What is a Democrat? An Attempt to Define the Democratic Personality


By Reginald Grünenberg


Published by Goethe-Institut e. V., Fikrun wa Fann, issue June 2012. Translated by Aingeal Flanagan.

Free download of the pdf file on Academia.edu.


It is extremely difficult to define exactly what qualifies a person as ‘democratic’. Political science cannot answer this simple question because the ‘science’ part in it is not up to the standard of other social sciences and humanities. Under the meta-theoretic dominance of ‘structures’, ‘systems’ and ‘discourses’, it has also completely lost out of sight the reference ‘subject’. In order to develop a democratic personality, people first need the cognitive capacity to imagine political alternatives. Then they need the freedom and the intention to use it.



When educated guesses fail

Individual – political subject – democrat

Epistemological anti-individualism

The ability to think political order

Political science and ethnology

A first attempt of a definition


When Educated Guesses Fail

The question that forms the title of this article sounds very simple indeed, and one might think that there is a short and concise answer to it. But all attempts to come up with an answer promptly fail. Try it yourself! Explain in a few short sentences what a democrat is. Answers such as ‘a person who lives in a democracy’ or ‘the kind of people who make up a democracy’ are invalid because some democracies can cope with a large number of non-democrats and there are democrats in countries that are anything but democratic. Moreover, such answers are just an attempt to use the known to explain the unknown instead of explaining the unknown on the basis of what it is. A correct definition would also have to provide criteria that allow us to differentiate between democrats and non-democrats.

See? Not as easy as it looks, is it? Okay, let’s give it another try. Go onto the internet and enter the term ‘democrat’ or even ‘what is a democrat?’ in German in the search engine. Aha: so they’re members of some political parties who call themselves ‘democrats’. Okay. That’s not the answer either. Fine, let’s give it one more go. Perhaps it’s only us Germans who don’t know what a democrat is. Try asking the question in English. After all, the English-speaking world is much larger and has always been one step ahead of the game in terms of democracy. But here too the results are disappointing.

This is all the more astonishing when we consider that here in the ‘West’ we not only hold democracy in very high regard, we also want to export it worldwide, and in so doing bring joy into other peoples’ lives. Logically, this is understandable and is in line with the experience that a democracy needs a certain – as yet undefined – number of democrats to survive, but we still don’t even know what a democrat is. Nevertheless, we want to democratize Iraq, Afghanistan, and – while we’re at it – China too, not to mention the Arab nations that have just liberated themselves from their despots in such a spectacular and unexpected manner. We feel what it is like to be a democrat and we have an idea of what it means, but we can’t put it into words. I will now have to disappoint you by saying that we will not be able to solve this definition problem here either, because the extent and consequences of it are much more far-reaching than this simple little question leads us to believe.

Individual – Political Subject – Democrat

If we go up a level and look at the more general term ‘political subject’, the category to which the term ‘democrat’ belongs, we experience the same problem. Here too we could ask ‘What is a political subject?’ Here too we don’t have an answer at hand, and the internet is no help either. The whole thing just becomes more confusing, because according to Marxist theory the political subject is the working class; from Lenin onwards, however, it is the Communist Party. For the Nazi jurist Carl Schmitt, on the other hand, the political subject was the dictator, who had the power to impose the state of emergency. This doesn’t help us at all. If we move up to the next higher level of abstraction, we come to the individual. Using our intuition, we can assume that people are individuals and that, as such, they can at least be political subjects too, and as such they can also be democrats. However, if we then apprehensively ask ‘what is an individual?’, we are overwhelmed by a mountain of different philosophical, sociological, and psychological answers, none of which are of any help to us in this matter.

We will not be able to satisfactorily fill and complete the syllogistic chain individual-political subject-democrat with definitions here because we would only be explaining one mystery with another. There are, however, a few tantalizing hints as to why these terms were either not focused on and defined or why they were no longer focused on and defined. Furthermore, I have developed my own approach to the middle term, the ‘political subject’, which I would like to discuss here. Perhaps, by the end of this article, we will manage to have at least a rough outline of what a democrat is.

Individualism emerged in the eighteenth century in an era of upheaval characterized by the civil revolutions in England, America, and France. It was the result of two things: firstly, the actions of enraged citizens, who were fighting for greater justice, self-determination, and participation in political power, and secondly, treatises in which the greatest minds of the day tried to show what this historically significant individuality means in detail. A variety of schemata for the individual were developed in a variety of disciplines, above all the individual as a complex ‘subject’ with astonishing horizons in philosophy (Descartes, Leibniz, Kant); then the individual as the object of education in pedagogy (Locke, Rousseau, Pestalozzi); as a player on the markets in economics (Smith); as a legally responsible entity in the contracts of government and social contracts (Locke, Hume, Rousseau); and finally, as a soldier who fights on the basis of his own convictions in war(Clausewitz). This development reached its pinnacle sometime around the year 1800 with the critical philosophy of Immanuel Kant, in which most of the above-mentioned ideas were brought together to create a compact philosophy of civil republicanism and individualism.

However, this also marked the end of the Golden Age of the Individual. Above all in Germany, which had not managed to have its own civil revolution, the speculative idealism of Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel – who wanted to ‘outdo’ and ‘overcome’ Kant – displaced concrete civil and philosophical individualism as a philosophical theme. Instead, either the foundation for a truth that would encompass both religion and science was sought in the abstract ‘I’ concept of the transcendental subject, or the world spirit was evoked, a world-spirit in which all people were supposed to find peace, by means of dialectic ‘sublation’, beyond their disturbing individuality and in an all-overarching state. These attempts (including the Communist attempt) all failed, which has meant that since the middle of the nineteenth century, the philosophy of the subject – and with it the theme of individuality – has been increasingly discredited.

Epistemological Anti-Individualism

We are still noticing the after-effects of this to this day, insofar as a meta-theoretical dogma is predominant in all cultural sciences, social sciences, and humanities, without exception. This dogma declares that one can no longer assume the model of the thinking subject – and certainly not the concrete individual – as the carrier of actions. Today, there is no serious theory of action that still traces social, political, economic, scientific, or artistic action back to subjects or individuals and deals with their inner horizons. Instead, theories are developed exclusively on the basis of ‘systems’ and ‘structures’ (history, economics, psychology, political science, sociology), ‘contexts’ and ‘discourses’ (literature, art, philosophy).

From this perspective, the question ‘What is a democrat?’ must sound like the reactionary attempt to revive a dead tradition, namely early bourgeois individualism and its ‘naive’ theory of action, which was based on the assumption of subjects of sound mind and bodily individuals. That being said, in modern – and in above all democratic – societies, the exploration of individuality should indeed be an important theme, because by making it so these societies would be focusing on their own, fundamental preconditions.

Astonishingly, it was the most radical but also the most brilliant and most sensitive system theoretician who highlighted this problem. ‘The modern concept of the individual belongs, therefore, in a society that could thus consider itself called upon to reach some clarity about itself,’ was how Niklas Luhmann began his assessment of the inadequate theoretical performance in this field in 1992. After all, ‘after years of de-focusing, it seems as if a re-focusing on the individual is beginning. However, the classics in this discipline [sociology] are hardly any help: with the split paradigm of personal/social identity or with superficial borrowings from transcendental philosophy they contented themselves with the word subject, and never bored down deeper towards individuality.’

Once one is aware of this meta-theoretical anti-individualism, one also understands the indignation of the academic world when the historian Daniel Goldhagen published his book Hitler’s Willing Executioners in 1996. In this book, the author refused to continue writing ‘structure history’ or ‘social history’ because structures and the social do not denounce and murder human beings. Instead, in accordance with the Anglo-American tradition of ‘thick description’ (Clifford Geertz), he examined the motives of the individual perpetrators. The impoverishment of the theory of action in sociology, which in this way he attacked in an exemplary manner, is the first reason why we cannot provide an answer to the questions ‘what is a democrat?’ and ‘what is a political subject?’, because we don’t even know what their logical and historical predecessor, the individual, is.

The second and third reasons for this inability are both particularly prevalent in Germany. First of all, there is in this country a completely unbroken tradition of deriving the political from the state and never from the individual as a political subject. In good Aristotelian manner, the human is seen as a state-related animal (zoon politikon). The being is always deduced from the state order that is to be represented, the state order that the being has to support and to tolerate. The inner complexity of this being is completely ignored. Another German peculiarity is to judge the political subject solely using the standards of morality, or even to construct it altogether. Political philosophy in this country applies exclusively normative values to the political subject, i.e.it is not in the least bit interested in what it is, but solely in what it should be. This is immediately followed by noble calls for an orientation towards the common good and (completely misunderstood) solidarity. It is impossible to teach German thinkers that the normative – i.e. the morally structured discourse – can only ever produce an ‘I must’ and a ‘we must’, whereas in the case of the individual as a political subject, the cheeky ‘I want – and others should!’ rears its head. This political moralism is a thread that runs through the publications of most academically educated authors and the political comments pages and features sections of newspapers. Just think for a moment of the recently discovered ‘ego-democrats’ and ‘enraged citizens’ that the German press so likes to bang on about. The resulting positive concept of the democrat can only be that of an obdurate follower or a political saint. So it really is no wonder that we cannot actually define what a democrat is. After all, we know neither what an individual is, nor what constitutes a political subject. This is evidence of the inadequacy of political science, which has to this day not even come close to coming up with its own basic concepts. This applies equally to the concept of the political and to the concept of the political subject. Economics (Smith, Malthus, Ricardo, Schumpeter, Keynes etc.), sociology (Durkheim, Weber, Parsons, Luhmann), and psychology (Freud, Adler, Jung, Piaget, Erikson etc.) have all come up with sound concept structures that could be developed. This was not the case with political science, neither in Germany, nor elsewhere. Because they know neither what they do, nor what they are talking about.

The Ability to Think Political Order

Let us now turn to the constructive part, to see whether we can come up with something useful that does justice to the democrats, who are obviously out there and do exist. In my own academic work entitled Politische Subjektivität. Der lange Weg vom Untertan zum Bürger [English summary on academia: Political Subjectivity. The Long Road from Subject to Citizen, 2006], I tried to pick up where the aforementioned Golden Age of Individualism left off and to further develop its findings. In short: political subjectivity is the ability to reflect on public order. This is what a human being must have in order to develop thoughts and judgements that could be qualified as political. The main philosophical task is to show what the terms ‘reflection’, ‘public sphere’ and ‘order’ mean in this definition. When coming up with this definition, I did not take any existing political orders as a starting point, but examined instead the intellectual power that allows human beings to create these orders in the first place so that they can then participate in these orders as individuals, political subjects, and ultimately as ‘citizens’ (as opposed to subjects). This is why the concepts ‘public sphere’ and ‘order’ are not just about the things that each of us finds ready-made in the world, but about how we, as thinking and judging beings, can allow these concepts to develop in us so that we can reflect on them. The ‘public sphere’ aspect in the aforementioned formula does not, therefore, refer solely to the empirical, civil public sphere such as the one outlined in Jürgen Habermas’ Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere(1962), with all its media, conversations, reading groups, parliaments, newspapers, and televisions, (to which we today could of course add the internet, Twitter etc.), but also to a structural principle of our thought, namely when we discuss our interests, wishes, and ideals in a thought public sphere in which we can also confront ourselves with imagined opposing opinions.

Accordingly, the ‘order’ mentioned in the formula is not only the existing, given order, but the order that we conceive in our minds and, above all, desire (of the economy, political rule, customs, religion etc.). Only then can we compare it with the real order that exists outside ourselves and bring our approval or rejection into a real, empirical public sphere, e.g. in the form of conversations, political activities, the publication of books and newspapers, television appearances and – in democracies – participation in elections. So, a political subject is characterized by its ability to imagine that something could be different to what it currently is. In other words, a political subject has cognitive access to the concept of the option. In those cases, where there is no such cognitive access, a political thought will never develop in a human being! For Europeans, who are so used to democracy, this might seem exaggerated. If so, it is only because they have forgotten how small the world-historical window through which they were themselves given access to this faculty of thought actually is. A theory of the political subject that is as universal as this should, therefore, be verifiable using ethnological observations and anthropological considerations. And indeed it can.

Political Science and Ethnology

Louis Dumont’s studies of Homo hierarchicus (1966) are famous. He found the best example of this homo hierarchicus in India’s caste society. In this society, there is – or was (the situation has changed in the meantime) – no trace of political capacity for reflection and no notion that the given order could be a different one. Even more informative are the works of the French sociologist, ethnologist, and anthropologist Georges Balandier, which receive too little attention. His very descriptive Political Anthropology (1972) is completely and utterly different to the normative, philosophical approach adopted by German political science. Balandier examined ethnological literature on the problem of the political and sought to combine it with his own empirical ethnological findings from his African research to create an ethnologically supported theory of the political. The objective of this theory was to do away with the prejudice that primitive peoples had no history and that many of them, especially those without any discernible forms of state, had no knowledge of any form of politics. The structuralist school in particular disputed that primitive societies had any historical-political dimension. Balandier’s marked methodological awareness of the problem is noteworthy. As far as he was concerned, in order to ensure that a true ‘world history of political thought’ could one day be written, it was essential to re-pose the question as to the definition of the political. Balandier undertook a detailed comparison of the various definitions formulated in the works of earlier political anthropologists. While some anthropologists spoke of the political as being where family relationships end or where specific characteristics of space (territory, difference between the internal and the external) or action (reference to power instead of to authority) prevailed, others only considered the function of the political in the form of services to society as a whole (cooperation, integrity, decision-making, security). Balandier concludes: ‘The political can be reduced neither to a “code” (such as language or myth), nor to a “network of relationships” (such as relatives or exchanges); it remains a comprehensive system that has not to date been formally addressed in a satisfactory manner.’ For our purposes, what is decisive is that he sought to find evidence of the political or a form of political subjectivity in ethnological societies – and did not succeed in doing so. So there are forms of culture where a thought that can be qualified as political never arises and never can arise, because everything is rite, magic, and timeless order.

Christian Meier, a scholar of ancient history, did the reverse. His entire oeuvre is determined by the search for answers to two questions: ‘How is it that the Greeks, and not any of the other cultures that existed before them or at the same time as them, developed democracies? And what constituted the political aspect of the Greeks, what characterized this political aspect as the specific/specifying life element in their society?’ Elsewhere, he described this approach as an attempt at ‘political ethnology’. This approach stipulates an awareness of the special, of the historical emergence, and the unlikelihood of the political. It seemed to Meier that it was this very aspect, i.e. the political, that set the Greeks apart from other peoples and cultures, by which he assumed that the political in other cultures was probably either non-existent or not very pronounced at all. No one formulated the above-mentioned cognitive concept of the option as a prerequisite for the genuine political thought of the individual better and more comprehensibly than Meier. The most important result of his research is the ‘capability awareness’ that developed in individual Greeks after this small Mediterranean state succeeded in defeating the huge Persian Empire with its million-strong army, contrary to all expectations.

I would also like to mention the Moroccan philosopher Mohammed Abed al-Jabri, another important authority on a historical-anthropological basic structure for political subjectivity, who investigated this question in the context of a religion-based culture. In his monumental four-volume work, Critique of Arab Reason (1984-2001), which examines the current deficits and delays in the Arab world on the basis of its own cultural sources, he describes a key, concrete situation with which most Arab children are familiar and have been for centuries: children reading and learning by heart the holy scriptures together in Koranic schools. Al-Jabri vividly demonstrates how the separation of the object that is read and the subject who is reading is not completed in the case of this kind of reading, which involves the internalization of the text. This condition is also facilitated by the fact that many Arabs who can read are only familiar with the Koran. This moved Al-Jabri to pose the following question: who is reading whom here? The official Arabic language (in contrast to the spoken Arabic dialects) has not changed in over one and a half millennia and has, during this time, been the guarantee of authenticity in Arab culture. Moreover, through the revelation and the canonization of the Koran, it has also taken on a sacred character. In this cultural force field, the style of Koran lessons has led to a fatal reversal: now, the holy scriptures are reading the people. This, according to al-Jabri, has resulted in an underdevelopment of the capacity for reflection and the inhibition of the individualization of the reading subject. With this he is turning against a concept of tradition that is restricted to the repetition of history. He calls his hermeneutic method a ‘disjunctive and simultaneously re-junctive reading’ (‘lecture disjonctive-rejonctive’). The subject should be able to separate itself from the text in order to identify the object character of the traditionally religious order and himself as an individual. It is only at this moment that reflection about alternatives to the prevailing order becomes possible. This means reflecting on the compatibility between the order that is symbolically embodied in the texts on the one hand (for example the order of criminal law, of the Islamic economy, or of the caliphate) and the individual perspective on this order on the other. Al-Jabri describes the ‘re-junction’ (‘rejonction’) as the ‘explorative intuition’ (‘intuition exploratrice’) that can encompass the ‘reading and the read I’ (‘moi-lu et moi-lisant’). In particular, he describes the connection of the horizons of the individual and the order vividly because the reflection is not supposed just to release the individual, but make genuine political orientation possible for him as part of the social order.


A First Attempt of a Definition

Based on these ethnological and anthropological observations, we can now say with some certainty that the political subject is a human individual who is capable of reflecting on patterns of public order. But what is a democrat? What special kind of political subject is the democrat and what are the properties that distinguish the democrat from the non-democrat? There follows a first attempt at answering this question:

The democrat is someone who wants to see the thought public sphere, which he is capable of imagining, realized in the real public sphere so that he can – in conversations, media, parties, and parliaments – contribute his own idea of order without sanctions or fear of death. The motive for the democrat to get involved in this real public sphere is the fundamental opportunity that he can, through his actions, also make his political will part of the process of rule and legislation by joining a party, publishing in the media, setting up a new party, taking part in demonstrations and elections etc. The democrat schematizes the real individuals who are his opponents in the real public sphere because they hold different opinions, not as existential enemies, but as political opponents. This also means that his ideas of public order are always characterized by a toleration of the opposition, because he himself could find himself in the opposition at any time. The democrat also abstains from hypostasizing his ideas of order as timeless ontological truths and instead recognizes them as personal, subjective interests that he would like to see implemented by the government in the structure that comprises government and opposition and therefore become generally applicable.

This is only a first sketch, an outline that makes it clear that we still have to discover and conduct more research on the democrat. Together with the considerations mentioned earlier, it also shows why there can be no simple answer to the question ‘what is a democrat?’, because no one is born a democrat. It is this very complexity that shows us how astonishingly beautiful and fragile this product of our spiritual and cultural evolution is, and also how many preconditions it entails.


Reginald Grünenberg
is a doctor of political philosophy, author, and publisher. He lives in Berlin.