Can there be a human right to an essentially contested concept? The case of democracy

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The idea of a human right to democracy has received substantial attention from political theorists, philosophers, and international lawyers. Arguments for its existence ignore the fact that democracy is the paradigm essentially contested concept, so cannot establish what a right to democracy would be a right to. I survey three responses to essential contestability. The first holds that history has decided upon liberal democracy, so essential contestation is a philosophical worry with few practical implications. The second seeks a broadly acceptable minimal definition of democracy. The third would deploy sophisticated empirical analysis to determine which aspects of democracy have desired positive effects. All three prove inadequate. The right to democracy must instead be understood as the right to engage the contestation at the core of the concept, through formative agency that determines what democracy should mean in practice in particular contexts.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)357-367
Number of pages11
JournalThe Journal of Politics
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 2016


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