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A Moving Target: Democracy

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  21 September 2011

John Markoff*
University of Pittsburgh [].
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Achieving consensus on a definition of “democracy” has proven elusive. Institutions that have been taken to be essential to democracy have changed radically since the word “democrat” began to be widely used toward the end of the eighteenth century. Democratic ideas and democratic practice engender conflict that transforms institutions rather than just reproduces them. Its transformative character rests on a half-dozen key attributes of democracy: it is an actor’s concept, as well as an analyst’s; it can arouse strong feelings; it combines not always compatible ideas; it empowers dissent; it involves a dynamic mixture of inclusion and exclusion; and the democratic histories of national states have been intertwined with global domination. Two processes combine to generate much social dynamism. First, democracy’s stirring inclusionary claims have been contradicted by a complex structure of exclusions, including distinctions in rights of full participation among citizens, distinctions in rights between citizens and non-citizens, and distinctions in resources among legally equal citizens. And second, democratic practice has been fertile soil for the development of social movements. Taken together, democracy is an invitation for movements to try to shift the boundaries of inclusion and exclusion, and in so doing to expand or constrict democracy itself.


Définir consensuellement la démocratie s’est révélé objectif fuyant. Les institutions jugées essentielles pour la démocratie ont radicalement changé depuis que, vers la fin du XVIIIe siècle, l’usage du terme démocrate s’est répandu. De la confrontation entre les idées démocratiques et la pratique naît un conflit qui transforme les institutions. Le potentiel de transformation repose sur une demi-douzaine d’attributs clés. Concept commun à l’acteur et à l’analyste, il peut susciter des engagements forts ; il combine des idées non nécessairement compatibles et peut générer de l’opposition ; il comporte un mélange dynamique d’inclusion et d’exclusion. Les États-Nations ont fait coexister démocratie et domination. Proclamations d’ouverture et exclusions (selon le niveau de ressources, entre hommes et femmes, citoyens et non-citoyens) forment un couple dynamique qui fait de la démocratie un terrain fertile pour le développement des mouvements sociaux.


Die Demokratie konsensuell zu definieren erweist sich als unbeständig. Seit Entstehen des Begriffs »Demokrat« im 18. Jahrhunderts haben sich die für die Demokratie als grundlegend erachteten Institutionen entscheidend verändert.

Der Zusammenstoß von demokratischen Ideen und Praxis führt zu einem die Institutionen verändernden Konflikt. Das Veränderungspotential basiert auf einem halben Dutzend von Schlüsselmerkmalen: es handelt sich sowohl um das Konzept eines Handelnden als auch eines Analytikers; es kann zu starken Gefühlen führen; es setzt sich aus nicht immer harmonierenden Ideen zusammen; es ruft Widerstand hervor; es besteht aus einer dynamischen Mischung von Ein- und Ausgrenzung und die demokratische Entwicklung der Nationalstaaten ist ohne Vorherrschaft undenkbar. Zwei Prozesse führen zu einer dynamischen Bewegung. Erstens sind die Öffnungsverkündigungen durch eine Serie von Ausgrenzungen, je nach Einkommensniveau, zwischen Bürgern und Nichtbürgern, zwischen Männern und Frauen, etc. widerlegt worden. Zweitens hat sich die demokratische Praxis als für soziale Bewegungen fruchtbarer Boden erwiesen. Derart können die Ein- und Ausgrenzungslinien verschoben und die Demokratie ausgebaut oder eingeschränkt werden.

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Copyright © A.E.S. 2011

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