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Political Struggle to Political Sting: A Theory of Democratic Disillusionment


Why do residents in new democracies become disillusioned with democracy, despite significant improvements in the development of liberal-democratic institutions, the extension of political rights and freedoms, and peaceful turnovers of power? This article advances a theory of democratic disillusionment, which is based on the concept of political sting: feelings of betrayal, insult, and disrespect among ordinary citizens stemming from a government’s failure to protect and provide for its population. In new democracies, political sting motivates and propels collective action and provides a basis for future claims for social justice. Building from the redistribution-versus-recognition debate between Nancy Fraser, Axel Honneth, and their critics, this article extends that analysis to include conditions in the political realm—in particular, problems of political accountability. The article illustrates its theoretical claims through references to South Africa’s recent history of democratization.

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  19. I thank an anonymous reviewer for drawing my attention to this point.

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  77. One of the most influential scholars in this debate is Harold Wolpe, who once argued that apartheid was not simply a continuation of segregation. While many scholars suggested that Apartheid would decline with the continuance of capitalism and market relations, Wolpe claimed that South African capitalism developed not separately from racial domination, but through the political domination which gave South African capitalism a unique and distinctly racial character. In other words, the separation between race and class is not easily distinguishable. His theory is called the “cheap labour-power thesis.” See: Harold Wolpe, “Capitalism and Cheap Labor Power in South Africa: From Segregation to Apartheid,” Economy and Society 1 (1972): 425–56.

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The author thanks S.M. Amadae, Kathleen Klaus, Leigh Payne, Will Reno, Michael Schatzberg, Howard Schweber, John Zumbrunnen, three anonymous reviewers, and the editor of Polity for their helpful comments on this manuscript and thoughtful suggestions on various aspects of the study. I received valuable feedback from participants in the graduate seminar “Politics of Collective Action,” the UW-Madison Political Philosophy Colloquium, and co-panelists at the 2009 Midwest Political Science Association annual meeting.

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Paller, J. Political Struggle to Political Sting: A Theory of Democratic Disillusionment. Polity 45, 580–603 (2013).

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  • political accountability
  • political sting
  • Nancy Fraser
  • Axel Honneth
  • South Africa
  • political protests