Department of Political Science and International Relations



What difference does it make – normatively or empirically - whether a government is democratic or not? And what information do we need to answer this question? Democratic governments come in a variety of shapes and sizes, and embrace a variety of seemingly incompatible political ideals and policies. Nor does there seem much agreement over which institutions, values and decision procedures are necessary in order to describe a government as democratic, and which are desirable or optional, rather than necessary. So while there has been a resurgence of interest in democracy, in recent years, and an extraordinary stream of high-quality normative research and analysis, these are not easy questions to answer, whether we tend to think of democracy as a political ideal, or as a set of institutions, procedures and practices.

If we look back, briefly, at the major developments in normative political theory since the 1970s, it is easy to see why the flowering of democratic theory has generated as many puzzles as those which it has put to rest. On the one hand we have the new conceptions of power and powerlessness, of liberty, equality and rights associated with feminist and antiracist political movements, and the critical and substantive theories which they inspired. On the other, we have the revival of interest in Rousseauian conceptions of democracy, and the effort to distinguish democratic ideals of political participation from populist and authoritarian variants.

This conference is being organised to facilitate reflection on these two aspects of contemporary democratic thought, and the tensions and synergies between them. Combining panels on democratic representation and participation with panels on democracy in international perspective, it brings together some of the most distinctive, fruitful but perplexing work on democracy as a way of evaluating politics, and as a way of doing politics. Concerned with contemporary debates about the proper relationship of legislatures and judiciaries, of religious and political identities, of democracy and security, this conference seeks to learn what, if anything, makes democratic government valuable and how, if at all can we distinguish it from the alternatives.