There is no single text definitive text of democratic theory. This is quite remarkable upon deeper reflection. Marx was able to express the ideas of Communism. Adam Smith explained Capitalism. John Locke and John Stuart Mill gave powerful accounts of Liberalism. Yet there is no giant who has explained and defended democracy. Jean Jacques Rousseau was too early. And he avoided any connection with democratic thought, “A government as perfect as that is not for men.”
In the twentieth century many political scientists began to write about democracy. The best known is Robert A. Dahl. Yet Dahl never reconciles the different aims of democracy with its reality. He always maintained there was a step beyond the current manifestation into something purer. He can leave the reader disappointed because he straddles a fine line between theorist and critic.
Giovanni Sartori offers a practical defense of liberal democracy. He does not envision it as something more than it has already become. In this way, he represents a conservative liberal democrat. While this sounds like a contradiction in terms, but it makes even more sense today than it did in his own time. The values of liberal democracy have become so ingrained within the political debate they have become platitudes. The great threat of democracy today is the lack of concern for its traditions and customs as movements have begun to challenge its foundations. Sartori sounds like he is writing about our times as he explains, “That so much is being said about “true” liberty and “true” democracy seems to suggest that the ultimate values and fundamental beliefs of Western civilization are, and remain, deeply rooted, and justifies the suspicion that we are not being confronted so much with a purposeful shift as with an outflanking of these values. And in that case the crisis of liberal democracy turns out to be in large part the fruit of our mistakes, of the confusion of ideas in which we are wandering.”
There is an extensive literature about the threats to liberal democracy from Yascha Mounk to William Galston to Tom Ginsburg and Aziz Huq. Larry Diamond has written about the democratic recession that has affected not just recent transitions of the third wave but has begun to affect the stable liberal democracies previously considered consolidated. But note the fear is the loss of traditions and customs. There is a fear of cultural instability. Liberal democracy has become a largely conservative tradition.
Sartori provides an early glimpse into this mindset. His Democratic Theory defends the political order as it exists rather than dreaming of what it could become. His chapter on Equality gives a significant contrast with Dahl who struggles to reconcile the ideals of equality with the reality of governance. Moreover, he has no hesitation in his rejection of the Soviet Bloc. While other scholars do not embrace the Soviet system, there is an admiration for its commitment to economic equality. Even today the Varieties of Democracy gives Soviet Russia credit in its score for economic democracy.
In the end, there remains a philosophical difference between the ideas on democracy between Sartori and Dahl. Sartori views democracy, or rather liberal democracy, as a state. A political system is either democratic or it is not. In contrast, Dahl believed in different degrees of democracy. His ideas have led to the different methods of operationalization such as Freedom House, V-Dem, Polity and others. But there is something refreshing in Sartori’s approach. He is willing to call a spade a spade.
It is impossible to have a complete grasp of democratic theory without engaging in the ideas of Giovanni Sartori. He is a contemporary of Dahl and wrote his Democratic Theory shortly after Dahl’s Preface to Democratic Theory. So, it is interesting to find the ways Sartori responds to Dahl’s idea of polyarchy. The book is not for the faint of heart and takes even longer than its 471 pages implies. But it is a foundational text for anyone who is curious about the deeper theoretical discussions about democracy. Professors will know his ideas and be impressed as you reference this text. And graduate students probably need to add this to their reading list if they have not come across it already.
Giovanni Sartori, Democratic Theory, 1962. Note this is an author’s translation of Democrazia e Definizione, 1st edition, 1957. 2nd edition, 1958.
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