What Is Democracy (and What Is Its Raison D'Etre)?

Alvin I. Goldman

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

5 Scopus citations


This article aims to say what democracy is or what the predicate 'democratic' means, as opposed to saying what is good, right, or desirable about it. The basic idea - by no means a novel one - is that a democratic system is one that features substantial equality of political power. More distinctively it is argued that 'democratic' is a relative gradable adjective, the use of which permits different, contextually determined thresholds of democraticness. Thus, a system can be correctly called 'democratic' even if it does not feature perfect equality of power. The article's central undertaking is to give greater precision to the operative notion(s) of power. No complete or fully unified measure of power is offered, but several conceptual tools are introduced that help give suitable content to power measurement. These tools include distinctions between conditional versus unconditional power and direct versus indirect power. Using such tools, a variety of prima facie problems for the power equality approach are addressed and defused. Finally, the theory is compared to epistemic and deliberative approaches to democracy; and reasons are offered for the attractiveness of democracy that flows from the power equality theme.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)233-256
Number of pages24
JournalJournal of the American Philosophical Association
Issue number2
StatePublished - Jan 1 2015

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Philosophy


  • Citizens United
  • comparative power
  • conditional vs. unconditional power
  • deliberative approach
  • democracy
  • epistemic approach
  • error theory
  • history of political philosophy
  • minimal decisive set
  • political philosophy
  • power
  • representative democracy

Fingerprint Dive into the research topics of 'What Is Democracy (and What Is Its Raison D'Etre)?'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this