Contemporary Models of Democracy by Wayne Gabardi – a Review (published in Dhaka Courier Vol. 28 Issue 12)

Contemporary Models of Democracy by Wayne Gabardi – a Review

A Review by Adnan Firoze

“In a democracy the poor will have more power than the rich, because there are more of them, and the will of the majority is supreme.” Aristotle

If you thought that democracy is still the power of the masses or the majority in the modern world, then you are clearly mistaken. Majority of the countries of the contemporary world has shaped the political structures of states under the label of ‘democracy.’ However the conventional definition of democracy which states that “the supreme power of the government would be vested on the people” did not stand the trials of time. Rather democracy has shaped itself in newer forms in the contemporary world.

Wayne Gabardi, in his work “Contemporary Models of Democracy” discusses three modern yet normative political theories of democracy, critiques them and illustrates the condition of the phenomenon of democracy that is prevalent in the modern world in a vivid manner. Wayne Gabardi is an Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science in Idaho State University and his work “Contemporary Models of Democracy” was published in the scholarly journal “Polity” (volume: 33, no: 4) by Palgrave Macmillan Journals in Summer 2001 in USA. It is a blessing of the internet and online journals that we often stumble upon such scholarly material that calls for imperative attention. Moreover, you need not spend your hard earned money to read up on a seemingly abstruse topic, instead you can read this masterwork online if you have a JSTOR subscription at your home or university (most universities – public and private facilitate journal subscriptions such as JSTOR to students nowadays in Bangladesh).

At the very beginning of his work the author clearly states that even though “liberal democracy” (where the power is not concentrated rather dispersed to the masses) has been the centre of attention and practice in the past two centuries, modern times clearly asks for newer theories to describe and understand the democracy of today. Consequently he introduces three novel normative theories of democracy that could illustrate and synthesise the democracies of modern times and they are Communitarian Democracy, Deliberative Democracy and Agonistic Democracy. Then the author discusses these theories in details and moreover he sheds light on the limitations of each theory by establishing critiques against them.

The first theory the author sets forth is “Communitarian Democracy.” The model of Communitarian Democracy takes the assertion of focus from individuals to a more collective unit – “societies”. According to this model or theory, democracy is based on the actions and representations of the numerous societies who are comprised of individuals. Members of one particular society agree upon the ideology of “common good.” Among the societies, the definition of “the good life” is collectively accepted concept and the aim of the society is to assert their belief upon the government to administer and make policies conforming to their opinions. In this system, the individuality of people is represented within the communities they belong to. This theory encourages the decentralisation of power of the central government and dividing the power among the regional societies. This way it downsizes the powers of federal governments and increases the powers of regional governments.

The second theory discussed is called “Deliberative Democracy.” The author acknowledges the works of several deliberative theorists such as Seyla Benhabib, James Bohman, John Dryzek et al. and suggests that the driving force of democracy is the free and rational collective interests of the regular citizens. And in order to achieve this, this model neither rely on the societies not merely the individuals but “the public sphere.” The author defines the public sphere as the mediator between the civil society and the state. The public sphere is comprised of civic association, social movements, interest groups, the media etc., Therefore the public sphere is basically the realm of the political life where public opinions are formed. It is the sphere where citizens talk about their opinions, demands and public discourses are made.

According to the author, “Deliberative Democracy” consists of four basic features. Firstly, a public sphere is present where citizens express their demands and debate about them; secondly, fairness and equality needs to be maintained in this sphere by conforming to certain rules; thirdly, the discussions or deliberations has to be rational and must represent for the greater common interest; and finally, the governments take the opinions and suggestions from the public sphere to form policies and laws. The author presents this model as a three tiered system in order for the readers to visualise. The foundation of this model is a pluralistic civil society, the second tier is the public sphere that mediates between the bottom and top ties, and on the surface lies the formal government. Therefore this model represents the will of the people through opinion formation rather than communities.

The third model the author describes is “Agonistic Democracy.” This particular model is very different from the other two models. This particular model somewhat resembles Karl Marx’s “conflict theory.” According to the “Agonistic” model, politics is not based on public consensus rather it is shaped by conflict among different groups. Current postmodern societies consist of people of hybrid identities, multiple cultures and different lifestyles.  Every group bearing a common interest (be it a common culture, a common identity, a common lifestyle) tries to assert their interest in shaping the policies of the government. By its definition, the Agonistic culture requires multiple radical and pluralistic public sphere with different moralities, identities, discourses in a particular society. Therefore this plurality calls for cultural recognition, contest-driven arguments and ultimately a conflict of interests. However this model does not prescribe violence. The contest-driven opinions are to be constructive critique and people are to respect others’ opinions according to this model. Consequently this model gives emphasis on the friction of individual and collective identity and differences. Unlike the communitarian and deliberative models, this model does not rely on public consensus rather it focuses on pluralistic and diverse communities formed by conflict and struggle for power.

After introducing these three modern models of democracy, the author critiques them and points out their limitations in a vibrant fashion. He argues that the “communitarian democracy” model is somewhat utopian as it derives its roots from the moral good of people and the idea of “good government.” However, this model does not address the issues of globalisation, high-tech movements and capitalist markets that are core to the reality of today. Moreover, this model assumes every society to be homogeneous and cohesive, which in reality is completely opposite as every society has become more and more diverse and of heterogeneous nature. Then he moves on to critique the “Deliberative Democracy” model. As this model requires citizens to take part in rational and constructive debate following certain set of rules, it may not be practical to accommodate on a national scale. Most public opinions are spurs of the moment and often irrational; more importantly people do not conform to rules while introducing an opinion of political nature. Therefore the author articulates that this particular models asks too much of the citizens that may not be practical. He also terms it as too demanding, restrictive and coercive. The author then moves on to the third model and formulates its limitations. He argues that even if “Agonistic Democracy” gives a more realistic view of today’s democracy, it also overlooks some important implications. It does not address the difference between cultural struggle and socio-economic struggle and it overlooks the fact that the demand and availability of resources required for the struggle may not intertwine. This ideology can also facilitate violence. He also mentions that this model of democracy may reform the society towards an undesirable situation if not contained properly. Thus we can see that, not only did the author present the contemporary models but he pointed out their limitations as well.

Wayne Gabardi does not end there. He discusses some very crucial issues that are of utmost importance to understand the democracy of today besides merely introducing the three models. The author brings forth some harsh realities of today while scrutinizing the democracies. He mentions that the traditional models of democracy that suggests individual autonomy and popular sovereignty are non-existent in the modern world. I agree to his claims completely when he says that the popular sovereignty (which was the foundation of “democracy”) has been replaced by “pluralistic democracy” and “democratic elitism” (page 558). It also coincides with my belief, when the author suggests that with the advent of globalisation and the domination of the visual media, the opinions of people are no longer their own, rather they are shaped by external forces e.g. multi-national corporations, mass media, political bureaucracy etc. Consequently the traditional democracy has been distorted in a techno-oligarchy that is the power of the states are conserved in the hands of few elites who control the media and corporations, who at the same time influence the general public to form their opinions, giving a mere  illusion of free will.  The author furthers asserts this idea which I also conform to that democracy, today, has changed from the ideology of “welfare bureaucracies” to “regimes to accounting and financial management” (page 561). The author gives a brief guideline to how to form resistance towards the decline of democracy as we knew it. He suggested that the strategies of transgression (exposing and limiting the boundaries of governance), self care (re-evaluation and uprising of individual identities), performative action (the idea of theories turned into actions), parrhesia (Greek for “frank speech”) will go a long way in defending the ideology of democracy and the idea of free will.

Finally, I can stridently pronounce that Wayne Gabardi’s work “Contemporary Models of Democracy” sheds striking illumination on the realities of democracy today not only from a theoretical manner but from a practical approach as well. Even though the examples of this text refer to the governance of Western societies (particularly USA) but in today’s world of globalization, no country is an island and thus, it is imperative for us to have a vivid idea of the politics of the first world. Besides this, the theories and practicalities set forth by Wayne Gabardi are meaningful in the context of Bangladesh as well. Thus, even though the masterwork “Contemporary Models of Democracy” may be minutely daunting linguistically, I would suggest it as a crucial reading for anyone who wants to comprehensively understand the political situation of the contemporary world.

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