My work integrates critical theories of power with empirical social research in order to enrich the theory and practice of democracy.
In other articles, I put this method into practice, engaging biological perspectives on human nature, theories of cultural evolution, the cognitive science of motivated reasoning, and empirical research on political behavior and institutions.
My book manuscript brings key findings from all these fields into dialogue with critical traditions and radical thought, developing a critical realist theory of democracy.
2018. "The Power of the Multitude: Answering Epistemic Challenges to Democracy," American Political Science Review. (ungated)
2018. “Beyond the Search for the Subject: An Anti-Essentialist Ontology for Liberal Democracy,” European Journal of Political Theory. (ungated)
2017. “What Makes a Political Theory Political? A Comment on Waldron” Political Studies Review. (ungated)
2017. “When will a Darwinian Approach be Useful for the Study of Society?” Politics, Philosophy, and Economics. (ungated)
2016. “Between Critical and Normative Theory: Predictive Political Theory as a Deweyan Realism” Political Research Quarterly. (ungated)
The Dispersion of Power: A Critical Realist Theory of Democracy
Everyday democratic life stands in stark contrast to widespread aspirations for collective self-rule. What are we to make of this obvious discrepancy between ideal and reality? For the most part, democratic theorists have doubled down on the project of self-rule, offering utopian schemes that could someday realize this dream, or clever explanations of how existing institutions might be thought to do so already. Yet thinkers in various “critical” and “realist” traditions have remained skeptical of such solutions, and my book draws on a broad range of findings from contemporary social science to bolster their concerns.
In place of self-rule, I present the dispersion of power as democracy’s core commitment. As I argue in the book, this ideal outperforms traditional alternatives in fulfilling two key functions of democratic theory: (i) explaining the value of basic democratic practices, and (ii) setting an agenda for future democratization.
On my account, for one, the real purpose of familiar democratic practices like voting and deliberation is not to chase the mirage of self-rule, but simply to make it harder for particular factions to capture the concentrated power of the state. Rather than striving to improve the rationality or fairness of collective decisions, meanwhile, democratizers should focus on undermining the sources of concentrated private power that threaten to perpetuate state capture in the first place. As a result, traditional democratic principles such as constitutionalism, competition, and universalism must be supplemented by attacks on concentrated power, support for countervailing organizations, and systemic redistribution of resources.
This account reframes seemingly intractable debates between liberals and radicals as disagreements over which concentrations of power are most dangerous at any given time, and which strategies will most effectively protect the public interest. In the context of methodological debates about the appropriate level of “realism” in normative political theory, meanwhile, it demonstrates the viability of a pragmatist approach taking empirical reality as its starting point without valorizing the status quo. Most importantly of all, the book achieves the two key tasks set out above, providing a realistic account of the limited value that resides in existing institutions alongside a promising agenda for democratizing action and reform.
Early version of manuscript awarded “Best Dissertation” in Political Science (AY 2016-2017), Duke University.
Recent version subject of manuscript workshop with eight faculty commentators at GRIPP Montreal, August 2018.
"Is Democracy the Worst Form of Government?”, for Duke GradX symposium
"Madison meets Foucault", for Council on European Studies video
"Discourse as Freedom / Discourse as Power", for University Scholars Program interdisciplinary symposium
"Comments on Sources of the Self, by Charles Taylor," for workshop with the author