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

Date01 January 2022
Published date01 January 2022
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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