American Political Science Review


The Priority of Democracy: A Pragmatist Approach to Political-Economic Institutions and the Burden of Justification

a1 Washington University
a2 University of Rochester


Politics reflects a seemingly incontrovertible condition—any imaginable human population is diverse across multiple, overlapping dimensions including material interests, moral and ethical commitments, and cultural attachments. Such diversity means, in turn, that disagreement and conflict are unavoidable. Under these circumstances politics largely consists in contests over the contours of shared institutional arrangements. Given that there almost always are a number of ways to institutionalize social interaction, any population occupying the circumstances of politics must determine which institutional form or arrangement to rely on in any particular domain. The “priority” of democracy, on our account, derives from its usefulness in approaching this crucial task. This priority derives from features that are, in our view, unique to democracy, namely a level of reflexivity that distinguishes it from other ways of coordinating ongoing social interaction. As we demonstrate, much of the literature on social institutions tacitly and improperly privileges a quite different component of our institutional arrangements, namely markets. We show that once one clarifies the premises and argumentative strategies common to this literature, it simply is not possible to sustain the privilege it accords to markets. In fact, we argue that the analytical models and explanatory strategies that institutionalists deploy actually sustain our case for the priority of democracy.

c1 Jack Knight is the Sidney W. Souers Professor of Government in Arts and Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis. (
c2 James Johnson is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Rochester. (