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The Two Cultures of Democratic Theory: Responsiveness, Democratic Quality, and the Empirical-Normative Divide

  • Andrew Sabl

Empirical political scientists and normative political theorists both seek to assess the quality of democracy. But they apply to this task very different criteria and assumptions. Empiricists (in particular those who study American politics) often assume that a—perhaps the—key indicator of democratic quality is responsiveness, the degree to which policy outcomes reflect public opinion. They often cite “democratic theory” as endorsing this criterion. Normative theorists, however, all but universally reject responsiveness, proposing instead very different criteria of democratic quality. I document a divide between two research cultures; trace some of its causes; and suggest some ways of overcoming it so that scholars on each side may benefit from the insights of the other. Empiricists, I argue, should acknowledge that the responsiveness criterion is neither value-neutral nor, in its pure form, particularly persuasive. Theorists adduce other criteria for sound and commonsensical reasons. In particular, to the extent that empiricists find that policy outcomes reflect not median voter preferences but either random factors or the concerns of the wealthy and organized, they would render their findings more compelling by presenting them as troubling according to a variety of persuasive democratic theories, not just a stylized theory that posits pure responsiveness as its ideal. Normative theorists, I argue, may learn from empiricists greater respect for ordinary citizens’ existing opinions, however imperfect the social and political circumstances in which they originate. and greater concern regarding empirical evidence that the median voter’s opinions may have little independent effect on policy. In spite of all this, the two cultures remain properly distinct in many respects. Some substantial differences in approach reflect a necessary, permanent, and salutary division of labor between two very different modes of studying democracy and assessing its quality.

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