Michael Moore once stated that “democracy isn’t a spectator sport, it’s a participatory event. If we don’t participate in it, then it ceases to be a democracy.”
“Democracy isn’t a spectator sport, it’s a participatory event. If we don’t participate in it, then it ceases to be a democracy.” ( M. Moore)
In many western democracies, the citizenship is estranged from the oligarchy that purports to represent it. Occasionally, the people are offered the opportunity to participate in a major decision, a recent example being the Brexit referendum in the UK. But about 30% of those eligible to vote didn’t, and of the 52% that did vote for exit, many changed their minds afterwards. It could also be argued that since the current government intend to honour the decision, despite many questions over the legality of the referendum, a (small) tyrannical majority has just undermined the needs of the country, including those of its neighbours.
A similar example was the UK’s referendum to change its voting system from ‘first past the post’ to a more pluralist system. The outcome was no change, but after the results of the next general election where the flaws of the first past the post system became evident, those who had opted for the long established system changed their minds.
“There are times when the majority opinion turns out to not be just.” (J.S. Mill)
What is required for a fully participatory democracy is a fully informed citizenship. The rare referenda we are offered however, have become a stage for a clash of personalities and rhetoric, leaving the public to place their cross on the basis of emotion rather than reason, an insidious manipulation.
However, liberal philosophers have argued that participatory democracy is an educative process and one that leads to human and social development. If there is no arena for debate, then how can the truth of a particular position be questioned and shown to be a falsehood? Democracy helps truth to emerge. John Dewey argued that participatory democracy offers the best culture for expressing one’s own talents and life purpose and therefore enables individual growth and realisation.
“Better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied.” (J.S. Mill)
Participatory democracy is a process of collective decision making. Citizens decide on policy and politicians are responsible for policy implementation. Politicians are highly accountable. Discretionary actions are severely constrained and their performance is judged by comparing citizens’ proposals with the policies actually implemented. Ability to affect outcomes is positively correlated with a citizen’s extent of participation. Modern democracies are fundamentally based on relations of rule, whereas participatory systems are based on relations of equality (Arendt). Hannah Arendt advocates citizenship councils to replace representative party systems.
To make my own case for a more radical democracy, I will present a few case studies of local participatory democracy, commencing with the well-documented participatory budgeting initiative of Porto Alegre, Brazil. Here’s a snippet to wet your appetite for the next post:
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