Democracy as an Essentially Contested Concept

The reactions to my initial essay by John Samples, Mike Godwin, and Kate Klonick, highlight the perennial tension in studying democracy. In one regard, this thing we call democracy demands vision; it invites imagination for the society we want. Yet these systems must be lived, so scholars and wonks also focus on the practices as they exist. To be less obtuse, talk about democracy typically intermingles a normative framework and a descriptive reality.

While I might not have been explicit, my hope in the lead essay was to illuminate a place where the tensions between these two elements have come into conflict, specifically with fake news. To summarize, I tend to think the worry that fake news is going to destroy democracy is important to the extent that it implicates a set of assumptions held about democracy and its relationship with rationality.

Thus, I have a small quibble with Klonick’s assertion of “the importance of free and accurate information in creating democratic legitimacy.” As a descriptive statement, this is clearly the case. Most everyone will claim that democracy is built upon free flowing and accurate information. But as a normative statement about how democracy should work, I’m withholding my judgment, since there is a lot more underneath.

Both Klonick and Godwin rightly point out that I didn’t get into those other events where social media has been a form of democracy. Indeed, I do agree with Klonick that I described democracy “in terms of elections, government, and political participation” and never reached “the ‘intricate, informal’ systems [that I seem] to think are actually at work.”

Those intricate, informal, networked systems of relations are incredibly difficult to describe in a short essay. Flexible boundaries between political engagement and nonpolitical civic engagement make the work even more difficult. Nearly a decade ago, I took to using the term cyberactivism to denote these constellations of actions because of its more open definition that includes efforts to induce social, political, and economic reforms. As I said then, “the era of cyberactivism, more than the eras of activism that preceded it, is focused on the negotiation between many kinds of actors.” To do a topic justice and to understand how new communications technologies change democratic practice requires a tracing of the linkages between the tools and how they interact with the mobilizing strategies and the collective identity of movements. That wasn’t my goal in the original essay, but I will be turning to it here.

Klonick offered the #MeToo movement as an example of these informal systems at work, saying,

The #metoo movement––individual speakers amplifying their voices through social media independent of gate-keeping publishers––in turn became its own source of power and political change and, ultimately, its own story worthy of coverage in traditional media.

While #MeToo has sparked a much needed and necessary conversation around sexual harassment and sexual assault, unseating powerful men in its wake, it has its modern genesis in a tweet by Alyssa Milano, and came on the heels of the troubling news about Harvey Weinstein. In this way, we can understand the current iteration of the movement as having a vocal and well known champion.Yet the me too movement has been around since 2007 as Klonick’s citation to a New York Times article points out. That article profiles Tarana Burke with a title suggesting something deeper at work: “The Woman Who Created #MeToo Long Before Hashtags.” One could read the #MeToo movement as simply fitting within a newer understanding of social movements as outlined by Laura Illia. As Illia explained, online movements are new phenomena; they still find their roots in activism, but it is an activism that is undergoing new dynamics of issue selection and differing aggregations within groups due to the internet.

I didn’t put forward a positive defense and framework of networked democracy because it would need to be situated within a broader ethical framework and an understanding of movements as Illia suggests. In the next week, I will attempt to put together a first draft of this framework and situate an idea of networked democracy within it, which will also aim to incorporate Klonick’s example.

Oftentimes, when we use the term democracy or its adjective form, we are using it a rhetorical shield and sword. Reading all of the essays as a group, W. B. Gallie’s notion of an essentially contested concept comes to mind. As he noted in 1956, there are certain concepts like art, religion, science, democracy, and social justice that are abstract in nature but are nonetheless evaluative. Essentially contested concepts “inevitably involve endless disputes about their proper uses on the part of their users.” In other words, we use the word democracy and either exclude or include elements of it when we want to make a value claim.

Klonick approvingly cites Jack Balkin, but Balkin is engaged in the kind of language game with democracy that Gallie lays out. Balkin says it plainly in his article,

A democratic culture is more than representative institutions of democracy, and it is more than deliberation about public issues. Rather, a democratic culture is a culture in which individuals have a fair opportunity to participate in the forms of meaning making that constitute them as individuals.

In his case, he expands democracy from the typically understood boundaries of representation and deliberation, which is where I focused, to include various elements of the liberal project, which rests on a conception of members of the public as free and equal. As Gerald Gaus noted, to say a person is free implies that each has a fundamental claim to act as she sees fit on the basis of her own reasoning, and to say that people are equal is to insist that members of the public are symmetrically placed without a natural right to command others, and without a natural duty to defer to the reasoning of others. While Balkin provides an attractive extension onto the conception of democracy, he doesn’t mention the broader liberal tradition on which he relies, and for this reason, I am left wanting more.

The profusion of online spaces has clearly allowed for more informal conversations to occur, and those conversations are having an effect on political processes. The magnitude and direction of those conversations are still context specific. In the next round of responses, I will attempt to but some more meat on the bones of this discussion, aiming to create a more formal framework to understand social media within democratic practices.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • We expect that voters should be well-informed, and to that end the press is essential. Yet reconciling democracy and expertise is no easy task, and examples of the press behaving badly seem all too common, particularly in the form of fake news. Yet Rinehart argues that concern over fake news may be overblown, and he suggests that our democracy’s real problems lie elsewhere.

Response Essays

  • John Samples draws on Thomas Emerson’s Toward a General Theory of the First Amendment to argue that social media is doing a reasonably good job at satisfying four widely shared values. He argues that it is doing particularly well in contrast to the television monoculture that preceded it.

  • Mike Godwin argues that social media is still in its infancy, and it is much premature to declare it “broken.” He adds that non-political expressions of sociability should not be dismissed as valueless; they have great value both in themselves and as part of the process by which a republic is formed and perpetuated.

  • Kate Klonick argues that social media has empowered individuals to create a democratic culture that is much larger and more powerful than just what they do at the polls. Social media allows grassroots activism to work in new and important ways that don’t always aim at changing the way people vote, but that do change society all the same.