Democracy theory

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Theories of democracy have been developed in various forms and intentions since ancient Greece and serve both to describe and assess democratic (and non-democratic) political systems. Theories of democracy are examined primarily in political theory and the history of ideas within political science .

Theories consist of conceptual systems, definitions and verifiable statements that serve to describe, explain and, if necessary, predict reality . Empirical-analytical theories of democracy want to explain the emergence and existence of democracy , while descriptive theories are limited to a value-neutral description of the actual state. Normative democracy theories also claim to evaluate existing structures and describe a target state.

Clarification of terms democracy

A conceptual historical review reveals the essential content of democracy . The word was coined in ancient Greece and comes from Demos (=  people , mass of the people, full citizenship) and kratein (= rule, exercise power). Both together result in the rule of the people or the rule of the many, which means the exercise of power by the demos . With people is meant the state people , not an ethnic affiliation.

Such a rule is described with Lincoln's famous Gettysburg formula from 1863: "Government of the people, by the people, for the people." Democratic rule that is considered legitimate therefore emanates from the state people (of) and is (directly or indirectly ) exercised (by) and to the demand for the interest and thus for the benefit of this demos be (for) .

Most attempts to define each represent one of the many aspects of democracy at the center: popular sovereignty , equality , participation , majority domination, tolerance , Domination control, fundamental rights , separation of powers , rule of law , elections , pluralism u. v. a.


The premodern concept of democracy

The establishment of democracy was an achievement of ancient Greece; Attic democracy was the first form of government based on the breadth of the population. A systematic theory of popular rule or popular sovereignty was nevertheless not produced in Athens, although the literary and artistic works of Plato , Aristotle , Thucydides , or Aeschylus - as well as inscribed evidence - definitely prove that one is aware of the peculiarity and the Functional principles of one's own form of rule was aware.

Scheme of forms of government
according to Aristotle (Pol. III, 6-8)
Number of
Common good Selfishness
One monarchy Tyranny
Some aristocracy oligarchy
All Politics democracy

Until the French Revolution , however, democracy was only an example of one possible form of government. The founder of political philosophy, Plato, describes in his Politeia the moderate aristocracy and the constitutional monarchy as the best form of government and puts nomocracy (rule of laws ) in second place . He rejects the democracy of his time because it does not correspond to the human being and is full of disorder.

In his “ Politics ”, his student Aristotle also counts democracy in his six-digit typology among the three degenerate forms of government. He differentiates in this how many people rule and whether good (i.e. according to the nature of the rule) is governed. The good state constitutions have the welfare of all in mind (monarchy - sole rule, aristocracy - rule of the best, politics - rule of the reasonable members of society), while the degenerate ones only have their self-interest ( tyranny , oligarchy , democracy). For almost two millennia, this classification served as the basis for a negative attitude towards the idea of ​​popular rule, but overlooked the fact that the politics favored by Aristotle contains many elements of today's positive understanding of democracy and his thinking in general is not simply anti - was shaped by democracy, as his " summation theory " shows.

In addition, Aristotle provided a differentiated theory of democracy and its forms within the framework of his so-called second theory of the form of the state .

For the political thinkers of the premodern, democracy, contrary to the experiences made in Athens, for example, was simply an unstable form of government (cf. Thomas Hobbes, for example ). The central position of Christian natural law in political thought in the Middle Ages also had an adverse effect on democratic ideas, since the orderly secular state had to imitate the strictly hierarchical structure of the divine world order (for example, with Thomas Aquinas ).

Term upgrading in the wake of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution

Before, during and after the French Revolution , the level of literacy increased significantly, so that the liberal and democratic ideas that had been discussed in intellectual circles since the 17th century could be received by broad sections of the population. In addition to the emergence of the first political ideologies of the new political- social movements , this also led to a more positive evaluation of democracy. Democracy was no longer a mere form of government, but also expressed the desire for bourgeois-liberal autonomy and participation , and increasingly also for social equality . The demand for political equality was particularly focused on the right to vote . From antiquity to the early 20th century, only a small part of the male population belonged to the voting demos . Women, slaves, people without their own property or even strangers (e.g. Aristotle in the Athens polis ) were not allowed to vote, back then quite “naturally”. One of the most important theories about rule, separation of powers and civil, constitutional and international law was put forward by the enlightened Montesquieu . His work is considered one of the foundations of later democratic theories.

Categorization of democracy theories: "empirical" vs. "normative"

Empirical theories want to show what democracy is , normative theories what democracy should be . Such a distinction is usually associated with further attributions.

According to this, empirical democracy theories usually have a weak concept of democracy, advocate the principle of representation and the rather low participation of citizens. They also often have a pluralistic view of society.

Normative theories, on the other hand, proclaim a demanding, strong concept of democracy (“strong democracy”, Benjamin Barber ) and tend to fall back on forms of strong, direct citizen participation. In at least some of these theories, society is understood as "identitarian" in the sense of communitarianism , as a democratic community of values.

This separation is by no means absolute, normative theories naturally arise from actual experience and contain empirical "pillars", empirical theories contain basic normative assumptions despite mostly opposing rhetoric . For analytical purposes, however, the distinction is still useful.

Empirical theories of democracy

Examples of empirical democracy theories include the Federalist Papers and the considerations of Alexis de Tocqueville, initially conceptions that arose from dealing with the real system of the young USA. They are therefore more practice-oriented and have a journalistic character in the first case and a literary character in the second case.

Another category consists of minimalist theories or elite theories , as they are initially presented by Max Weber and Joseph Schumpeter , later developed economically by Anthony Downs in his work An Economic Theory of Democracy or more recently by Adam Przeworski . The only possibility of democratic participation, the only “democratic process” here is the choice of leadership.

Other empirical theories of democracy operate under the broad label of pluralism, such as the views of Ernst Fraenkel or Robert Dahl ( polyarchy ). There, the competition of numerous (plural) social interests for political influence is primarily discussed.

Finally, from a systems- theoretical perspective, there are also democratic-theoretical considerations. First and foremost, the name Niklas Luhmann should be mentioned here, who stripped democracy of any normativity, at least according to its claim, and thus sought to create a “far from utopia”, really empirical theory of democracy within the framework of his universal theory of social systems.

Normative democracy theories

see: Legitimation

An important basic idea of ​​democracy can be found in the 18th century, the age of the Enlightenment : The order of the political community should be based on the equality of its members. Therefore every citizen has to participate with his / her vote in the political and legal decisions of this community (one man, one vote) . In this way everyone should have a say in questions of law and justice in a free competition of convictions. Rousseau's conception of popular sovereignty and the ' Volonté Générale ' ( identity theory of democracy ) essentially correspond to this model of democracy . Many of the subsequent theories of democracy go back to him.

The modern theorist who most directly refers to the Enlightenment thinker Rousseau is the American Benjamin Barber with his concept of “strong democracy”. In addition to the theoretical justification of direct democracy and a “democratic community of values”, Barber makes specific suggestions as to how his theory could be put into practice.

Another strong trend is deliberative democracy , which was particularly pushed in Germany by the philosopher Jürgen Habermas . It is about tying political decisions to public opinions that have come about through rational discussion ("deliberation"). Habermas has found numerous imitators and others, in Germany for example Rainer Schmalz-Bruns (“Reflexive Democracy”).

In addition, feminist theories of democracy also exist in this sector , which assume a prevailing social and economic disadvantage for women and demand the democratization of more and more social spheres, such as the world of work and, last but not least, the private sphere. Important representatives are Anne Phillips and Iris Marion Young .

Social choice theory

For the theoretical analysis of democratically constituted societies, model-theoretical investigations have gained increasing importance. A theoretical model of the political process is designed in which different assumptions are made:

  • on the institutions and norms prescribed by the constitution (government, parliament, electoral law, etc.),
  • on the different types of actors (voters, parties, professional politicians, etc.),
  • the behavior of the actors (the voters choose the party whose program best suits their economic interests, the parties want to win the elections, the politicians want to get government offices, etc.).

There are also further assumptions, e.g. B. on information and decision costs.

Certain results can now be derived from these hypothetical assumptions. From his model, Downs derived that when there is competition for a majority capable of governing, two large parties or political camps emerge whose programs approach the “middle” (median) voter (see median voter theorem ).

There are also theoretical model studies in the field of coalition formation . Here, the Condorcet winner plays an important role, which always prevails if everyone involved acts rationally .

Model theories can - as with Downs - serve to explain empirically determined properties of democratic systems. However, they can also be used in a normative manner. If the model produces desirable results - such as B. the enforcement of the majority alternative - is this an argument to create the conditions in political reality that were assumed in the model.

Democracy Theory at the International Level

Representatives who deal with democracy at international level are difficult to classify in this scheme. There, too, there are more “empirical” and more “normative” approaches. The former includes Fritz Scharpf , who is looking for an intermediate path in the field of tension between the poles of utopia and adaptation (the title of his basic work on democracy theory). While Scharpf focuses heavily on democracy within the European Union , David Held expands democratic governance worldwide and intercultural, and speaks of a "cosmopolitan democracy". With such a universalist claim, Held (together with Daniele Archibugi, who sometimes argues in a utopian way) is one of the “normative” representatives of internationally oriented democratic theory.

Jens Peter Paul examined in his dissertation (published 2007) the German history of the euro and its democratic theoretical quality.

Transcultural Democracy Theory

Comparative research on democracy has so far mostly assumed a globally comparable understanding of the concept of democracy. In large population surveys , especially in the World Values ​​Survey, a concept of democracy is used, which goes back to the liberal understanding of democracy by Robert Alan Dahl . Within the transcultural political theory, the assumption of a comparable understanding of democracy is questioned. With reference to empirical data from the Global Barometer Project, in which the meaning of the concept of democracy is queried in an open question, the representatives of this research direction argue that understandings of democracy differ from one another depending on cultural context conditions, but also on linguistic differences worldwide. Sophia Schubert's argument, for example, is based on empirically ambiguous findings that point to a certain universality, but also to a plurality and hybridity in the attribution of meaning to the concept of democracy. Studies on the concept of democracy in China show a completely different understanding of democracy from the Western one. In population surveys, 70% of the population say they are satisfied with the democracy in which they live. According to Freedom House , however, China is not a democratic system. It is therefore questionable to assume that the concept of democracy is universal in comparative research . In order to methodically relativize the problem of universalism, the authors of Transcultural Democracy Research suggest integrating qualitative methods into the research design of comparative research. In this way, the local context and the differences in meaning in the different languages ​​are taken into account.

For legitimation

Vittorio Hösle points out that the legitimation of a constitutional state lies outside of its own reach, to a certain extent. “Every constitutional law presupposes a constitution - it cannot answer the question of what legitimizes a constitution with its means any more than mathematics can mathematically justify its axioms . [...] The fact that the Constituent Assembly (= constituent assembly) that drafted the constitution, emerged from general elections, their work may perhaps be morally justified; it can lead to a social legitimacy of their outcome; but for a legal constitutional doctrine this fact is irrelevant. ”The legitimation for the existence of a state and its respective constitution, for example a democratic one, can therefore only come from philosophy.

John David Garcia expresses one of the many misunderstandings about democratic rule , also reinforced by media coverage : "It is a cruel form of self-deception to believe that decisions reached by a large majority are automatically ethical and right." Rather, modern democracy theories assume a pluralistic society in which the political (majority) decisions result as a possible compromise between the many different (legitimate) individual interests.

Important thinkers of democratic theory

See also


  • Oliver wing, Reinhard Heil, Andreas Hetzel (Hrsg.): The return of the political. Democracy Theories Today. Scientific Book Society Darmstadt, Darmstadt 2004, ISBN 3-534-17435-6 .


Overview works

  • Peter Massing , Gotthard Breit (ed.): Theories of democracy. From antiquity to the present. Texts and interpretations. 8th edition, Bonn 2011. (Very clear. Concise text excerpts with just as concise, but apt comments), ISBN 978-3-89974-640-2 .
  • Dieter Oberndörfer , Beate Rosenzweig (Ed.): Classical State Philosophy. Texts and introductions. Munich 2000. (The chapter on Rousseau contains the most important text excerpts with a brief introduction.)
  • Giovanni Sartori : Democracy Theory. 3rd edition, Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, Darmstadt 2006, ISBN 978-3-534-19609-8 . (Standard work, discussion of the central problems in the field of democracy and democratic theory)
  • Richard Saage: Democracy Theories . Historical process - theoretical development - socio-technical conditions. An introduction. With an introductory essay by Walter Euchner : On the necessity of a history of ideas in democracy. Wiesbaden, 2005, ISBN 3-531-14722-6 .
  • Manfred G. Schmidt : Democracy Theories. An introduction. 5th edition, Wiesbaden 2010, ISBN 978-3-531-17310-8 . (Both normative and empirical textbook)
  • Francis Cheneval: Introductory Theories of Democracy. Hamburg, Junius Verlag, 2015. ISBN 978-3-88506-701-6 .

Contributions of important democracy theorists

  • Angela Adams, Willy Paul Adams (Eds.): Hamilton, Madison, Jay. The Federalist Articles. Paderborn 1994. (The Federalist articles in one volume with a useful introduction)
  • Benjamin Barber : Strong Democracy. About participation in politics. Hamburg 1994.
  • Robert Dahl : Democracy and its Critics. New Haven, London 1989. (Clearest summary of his reflections on democracy theory)
  • Anthony Downs : Economic Theory of Democracy. Tübingen 1968. (Downs in German translation with instructive introduction)
  • Ernst Fraenkel : Germany and the Western Democracies. Frankfurt am Main 1991. (Numerous seminal articles in this anthology. To name just one: "Democracy and Public Opinion")
  • Jürgen Habermas : factuality and validity. Frankfurt am Main 1998.
  • Johannes Heinrichs : Revolution of Democracy. A real utopia. Berlin 2003, 2nd edition Sankt Augustin 2014.
  • David Held: Democracy and the Global Order. From the Modern State to Cosmopolitan Governance. Cambridge 1995.
  • Barbara Holland-Cunz: Feminist Democracy Theory. Opladen 1998. (Basic introduction to positions in feminist democratic theory)
  • Hans Kelsen: On the nature and value of democracy. 2nd edition, Tübingen 1929.
  • Niklas Luhmann : The future of democracy. In: Sociological Enlightenment. 4. Opladen 1987.
  • Ingeborg Maus : To clarify the democratic theory. Legal and democratic theoretical considerations following Kant. Suhrkamp, ​​Frankfurt 1992.
  • Adam Przeworski : Minimalist Conception of Democracy. A Defense. In: Ian Shapiro, Casiano Hacker-Cordon (Ed.): Democracy's Value. Cambridge 1999, pp. 23-55. (Since Przeworski has hardly been translated into German so far and since he expresses his position very precisely in this defense, this rather short article is recommended at the beginning.)
  • Fritz Scharpf : Democracy in Transnational Politics. In: Wolfgang Streeck (ed.): International economy, national democracy. Frankfurt am Main 1998, pp. 151-174. (Brief, precise reproduction of Scharpf's position on democratic theory)
  • Rainer Schmalz-Bruns: Reflexive Democracy. Baden-Baden 1995. (Tries to lift Habermas’s approach to a more practical level)
  • Joseph Schumpeter : Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy. 2nd edition, Munich 1950. (Schumpeter in the original, on the theory of democracy in particular the explanations on pages 397-450)
  • Alexis de Tocqueville : On Democracy in America. Munich 1976. (Newer edition in German translation, easy to read)
  • Max Weber : Collected Political Writings. 1921. New edition, Tübingen 1988. (Weber's comments on democracy theory are not available in concentrated book form. The essays "Parliament and Government in reorganized Germany" and "Suffrage and Democracy in Germany" in this volume are recommended.)
  • Iris Marion Young : The political community and the group difference. In: Herta Nagl-Docekal, Herlinde Pauer-Studer (Ed.): Beyond gender morality. Frankfurt am Main 1993. (One of the founders of feminist democratic theory investigates the connection between citizenship and gendering.)

Web links

Individual evidence

  1. Jens Peter Paul (dissertation, 2007): Balance of a failed communication. Case studies on the German history of the development of the euro and its democratic-theoretical quality [ full text (PDF, 344 pp.)]
  2. Schubert, Sophia: To what extent is it universal? On the concept of democracy in comparative research on democracy . In: De La Rosa, Sybille / Schubert, Sophia / Zapf, Holger (eds.): Transcultural political theory . Springer Fachmedien, Wiesbaden 2016, ISBN 978-3-658-05010-8 , pp. 285-303 .
  3. ^ Jie Lu, Tianjian Shi: The battle of ideas and discourses before democratic transition: Different democratic conceptions in authoritarian China . In: International Political Science Review . tape 36 , no. 1 , October 3, 2014, p. 20–41 , doi : 10.1177 / 0192512114551304 ( [accessed January 18, 2017]).
  4. ^ Frederic Charles Schaffer: Thin Descriptions: The Limits of Survey Research on the Meaning of Democracy . In: Polity . tape 46 , no. 3 , August 18, 2014, ISSN  0032-3497 , p. 303-330 , doi : 10.1057 / pol.2014.14 ( [accessed January 18, 2017]).
  5. ^ Susanne Hoeber Rudolph: The Imperialism of Categories: Situating Knowledge in a Globalizing World . In: Perspectives on Politics . tape 3 , no. 1 , March 1, 2005, ISSN  1541-0986 , p. 5-14 , doi : 10.1017 / S1537592705050024 ( [accessed January 18, 2017]).
  6. Vittorio Hösle: Moral and Politics , CH Beck, p. 639.