How do the people who make up American democracy view and judge its process?

Table of contents

List of figures
List of tables
Chapter 1 – Introduction
Chapter 2 – What is democracy? Definitions and scholarly disagreements
Chapter 3 – Polling the public about democracy
Chapter 4 – Creating and validating a typology of democratic meanings
Chapter 5 – The correlates of the democracy typology
Chapter 6 – Compromise and representation within the democracy typology
Chapter 7 – Support for democracy
Chapter 8 – Democratic norms and the democracy typology
Chapter 9 – Conclusion
Appendix – Technical details and supplementary analysis


Democracy’s Meanings challenges conventional wisdom regarding how the public thinks about and evaluates democracy. Mining both political theory and more than 75 years of public opinion data, the book argues that Americans think about democracy in ways that go beyond voting or elected representation. Instead, citizens have rich and substantive views about the material conditions that democracy should produce, which draw from their beliefs about equality, fairness, and justice.
The authors construct a typology of views about democracy. Procedural views of democracy take a minimalistic quality. While voting and fair treatment are important to this vision of democracy, ideas about equality are mostly limited to civil liberties. In contrast, social views of democracy incorporate both civil and economic equality; according to people with these views, democracy ought to meet the basic social and material needs of citizens. Complementing these two groups are moderate and indifferent views about democracy. While moderate views sit somewhere in between procedural and social perspectives regarding the role of democracy in producing social and economic equality, indifferent views of democracy involve disaffection toward it. For a small group of apathetic citizens, democracy is an ambiguous and ill-defined concept.

Nicholas T. Davis is Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Alabama.

Keith Gåddie is Professor in the College of Architecture at the University of Oklahoma.

Kirby Goidel is Professor in the Department of Political Science at Texas A&M University.

“How should we think about the crisis of American democracy and what can we do about it? Democracy’s Meanings sheds crucial light on these questions with rigorous data analysis, and points a way forward: Americans are still committed to democracy, but they want it to do more for them. Only a democracy that truly delivers the social and economic goods is one that will thrive.”
—Lee Drutman, New America

- Lee Drutman

“We live in a world today of disruption and division. Our uncertainty really stems from our inability to have a standard definition of who we are. Democracy, a concept that should bind us, actually has highly variable meanings. A must-read for the academic and practitioner alike.”
—Clifford Young, President of Public Affairs, Ipsos

- Clifford Young

“In Democracy’s Meanings, Davis, Gåddie, and Goidel revitalize our understanding of what Americans think about democracy and how that shapes contemporary American politics. American democracy faces fundamental challenges and this book is an essential read for those who want to understand why these challenges persist and what might be done to prevent further democratic backsliding.”
—David A.M. Peterson, Iowa State University

- David A.M. Peterson

“U.S. democracy is under duress, but how can we revere, protect, or strengthen a system we each perceive differently? Davis, Gåddie, and Goidel provide compelling, data-driven answers to this question. They offer a nuanced understanding of self-rule, and provide an aspirational roadmap useful for students, participants, or observers of democracy.”
—Jennifer Nicoll Victor, George Mason University

- Jennifer Nicoll Victor

“This book will make an essential contribution to discussions of American democracy. By examining how the public conceptualizes democracy and what they want out of it, the authors provide us a unique assessment of its health and stability.”
—Heather Ondercin, Appalachian State University

- Heather Ondercin

Democracy’s Meanings includes an impressive array of interdisciplinary research on democracy and prompts other theorists and empirical researchers to conduct their own studies on the theme of democratic reform. The authors are adept at placing their topic in a proper historical and contemporary context.”
—Brian Fife, Lehigh University

- Brian Fife