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Participatory democracy

  • by JW

“Post-democratic” government is not unconcerned with what you think or want or need. But it doesn’t require your participation.

But what if we replaced politicians with randomly selected people?  

“Deliberative democracy” – the notion that regular people can make good, competent, political decisions if they are immersed in a well-designed deliberative context


A few weeks ago, the Democracy Perception Index (DPI), the world’s largest annual study on democracy, showed that around the world, most of us are disappointed in the promises of democracy:

Democracy Perception Index – 2020 – Dalia Research

The question, then, is it exactly that ‘democracy’ promises us?

There’s certainly a fair amount of cynicism being wrought – and this has been around for a century by now:

The concept of a “guided democracy” was developed in the 20th century by Walter Lippmann in his seminal work Public Opinion (1922) and by Edward Bernays in his work Crystallizing Public Opinion (1923).

Guided democracy – Wikipedia

This is also known as ‘managed democracy’:

Futures Forum: Managed democracy: “The deliberate undermining of people’s perception of the world, by creating confusion and contradiction … undermining any opposition to existing power structures … which leaves us feeling helpless and depressed and to which the only response is: ‘Oh dear’.”

The suggestion is that we are now living through a ‘post-democratic society’:

Five minutes with Colin Crouch: “A post-democratic society is one that continues to have and to use all the institutions of democracy, but in which they increasingly become a formal shell” | British Politics and Policy at LSE

With a piece in today’s Guardian looking at how this has led to passivity and lack of interest in the democratic process:

Post-democratic government is not unconcerned with what you think or want or need. But it doesn’t require your participation. It just needs to know how you might respond to the various things it might do to you.

Britain doesn’t have a government, it has a permanent campaigning machine | Alan Finlayson | Opinion | The Guardian

However, there are other ways of working with ‘democracy’ –  and there are some interesting ideas and models out there:

Futures Forum: Citizens’ Juries could become the core of a revived local democracy

In particular, the idea of ‘deliberative’ or ‘participatory’ democracy:

Today the idea of choosing politicians by lot is making a comeback because of two developments. First, the mathematical innovation of the representative sample — the idea that if you randomly sample a large population you can create a “mini-public” that is a statistically representative, miniature version of the whole. And second, the emergence of what theorists call deliberative democracy — particularly the notion that regular people can make good, competent, political decisions if (and this is a big if) they are immersed in a well-designed deliberative context: a space with equal participation, access to pertinent information, skillful moderation, small group discussion, and the absence of all types of coercion and force except that which the preeminent philosopher Jürgen Habermas called the “unforced force of the better argument.”

Futures Forum: The government’s “civil society strategy” will not give people “a more direct role in decision making.” > Rather, we need a real dose of ‘deliberative’ or ‘participatory’ democracy.

Which has been tried in Ireland – and which many said could have been a model for the UK:

Futures Forum: Brexit: and deliberative democracy @ Radio 4

Futures Forum: Brexit: and how the Irish referendum’s “deliberative democracy” countered fake facts

And this is fundamentally about informed deliberation:

Futures Forum: The people’s voice and expertise > How democracy is about respectful discussion, not just voting

But also about randomly choosing people to have that informed deliberation:



What if we replaced politicians with randomly selected people? | Brett Hennig – YouTube

Brett Hennig: What if we replaced politicians with randomly selected people? | TED Talk

Sortition Foundation

A few days ago, a new book was reviewed looking at these ideas:


Facilitated Democracy and Its Discontents

“Reconstructing Democracy: How Citizens Are Building from the Ground Up” should be precisely the book for this moment. Co-authored by philosopher Charles Taylor, political scientist Patrizia Nanz, and social change consultant Madeleine Beaubien Taylor, it’s a smooth, optimistic manifesto about grassroots democratic renewal. But can it reassure us about democracy’s future? Do we still speak the same language?

Ireland made headlines by legalizing same-sex marriage in 2015 — and then abortion three years later. Both constitutional amendments, endorsed by referendum, emerged from national citizens’ assemblies. The Irish panels are rebooted regularly with new participants and mandates. The third and current assembly is focused on gender equality. Chosen at random, 99 citizens gather monthly to hear expert presentations, listen to testimonials, propose policy changes, and write ballot questions.

Also in 2015, the western Austrian state of Vorarlberg used the citizen assembly model to defuse tensions related to refugee resettlement and integration. A “wisdom council” of 23 citizens, selected at random, met with the help of expert facilitators to identify conditions for peaceful, prosperous coexistence. Members of the gender-balanced council were aged 18 to 75. One-fifth of them had personal or family experience with migration. Feelings of anger and fear gradually gave way to a new consensus: that newcomers and locals should be in regular contact, refugees should be supported in achieving economic independence, and residents should be given more volunteering opportunities to help the process along.

The co-authors propose that these bodies represent a fourth political power they call the consultative (next to the executive, legislative, and judicial branches). Advisory councils of randomly chosen citizens cannot replace elections, nor should they. But they do seem useful for handling divisive issues, practicing deliberative habits, and tackling challenges that extend beyond the terms of a single parliament or presidency. What’s distinctive and important about assemblies or “future councils” like these is that they give regular people new tools for remaking existing political structures. They bring non-elite voices right into the corridors of power.

Nanz and the Taylors are bullish on the idea that expert-guided deliberation (we could call it facilitated democracy) could revitalize economically distressed zones in Europe and the United States, from eastern Germany’s post-communist coal country to the shuttered towns of the American Midwest. These areas are caught in what the co-authors call the Appalachian predicament. Communities suffering economic decline lose their “capacity to self-organize” or “develop new ideas to move forward.” Lacking the cultural and social capital to respond to a changing world, people get worse at understanding “the mechanisms of change” and, left to their own devices, are unable to “collectively take their fate into their own hands and move on.” They turn against democratic institutions that don’t serve them and reject political systems that they no longer understand.

Here are some things that do not appear in this short book, published in 2020, about “how citizens are building from the ground up.” Electoral movements. Black Lives Matter and protests about criminal justice. Climate protests. Women’s marches. Labor activism. The 2018­–’19 red-state teachers’ strikes. Surging interest in local elections. Bernie Sanders. It is odd, frankly, that a book selling local engagement as the antidote for illiberal populism would deliberately omit so many vital examples of citizens asserting their public power.

More frustrating, however, is that the co-authors look at forms of democratic action that aren’t dialogue-driven and see only failure. Protests and movements, to their mind, can’t achieve real change because they’re not coordinated with existing institutions. But this misses the forest for the trees. In Wisconsin Rapids, the co-authors proudly tell us, more than 500 people attended 75 local planning meetings. How many more residents of south Wood County have, in recent years, attended rallies for populist presidential candidates, or joined marches, or knocked on doors, or made donations to political candidates? What feels more satisfying right now, and more democratic: talking or acting?

Facilitated Democracy and Its Discontents – Los Angeles Review of Books