From "The Trouble With Elections: Everything We Thought We Knew About Democracy is Wrong," Chapter 10.1
In contrast to competitive democracy, two alternative notions now receive significant attention. Participatory democracy and deliberative democracy, deal more with ideas about how democracy should be constituted, than how governments commonly referred to as “democracies” function today. Both participatory and deliberative democracy were features of the original Athenian democracy. Participatory reforms have been advocated since the rise and domination of electoral competitive democracy in the late eighteenth century, with a huge upswing in the 1960s. The concept of deliberative democracy as a distinct reform concept spread towards the end of the twentieth century.
Depending on design details, sortitional democracy can employ beneficial aspects of both. The participatory strain of democracy includes, but is not limited to, direct democracy as in Athens and traditional New England town meetings. But this direct, participatory democracy is commonly dismissed as obviously impractical for communities with large populations. Such a system is generally deemed impossible on the scale of the modern nation state. The advent of the Internet has prompted some to hope that the scale issue can now somehow be overcome. I will examine the inherent obstacles to this concept further below.
An offshoot of this participatory impulse has taken the form of advocacy for direct referendum democracy, in which citizens can petition to place desired bills or constitutional amendments on the ballot, performing an end-run around the elected legislature.1 A variety of organizations around the world use “participatory” in describing their advocacy for more referendums. However, the foremost expert and advocate of participatory democracy in the form of town meeting, Professor Frank Bryan, author of Real Democracy: The New England Town Meeting and How It Works, states categorically that “real democracy,” as he calls it, is simply impossible at a national level. Bryan sees the initiative and referendum as completely unlike “real democracy” because of the lack of deliberation. He notes that such plebiscite democracy, as practiced on a limited scale in states such as California, would be James Madison’s worst nightmare. Bryan believes we should dread a form of democracy based on referendums. The problems of popular referendums will be dealt with in more detail later, but for now, suffice it to say that informed and thoughtful deliberation rather than off-the-cuff public opinion, shaped by slick advertising, is essential to wise decision making.
The participatory impulse has, in part, been a reaction against the elite domination through elected politicians. With sortition being a virtually unknown alternative, and thus not considered, initiative and referendum options were inserted into many US state constitutions early in the twentieth century, beginning with Oregon in 1902. These constitutional provisions – a result of the efforts of the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century Progressive movement – allow citizens to bypass the legislature in enacting laws or even in some cases, constitutional amendments. The shift from indirect to direct election of US Senators in 1913 (originally Senators had been elected by the state legislatures), and the shift from brokered presidential nominations conventions of party insiders to primary elections are also examples of this participatory sentiment (though such electoral reforms would be rejected by more absolutist participatory democracy reformers).
The demand for participatory democracy was widespread among US student movements that arose in support of the civil rights campaigns and in opposition to the war in Vietnam. The watershed document of this movement was the 1962 Port Huron Statement promulgated by the nascent Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). These “new left” students advocated participatory democracy as a superior alternative to what they viewed as bad (undemocratic) policies emanating from elected government. Some advocates of participatory democracy, such as Arnold Kaufman, stressed the positive impact on the citizens themselves. This engagement not only was more “democratic” and good for society, it made the participants into better people. This view, that participation served to enhance individual character, has echoed down the ages from ancient Athens, to Rousseau and Thomas Jefferson. Alexis de Tocqueville discussed the educative power of participatory practice, such as New England town meeting, in his nineteenth century landmark book, Democracy in America. It was through such concrete acts of participation that average citizens learned the skills of self-government and gained self-respect and “civic zeal” for the “welfare of their country.” Participants in modern deliberative experiments also often report that they become more engaged in other community activities and civic problem-solving. As Frank Fischer argues in his book, Democracy and Expertise,
“through the experience of deliberation, they engaged in a process of transformative learning.”
An important contributor to the theory of participatory democracy was Benjamin Barber with his landmark book, Strong Democracy: Participatory Politics for a New Age, which first came out in 1983. He castigated electoral liberal democracy as “thin” or “weak” democracy, in which the people never actually govern themselves. But rather than merely accepting this Schumpeterian reality as the inevitable devolution of democracy, he proposed a series of reforms that would involve most citizens in deliberation and decision-making using such things as neighborhood assemblies, sortition, and modern communications technology. Like town meeting, this idea has been around for a long time. Late in his life, Thomas Jefferson ardently advocated for a nation-wide local ward structure where citizens would directly participate in governance. These wards would be small enough to convene in-person meetings. After leaving the presidency he pushed his ward scheme of participatory democracy in letters to various political colleagues. In a letter to Joseph C. Cabell he argued that without “these little republics,” as he called them, “liberty and the rights of man” would be extinguished.
But calls for popular participation run up against the wall of average citizens’ unwillingness to devote the necessary time. The famous quip often attributed to Oscar Wilde: “The trouble with socialism is that it takes up too many evenings.” certainly applies to a pure notion of participatory democracy. The practical limits of participatory democracy, simply in terms of people’s free time, were elegantly set out by Robert Dahl, who is often called “Dean of American political science,” in his slim 1970 volume After the Revolution?: Authority in a Good Society
Efforts at participatory democracy suffer from a “volunteer bias.” Those who have a vested interest (especially a self-interest) in a given issue are more likely to make the time to participate, and may not necessarily share the attitudes of the general population on that issue. A participatory system, when combined with apathy, or alienation simply leaves an unrepresentative few in charge. But Benjamin Barber’s vision of “politics in the participatory mode” set out in his book Strong Democracy: Participatory Politics for a New Age, does not suggest that all people participate in all decisions at all levels, but rather
“frequently enough and in particular when basic policies are being decided and when significant power is being deployed. … [a democracy where] all of the people can participate some of the time in some of the responsibilities of governing.”
Participatory democracy suffers from one of the same shortcomings that elections suffer from – rational ignorance — which was discussed earlier. Indeed, many political theorists have argued that the complexity of modern society makes participatory democracy nonsensical. Some question whether even an elected elite can meaningfully steer the ship of state, with more and more decisions being off-loaded to technocrats, who may be subject to lobbyist influence and the “revolving door” syndrome between regulators and the industries they regulate. Vast swaths of public policy have also been delegated to corporate executives and the market. While the “invisible hand” of Adam Smith may produce public good without coordinated planning or intention, the growing and overwhelming externalities (such as pollution and climate change) mean that putting private profit maximization at the helm of the ship threatens human survival.
Aspects of participatory democracy have appeal. But the simplistic notion of allowing all those who choose to participate in making decisions for the vast majority who are busy doing other things is a very bad idea. Most forms of participatory democracy lack accurate representativeness of decision makers as well as essential deliberation. Those who do participate will tend to be either poorly informed due to rational ignorance, or unrepresentative due to self-selection bias. In either case the decisions are likely to be epistemically poor.
The notion that citizens should simply be able to vote directly over the Internet on all legislation has even been floated by some.