Around the world concepts and constructions of democracy are under contestation. Some analysts see the spread of democratic institutional designs as evidence of democracy’s triumph. Others – across both north and south – point to growing democratic deficits, and how they threaten democratic legitimacy. Following a review of these debates, this paper focuses on emerging debates within what is often referred to as the ‘deepening democracy’ field, a school of thinking that focuses on the political project of developing and sustaining more substantive and empowered citizen participation in the democratic process than is often found in representative democracy alone.
Within this ‘school’, the paper explores four broad approaches – ‘civil society’ democracy, participatory democracy, deliberative democracy and empowered participatory governance – and how they differ from one another as well as from ‘thinner’ forms of democracy associated with liberal and neoliberal thinking. The paper argues that democracy-building is an ongoing process of struggle and contestation rather than the adoption of a standard institutional design, and poses a series of challenges which future conceptual and practical work on deepening democracy may need to address.