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Contesting Democracy

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Democracy is almost universally accepted today as the norm of good and legitimate governance. This means that every issue we face – from international relations, to economic globalization, to how we govern each of our domestic societies, our families and our interpersonal relations, to the issues that join those of us who come together each year in the Global Ecological Integrity Group, the issues of sustaining the planet's ecological integrity and the health of its peoples – depends upon how we think about and institutionalize the ideal of democracy and the principles and purposes it entails.

This situation first became apparent in the years immediately following WWII and the founding of the United Nations. In 1946 UNESCO launched two inquiries on the “differences which separate peoples in their views of right, liberty, democracy, and similar moral and political concepts” (McKeon 1951: vi). The first of these studies was published in 1949 in the volume Human Rights: Comments and Interpretations (UNESCO 1949); the second was published in 1951 in the volume Democracy in an Age of Tensions. The latter study concluded:

“For the first time in history of the world, no doctrines are advanced as anti-democratic. The accusation of antidemocratic action or attitude is frequently directed against others, but practical politicians and political theorists agree in stressing the democratic element in the institutions they defend and the theories they advocate. This acceptance of democracy as the highest form of political or social organization is the sign of a basic agreement in the ultimate aims of modern social and political institutions.” (McKeon 1951: 522).

Forty years later, concluding a study of the history of democracy from 508 BC to AD 1993, the Oxford historian John Dunn confirmed this judgment:

“Why is democracy today the overwhelmingly dominant, and increasingly the well-nigh exclusive, claimant to set the standard for legitimate political authority? It takes some imaginative concentration to register quite what an extraordinary fact this really is.” (Dunn 1993: 239)
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Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: 01 January 2010

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