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A Problem-Based Approach to Democratic Theory

A Problem-Based Approach to Democratic Theory

by Mark E. Warren, University of British Columbia

Over the last few decades, democratic theory has grown dramatically in its power and sophistication, pushed by debates among models of democracy. But these debates are increasingly unproductive. Model-based strategies encourage theorists to overgeneralize the roles and functions of ideal typical features of democracy, such as elections or deliberation. This paper sketches an alternative strategy based on the question: What kinds of problems does a political system need to solve to count as “democratic”? There are three general kinds: it should empower inclusions, form collective agendas and wills, and have capacities to make collective decisions. We can view common practices such as voting and deliberating as means for addressing these problems, and theorize institutional mixes of practices that would maximize a political system’s democratic problem-solving capacities. The resulting theories will be both normatively robust and sufficiently fine-grained to frame democratic problems, possibilities, and deficits in complex polities.

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American Political Science Association / Volume 111 / Issue 1 / February 2017, pp. 39-53