Conceptions of Democracy among Political Elites and Citizens

Research project funded by Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (LA 2388/9-1)


Any assessment of the vulnerability and resilience of liberal democracy needs to be informed about what citizens mean by and expect from democracy. This project seeks to identify and understand competing normative conceptions of democracy in Germany and the United States, exploiting the benefits of a comparative perspective that has been developed in a collaborative network built over the past five years. The project starts from the widely held assumption that democracy ultimately depends upon a procedural consensus: Citizens must be committed to taking collectively binding decisions democratically and to safeguarding civil rights and liberties. Nonetheless, and although democracy constitutes an almost universally approved ideal, discursive struggles over what ‘democracy’ exactly denotes and how it is to be realized are to be expected on different levels: in academic discourses, within political elites, but also in the broader public and amongst ordinary citizens.

Although the plurality of different conceptions of democracy in the citizenry can be viewed as an important resource that ensures the adaptability and sustainability of democratic institutions, a considerable overlap between the competing conceptions of democracy seems to be required for institutions to remain stable and effective. If elite conceptions of democracy diverge significantly from those held by ordinary citizens or if discourses on democracy are increasingly led in separate and secluded forums, the procedural consensus may become frail. Given the contemporary concern about the state and prospects of liberal democracy, it thus seems essential to explore the plurality of different conceptions of democracy and to assess how resilient the procedural consensus upon which democracy relies indeed is.

The project aims to identify and explain competing conceptions of democracy in the German and US context and to achieve a better understanding of how these conceptions develop in a reciprocal relationship between elites and ordinary citizens. Accordingly, it will pursue the following objectives: On the basis of a theoretical reconstruction of four distinct normative conceptions of democracy, it will first assess their prevalence in political parties’ and representatives’ thinking about democracy and explore how political elites communicate their conceptions of democracy to voters. Secondly, it will study the plurality of different conceptions of democracy among citizens, seeking to understand their origins and implications and to map the scope and content of consensus and dissent. The project makes use of a number of existing data sources as well as a survey of state parliament MPs in both countries and a representative survey to be fielded in German and American panel studies via the OPPA panel alliance. It pursues a multi-method approach that combines theoretical reconstruction, qualitative and quantitative content analysis and various forms of quantitative survey data analysis.