This article seeks to illuminate the figure of the child in democratic politics by arguing that children play a constitutive role as temporary outsiders who present both renewal and risk to the demos. Using Hannah Arendt’s concept of natality, we begin with an ontological account of children as new individuals that are central to renewing democratic freedom and plurality. In the second section, we explore how children can be conceived in terms of political risk by focussing on Arendt’s debate with Ralph Ellison concerning the desegregation of American schools in the 1960s. Their arguments about whether children should appear in politics underscores the constitutive role that child–adult relationships play in debates about the normative fabric of democratic society. Finally, we use the radical democratic theory of Chantal Mouffe to argue that children can be characterised as an excluded group of potential adversaries that appear in political contests over claims to represent the demos. From this perspective, the article reveals that children are central figures in democratic politics because they are constituents of an unknown future polity.
This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.
Buy single article
Instant access to the full article PDF.
Price includes VAT for USA
Subscribe to journal
Immediate online access to all issues from 2019. Subscription will auto renew annually.
This is the net price. Taxes to be calculated in checkout.
Allen, D. (2004) Talking to strangers: Anxieties of citizenship since Brown v Board of Education. Chicago: Chicago University Press.
Allen, D. (2001) Law’s necessary forcefulness: Ralph Ellison vs. Hannah Arendt on the battle of little rock. Oklahoma City University Law Review 26: 857–895.
Archard, D. (2004) Children: Rights and childhood (2nd ed.). Abingdon: Routledge.
Arendt, H. (1951) The origins of totalitarianism. Orlando: Harcourt.
Arendt, H. (1958) The human condition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Arendt, H. (1959) Reflections on little rock. Dissent 6(1): 45–56.
Arendt, H. (1994) Essays in understanding: 1930–1954. New York: Harcourt, Brace & Co.
Arendt, H. (2006) The crisis in education. In: Between past and future: 170–193. London: Penguin.
Arneil, B. (2002) Becoming versus being: A critical analysis of the child in liberal theory. In D. Archard, & C. Macleod (Eds), The moral and political status of children: 70–94. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Bohman, J. (1996) The moral costs of political pluralism: The dilemmas of difference and equality in Arendnt’s ‘Reflections on Little Rock’. In L. May and J. Kohn (Eds), Hannah Arendt: Twenty years later: 53–80. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Brocklehurst, H. (2003) Kids R us? Children as political bodies. International Journal of Politics and Ethics 3(1): 79–92.
Cohen, E. F. (2005) Neither seen nor heard: Children’s citizenship in contemporary democracies. Citizenship Studies 9(2): 221–240.
Cohen, E.F. (2009) Semi-citizenship in democratic politics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Cowden, M. (2016) Children’s rights: From philosophy to public policy. Basingtoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
Dewey, J. (2008a) In J.A. Boydston (Ed) The middle works of John Dewey, volume 10: 1899–1924. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.
Dewey, J. (2008b) In J.A. Boydston (Ed) The later works of John Dewey, volume 13: 1925–1953. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.
Dixon, R., & Nussbaum, M.C. (2012) Children’s rights and a capabilities approach: The question of special priorty. Cornell Law Review 97: 549–594.
Ferguson, M.L. (2012) Sharing democracy. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Gutmann, A. (1999) Democratic education. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Kulynych, J. (2001) No playing in the public sphere: Democratic theory and the exclusion of children. Social Theory and Practice 27(2): 231–264.
Mouffe, C. (1993) The return of the political. New York: Verso.
Mouffe, C. (2005a) The democratic paradox. London: Verso.
Mouffe, C. (2005b) On the political. Abingdon: Routledge.
Mouffe, C. (2013) Agonistics: Thinking the world politically. London: Verso.
Nakata, S. (2008) Elizabeth Eckford’s Appearance at little rock: The possibility of children’s political agency. Politics 28(1): 19–25.
Pitkin, H. (1967) The concept of representation. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Rehfeld, A. (2011) The child as democratic citizen. The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 633: 141–166.
Roche, J. (1999) Children: Rights, participation and citizenship. Childhood 6(4): 475–493.
Runciman, D. (2007) The paradox of political representation. Journal of Political Philosophy 15(1): 93–114.
Tobin, J. (2014) “Justifying children’s rights. The International Journal of Children’s Rights 21(3): 395–441.
Vatter, M. (2006) Natality and biopolitics in Hannah Arendt. Revista Ciencia Política 26(2): 137–159.
Wall, J. (2011) Can democracy represent children? Toward a politics of difference. Childhood 19(1): 86–100.
Wyness, M. (2005) Regulating participation: The possibilites and limits of young people’s councils. Journal of Social Sciences Special Issue 9: 7–18.
We wish to thank the editors of Contemporary Political Theory, especially Michaele L. Ferguson, and two anonymous reviewers for their generous, patient and helpful feedback. We also acknowledge that this research has been funded by the Australian Government through the Australian Research Council Discovery Indigenous funding scheme (IN160100039). The views expressed herein are those of the authors and are not necessarily those of the Australian Government or Australian Research Council.
Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.
About this article
Cite this article
Bray, D., Nakata, S. The figure of the child in democratic politics. Contemp Polit Theory 19, 20–37 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1057/s41296-019-00319-x