Understanding democracy as a product of citizen performances reduces the need for a defined ‘people’

Liron Lavi at Democratic Audit: “Dēmokratía, literally ‘the rule of the people’, is the basis for democracy as a political regime. However, ‘the people’ is a heterogeneous, open, and dynamic entity. So, how can we think about democracy without the people as a coherent entity, yet as the source of democracy? I employ a performative theorisation of democracy in order to answer this question. Democracy, I suggest, is an effect produced by repetitive performative acts and ‘the people’ is produced as the source of democratic sovereignty.

A quick search on ‘democratic performance’ will usually yield results (and concerns) regarding voter competence, government accountability, liberal values, and legitimacy. However, from the perspective of performative theory, the term gains a rather different meaning (as has been discussed at length by Judith Butler). It suggests that democracy is not a pre-given structure but rather needs to be constructed repeatedly. Thus, for a democracy to be recognised and maintained as such it needs to be performed by citizens, institutions, office-holders, the media, etc. Acts made by these players – voting, demonstrating, decision- and- law-making, etc. – give form to the abstract concept of democracy, thus producing it as their (imagined) source. There is, therefore, no finite set of actions that can determine once and for all that a social structure is indeed a democracy, for the regime is not a stable and pre-given structure, but rather produced and imagined through a multitude of acts and procedures.

Elections, for example, are a democratic performance insofar as they are perceived as an effective tool for expressing the public’s preferences and choosing its representatives and desired policies. Polling stations are therefore the site in which democracy is constituted insofar as all eligible members (can) participate in the act of voting, and therefore are constructed as the source of sovereignty. By this, elections produce democracy as their effect, as their source, and hold together the political imagination of democracy. And they do this periodically, thus open options for new variations (and failures) in the democratic effect they produce. Elections are therefore, not only an opportunity to replace representatives and incumbents, but also an opportunity to perform democracy, shape it, alter it, and load it with various meanings….(More)”