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Arguing about justice

Axel Gosseries
Philippe Vanderborght

Talking about democracy

Kris Deschouwer


Democratie is een ’contested concept’. Dat betekent dat het woord verschillende betekenissen heeft en krijgt. Toch gebruiken we het heel vaak. Ook de politieke wetenschap doet dat, en doet dat de jongste jaren meestal vanuit de veronderstelling dat de democratie in crisis verkeert. Daarbij wordt democratie gedefinieerd als het proces van politieke participatie en vertegenwoordiging. Aan burgers wordt dan ook vaak gevraagd of zij ’nog vertrouwen hebben in de democratie’. Maar aan burgers wordt zelden gevraagd wat zij dan wel onder democratie verstaan. Uit recent onderzoek in Belgie blijkt alvast dat democratie verschillende betekenissen heeft voor verschillende bevolkingsgroepen. En heel opvallend is dat daarbij taal ook van belang is. Wie in het Nederlands over democratie praat, heeft het deels over andere dingen dan wie er in het Frans over praat.

Texte intégral

A contested concept

1We are all democrats. That goes without saying. We believe that democracy is good and that it should be cherished and defended if needed. Yet while we are all democrats, some of the others are not. Some people indeed defend ideas that are considered as not democratic. But since we are all democrats, those accused of being undemocratic defend themselves by claiming loud and clear that they are to the contrary good and true democrats. Some political parties for instance are generally labeled as undemocratic because we believe that they violate the basic values of our beloved democracy. Their first defense line though is that they are the real democrats, saying out loud what the people think, defending the real freedom of speech, being critical of the political establishment.

2Talking about democracy is therefore not easy. It is a word that carries many meanings, depending on who is talking about it and to whom. It is therefore typically a ’contested concept’ (Gallie 1956), a concept that not only carries many meanings but also one for which there is no full agreement on which of these meanings should prevail.

3Yet we do talk a lot about democracy. Especially in political science we hardly spend a day without using the word. And we do so because we are doing a lot of research about democracy. Over the last two decades we have become very much interested in the degree to which citizens of democratic countries believe in democracy and trust the democratic political institutions. We are very interested in these topics because we believe – and in this we only follow the political and public debates – that something is wrong (Norris 2011). We assume that there is something around that can be called a crisis of democracy. There are several reasons for that. Take for instance the turnout in elections. Electing a parliamentary assembly that represents the will of the people is a central and crucial component of a wellfunctioning democracy. Yet when the citizens are invited to contribute to this very important act of electing a parliament, an increasing number of them simply remain at home. Quite spectacular is the evolution of the turnout for the elections to the European Parliament. In 1979 it was already quite low – by European standards – with 67% of the European citizens turning out to vote. Yet since then the turnout kept going down at every election. In 1999 it went below 50% – a turnout of 49,9% – and in 2009 only 43% of the Europeans turned out to vote.

4There are other indicators that point in the same direction of citizens turning their back to the organizations and institutions of representative democracy. Political scientists keep track of the evolution of the membership of political parties, and if you want to see graphs with lines that go down at a very steep rate, this is the place to watch. Surveys asking about trust in political parties also reveal a sharp decrease to frighteningly low figures.

5Another apparently disturbing factor is the rise and success of political parties that mobilize voters with a discourse that is thoroughly antiestablishment and especially accusing the political and societal elite of being hopelessly disconnected from the real demands and concerns of the people. Representative democracy – so they claim – is a perversion because the representatives have lost touch with the people who they should truly represent. They point especially at policies related to immigration and asylum seekers, and to the blatant refusal of the established elite to understand the damage that these policies have caused for the security and the traditional culture, values, and religious beliefs of ordinary citizens.

6And since all this is indeed framed as a crisis of democracy, political scientists are quite eager to understand what is going on. Are we indeed witnessing a decrease in the belief and trust in democracy as it was built – with all its checks and balances – after the Second World War and after the disastrous collapse of a number of democracies in 1920s and 1930s? The easiest way to check for that is simply to ask people. In most survey questionnaires drafted since the 1990s we therefore include a few questions about trust in political institutions and quite often also a straightforward question about ’satisfaction with democracy’. Yet by asking these simple and straightforward questions we tend to forget that the very concept is debated, that it does not have one single meaning. What we actually do is assume that the dominant political science meaning of democracy – stressing representative democracy and responsive party government (APSA 1950) – is the way in which citizens themselves see and define democracy. There is however no reason to believe that a concept that comes with so many different meanings in the public debate would have one single meaning shared by all the citizens.

Citizen’s perceptions

7That makes it quite interesting to investigate how citizens actually define democracy. Surprisingly, this has not been frequently done (Shin, Dalton & Jou 2007; Diamond & Plattner 2008). In 2009, we conducted a survey in Belgiums two largest regions Flanders and Wallonia. The survey was part of a larger project on political participation and representation in modern democracies. It asked many questions about political beliefs and behavior, party preferences and media use. Several questions dealt with the way in which the functioning of democracy could possibly be improved (see It also included the following open question: "Next question may be a bit more complicated, but could you try to explain what the word 'democracy' means to you?" The question was open because no menu of pre-formulated answers was offered to the respondents. They could indeed explain in their own words what democracy meant for them. These words were carefully taken down by the interviewer. A total of 2332 Flemish and Walloon citizens were interviewed and we received a wide variety of answers. Below are a few examples:

  • There are too many parties and that is not good. Two or three parties would be better.

  • That Flemings and Walloons should understand each other better to form unity again.

  • Honesty. Trust. Security. Believing in people. A job.

  • People who fill their pockets. I cant actually say

  • I have a vague remembrance from school. But I cannot describe what it is

  • That everybody is treated the same way. The freedom of speech and equality for all before the law

  • Democracy is that the majority has the right to decide

  • Cooperation between all citizens. Freedom of speech. No corruption

  • If there were a real democracy, it would be good. But I doubt.

  • Oh that is a nice word. It means a lot. Freedom, wisdom, freedom of speech and opinion. Thats what it is for me

  • Everybody has a say, even if citizens are not always taken into account. It is equality between women and men and between citizens and political representatives.

  • It is the liberty to do what we want, without walking on the freedom of the others.

  • Any citizen can, thanks to democracy, participate actively in the politics of the country and improve their conditions of living.

  • My husband always said ”without the monarchy”, but except from that I have never understood the word

  • A country where one can do what one wants, where one is free and nobody can stop me. When I want to go to another country I am free to do so. Free choice and also not imposing internet or digital TV. In the beginning a lot is promised but later it becomes more expensive. One should not impose anything.

8A careful reading of all these answers shows to what extent the word triggers different responses and feelings, how some apologize for not being able to give a decent answer, how others use this to tell us that democracy is a nice thing but that they are still waiting to see it coming along.

9In search for broader patterns, we grouped the answers into six categories. (Diamond & Morlino 2005).The first category is ’Representation’. It groups all answers that define democracy in terms of people casting votes for political parties and all answers referring to being represented, to being listened to and to governmental politics that take into account the demands of the people. The second one is ’Participation’. It refers to the right or possibility to influence decision making, to the population having a say or a voice, to the will of the people or to the people having the right to govern themselves. A third category is ’Decision rules’. This includes all references to the procedures through which decisions should be taken, like the right of the majority to implement its policies, the right of minorities, the need (or the problems related to) coalition formation.

10The first two categories belong to what is usually labeled the input side of politics, the way in which society communicates its demands to the political system. The third refers to procedures of decision-making inside the political system. A fourth and fifth category refer to values that are associated with democracy. All answers saying that democracy means freedom in general, freedom of speech or of thought, the possibility to speak out without being punished and the obligation for the public authorities to refrain from restricting the freedom of the citizens were grouped under the label ’Freedom’. The label ’Equality was given to all answers referring to equality in general, to equal rights or to equality of chances. And finally we built the category ’Quality of life’ for all references to democracy as a system where life is pleasant and comfortable, where people live peacefully together and where tolerance of diversity and differences has a central place.

11Table 1 shows the frequency of answers belonging to each of these categories. For almost 15% of the answers we could not classify them in one of these categories. That was the case for respondents who did not provide any answer, for those who told us that they did not know what democracy was or could not formulate an answer, and for the answers that were really impossible to capture within this framework. The total of table 1 is more than 100% because one person could of course give an answer in which more than one meaning of democracy was mentioned.

Table 1: The percentage of respondents per category when defining democracy (N = 2332)

12A first conclusion is that democracy comes in many different meanings indeed. Although some respondents gave an answer belonging to more than one of the categories, most of them gave democracy a single meaning. And that divides the population into groups having different definitions of democracy or at least stressing different aspects of it. The number one on the list is freedom, which tells us that for half of the population democracy is not in the first place about political processes, political actors or political institutions (only 2,5% mentioned political parties), but about values. Equality comes on the third place and beats participation, the other category that captures interactions between politics and society.

Education and language

13To which social characteristics are these meanings of democracy related? They appear to be related to several things, including age, gender, political interest, political knowledge and levels of education. The latter is illustrated in table 2. We have made a crude difference between a low level of education (no degree, a primary school or a lower secondary school degree as the highest obtained), a middle level (secondary school degree) and a high level (university or university college). This appears to be a strong predictor of the way in which people think about democracy.

Table 2: The relationship between levels of education and definitions of democracy (in percentages of respondents)

14The relation with ’no answer’ is quite obvious: in the lowest group we find almost one quarter of the respondents not giving an answer to the question. But on the categories itself the level of education also has a clear effect. The definitions referring to political institutions and procedures are clearly more often mentioned by the respondents with higher levels of education. For freedom there is no significant difference, but equality and quality of life are mentioned more often by those with lower levels of education. It means that the vision of democracy that links it to political participation and representation is a rather elitist one. That is an interesting but also sobering finding for political science. It means that the notion of democracy that is often used without really reflecting on it, and for which indicators of ’decline’ can be measured, does not actually correspond to the way in which many people see it, especially in the first place in the case of lower educated groups. It is by now very obvious than when people talk about democracy, they might talk very different languages.

15Talking about language, the survey was conducted in Flanders and Wallonia. And the responses to the question were of course given in either Dutch or French. It might therefore be interesting to see whether the two language groups rely on different definitions of democracy. There is no reason to expect any significant differences. In international and comparative research we also simply translate questionnaires and use them in different languages, assuming that when people tell us for instance to what extent they believe in democracy, they understand democracy in the same way, irrespective of the language they speak. A simple check of the answers in French and Dutch can however put this naive belief into question. Table 3 shows the frequencies for each of the categories of democracy, according to the language in which the answer was given.

Table 3: The frequency of each category of democracy per language group (percentages)

16The least that one can say is that the differences are rather astonishing and furthermore quite difficult to explain. We see much more references to participation, representation, rules of decision making and equality for the answers given in Dutch. And we see much more references to freedom and slightly more to quality of life for the answers given in French. These differences are obviously not related to differences in level of education. Within each language group, we see the same variety in levels of education, but the starting point is simply higher or lower. The differences can also not be explained by the in average slightly more leftist orientation of the Francophone inhabitants of Belgium. Left-right orientation actually appears to be unrelated to the definitions. Only for the decision rules we can come up with a possible plausible explanation. Many of these answers refer to the right of the majority to govern. The checks and balances of the Belgian system and its strict mechanisms aimed at protecting the Francophone minority and giving it a guaranteed equal share of power might create a frustration on the Dutch-speaking side that is translated in these answers.

17Apart from that, the differences are simply differences between people speaking a different language when they think about democracy. And that means that democracy is not only a contested concept, it seems to be a concept that does not travel too well across language borders. Getting a better understanding of that requires a deeper insight into the way in which citizens are being socialized into democracy. Where and how do they pick up the meaning of the word? What kind of civic education is provided at school? Does it differ between the north and south in Belgium? Is there a broader ’French’ – coming from France – conception of democracy that differs from the ’Dutch’ one? Since we seldom ask the people about their own definition of democracy, we do not know.

Keep on talking about democracy

18We are all democrats. That goes without saying. Yet that does not mean that we all agree on what we mean by that. Indeed for concepts like democracy, one should not expect that all users of the word give it the same meaning. From the perspective of the empirically oriented political scientist, this might be problem. Measuring democratic attitudes and deriving from them strong conclusions about beliefs in democracy without saying very explicitly which aspect of democracy is being discussed, is an indicator of sloppiness. By contrast, for the purpose of public and political debate one should not worry. Democracy is a contested and debated concept because it is such a rich concept. It refers to many good things, like freedom, equality, tolerance, welfare, participation, representation, equity, justice and many more. We can discuss these concepts separately, but we can also rather conveniently include them into this one single word. If that results in discussion and disagreement, because your democracy is probably not fully the same as mine, it simply obliges us all to keep on thinking about our democracy, to defend the aspects that we think of as being more important, to explain why we believe that some actions or attitudes are at odds with our definition of democracy. Talking about democracy is a source of disagreement. And talking about disagreement is what democracy is all about.



APSA Committee on political parties (1950), 'Towards a More Responsible Two- Party System: A Report of the Committee on Political Parties', American Political Science Review, 44 (3), Part 2, Supplement.

DIAMOND, L. & MORLINO, L. (2005), Assessing the Quality of Democracy, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

DIAMOND, L. & PLATTNER, M. (2008), How people view democracy, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press

GALLIE, W.B. (1956), 'Essentially Contested Concepts', Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, 51: 167-198.

NORRIS, P. (2011), Democratic deficit. Critical citizens revisited, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

SHIN, D. C., DALTON, R.J., JOU, W. (2007), 'Popular Conceptions of Democracy', Political Concepts Committee on Concepts and Methods Working Paper Series, 15.

Table des illustrations

Légende Table 1: The percentage of respondents per category when defining democracy (N = 2332)
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Légende Table 2: The relationship between levels of education and definitions of democracy (in percentages of respondents)
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Légende Table 3: The frequency of each category of democracy per language group (percentages)
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Kris Deschouwer is research professor and head of the department of political science at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB). His research focuses on processes of political participation and representation, with specific focus on how to govern divided societies. His latest book is The Politics of Belgium. Govering a Divided Society (Macmillan Palgrave, 2009). He coordinates -with Philippe Van Parijs - the Pavia Group that defends a statewide constituency for the Belgian federal elections.

© Presses universitaires de Louvain, 2011

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