What is Democracy? (47): Something in Need of Innovation

If we agree that democracy is something valuable, and that speaking about democracy means speaking about a “thick” democracy, a “deep” democracy, a “full” democracy or a maximalist version of democracy as opposed to a democracy characterized only by regular and fair elections, then it becomes important to find ways in which to make our democracies more democratic.

Making a democracy more democratic means designing procedures and institutions that make it more likely that government policy and legislation represent the will of the people, but also that processes that guide the formation of this will are improved. A lot of thinking about democracy takes popular preferences for granted, and merely focuses on the implementation of these preferences. However, you can imagine procedures that do a very good job implementing preferences, but what use are they if these preferences are merely unreflected opinions and when there are no deliberative institutions that help to form preferences?

So, if we want to improve democracy and deepen it, we have to focus on two aspects:

  • improve the way in which preferences are implemented
  • improve the way in which preferences are formed.

Innovations in preference implementation

In mentioned in a previous post that a purely representative system of democracy isn’t able to accurately implement voter preferences. The argument in a nutshell: it’s more difficult to express preferences while voting for persons than it is while voting for issues. One person, who is a candidate for representative, holds many different opinions, and voting for this person means voting for the totality of these opinions. As a voter, you therefore vote for opinions which aren’t necessarily yours. You cannot express every single one of your preferences. You express your preference for a person, and this will be a person who more or less has the same preferences as you have, but there is some loss. And when preferences can’t be adequately expressed, they can be adequately implemented either.

For example, suppose your opinions as a voter are generally very liberal, but you oppose abortion vehemently. Suppose also that all liberal candidates for representatives are in favor of abortion. What do you do? You either don’t vote – but then you give up on democracy and the premise of this post doesn’t hold – or you vote for the liberal who holds a set of opinions closest to your own. However, when choosing the latter option you will vote for someone who favors abortion. Hence you were unable to express your preference against abortion, and democratic politics will therefore not correctly implement popular preferences.

If we want to improve this aspect of democracy, we should allow people to vote on issues, at least now and again. A modicum of direct democracy should be available. One institutional translation of direct democracy is the referendum. A referendum can be viewed as an innovation of purely representative democracy, an innovation designed to allow a better expression and implementation of popular preferences.

A vote in a referendum may be better than a vote for a representative in some cases – because such a vote means a more correct expression of preferences – but a traditional criticism against referenda is precisely that they simplify issues: they force people to put their preferences into the straight-jacket of a simple yes-no choice. People may not be able to express their preferences with the means of a simple “yes” or “no”. Many issues on which people are asked to express themselves in a referendum may not be suitable for a simple yes-no question. For example, some people may answer the question “should abortion be illegal” with a resounding “yes” or “no”, but other people may feel that their preferences require a longer, more nuanced answer.

However, instead of using this problem in order to reject the referendum as a democratic tool, we may opt for an innovation of the referendum system. Instead of offering a simple yes-no answer, a referendum can be a bit more complicated. Possible answers can take other forms, for example:

  • “Answer yes or no”; “If you have answered ‘no’, would you be willing to accept the following, less far-reaching alternative …, yes or no?”, etc.
  • “Answer yes or no”; “Since it is likely that the following consequences […] will result from the rejection of this proposal by the majority, would you be willing to accept consequence 1, 2 etc.?”; “If not, would you be willing to accept…?” etc.
  • Instead of a simple yes-no, voters could also be asked to classify a series of options according to their preferences.
  • etc.

So there are ways to improve and innovate direct democracy, which is in itself an improvement of representative democracy. But even if we stay within the realm of representative democracy, it’s possible to make it better. For example, it is well known that the political party system is not perfect. The candidates/representatives that are presented to the people for election, are selected by way of opaque mechanisms, involving power struggles within parties, fundraising, lobbying etc. This  distorts the election of representatives as an expression of popular preferences. Moreover, a party system – especially a two-party system – limits the field of debate. Topics which aren’t interesting for the parties or don’t fit within their overall ideology are ignored. One can reflect on a representative system which does away with parties altogether. Also, why should elections be the best way to represent people and their preferences? Wouldn’t a selection by lot of people from the general public not produce a more representative body of politicians? All such innovations and many more are worth considering.

Innovations in preference formation

However, what is the use of having systems that adequately express and implement citizens’ preferences if these preferences are of low quality, if they’re mere prejudice, knee jerk reactions, parrot talking points or unreflected slogans? Preferences should ideally be the result of reflection and deliberation. If preferences are formed through open discussion in which many perspectives on issues and many arguments for and against certain options can be aired, then the quality of preferences will be greatly enhanced, and that is something that benefits us all, even those of us who don’t manage to get our preferences translated into policy and legislation.

I have an older post here discussing the way in which deliberation improves thinking (based on the philosophy of Immanuel Kant).

However, open and fair discussion isn’t the strongest point of our current democracies, and this is another area in need of innovation and improvement. How can we improve the quality of political discourse? The reinstatement of the “fairness doctrine” is an option, but perhaps not the best one. Citizen juries are another option. Such juries, comprised of randomly selected members of the public, are asked to discuss a topic, interview experts, and form an opinion. Either this opinion is then taken to represent the opinion of the public as a whole and implemented into policy, or the public as a whole is asked to take note of the proceedings and conclusions and debate it further in other forums.

And that’s just one way of considering citizens’ preferences not as a given but as something that has be to formed, and that can be formed in a good way or a bad way.


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