There are at least 2,234 expressions of ‘democracy’ – and the less common versions can teach us a lot

Over the course of recorded history, the concept of ‘democracy’ has been associated with many different ‘partner’ words, each of which ‘re-versions’ the core concept in a different way. Jean-Paul Gagnon has compiled a database that already includes hundreds of these expressions, some obvious and much-used, but others very specific or little known. What can these less common re-versionings tell us about democracy?

thousand gates

Thousand Gates, taken in Japan by Ben Raynal via a CC-BY-NC 2.0 licence

After 3,000 years or so of theorising, debating, and experimenting with democracy we’ve got a fairly good idea of what it’s about. It has at least got to do with the pursuit of self-rule, autonomy, equality and equity, non-violence, inclusion, justice and fairness, freedom, choice, participation, solving problems and making decisions together. Some of these pursuits have manifested institutions like constitutions, parliaments, political parties and voting but we must remember that such institutions should always remain debatable if a person feels they aren’t fulfilling their function. Which, of course, happens often. And that’s good because this keeps our societies fluid, moving, able to pursue those ideals.

We do, however, face a real problem in our pursuit of democracy – one that makes itself obvious when we’re chastising an institution for misfiring: it’s that our options for coming up with democratic solutions to repair a broken institution are limited. Think in particular of reactions to regulatory failure after the global financial crisis, the Brexit referendum, the election of Donald Trump, or when political parties let people down with their tepid environmental action policies: we throw our hands up after these events, blame democracy for not working, and start considering more authoritarian regime types in the hope that they will be more effective.

This reaction is deeply worrying because it conflates one expression of democracy, like political representation, with democracy itself. And when we do that we ignore the thousands of other expressions that come at us across time and space, and lie mostly forgotten in disused archives. Expressions that could, if only we knew some of them better, help us find solutions to, in this instance, problems with representation that reaffirm and support the pursuit of democracy – those ideals listed above – instead of thinking about dropping that pursuit and handing power to the illiberal agents of non-democracy.

What we know, we love more – the elephant effect 


Elephant, by Jonas Bengtsson via a CC-BY-NC 2.0 licence

I hold this position because evidence supports the argument that the more we know about democracy the more we are likely to love it.  It’s a common enough phenomenon. Take elephants for example. They’re big, charismatic animals that many people now consider important and worth protecting. Decades of scientific research and subsequent media activity on the social lives and intelligence of elephants, on the ecosystem and economic services they provide, has increased our support for them and has given us the opportunity to regularly reaffirm the value we place in them. Elephants shouldn’t be killed for ivory, they shouldn’t be kept in inhumane conditions or be overworked, and their habitats should be preserved and broadened through ecological rehabilitation programmes. In short, the more we know about elephants the more we celebrate them and want to protect them, the more we want to help them along. We’re seeing this trend too with rivers like the Amazon or other non-humans like sharks, wolves, frogs, and honeybees. I’m wagering it’s the same for democracy.

It is by studying democracy’s many and diverse expressions that we can get acquainted with its much richer and fuller life, an existence whose experiences most of us aren’t familiar with but would likely enjoy getting to know.  

‘Waldorf democracy’

walforf astoria

Waldorf-Astoria, by Christine Urias via a CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0 licence

Take Waldorf democracy as an example. The term’s only mention is in an American newspaper published on Saturday 17 March, 1923. The piece covers the Waldorf-Astoria’s 30th anniversary banquet, which was held the preceding Wednesday in honour of that famous New York City hotel’s 169 long-service employees. Anyone who had worked for the Waldorf for more than 10 years was invited, including “room clerks, dishwashers, silver polishers, [and] ‘cold meat’ men.” It was an occasion where

“practically the entire staff of the hotel were guests…and the affair reached the topnotch of Waldorf democracy, for the waiters and financiers, telephone girls and captains of industry, coat-room clerks and merchant princes sat side-by-side swapping reminiscences with each other.”

The banquet’s most prominent guests were workers who had served the hotel for more than 25 years, including a man called Oscar who had been with the hotel since its opening in 1893. In his speech, Oscar remarked how rare it was to have such a long-standing community in a business that normally sees people “shift around”, a community that the hotel’s regular (and wealthy) guests could get to know and in turn celebrate – like “Joe” Taylor, “famous to travellers the world over for his ministrations at the Waldorf bar.” Oscar also said how he wished “we could eat together like this oftener in friendly fellowship.”

waldorf democracy

Finding “Waldorf democracy” in the archive, National Library of Australia. JP Gagnon via a CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 licence

The uniqueness of this occasion is striking. It was a celebration with the Waldorf’s employees at the heart of it and the hotel’s wealthy patrons among its guests. The cliffs and valleys of depression-era class division levelled out, if only for that moment, when rich and poor, powerful and weak, dined together to celebrate an institution they mutually admired.

It is inherently good to hold these types of events because they break down class barriers and remind people about their commonality. This is something we tend to lose in representative democracies as we get siloed, pulled apart, and divided by political parties chasing our votes, private polling companies oversimplifying our views, and the election machine pushing us toward ballot papers that do more to separate than unite. Having more banquets like the Waldorf’s could help counter representation’s divisive effect by simply putting people, who would normally not socialise together, at the same dinner table to swap memories and hopefully understand one another that little bit better.

The point of sharing this unknown instance of democracy is to emphasise that there are hundreds of other stories like it waiting to be told. They can be found in the database on democracy’s expressions that I’m pulling together. This is a new way to study democracy, and it may prove my wager right: that studying democracy’s many and diverse expressions, most of them forlorn and forgotten, will give us the chance to regularly reaffirm our commitment to democratic ways of life and maybe even come up with better arrangements for putting democracy into practice.

This post represents the views of the author and not those of Democratic Audit.

jean-paul gagnonJean-Paul Gagnon is Assistant Professor in Political Science at the University of Canberra, and fellow of the Institute for Governance and Policy Analysis (IGPA) there. A political theorist and philosopher, his work centres on democratic theory and can be accessed at ResearchGate.

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