What do peasants in eighteenth-century England, African Americans in Reconstruction-era Virginia, mothers in Nicaragua and Argentina, and contemporary transnational activists have to do with one another? They all illustrate instances where marginalized groups challenge a lack of democracy or the limitations of existing democracy. Democracy is both a process and a product of struggles against power. Both the social capital literature and literature that focuses on democracy as a product of institutions can undervalue the actions of regular people who imagine a democratic world beyond anything that actually exists. The four cases examined in this article demonstrate that marginalized groups use a variety of performative and subversive methods to uproot the public sphere from its exclusionary history as they imagine, on their own terms, democratic possibilities that did not previously exist. In so doing, they plant the seeds of a more egalitarian public politics in new times and places. This process is “contentious pluralism,” and we ask political scientists in all subfields to look to popular movements and changing political structures as they explore the promise of democracy and to rethink the gap between democracy as an ideal and the ways in which people actually experience it.
The whole history of the progress of human liberty shows that all concessions yet made to her august claims have been born of earnest struggle. The conflict has been exciting, agitating, all-absorbing, and for the time being, putting all other tumults to silence. It must do this or it does nothing. If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation are men who want crops without plowing up the ground, they want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the roar of its waters. The struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without demand. It never did and it never will.
—Frederick DouglassQuotation from Dawson 2001, 259.