An Interview with Dr. Jean-Paul Gagnon On Democratic Theory and Politics

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Dr. Jean-Paul Gagnon is a social and political philosopher specializing in democratic theory. In the light of recent developments around the world, I interviewed with Dr. Gagnon because of his expertise in democratic theory.


jean_paul_gagnonTabak: How is it that democratic theorists can contribute to political analysis?

Gagnon: To answer this question we must first address what the political is. What are politics? In general, and for the sake of this discussion, I will term it as a process by which individuals participate in the governance and government of a specific geographically-bounded territory. The nature of politics changes with the nature of government, governance, civil society and a number of other complex factors. In most ‘democratic’ systems, we see the opportunity for non-elites and all legal minorities to participate in elections and to assemble freely for example (although, in practice, things are not quite as simple as these promises). In a totalitarian system, the obverse is most likely to be ‘true’.

I argue that democratic theorists contribute to political analysis because of the ‘sunglasses’ (as it were) that we offer for analysing politics. We are constantly looking for the means to infer how political activity in any given system impacts equality, communication, law, the selection of officials, the shape of a citizenry, and ultimately the citizenry’s sovereignty.  And this is very much related to questions of rights, liberties, freedoms, justice, contemporary political society, republicanism and autonomy. This differs to other means of analysis. For example, in very simple terms, the economics theorist might be wearing sunglasses to determine how a political move is going to shape economic regulation. The international relations theorist has her sunglasses on to see how a political change might come to impact relations with a specific far-away country. The feminist may have his sunglasses on to see how a political decision will come to affect a number of women’s rights. All of these processes have ways of changing politics. We seek the democratic change. Of course, thinkers often borrow sunglasses from other camps for interdisciplinary studies that often yield unique and remarkable outcomes in political analysis – so matters are not as simple as I have portrayed them in the examples above.

Tabak: Would you argue that democracy affects politics in any meaningful way?

Gagnon: Because of our ‘sunglasses’, or variety of means to analyse the highly contested ‘variables’ of democracy, I argue that yes, democratic theory acts to democratise politics. We do this best by delegitimizing political actors that could be argued to have or be machinating against whatever institutions, citizenries, or ideas that are self-labelled or exogenously described as being democratic. John Keane is a very good case if we consider his latest monograph The Life and Death of Democracy. Therein he called to account Silvio Berlusconi, John Howard and Thaksin Shinawatra for manipulating existing democratic systems to suit their own power-retaining (or power-increasing) ends. With this attention, and the arguments of several others, we then move forward in politics: those citizens aware of this information realize, for example, that what wily ‘ol Berlusconi was up to in the media was undemocratic (this is perhaps one reason why there was dancing in certain Roman streets upon his resignation). Politicians may also come to realize that this behaviour is now illegitimate and could then shore up stronger opposition to otherwise manipulative and un-democratic executive bodies.

We should also consider the way critically developed ideas, both realist and utopian, can impact the way politics come under reform. Thinkers like John Langmore, Larry Diamond, Steven Muhlberger, Bernard Manin, Geoffrey Stokes, and Benjamin Isakhan evaluate the way we understand democracy, the way others understand democracy, the way democracy is practiced, and the possibilities for a better understood democracy or democracies that will operate in some qualitatively better format. Democratic theorists often look to the benefits various systems of democracy (ideas and practices) can bring to politics in the effort to make a given situation better. One example, from Albert Weale and Elinor Ostrom, is the way that democracy was impacted by the ‘Green Movement’ (not Iran’s important women’s liberation, but rather the global upsurge in concern over environmental protection) and the way it has contributed to the growth of environmental politics. Sixty years ago environmental protection was nowhere near as potent a political issue as it is today in a wide swathe of countries. Some argue that the severity of the issue (environmental damage) grew democracy (inter-personal dialogue, consensus formation, decision formation) and in turn democracy then grew the issue and altered the political landscape.

Without democratic theorists (those most vested in trying to figure out that nebulous affair of democracy and protect its hard-won rights through both spatial and temporal battles) who else would look to the democratisation of politics? As argued above, John Keane, David Held, Wolfgang Merkel, Roland Axtmann, Klaus von Beyme, Joseph Camilleri, Francis Fukuyama, Simon Tormey and others are the football stars capable of scoring the most goals against tyrants.

Tabak: Do you think the Arab Spring in the Middle East can be considered as a new wave of democracy?

Gagnon: Like many of the thinkers I’ve drawn upon thus far in this interview, I’m rather sceptical about understanding the growth of potential democratic systems through one singular pair of sunglasses. (That is, to try and get to the potential bottom of something we should wear as many sunglasses as possible which may be argued to be a cosmopolitan methodology. That is, wear one pair, then take it off, wear another, and so forth. Whether we can wear two or more pairs at the same time is a difficult question and deals with potentially the realm of experimental social sciences).

But to try to answer this question, I would rather argue that the individual and cross-fertilizing experiments in democracy from Morocco to Afghanistan are more like super-novae. That, like a wave, is a body of complexity. But Huntington’s waves are heavily based in a rhetoric to which I do not wholly ascribe. This process of democracy in North Africa (the Tamazgha in Berber) and the Middle East is not as simple as a wave coming in and one that may go back out. The metaphor begs for greater complexity to reflect the reality of the situation. That is, what effect has the wave made in terms of physical change like erosion (in other words, what lasting impressions has it left before it went back to its non-descript sea)?

Super-novae, then, to me as a metaphor sees a very long standing process of physical mutations wherein one period of history could be argued more ‘democratic’ than others (and at various tiers of government) because of complex chemical interactions affected by thousands of variables but which could be retaken by autocracy and then battled forwards to democracy once more because of a whole other set of complex interactions. (It should be noted that I consider democracy to be the political norm in this process, especially at local levels of governance and government. Autocratic rule is then the exception). There’s also a functional utopian hope that this ‘dying star’ is the coming end of democracy losing ground to autocracy – that is, with every mutation we retain ‘democratic’ systems as core values which prevent tyrants from slashing our (‘the peoples’) sovereign throat. When this star eventually explodes, will this be a zenith for democratic politics in a given bounded space?

It’s the function of ‘pure’ theory, a higher (possibly even potential) goal that we can try to achieve, that makes the supernova different. Waves will always come and go, but when a star mutates and nears its utopian explosion, when revolutions rock the institutional foundations of a society, will things then really change? I would say, hesitantly, a little – and hopefully, as much as possible. (The Arab Spring is probably a mutation like the French Revolution and not the ‘star exploding this tension between democracy and autocracy’ that will bring humanity into some fabled land where verticalized unaccountable power is no more).


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downloadbutton3Published in Political Reflection Magazine (PR) Vol. 2  No. 4

Husrev Tabak is a Doctoral Researcher at the University of Manchester.

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