Threats or Gains: The Battle over Participation in America’s Careening Democracy

Date01 January 2022
Published date01 January 2022
AuthorDan Slater
Subject MatterWhen Mass Politics Fails to Ensure Democracy
90 ANNALS, AAPSS, 699, January 2022
DOI: 10.1177/00027162211070059
Threats or
Gains: The
Battle over
Participation in
Modern democracies comprise multiple institutions
and diverse principles. This can make them vulnerable
to “democratic careening,” as polarized actors empha-
size opposing views of what democracy means and
requires. I argue that America’s current bout of demo-
cratic careening is founded on differing partisan per-
spectives of the ultimate purpose of government, and
whether widespread political participation is necessary
to fulfill it. While leftists generally take a gain-oriented
approach to government, conservatives are more threat
oriented. A byproduct of this foundational difference is
that leftists’ conception of democracy is participation
heavy, while conservatives’ conception tends to be par-
ticipation light. The fact that liberals and conservatives
differ on the importance of participation to democracy
is a potential source of democratic careening, and the
fact that conservatives do not necessarily see participa-
tion as a core democratic virtue poses the more serious
risk of outright democratic collapse.
Keywords: democracy; participation; United States;
conservatism; democratic careening
W hat makes a democracy a democracy?
For all their disagreeability, political sci-
entists show surprisingly little disagreement on
this question. Building off of Dahl (1971), three
general attributes are considered essential at a
bare minimum: competition, liberties, and par-
ticipation. As any one of these features becomes
stronger, a political system becomes more
Dan Slater is the Weiser Professor of Emerging Demo-
cracies, director of the Weiser Center for Emerging
Democracies (WCED), and professor of political sci-
ence at the University of Michigan. He was formerly a
professor of political science and founding director of
the Center for International Social Science Research
(CISSR) at the University of Chicago. He is currently
a nonresident fellow in the American Enterprise
Institute’s program on Foreign and Defense Policy,
having previously served as a nonresident scholar in
the Asia program at the Carnegie Endowment for
International Peace.

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