Questions about the New Democratic Theory
[This conversation with David Held was our second. The first, on cosmopolitanism and democracy, appears here. For the second, I traveled from Toronto to London in early 2012 and met with him at his (then) London School of Economics office (I remember a football jersey, signed, in a frame, resting against an amazing library) to talk about my feeling that the study of democracy, its theoretical grounding, was moving into a new direction. That conversation is given here, in full. If you’d like to read it in its first curation you can find it in the book Democratic Theorists in Conversation: Turns in Contemporary Thought.]
Gagnon: How do you define democracy?
Held: I have written about democracy for quite a long period of time. The simple concept of democracy means ‘rule’ ‘by’ the ‘people’ or ‘rulership by the people’. The problem with this simple idea, though, is that you have to break down each of these terms: the nature of ‘rule’ and ‘by’ and ‘people’. So ‘rule by the people’ sounds at first glance clear enough, but these terms are highly complex and democracy has a complex, theoretical discourse – a philosophical discourse – that has gone on over time concerning these and related ideas.
I see democracy as, essentially, a family of related concepts that places at its heart the idea that legitimate government should be accountable government; that is, accountable to citizens. How we specify this, and how we break down these terms, is where much of the philosophical argument lies. In my own work I have tried to set out different models of this notion; my book, Models of Democracy (2006), sets out at least a dozen different models. I can not possibly set these all out right out now, but Models of Democracy traces the idea through antiquity, and then as it is reborn as Republicanism in the early Renaissance period, again as it is reborn through Liberalism and Liberalism’s challenge to the state, again as it is reborn through modern social science – particularly political science, competitive elitism, pluralism and so on – and then again as it is reborn more recently, as deliberative democracy and other more recent incarnations. You have a family of quite profoundly variable conceptions of democracy, from antiquity through to the modern state and beyond.
I think there have been three basic revolutions in thinking about democracy: the first links the idea of democracy to the city-state; the second, of course, to the nation state; and the third, which is prominent in my own work, thinks about democracy beyond borders. These are the key three shifts. The first is some version of direct democracy. The second, of course, is representative democracy, and the third I call (with others) cosmopolitan democracy.
Gagnon: Reflexive modernization plays a substantive role in the theory of cosmopolitan democracy. Political actors – whether individuals or institutions – think about themselves and their behaviour in a ‘borderless’
democracy: this, certain scholars argue, leads to change in the democratic ethos (see, for example, Ong, 2006; Sørensen, 2012; and Bohman, 2004). Individual citizens, for example, from local polities unite with other citizens from distant places to form types of demoi not seen in earlier history; corporations change their public relations in one country due to unfavourable political resistance in another as a pre-emptive move to alleviate market risks; and national political parties shift strategies because of new effective methods seen at local, state or multinational levels of governance.
Cosmopolitan democracy is not static. It changes. And these changes affect other forms of democracy and their institutional structures. But what is reflexive modernization?
Held: There are two terms here: ‘reflexive’ and ‘modernization’. Let me start with modernization. ‘Modernization’, as I understand it, refers to a process that began from the late sixteenth century. This process involved the separation of state from society and led to the emergence of what we call the modern state: that is, a political apparatus separate from ruler and ruled. It is a political body sui generis that can be represented in its earliest developmental forms as constitutionalism, the rule of law and the possibility of democracy.
Modernization refers to social, economic and political processes which are embedded in the modern state. Sometimes this was a domestic matter, a struggle within the borders of a state to shape the nature of politics between warring factions within the ruling classes. Sometimes this occurred between the ruling classes and other classes seeking to determine the nature and form of politics. Liberal democracy was the ultimate victor because the modern state became shaped as a modern liberal democratic state. But of course some of these struggles were not just internal to the state.
Some of them were external and led to empire, colonization and the projection of violence from Europe outwards and so there is a paradox in the process of modernity. It is the beginning of a creation of the rights and duties of citizenship, the celebration of citizenship within the borders of states and, at the same time, the negation of these very same rights for those who were subject to empire, subject to colony, and subject to violent dispossession.
The process of modernization has often been taken to be a process of the inevitable development of modernity; slowly replacing previous forms of historical life. But what we know from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries is that society’s politics cannot be reduced to a singular logic, whether it is the logic once attributed to God or capitalism or the working classes or the party. Subjects often have plural identities which can create complex politics – often irreducibly complex – and this connects to the second concept: the notion of reflexivity. Reflexivity is the recognition that agents create their own histories (as Karl Marx put it), not always in circumstances of their own choosing. But as Anthony Giddens would put it, agents create their own histories by reflexively constituting their environment. So social and political orders are made by social agents of diverse kinds, and in this process of the making and remaking of social and political orders, parties and political structures are open to transformation. They are, at the core, not determined, but indeterminate. And that gives rise to choices in politics, complexity in politics, indeterminacy and so on.
So while the theories of politics in the nineteenth century often would tie into evolutionary logics, we understand at the end of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first century that modernity, such as it is, is inherently reflexive. That means modernity is inherently indeterminate without necessarily having an evolutionary logic or telos. Therefore, it is much more open to the contingencies of politics that were once often assumed.
Gagnon: This portrayal of plastic, reflexive, modernity is a precursor to another concept of growing importance for political praxes today. As you touched on, the reflexive modernity that came out of Europe over hundreds of years brought with it both good and evil. Part of the evil came from orientalist worldviews constructed by Europeans. Conditions for modernity were developed and had to be extrapolated globally – through empire. Ignorant people, backward people, and non-Christians had to be saved. This became a universality of modernity. There was only one way forward and colonies, citizens or subjects had to conform.
That specific narrative, still observable today in the way approaches to democracy are foisted on diverse citizenries, has met with increasing resistance. Post-foundationalist, radical democrats (think, for example, of the emphasis ‘resistance’ has in the works of Chantal Mouffe), or post-universalists argue – as you did – about the irreducible complexity of things like democracy. The tenuous one, true and scientific model of democracy cannot be logically created in a specific place, through specific histories and specific thinking: this kind of construct has to come from all peoples, all places, all histories and all thinking. What we are seeing today, and have been seeing for some time then, is the resistance to foundational narratives arising from Europe’s experiences in the reflexive modernization that occurred before 1945. For the sake of simplicity, let us choose post-universality as our working concept.
My conceptualization of post-universality comes mostly from my conversation with Ulrich Beck. In this book he explains post-universality as something that corrects normative accounts of universality. It is often referred to in the literature concerning the critique of the so-called triumph of liberal constitutional American democracy and the dominance of that democratic practice throughout the world. This school of thought has pronounced ‘this is democracy as we know it. This is how it should be universally.’ But that is not a legitimate argument – one cannot possibly say that ‘this is democracy’ without making a robust non-parochial case for it. So post-universality is an attempt to get past the type of universality that makes these grand pronouncements based on flawed logic.
To get into this ‘post stage’, it is necessary to recognize the age of uncertainty, to recognize the pluriverse as John Keane had put it, to recognize parochialisms, and to take all of the different strands of modernity, of democracy, and look at them from the perspective of trying to
order chaos. This too must engage post-modernist arguments that have targeted certain constructions of pluralism and relativity in the social sciences; arguing that they are still too exclusive. Michel Foucault and Donna Haraway, for example, offer heterotopy and heterochrony. These must form part of any methodology trying to define a post-universal term so as to ensure that the broadest net is cast when collecting and analysing data.
Held: I think there are two issues here. One is the recognition of the age of uncertainty, the other is pluralism. These concepts allow us to unmask the arrogant claims of those that would impute, from a point of view of power, a false universality in politics and in the wider world. The claims of empires to universality, or of Western Christendom to universality, or of today’s radical Islam to universality, or of American interests to universality: these are power-based universalities that mask sectional positions or sectional beliefs or sectional interests.
So an important task of the social scientist is to unmask those false universalities which are driven by a logic of power. But having said that, I think we need to distinguish between types of universalities and also between types of complex empirical realities as they impact our understanding of the relationship between universal principles and everyday practice. I take a view in my work on cosmopolitanism, which might be already known to some of your readers, that cosmopolitanism makes a claim to universality. This is because its essential principles define and create the space for pluralism. This kind of cosmopolitanism is, at its
root, the condition of pluralism. And pluralism is about the development
and expression of diversity and difference.
Pluralism is also about the tolerance of a diversity of values and standpoints. It is about a world that recognizes the equal standing and rights of each and every person and of groups to explore their identities and politics in the manner that they choose. But if this manner is to be just and fair, and if this manner is to be non-violent, then underpinning pluralism must be a set of principles which define the possibility of pluralism as a non-violent form of discourse in the first place. And in my view, the conditions of cosmopolitanism are also the conditions of pluralism. The essential principles of cosmopolitanism are the principles
of equal moral worth of each and every human being, and of the primacy of the active human agency capable of making moral and social choices, of consent and deliberation, as the basis of non-coercive forms of politics. These principles are the condition for the development of plural forms of discourse, the diversity of voice, and of the circumstances whereby diversity can flourish without recourse to violence.
So, to me, the principles of cosmopolitanism are the underlying principles of pluralism. They are two sides of the same coin. So to come back to your question, I remain an Enlightenment universalist in fundamental ways. I think the principles of cosmopolitanism recognize the primacy of the equal worth or value of each and every human being. Cosmopolitanism specifies the conditions for plural forms of life to flourish without resort to coercion and violence.
Gagnon: I would like to follow this line of inquiry by asking how your position relates to Ulrich Beck and Edgar Grande’s call for a cosmopolitan turn in the social sciences. This call was made in September of 2010, published by the British Journal of Sociology. In it we were not given a unique model for a cosmopolitan method. This, I reason, was done on purpose so as to let the academy interpret Beck and Grande’s arguments to which I presume they shall return in due course.
Held: Let me start by answering whether I agree with Beck and Grande’s argument. My answer is that I agree in part. Let us take the example of inequality. When one maps inequality in the social sciences and examines its changing nature and form, you could just look at inequality within the borders of states. This is characteristically measured by the Gini Coefficient. The Gini Coefficient maps inequality of income within the borders of states, but that excludes a second important dimension; that is, the changing inequality between states. This second dimension requires different methodological tools. Yet, there is a third dimension of inequality which is global inequality – treating the world as a single unit and measuring shifts in inequality within it. We can look at changing forms of global inequality over time.
These three distinctions – between inequality within states, between states and global inequality – have now become quite standard conceptions of inequality in the literature. And what I think they do is highlight different kinds of techniques and measurements and conceptualizations; the different ways of thinking about the field of inequality. I think the turn to a cosmopolitan methodology adds important methodological tools to thinking about how we look at social phenomena and changing forms of social phenomena in an increasingly globalized world.
But the different methods and levels of analysis are not mutually exclusive because it still remains the case that we need to map and examine inequality and shifts in them within states, between states and across them all. So my argument would be that the cosmopolitan turn that Beck and others argue for is extremely illuminating and poses a new set of questions. But the new set of questions, which we need to address and follow through, does not foreclose or remove from examinations many of the other more traditional questions which continue to have a cutting edge in analytical terms.
Post-universality and cosmopolitan methods as new democratic theory?
Gagnon: Let us turn at this point to focus on a specific argument: has post-universality and cosmopolitan methodology created the conditions for a new democratic theory to emerge – something essentially novel and distinguishable from the rest of democracy studies?
There is, for example, a work published in February 2011, edited by Benjamin Isakhan and Stephen Stockwell, entitled the Secret History of Democracy. This work takes a variety of arguments that are normatively and analytically looking at different accounts of democracy. It breaks away from the narrative of viewing democracy as being the child of a Greek culture. It works against the argument that sees democracy as something that matured through a distinctly European history coming to its apex in the United States of America. What this book, and the Edinburgh Companion to the History of Democracy (Isakhan and Stockwell, 2012) argue, is that democracy emerges from other places: the Western Métis of Canada or the aborigines in Australia or the Baganda of Uganda in Africa. We see that the city-states of democratic Hellas had contemporaneous cognates in India. Democratic practices are increasingly featured in ancient Mesopotamian and Egyptian studies. These places were traditionally considered bastions of autocracy and despotic tyranny. Things are changing. It seems that we are getting a much more cosmopolitan vision of the history of democracy by virtue of this work and others like it.
Held: On the basis of the outline you have suggested, I would say these books are to be welcomed. They sound fascinating [at the time of the interview, I had not yet read them]. If the authors can sustain this view, then I think it will be a very significant contribution to recasting the way we think about the history of democracy. Of course they are not alone in having thought about this. You see something similar being done in books like Martin Bernal’s Black Athena. The debates about Black Athena gave rise to very complex and varied issues which also explored a number of similar themes.
I think the story of democracy is inherently cosmopolitan because ideas travel, because societies shape and constitute each other, because the difference between ‘in a society’ and ‘out of society’ is a false distinction. The inner and the outer constitute each other over time. So the apparently isolated communities in world history are, we discover on closer examination, often much more intertwined than we think. Their histories have been formed at the intersection of encounters with others. The overall narrative that you suggest is both intriguing and promising. It will be exciting if the Secret History of Democracy gives rise to new accounts of democracy and new conceptions. Whether it generates new models of democracy is another question. I think that would be a very fundamental theoretical issue. If that is the case then the book makes an even more important contribution.
Gagnon: Post-universality, reflexive modernization, a cosmopolitan methodology and the example of Secret History were used to argue whether
democratic theory has become something fundamentally ‘new’. Is the way we think of democracy now significantly different to the way it was thought of even a decade ago?
Held: Well, I think often claims to ‘new’ are false because the term used in ‘new’ usually creates straw men in the characterization of the past. If you think for example about the way in which the Enlightenment has often been attacked by post-Enlightenment critics it is clear that they often ignore the complexity of the Enlightenment, the internal rivalry among Enlightenment positions and a subtlety of the positions of the Enlightenment itself. So in this particular case the critics characterize the old as parochial, provincial and myopic and present the new as none of those things. If being old is the parochial, the provincial, the myopic, then of course nobody would want to be ‘old’.
They would want to be new. But the question is does the history of democracy fit neatly under these labels? I have strong, strong objections to that. I think that the history, for example, of liberal democracy, which you might characterize as ‘old’, is in its diverse forms not necessarily or even essentially parochial, provincial and so on. If you compare and contrast democracies in Britain and India for example, they have common sets of principles and common sets of preoccupations even though the institutional nature of their entrenchment is very different for many reasons.
So I think that if one focuses on the question or nature of liberty-based democracies or representative liberal democracies and simply calls this parochialist, provincialist, and so on, it will obscure from view a lot of the very distinctive and important achievements of democracy. These are themselves the outcome of hugely important social and political struggles over long periods of time. They are the result of bloody struggles in which people sought to throw off the yoke of political domination and to establish rulership in the form of self-rulership of one kind or another. So I have grave doubts about this simple juxtaposition.
Now if we focus on the ‘new’ and what is meant by the ‘new’, it often stems from the non-Western geographic we described earlier. Well, I think some of these narratives are themselves false. Some of the narratives are misconceived. Some of the narratives are the product of an inward looking regionalism from a political and geographic point of view. But it is very common in the history of political traditions, whether Western or Eastern, Northern or Southern, that people tend to tell tales of their lives and tales of their identities and tales of their origins and sources and formations and representations as if they had primacy in the world and epitomized universality. This goes back to the power/logic we spoke about earlier.
So my own view is this is not just a Western failing. It is a common way of over-generalizing from the point of view of one’s point of view, one’s time period, one’s culture, one’s geographical origin and so on. But there is a much more important philosophical point and it is this: that you have to distinguish the sources of ideas and the validity of ideas. To say something, for example, is Western in its source does not invalidate it as a set of ideas or principles. This is a kind of radical reductionism to the source which gives rise to very poor clarity in thinking. So the source of ideas and the origin of ideas and the validity are entirely separate logical matters.
So while I have some sympathy for the idea of a ‘new’ narrative of democracy and a ‘new’ history of democracy, the Secret History of Democracy as it were, I think we have to be careful about what we are conceptualizing. And we would have to be very, very careful to ensure that the one is not again over-generalizing from the present for one time period, for one cultural vantage point and that one is not setting up false distinctions between origins and validity.
Turns in contemporary democratic thought?
Gagnon: I strongly agree with your argument. What I meant with ‘new’ was not to disparage Western democracies, but merely to re-structure the discourse, to place previously dominant narratives of democracy in that post-universalistic context. A key element to this ‘new’ democratic theory (maybe we could just call it ‘different’ democratic theory) is the argument John Dunn makes in this book. He argues that whatever we think we know of democracy is in many ways problematic because we simply cannot know enough about democracy to think about democracy. In other words, the hard evidence of democratic governance and government from human history is too fragmented for us to understand what democracy could be today.
Held: All human knowledge is limited in time and space, but that does not stop us seeking to work with the goods we have to think with. Nor should it stop us working with the goods that we have to think with conceptually and empirically. The fact that we do not have perfect knowledge about cancer does not mean we should not intervene at this stage in the treatment of cancer patients. The fact that we do not know everything about leukaemia does not mean we cannot act effectively in some respects to help those with leukaemia. The fact that we do not understand in every detail the course, the nature, the form, the dynamics of global infectious diseases does not mean to say that the WHO is not an important surveillance mechanism – which it is. In other words, we live with partial knowledge and have to work with it.
So the idea that we only know relatively little (i.e. our knowledge is imperfect) and, therefore, we cannot think about something is I think essentially flawed. We always know relatively little. That is the nature of human reflexivity. But we can dip into what we know through research and the use of systematic method. And we can use our best resource and judgment at the time in which we think and write to think about the core issues of our bodies, our physicality, our cultures, our economies and so on. I think we need to be modest about what we know and modest about our generalizations, but that does not mean we cannot think about our physicality, our political bodies and so on.
Gagnon: Yes, I think Dunn was essentially warning of the same need: only that democracy is today not considered modestly, that it is remarkably over generalized, and that that specific condition has led to a lot of the political and social folly we observe today.
I would like to know your opinion about a unique critique that has been recently made. Frank Cunningham has thrown down his own gauntlet and challenged the academy to start purging racism from democratic theory. This relates to the arguments Isakhan and Stockwell (2011, 2012) make concerning orientalism in democratic theory. Would you agree that in some sense there is an endemic level of racism and orientalism that is present in the extant literature of democracy?
Held: Look and think about the nature and form of democracy in India and the struggle in India to create a form of constitutionalism and democratic rule in a country of over a billion people. The body of citizens is over 600 million. You need to think about the way concepts of democracy and constitutionality were developed and applied in that country to overcome defeat, to overcome regional differences, caste differences, and to create a common form of citizenship – or rather to check and limit the influence of caste and other forms of social exclusion by
reference to citizenship and democracy. Can you say that these forms
of democracy, which have aspects of their origins in some strands of
Western thinking, among other influences, are essentially Western and
essentially racist? I find it hard to make that claim.
I think that many democratic thinkers were Eurocentric, often racist, but then also they often linked democratic ideas to social class and gender. They wrote about citizenship as if it could apply to just a few men of great wealth, then men of property, then men and women of a certain age and so on. And only over time did the idea of the modern state become associated with the universal category, in which the previous exclusions based on gender, class, race and so on were gradually eradicated.
So the logic of democratic theory involves setting up a critique of power and a critique of exclusion, even though the history of democracy has often been a very poor approximation to this idea. Many democratic theorists and thinkers throughout the ages were representative figures of their age and therefore reflected the exclusive natures of those societies. This is not a surprise.
They were in part Eurocentric, racist, sexist and so on. All these exclusions are part of the history of democracy. But that is not the history of democracy alone because it’s also the attempt to overcome these exclusions
through the bloody struggles to hold up the ideals of democracy against this partial and rarely complete application.
Gagnon: A different way of approaching alternative narratives of democracy, whether ‘new’ or ‘different’, is to consider debates of democracy’s point of origin. A growing trend in fields related to early human society is to view humans as a product of both democracy and autocracy. We evolved as a result of tension between the two but have, over broad periods of time, shown sustained preference for democratic ways of living and governance. This picture is fundamentally different to previous
ways of explaining democracy’s rise in human society. What do you
make of this?
Held: This argument makes me a post-universalist! It gives me a sense of ironic appreciation of the category of post-universality. I think human beings emerged in very complex, very diverse circumstances and I think the idea that evolution embedded a single logic of politics is highly, highly implausible. I think we know from more sophisticated evolutionary accounts, such as those of Habermas, which focus on two logics – on the one hand, instrumentalism and, on the other hand, language and discourse – you can generate a much more complex evolutionary concept of history than those traditionally elaborated. But these, it seems to me, in the age of uncertainty fail to capture the unique human capacity for progress and regression, for advance and retrenchment, for indeterminacy which is one of the features of our age. I think the politics of the contemporary period are entrenched in a set of indeterminacies and uncertainties which makes the idea of a singular evolutionary logic of any kind in politics quite farfetched.
Gagnon: What role then does reflexive modernization and cosmopolitan theory have in creating the modernization of democratic theory?
Held: I think that the concepts of reflexive modernization are highly significant in this history in one key respect; that is, the notion of the reflexive subject or agent is essential to the history of democracy. It is the ability of the reflexive subject to constitute his or her reality and make choices about his or her reality – as circumscribed, on the one hand, by unintended consequences of action and, on the other, by unacknowledged conditions of action, ideological and unconscious among them – that is so important. There is, at this core, the idea that citizenship is about the congruence of power to citizens, the accountability of power to citizens who are capable, as free and equal agents, of reflexively constituting and accounting for their own realities. So I think the idea at the heart of reflexive modernization – the notion of reflexivity itself in the reflexive age – is the centre of the process of the development of democracy. The concepts of reflexive modernization have caught up with that history.
The concept of cosmopolitanism and cosmopolitan democracy is an attempt to understand how the state is no longer the exclusive domain for embedding the universal principles of citizenship. The French Revolution and other parallel revolutions in the early modern period tied the universal principles of solidarity, equality and so on to the borders of states. Today, these principles remain as important and valid as ever. However, the state is no longer the only vehicle to realize them. It is no longer, as I call it, the silo for entrenching these principles. Cosmopolitanism in the age in which we live is a way of setting free the emancipatory potential of democracy, so it can catch up with power as it diffuses within states, across the borders of states and in shaping states. Power has escaped the borders of states in the twentieth century and the early twenty-first century. Democratic theory has not understood adequately the way in which the silos are transformed and displaced. They are now in themselves insufficient for capturing the genie of power. And so cosmopolitanism is an attempt to reconstitute democracy in the reflexive age in which we live. It shows how state silos are no longer sufficient mechanisms for capturing and entrenching the universal principles of citizenship.
Gagnon: That is definitively a contemporary turn in democratic theory. The silos have lost their means of containing the genie and it seems that the genie of democratic power is building its own constructs. Would you argue that one of these constructs is a global or transnational Leviathan composed of the internationally active demoi?
Held: I do not see a democratic global polity as potentially governed by a global Leviathan in the sense of a singular structure of federal power, from the local to the global, governed by a single source of law. Rather, in a world of overlapping communities of fate, politics should be reconceived as multilevel and multilayered – as the complementary development of diverse forms of citizenship running from the local to the national, regional and global. But the key here, as I argue in books such as Democracy and the Global Order (1995) and Cosmopolitanism: Ideals and Realities (2010), is that these diverse forms and layers of governance should be constituted by a set of cosmopolitan principles, themselves embedded in a general framework of the rule of law. This is not farfetched. Already today, the laws of war and the human rights regime constitute the beginnings of a universal constitutional order. I call these the stepping stones to cosmopolitan governance.
A plural form of polities can develop and thrive at different levels,
with overlapping and intersecting jurisdictions – indeed this is already
happening in many areas of global policy. So long as they reflect core
cosmopolitan and democratic principles we can claim that these diverse
forms of politics unfold in a framework that is fair, inclusive and participatory.
Furthermore, this framework is better adapted and suited to
a world in which power is diffused across continents. In sum, cosmopolitan
governance is the best possible political shell for living in our
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