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Who should speak authoritatively for democracy?

May 29, 2024 • By Jean-Paul Gagnon
Ixil women celebrate after former Guatemalan dictator Rios Montt was found guilty of genocide against the indigenous Ixil people in the 1980s. Creative Commons.

Jean-Paul Gagnon is a philosopher of democracy specializing in democratic theory. He has taught at the University of Canberra since 2015. Gagnon assisted International IDEA in the development of the PODS report and participated in the launch workshop. The following guest blog post reflects on some of the ideas raised in that workshop.


The comparison between the perceptions of expert, lay, and marginalized peoples that the Perceptions of Democracy Survey (PODS) report develops demonstrates irrefutably (and for me unsurprisingly) that there are major differences in assessment of democracy. My thinking that this is unsurprising is due to my adherence to both Daoist and Constructivist philosophies which explain how and why people know what they know, and, by extension, don’t know what others know. So, people who are enculturated to be identifiable ‘experts’ in large-N assessments of democracy will hold certain perceptions, the majority of people who are not so-enculturated will hold certain perceptions, various marginalized groups in any given society will hold certain perceptions, etc., as this is all driven by what knowledge is encoded in their bodies and how they interact with that information when it comes time to answering a set of survey questions.  


Who speaks for democracy? 


This difference in perceptions brings to the front of my thinking a fundamental debate that has always shadowed (though I wouldn’t say bothered) the elitist academic field of democratic theory (for every academic field is elitist) from its earliest days. And that is: who should speak authoritatively for democracy? Is it experts, or ‘the people’, or any given society’s or group’s most oppressed or marginalized persons? There is no clear answer to this question as each group has meritorious justifications for why they should be the ones to steer, say, policy around democratization.  


The experts claim they are the ones that are democracy’s professional students and are entrusted by various public arrangements and customs to interrogate, debate, and otherwise analyse information for the benefit of all. They go further to argue that non-experts can act ignorantly toward things such as democratization policy, which may lead to negative or unanticipated outcomes.  


Then there are voices, not (in my experience) from lay peoples or marginalized peoples but rather from experts themselves, who argue that it should be the people (however defined) who are the ‘owners’ or ‘rulers’ of democracy’s knowledge as that information is literally their bodies. They are the people and can, therefore, be the only ones who can ‘own’ democracy. Experts should, in that view, be helpers and not directors. It is the people who should, for example, direct democratization policy and this literally translates to peoples’ policy. 


I became intrigued by how certain demographic markers suggested differences in assessing democracy and am driven by a desire to dig deeper. For example, the PODS report’s results demonstrate that context matters greatly when it comes to variance in peoples’ answers to the same questions. Whilst this is to be expected for any population surveyed about presumably any topic, what jumps out for me is how in certain cases the variation goes against what would be expected. So, it is here in the land of surprises where research should, I think, be conducted to understand such outcomes.  


The way forward 


In my view, the report has some clear policy implications, especially around how to present the concerns of minorities, especially to specific governments. Will governments really agree with the evidence arguing that inequality leads to democratic erosion and, if yes, will they wish to fund investigations into why certain minorities within their borders feel the way they do about their democracy? How can this be done in a democratic manner and what could, practically speaking, come out of such work? Further, is there any risk to marginalized populations if the result is communicated to the government which can also be their oppressor? 


My final question is to ask if assessments of democracy have ever been coded by genders beyond the male/female binary. I am curious to know how, for example, trans people, gay and lesbian people, etc., assess democracy and to see where this differs from or matches with other populations and why. A proper assessment of these differences through survey research will likely require targeted oversampling of the kind used in PODS, but for a different group of people. 


For me, the PODS report – which is innovatory in democracy survey methodology – puts to legitimate question the standard reliance on experts when measuring democracy in the world. Listening to ‘the people’ and the persons marginalized in whatever society is under analysis are equally important when rating the quality, or even detecting the presence, of democracy in any given country. And that is because perceptions between such population samples do differ: when it comes to democracy, experts are no more right or correct or authoritative or infallible(!) than any other person and that’s because knowledge of democracy manifests from all of our bodies.  

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Jean-Paul Gagnon
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