Imagining the American Polity, Second Edition

Political Science and the Discourse of Democracy

By John G. Gunnell

Subjects: Political Science, Democracy, Political Theory, American Politics
Hardcover : 9781438495880, 308 pages, April 2024

Alternative formats available from:

Table of contents

Preface to the Second Edition

Introduction to the Second Edition

1. The Democratic Concept

2. The State of Democracy

3. The Discovery of American Pluralism

4. The Theory of Democratic Pluralism

5. From Pluralism to Liberalism

6. Pluralism Redux

Appendix: Telling the Story of Political Science

Traces the history of the concept of democracy in the United States.


Americans have long prided themselves on living in a country that serves as a beacon of democracy to the world, but from the time of the founding they have also engaged in debates over what the criteria for democracy are as they seek to validate their faith in the United States as a democratic regime. In this book John G. Gunnell shows how the academic discipline of political science has contributed in a major way to this ongoing dialogue, thereby playing a significant role in political education and the formulation of popular conceptions of American democracy. Gunnell traces the dynamics of conceptual change and continuity as American political science evolved from a focus in the nineteenth century on the idea of the state, through the emergence of a pluralist theory of democracy in the 1920s and its transfiguration into liberalism in the mid- 1930s, up to the rearticulation of pluralist theory in the 1950s and its resurgence, yet again, in the 1990s. Along the way he explores how political scientists have grappled with a fundamental question about popular sovereignty: Does democracy require a people and a national democratic community, or can the requisites of democracy be achieved through fortuitous social configurations coupled with the design of certain institutional mechanisms?

John G. Gunnell was Distinguished Professor Emeritus at the University at Albany, State University of New York. He was the author of numerous books and articles dealing with political theory and the philosophy and history of political and social science. His latest book is Conventional Realism and Political Inquiry: Channeling Wittgenstein.


"Imagining the American Polity is a vivid and engaging study of the discourse of pluralist democracy in the history of political science. It tracks the varieties of twentieth-century pluralism out of debates over 'the state' and convincingly demonstrates the genealogical ties that bind Laski and the Progressive Era to the behavioral revolutionaries of the fifties to today's multiculturalists. There is nothing quite like it in the literature on democratic theory, much less on the history of political science that John Gunnell has already done so much to advance." ― James Farr, Northwestern University