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DRPS : Course Catalogue : School of Social and Political Science : Politics

Undergraduate Course: Democracy and its Discontents (PLIT10096)

Course Outline
SchoolSchool of Social and Political Science CollegeCollege of Humanities and Social Science
Credit level (Normal year taken)SCQF Level 10 (Year 3 Undergraduate) AvailabilityAvailable to all students
SCQF Credits20 ECTS Credits10
SummaryThis course offers an introduction to the histories, theories and practices of democracy. Its purpose is to provide students with a systematic overview of the complex discourses on democracy today. What is democracy? Where does the idea of democracy come from? Has the idea one or many origins? Can democracy be justified, and if so, on what grounds? What are the limits of democracy? These, and many more, questions lie at the heart of democratic theory. The course will in particular focus on four central issues: (1) the historical origins of democracy in ancient Greece, and later developments in the Western hemisphere that have led to modern mass democracies; (2) the state of the contemporary debate in political theory, with positions ranging from minimalist to radical democracy; (3) recent changes in democratic practices, from new forums that exceed the nation state to novel mechanisms to reach inclusive and representative decisions; and (4) crucial challenges with which democracies around the globe are currently confronted, including the ever-expanding reach of market forces and the place of religion in the public sphere.
Course description The following outline summarizes the themes covered by the course. The precise order of weekly topics might change from year to year, so please check the course handbook for the correct and up-to-date information.

Theme 1: Introduction: Outline, Course Objectives and Learning Outcomes.
This session will introduce students to the main themes of the course. We will also cover formal aspects regarding successful course completion and substantive introductory ideas that will run through the semester.

Theme 2: Historical Origins: Democracy, Isonomia and Sortition.
This session grapples with the historical origins of democracy in the ancient Greece. We will debate some of the pre-conditions as well as the mechanisms of political organization in the polis. Particular attention will be paid to the varieties of democratic agency in ancient Greece ¿ and to why so many philosophers thought rather lowly of democracy.

Theme 3: Republicanism: The Citizens Rule.
In this session, we discuss the republican heritage of democratic theory. Republicans come in at least two kinds: developmental and protective. Developmental republicans, such as Hannah Arendt, emphasize the importance of active citizenship for the flourishing of human capabilities. Protective republicans, on the other hand, stress the need for institutions to shield the citizen from arbitrary domination, either at the hands of the state or of private powers.

Theme 4: Modern Mass Democracy: Representation and Constitutionalism.
This session deals with the historical evolution of democratic thought in the early modern and Enlightenment period. We will focus on key concepts such as representation and natural rights. Under conditions of modernity, democracy becomes a different set of political practices that sometimes barely resembles its historical precursors. What we consider today the essence of democracy ¿ the casting of the vote to elect representatives ¿ is in fact a rather novel development that is intimately connected to ideas such as popular will and sovereignty.

Theme 5: Minimalist Democracy and Social Choice Theory.
Shifting to the contemporary landscape, this session deals with one of the most prominent accounts of democratic theory: minimalism. We will rehearse the main positions and outline possible objections. Some political theorists, such as Joseph Schumpeter, claim that democracy has a rather limited scope in that it simply offers the best way to aggregate and coordinate individual preferences about the distribution of social goods. Genuine self-government in the stronger sense must remain an illusion, they argue. What democracy actually means is the organized and peaceful competition for leadership between elites.

Theme 6: Deliberative Democracy.
This session discusses the proposal to re-conceive democracy in deliberative terms. We will concentrate on the philosophical justifications and political consequences of this idea. Theorists of deliberation claim that minimalist models of democracy fundamentally misconstrue the nature of democratic agency: only by acknowledging the legitimating role of speech and debate can we recuperate the essence of democracy. One of the main voices we will listen to in this debate is Jürgen Habermas¿s.

Theme 7: Radical and Agonistic Democracy.
This session covers proponents of radical democracy. We will outline the main positions in the debate, focusing especially on the notions of ¿agonism¿ and contestation. Defenders of radical and agonistic democracy are sceptical of consensus-based models of politics and reject deliberative accounts of democratic legitimation. What they would like to emphasize is the conflictual character of all forms of democracy.

Theme 8: Scaling Democracy beyond and beneath the Nation State: Urban and Cosmopolitan Contexts.
This session will question the nexus between the nation state and democratic governance. We will focus on emerging scales of democracy, from the city to the globe. Paradoxically, these new scales reveal both promising opportunities for, and serious dangers, to the ways in which democratic agency can be exercised.

Theme 9: Innovating Democracy: Mini-Publics, Participatory Budgeting and E-Democracy.
This session deals with the perils and opportunities of democratic experimentation. Our main concern will lie with Citizens¿ Assemblies, participatory budgeting, and e-democracy. We will explore whether these innovative mechanisms of democratic participation can live up to their promise ¿ or whether they remain trapped within paradigm of democracy that has been utterly delegitimized.

Theme 10: Democracy, Secularism and Religion.
This session concentrates with the place of religion in democracy. We will debate whether secularism is a precondition or rather a hindrance to democracy. This discussion will also rehearse the structural relations between religion and politics, and why this relationship matters for democracy today.

Student Learning Experience
The course will be taught in 10x1-hour lectures by the convener. The lecture will be accompanied by weekly tutorials. Students should attend every tutorial and lecture. This course will be very much focused on student participation. Preparation for and participation in tutorials will therefore count towards the final mark. The tutorials are intended to complement the lectures by giving the students the opportunity actively and critically to engage with the ideas introduced in the lectures. In preparation for each tutorial, students are expected to read background material, prepare provisional answers to questions that relate to the core readings for the tutorial and share a news item that speaks to the problems raised in the weekly lecture. This will require independent research on the students¿ behalf, using the internet and library to go beyond the sources listed in the course guide. The focus will be on the quality rather than quantity of student contributions. Assessment of student participation relates broadly to essay and exam marking descriptors.
Entry Requirements (not applicable to Visiting Students)
Pre-requisites Co-requisites
Prohibited Combinations Other requirements None
Information for Visiting Students
Pre-requisitesVisiting students should have at least 4 Politics/International Relations courses at grade B or above (or be predicted to obtain this). We will only consider University/College level courses.

*** As numbers are limited, visiting students should contact the Visiting Student Office directly for admission to this course. ***
High Demand Course? Yes
Course Delivery Information
Not being delivered
Learning Outcomes
On completion of this course, the student will be able to:
  1. grasp the diverse histories, theories and practices of democracy.
  2. understand how democracy can be justified from a variety of normative standpoints.
  3. assess various arguments about the limitations of democracy.
  4. identify where new contexts and scales of democratic agency have emerged.
  5. analyse the main challenges democracy faces today.
Reading List
- Dahl, Robert Alan, Ian Shapiro, and José Antônio Cheibub, eds. The Democracy Sourcebook. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2003.
- Cunningham, Frank. Theories of Democracy: A Critical Introduction. London: Routledge, 2002.
- Held, David. Models of Democracy. 3rd ed. Cambridge: Polity, 2006.*
- Shapiro, Ian. The State of Democratic Theory. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003.
- Tilly, Charles. Democracy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

* The book by David Held will serve as the textbook for this course. This means that you will find it in general useful for all the topics we will discuss, but you will still have to consult other resources to gain a more complete picture of the topics discussed.

- Canfora, Luciano. Democracy in Europe: A History of an Ideology. Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2006.
- Dunn, John. Setting the People Free: The Story of Democracy. London: Atlantic, 2005.
- Graeber, David. The Democracy Project: A History, a Crisis, a Movement. New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2013.
- Isakhan, Benjamin, and Stephen Stockwell, eds. The Secret History of Democracy. Houndmills/New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.
- Keane, John. The Life and Death of Democracy. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2009.
- Müller, Jan-Werner. Contesting Democracy: Political Thought in Twentieth-Century Europe. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011.
- Runciman, David. The Confidence Trap: A History of Democracy in Crisis from World War I to the Present, 2013.
Additional Information
Graduate Attributes and Skills Not entered
Keywordsdemocracy; political theory; representation; participation.
Course organiserDr Mathias Thaler
Tel: (0131 6)51 5769
Course secretaryMr Alexander Dysart
Tel: (0131 6)51 5197
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