vocabulary of democracy will not tell us much about what democracy is. However, it can put on display the range of normative ideals that others have attached to democracy. This can help us answer other questions that may be even more pressing for our current democratic challenges.

What shapes people’s ideas about democracy?

First, we can collect the texts and metadata (dates, times, sources, actors, etc.) of discussions about democracy. By so doing, we can learn what shapes people’s ideas about it. Recent studies suggest that people hold different understandings of democracy. They prioritise different practices and institutions, and expect democratic arrangements to solve different kinds of problems.

Michael Hansen and I analysed data from the European Social Survey. We found that women tend to consider more important for democracy those practices and institutions less likely to reproduce broader gender inequalities, such as direct participation through referendums. In other work, I have found that members of sexual and cultural minorities in Europe are more likely than the rest of the population to consider public spheres in which alternative perspectives can be voiced a central component of democracy.

A large corpus of democracy-related texts offers another way, free from the restrictions of survey data, to study how conceptions of democracy vary across people, time, and cultures. By applying Natural Language Processing techniques and other methods of content analysis to Gagnon’s databank, we could answer a number of questions: When is the language of democracy used to promote restrictive notions of citizenship? In what contexts are references to representation, participation, equality or accountability more prominent in discussions about democracy? Which actors are more likely to refer to deliberation rather than voting when talking about democracy?

Reinventing democracy

Second, a repository of conceptions of democracy can serve as the point of departure for comparative democratic theory. Every time someone uses the word ‘democracy’, they evoke values, institutions, practices, and social relations they associate with democratic decision-making.

Every time someone uses the word ‘democracy’, they evoke values, institutions, practices, and social relations they associate with democratic decision-making

Gagnon urges us to critically explore a wide array of alternative conceptions of democracy. This, I believe, would give us more resources to think about what we do and don’t want our democracy to be.

For instance, we could reconsider which kinds of normative problems our political systems should solve to count as democratic; and rediscover forgotten or overlooked practices and institutions that have served democratic functions in other contexts. We could also interrogate what kinds of social relations we should democratise: from the family, to the workplace, to our relationship with nature.

Not a museum, but an archive

Gagnon is not a butterfly collector but the youngest of the Brothers Grimm. He is not collecting and dissecting dead specimens, but stories charged with meaning, dead-ends, mistakes, tragedies, hopes, and ideals. That is the most promising aspect of his proposal. It does not create a museum of natural history. Rather, it creates a living archive, one that offers us a way to study how thousands of people have thought about democracy. We must use its insights to reconsider what democracy should be for us.

Twenty-second in a Loop thread on the science of democracy. Look out for the 🦋 to read more in our series

This article was originally published at The Loop and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

Citizens in the West should care about discriminatory immigration policies

File 20190207 174864 6kolv3.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
In this October 2015 photo, German federal police officers guide a group of migrants on their way after crossing the border between Austria and Germany. Once granted citizenship, newcomers face near-impossible hurdles to reunite their families.
(AP Photo/Matthias Schrader)

Antje Ellermann, University of British Columbia and Agustín Goenaga, Lund University

An executive order banning citizens from several Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States ushered in the first major policy conflict of U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration.

Demonstrations quickly spread across airports as prominent Democrats, some Republicans and American diplomats publicly condemned the order.

The so-called Muslim ban evoked a disturbing history of discrimination in immigration policy that many had believed was a thing of the past.

But even though the Muslim ban was unusual in its explicitness, our research shows that discriminatory immigration policies remain fairly common among liberal democracies.

Discriminatory policies range from the selective requirement of language tests and minimum income levels for family unification to admission restrictions against people with disabilities. These policies produce patterns of discrimination that not only harm prospective immigrants, but also many citizens.

Racist immigration policies common

From the late 19th century to the aftermath of the Second World War, western democracies enacted openly racist policies of immigrant selection. Most famously, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 prohibited all immigration from China to the United States. Similar bans targeting people with disabilities and the poor were not uncommon.

It was only with the geopolitical changes that followed the Second World War and the rise of the Civil Rights movement in the U.S. that those policies were repealed and replaced by those based on meritocratic values and respect for human rights.

But was the era of discriminatory immigration policy truly over? Unfortunately, liberal democracies continue to discriminate, intentionally and unintentionally, in ways that often have severe impacts on the lives of citizens. Let us cite a few examples from our recent research.

Income, language requirements

Some European countries impose high income and language requirements for family unification that can cause long periods of forced family separation.

In the Netherlands, these requirements have added an average of 15 months to the separation of families. In Britain, an estimated 15,000 children with British citizenship are separated from one of their parents or forced to live outside of the U.K. as a result of high income requirements.

Income requirements are particularly burdensome for certain groups.

In Britain, the income threshold to bring in a foreign spouse is ₤18,600, or about US$24,100, and adding a dependent child, ₤22,400 (US$29,300). While the median income of a white British man is ₤24,000 (US$31,000), the median income of a woman of Pakistani origin is ₤9,700 (US$12,500).

In Germany and the Netherlands, foreign spouses have to pass a written and oral language tests before they are allowed into the country. However, many applicants fail the test, especially those with poor formal education or learning disabilities.

Target specific groups

The disparate impact of these policies is not only the result of broader inequalities present in society. In some cases, these policies are strategically used to target specific groups. In Germany and the Netherlands, pre-entry language tests were designed to reduce the immigration of young and poorly educated Muslim women from Turkey and Morocco.

In this March 2017 photo, rosary beads are displayed for selling next to a mannequin wearing a headscarf in a market stall at The Hague, The Netherlands.
(AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti)

To add insult to injury, certain kinds of immigrants are exempt from these requirements. In Norway, foreign skilled workers — but not Norwegian citizens with foreign spouses — are exempt from the income requirement in order to sponsor their husband or wife.

In Germany, the family members of highly qualified foreign workers — but not the foreign family members of German workers — are exempt from the language tests, as are nationals from 13 mostly western countries.

As a result of these policies and their exemptions, certain groups of law-abiding, tax-paying citizens are more likely to be separated from their spouses and children. This is one way in which immigration policy can discriminate not only against prospective migrants, but also against citizens.

Similarly, most countries have in place “excessive demand” restrictions to exclude potential immigrants who are likely to impose a high demand on public services. Citizens with disabilities and medical conditions are particularly affected by these policies.

Some restrictions eased

Several recent reforms have lowered the severity of excessive restrictions in countries like Canada.

Read more:
Finally, some changes to health-based discrimination in Canadian immigration law

However, advocacy groups such as the Council of Canadians with Disabilities continue to argue that anything short of a complete repeal of this policy is based on prejudiced views that deny the contributions that people with disabilities make to society.

These policies certainly discriminate against some groups of prospective migrants, and that in itself could be enough to criticize them. However, contrary to popular opinion, a country’s immigration policy affects its own citizens in both good and bad ways. Policies that discriminate against immigrants on the basis of their race, gender, class, religion, sexual orientation or nationality infringe on civil rights and stigmatize many citizens.

In the past, legal and political activism by citizens has been crucial for the repeal of explicitly racist policies. Citizens have been able to push back some of the more heinous aspects of the Muslim ban, for example.

It is precisely for this reason that it’s important to unearth how forms of discrimination that may be invisible to the general public undermine citizens’ rights and position in society.The Conversation

Antje Ellermann, Associate Professor of Political Science and Director of the Institute for European Studies, University of British Columbia and Agustín Goenaga, Research fellow, Lund University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.