Democracy, Representative and Participatory
Democracy, Representative and Participatory
Democracy was born in the Western world in the form of participatory democracy, making the term participatory democracy redundant. The word participatory discloses the core meaning of popular sovereignty as self-government. In the original ancient Greek meaning, demo-kratia (“rule of the demes,” or “tribes” into which the Athenian people were divided) entailed engaged citizenship and regular participation. In modern times, however, when democracy has become associated more closely with representation, accountability, and a form of indirect government in which the people select the rulers rather than ruling themselves, participatory democracy has come to be seen as an alternative form of democracy. Consequently participatory, or direct or “strong,” democracy and representative democracy have evolved into conceptual antonyms: two fundamentally distinctive forms of democracy rooted in contrary understandings of popular sovereignty as direct self-rule by the people and indirect rule by circulating elites chosen by the people, who otherwise remain outside government.
In principle all democracy is to a certain extent participatory. Every democratic system is rooted in an act of original consent through a popularly ratified social contract or constitution as well as ongoing popular input in the form of periodic elections. To this extent, to say that democracy is consensual is to say that it is participatory. In the modern era, however, participatory democracy implies much more than original consent or periodic elections. It denotes extensive and active engagement of citizens in the governing process, often through participatory devices such as initiatives and referenda, and emphasizes the role of the citizen as an active agent in self-legislation and a real stakeholder in governance.
This is in stark contrast to representative democracy, in which the citizen becomes a passive client of government, a watchdog to whom the government remains accountable but otherwise ignores, and a periodic elector responsible for selecting those who actually govern. Philosophers of participatory democracy such as JeanJacques Rousseau (1762) and Robert Michels (1911) have understood this “thin” representative construction of democracy as contrary to the core meaning of democracy. When there is representation, the democratic principle is nullified. In Michels’s terms, under representative democracy liberty can be said to disappear along with the ballot when it is dropped into the box.
The transition from direct democracy to representative democracy was dictated at least in part by historical changes in the nature and scale of society. Democracy was born in and designed for small-scale societies: towns, poleis, principalities, and city-states of the kind found in ancient Greece, early modern Europe, and pre-Revolutionary America. In such settings active participation by citizens in governance could be seen as synonymous with democracy, both desirable and practicable. However, the transformation of city republics into larger states and empires (Rome, for example, as it moved from a town-based republic to a continental empire) created novel constraints and revealed how early direct democracy was bound by limiting conditions, such as simplicity of manners and interests, relative homogeneity of culture and religion, and a small demographic and geographic scale that allowed the citizenry to meet in common in a public place. The ideal population was perhaps five hundred to five thousand, and the maximum size was approximately twenty thousand citizens: the number of active residents engaged in politics in Athens during the Periclean Age in the mid-fifth century BCE. Aristotle had suggested that democracy could exist only on a territory a man could traverse on his way to join a democratic assembly in a single day.
The increase in scale that came with the evolution of towns into cities, then city-dominated provinces, and finally nation-states consisting of cities and provinces bound by nationalism mandated a reconsideration of democratic principles. If democracy entailed participation by all citizens in basic lawmaking, as Rousseau had insisted in the Social Contract (1762), the scale of capital cities such as Paris, Lisbon, and London ruled out effective participatory democratic rule and thus, for Rousseau, legitimate democracy. The American founders implicitly recognized that critique by arguing that a republic of potentially continental extent could be ruled only by a popular sovereign willing to be represented in the actual governing process. To Rousseau and his allies, that was an impossible compromise, for as Immanuel Kant had argued, autonomy demands self-legislation, and hence only those who govern themselves directly can be said to be free.
In American representative democracy the tensions between direct popular government and indirect rule by chosen surrogates became evident, for the American representative principle was not merely a pragmatic way to preserve democracy in large-scale societies but also implied a critique of direct democracy. Direct popular rule risked enthroning not merely the popular sovereign but an incompetent and impassioned mass: a mob or, in French, a foule.
Representation had the virtue not only of facilitating popular sovereignty in large-scale settings but also of placing a filter between the masses and prudent or “good” government. Representatives had the obligation not only to represent the people’s will but also, in Edmund Burke’s terms, to filter it through and subordinate it to their own prudent judgment. Elected representatives could act in the name of the interests of the people as they understood those interests rather than being bound by the people’s “mandate” based on their own often faulty understanding. Even the popular right to choose representatives might be delegated prudently to other wise electors, as was meant to happen with the Electoral College, through which, in the first years of the American Republic, both senators and a president were to be chosen.
Behind the Madisonian distrust of direct democracy lies distrust of all popular power. Even the ancients worried that, just as aristocracy could deteriorate into oligarchy, democracy could morph into ochlocracy, Aristotle’s term for a people’s tyranny. Although the spirit of modern representative democracy is not antidemocratic, its spirit is cautionary and skeptical about majority rule, mirroring the skepticism about representation that is inherent in direct democracy. If power is dangerous, popular power is more dangerous because it has a righteous legitimacy. Indirect rule thus becomes a check on popular power consistent with the rule of law and constitutional limits on absolute power, especially when that power is popular.
Participatory democrats are cognizant of the critique of popular government as a euphemism for the rule of the passions—the sovereignty of the mob over cool reason as embodied in laws—and for that reason have focused on citizen (civic) education. Historical arguments about direct democracy have been conducted as arguments about education. Plato’s Republic is an argument on behalf of aristocratic education that denies that the majority has the capacity to govern. Rousseau’s philosophical educational novel Émile is an essay on democratic education.
Later democrats from Thomas Jefferson to John Dewey rested their case for democratic participation on the efficacy of democratic education. Dewey’s primary work on democracy is titled Democracy and Education (1954), and Jefferson was persuaded that in the absence of universal education for citizens, democracy could not work. Hence he deemed his work in establishing the University of Virginia (featured on the inscription he prepared for his tombstone) as more important in the long term than his presidency. The logic behind the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights was tied closely to the logic of civic education. Rights belonged to everyone but could be exercised only by those schooled in citizenship. In 1840 Alexis de Tocqueville spoke of the “apprenticeship of liberty,” the “most arduous” of all apprenticeships, as a precondition of prudent democratic government.
Classical participatory democrats agreed that popular passions had to be filtered if popular government was to succeed, but they believed that the filter should be within the heads of citizens, and that entailed intensive citizen education. For the participatory or strong democrat, democracy means the government of citizens rather than merely the government of the people. In this formulation citizens are as far from ordinary people as public-thinking and civic-minded communitarians are from self-absorbed, narcissistic consumers of government services.
It is here that participatory democracy can be associated closely with deliberative democracy. To act as a citizen is not merely to voice private interests; it is to interact and deliberate with others in search of common ground and public goods. The aim of participation is not merely to express interests but to foster deliberation and public-mindedness about interests. When Jefferson suggested that the remedy for the ills of democracy was more democracy, he intimated that democracy was deliberative and involved learning. Modern experiments in deliberative democracy such as those of James Fishkin (1991) have demonstrated that citizens can change their minds and become more open to public goods when exposed to deliberative procedures.
Fishkin’s deliberative poll experiments utilized the new electronic technologies in ways that suggest that those technologies may help create conditions conducive to direct democracy, affording large-scale societies some of the democratic possibilities of small-scale townships. On the World Wide Web the world becomes a village, and physical communities that are ruled out by size or distance can be reestablished as digitally convened virtual communities. If democracy depends on association and communication, digital technologies that facilitate them become obvious tools of democracy. Presidential elections in the United States have offered opportunities for interaction among citizens, such as “meet-ups,” that give a participatory dimension to classical representative electoral campaigns.
The history of democracy began with forms of engagement and participation that were dependent on small-scale township government. Over time systems of representation were tailored to changes in social scale and an increasing distrust of popular rule. As the scale of potential governance becomes global, new technologies have the potential to relegitimize forms of local self-rule that have been deemed outmoded, completing the paradoxical circle of the history of democracy.
SEE ALSO Aristotle; Campaigning; Decentralization; Democracy; Direct Action; Elections; Federalism; Internet, Impact on Politics; Jefferson, Thomas; Madison, James; Party Systems, Competitive; Political Parties; Rousseau, Jean-Jacques; Self-Determination; Voting Patterns; Voting Schemes
Dahl, Robert. 1956. Preface to Democratic Theory. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Dewey, John. 1954. Democracy and Education. New York: Free Press.
Dunn, John. 2005. Democracy: A History. New York: Atlantic Monthly.
Elster, Jon, ed. 1998. Deliberative Democracy. Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press.
The Federalist Papers. 1791. Introduction, table of contents, and index of ideas by Clinton Rossiter. New York: New American Library, 1961.
Michels, Robert. 1911. Political Parties: A Sociological Study of the Oligarchical Tendencies of Modern Democracy. Trans. Eden Paul and Cedar Paul. New York: Free Press, 1966.
Pateman, Carole. 1970. Participation and Democratic Theory. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. 1762. The Social Contract. In On the Social Contract, with Geneva Manuscript and Political Economy, ed. Roger D. Masters, trans. Judith R. Masters. New York: St. Martin’s, 1978.
Tocqueville, Alexis de. 1840. Democracy in America. Trans. Phillips Bradley. New York: Knopf, 1994.
Benjamin R. Barber