Re-imagining Democracy: the wider project

Re-imagining democracy is an ongoing research and network-building project, begun in 2005 by Joanna Innes and Mark Philp.

ScreenHunter_08 Oct. 13 11.51The Re-imagining democracy project charts the transformations in the ways in which people thought about democracy in the years between the American Revolution and the start of the second half of the 19th century.

The general object of the project is to explore how the ancient word ‘democracy’, which figured in the cultural heritage of Europe and both Americas, was reworked for modern use. That development got underway during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, when variants on the Greek and Latin forms of the word acquired a place in modern vernacular languages, and circulated as terms of analysis, sometimes being employed in political polemic. Often negatively loaded, the various vernacular forms of the word were sometimes applied loosely to populist, turbulent political cultures, but also sometimes used more neutrally or even positively, as the name of one element in a mixed government; equally ‘democracy’ occasionally served as a synonym for republic, signifying a state organised for the general good.

The word was given a significant boost by the French Revolution, which made it a contentious talking point, in the United States as in Europe, attracting to it newly charged advocacy and denigration. Nonetheless, its associations with this era of revolution on balance discredited it, for a generation. It gained a new lease of life only during the 1830s and 40s, when it came to be identified as, for better or worse, a necessary attribute of government in the modern age, given that society had become democratic – though what form of government might fit these circumstances, and whether any democratic form of government could sustain itself in the long term without collapsing into anarchy or tyranny remained the subject both of debate and of practical experiment.

Our project gives the word and its fortunes pride of place: it does not start from twenty-first-century ideas of democracy (which are in any case varied and changing: there is no single ‘modern’ conception of democracy). It asks what people in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries used the word to talk about, in what ways and to what ends, what practices and institutions they developed to embody it, and to guard against its perceived problems, and how the word’s resonances and implications further changed in consequence.

Approached in this way, the history of the word provides a window on changing political fears, hopes, debates, initiatives and experiences, in turbulent times. And the history of contexts in which the word was employed offers a panorama of practical experimentation, often in extremely challenging circumstances.

In terms of its present implications, our enquiry provides a reminder of the many and varying ways in which ‘democracy’ has been conceptualised through time, and the always mutable and unstable character of the democratic projectAnalysis by region

The volumes of essays which represent the main public outcome of the project explore patterns in the use of the word, and its embodiments in practice, by region and country. Our research suggests to us that it is not helpful to think of modern democracy as having been invented in one place (the United States, France or Britain, as it may be) and then diffused to other places. The word already featured in the lexicon of educated people through Europe and both Americas in the later eighteenth century. Although initiatives in certain places – especially France, but also the United States – helped to attract interest to and to colour understandings of the term, it was employed in different ways from place to place across these continents, as it was used to comment on, frame thoughts about, and envision futures in different settings, each with their own political traditions, and facing their own distinctive challenges. As the word gained currency in discussions of modern politics, it gained some new meanings that were shared across wide spaces (thus, it increasingly came to be associated with representative government, and with broad franchises), but it never acquired a single, fixed meaning. On the contrary, it was co-opted in different places as a name (approving or disapproving) for what were sometimes very different though loosely related projects.

The two volumes published to date, and the third volume  in press, follow the same line of enquiry, but have different structures, reflecting both the ways in which our thinking about the subject has developed over the past couple of decades and the fact that different issues are salient in different region

In the mid-eighteenth century, ‘democracy’ was a word known only to the literate. It was associated primarily with the ancient world and had negative connotations: democracies were conceived to be unstable, warlike, and prone to mutate into despotisms. By the mid-nineteenth century, the word had passed into general use, although it was still not necessarily an approving term. In fact, there was much debate about whether democracy could achieve robust institutional form in advanced societies.  The project began looking at the very different trajectories followed by America, France, Britain and Ireland in the interpretation and uptake of democracy in the period; it broadened its scope in phase 2 to encompass the Mediterranean under a Leverhulme Network Grant, which was followed by a third phase examining Latin America and the Caribbean. The final stage of the project,  focuses on developments in Northern and Central Europe.

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