What is Democracy? (69): Direct Participation, But Not Like This

In an older post in this series, I’ve argued in favor of a certain amount of direct citizen participation in modern representative democracies. Referenda in particular are useful as a means to correct certain deficiencies of purely representative systems. However, this argument is often vehemently opposed, even by true defenders of democracy. Referenda, it is said, are open invitations for demagogy and citizen manipulation. They distort the normal representative process and they can lead to horrible decisions based on nothing more than emotion and prejudice.

Indeed, there are many examples of problematic referenda in the history of mankind. The German Anschluss of Austria is one. Schuschnigg, Chancellor of Austria just before WWII, scheduled a referendum on the proposed Anschluss in March 1938 (before the Anschluss actually took place). Schuschnigg was opposed to Hitler’s ambitions to absorb Austria into the Third Reich. He set the minimum voting age at 24, as he believed younger voters were supporters of the German Nazi ideology. He never had time to go through with his referendum because Hitler invaded in April. Had the referendum taken place, the results would obviously have been biased. The fact that Schuschnigg’s efforts were in a good cause did nothing to reassure opponents of referenda in general.

And those opponents have an even better reason for their opposition. After the German invasion, Hitler decided he needed a referendum of his own, which took place in April 1938. As one can guess, this referendum was utterly and completely biased. It officially recorded a support of 99.7% of the voters (with a turnout of also 99.7%). This was only possible because of large-scale propaganda, the arrest of 70,000 opponents, and the abrogation of the voting rights of around 400,000 people (nearly 10% of the eligible voting population, mainly former members of left-wing parties and Jews). Officials were present directly beside the voting booths and received the voting ballot by hand (in contrast to a secret vote where the voting ballot is inserted into a closed box) (source).

However, I fail to see how the history of the Anschluss invalidates referenda in general. Let’s not forget that Hitler also abused the representative process in his own country, and yet few people cite the events of 1933 in Germany as a reason to abandon representative democracy. If there is a risk of manipulation in referenda, deal with the risk. You don’t get rid of your car because you have a problem. You fix the problem. Things are different, of course, when one can point to a general pattern of problems with referenda. But one can’t. There have been many successful referenda throughout the world in very different circumstances.

By the way, after his efforts to keep Austria independent had failed Schuschnigg resigned his office. He was arrested by the invading Germans, kept in solitary confinement and eventually interned in various concentration camps, which he survived.

More posts in this series here.

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.

What is Democracy? (34): A Civic Responsibility

In most democracy, voting is a right and not a legal duty. Hence, political participation is less than 100%, sometimes a lot less. Some people vote, and vote only in some elections. The number of people who vote is called voter turnout. Voter turnout is the percentage of eligible voters who cast a ballot in an election. In U.S. Presidential elections, for example, turnout is usually between 50 and 60%, with slightly more in the 2008 election which saw many first-time African-American voters vote for Obama.

However, even if voting is not a legal duty in most democracies, it is generally considered to be a moral duty and a civic responsibility. A high voter turnout is generally considered desirable for many different reasons, and most democracies spend a lot of energy on “get the vote out” efforts. One reason for these efforts is the fact that low turnouts lead to unequal representation among various parts of the population. Policies will reflect this and will be to the benefit of those who vote. This can result in discrimination.

High turnout is generally seen as evidence of the legitimacy of the system and low turnout as a symptom of disenchantment, indifference and ultimately of the demise of the system. Of course, a single vote doesn’t make a lot of difference – except in very close races – and hence it’s normal that people feel indifferent. An individual, when faced with a monolithic monster of a state, threatening and distant at the same time, feels insignificant, like a grain of sand on the beach. Powerlessness becomes a fact of life and people retreat from democratic politics. A single voice is not noticed in the noise of millions and is reduced to insignificance. The state does not react to individual claims as quickly as it is supposed to, if it reacts at all. The bottom line is that individuals or small groups cannot hurt the state. Their votes are less than pinpricks. The only elements in society able to influence the centralized state are large, national and centralized pressure groups or political parties that are just as distant from the citizens as the state and equally insensitive to individuals’ claims.

But there is a solution. Federalism and decentralization encourage participation and counteract alienation and a feeling of distance between the citizens and the state.

Apathy and indifference are also the consequence of the impossibility in many democracies to vote for issues. When people are allowed to take decisions on issues, they will be more eager to debate the issues and to inform themselves on the pros and cons of possible solutions. Relying exclusively on representation creates apathy because people can only vote on persons. Take a look here for the reasons why representation creates indifference.

Other ways to promote civic responsibility are better education, a well functioning civil society in which free associations can mobilize citizens, modern information technologies such as the Internet etc.

Greg Mankiw has a different take on the problem of voter turnout:

Voting is a civic responsibility, they tell us, because democracy works best when everyone participates. … But relying on your fellow citizens to make the right choice … can be perfectly rational. If you really don’t know enough to cast an intelligent vote, you should be eager to let your more informed neighbors make the decision.

Eligible voters who are less informed about the candidates than their fellow citizens choose to stay at home, knowing the outcome will be more reliable without their participation. By not voting, they are doing themselves and everyone else a favor. If the ill-informed were all induced to vote, they would merely add random noise to the outcome.

What’s the evidence that this theory is right, that nonvoters are less informed than voters? Studies of voter turnout have found that education is the single best predictor of who votes: The highly educated turn out more often than less educated. A classic argument for why democracies need widespread public education is that education makes people better voters.

Granted. But rather than encouraging the less educated to stay home, as Mankiw seems to do, we should perhaps try to give them a better education.

What is Democracy? (28): A Way of Life

He who is without a city is either a poor sort of being, or a being higher than man. The man who is isolated, who is unable to share in the benefits of political association, or has no need to share because he is already self-sufficient, is no part of the city, and must therefore be either a beast or a god. There is therefore, a natural impulse in all men towards an association of this sort. Aristotle

Citizens in a democracy which allows some kind of direct participation, are active citizens. They can decide on issues and not only on their representatives. Because they have a right to decide, they will, in many cases, become automatically interested in the topics on which they will have to decide. Discussions will take place. Arguments are exchanged. And, as a result, people will be interested in public affairs and have knowledge of these affairs. They are able to transcend their private interests and to take part in community life and group identification, which are important human values. They also have some measure of control over their lives, another universal aspiration.

This means that democratic political participation is not only a means to an end (for example, the end of having decisions that are acceptable to the people). It is also an end in itself because some important values become real only when people participate. These values are not the result of the process of participation; they are part of the process itself. People participate for the sake of the things that happen while they participate (knowledge, activity and a feeling of self-control or control over the decisions that affect them), and not only for the sake of something which results from the process of participation after it has finished (for example, certain kinds of decisions).

Democratic political life is something valuable for human life. The ancient Greeks even considered political life as the essence of human life, as something that corresponds to the nature of man. Man, in their eyes, is a creature destined for political life, a “zo-on politikon”. This is expressed in the quote from Aristotle.

So democracy is more than a form of government. It is a way of life, the life of the “homo democraticus”, the citizen who participates in politics, as directly as possible and as much as possible, in order to realize some of the things which he or she deems important in life.

The importance of political life shows how foolish it is to reduce democracy to a system in which people can give or take away the consent to be ruled. A form of government that only allows the people to express or withhold consent can never be called a democracy. A dictatorship can also rule with the consent of the people, can realize the will of the people and can collapse once this consent disappears. A democracy is more than just an elegant and peaceful way to change the rulers. It is also a society, which can determine the rules for and the conditions of its own life. It gives people control over their own fate and at the same time guarantees some other fundamental values.

Where democracy is end as well as means, its politics take on the sense of a journey in which the going is as important as the getting there and in which the relations among travelers are as vital as the destinations they may think they are seeking. Benjamin Barber

People do not engage in political life for the sole reason of regulating their non-political life. They participate in politics because something important happens when they participate. Political life realizes certain values, but these values are not a result or a product that political life leaves behind when it is finished. They are real only as long as political life takes place. Political activity is not purely instrumental; it is valuable in itself.

An individual actively engaged in political life is not only able to belong and to have an identity. He or she can also lead an informed and educated life (because participation and control require knowledge and education) and can be attentive to politics and to things, which he or she has in common with all the other citizens, and which transcend his or her own private needs.

Democracy needs communities and therefore, corresponds to the widely shared need to belong, to associate, to cooperate and to interact. Community life and common action are as important for democracy as for human wellbeing. We are dealing here with important human values, shared by most people across all cultures. These values are important as such, but are also important because they assist the development of an individual identity, another important and universal value. Membership of groups is an important source of identity.

What is Democracy? (24): A Short History of Democracy

1. Ancient Greece

Democracy is a Greek invention, created by some of the ancient Greek city states, in particular Athens. Athenian democracy was a direct democracy. Citizens – not including women, children, slaves, resident foreigners, i.e. the majority of the population – gathered together to discuss and decide on the policies of the state. Within this minority (the proportion of which is difficult to estimate but some put it at 10% of the total population), participation, equality and freedom was unrivaled. The quintessential description is given in Pericles’ Funeral Oration, still today one of the basic texts in democratic theory.

The word “democracy” combines the elements demos (which means “people”) and kratos (“force, power”). Kratos is an unexpectedly brutish word. In the words “monarchy” and “oligarchy”, the second element arche means rule, leading, or being first. It is possible that the term “democracy” was coined by its detractors who rejected the possibility of, so to speak, a valid “demarchy”. Whatever its original tone, the term was adopted wholeheartedly by Athenian democrats. People in the ancient times wondered if the Athens could ever survive this devastating lifestyle. (Wikipedia)

Indeed, Athenian direct democracy required much personal effort of those participating. The meetings were long, frequent and intensive. It has been said that without the slave-economy and the imperial subjugation of other cities, this experiment would not have been possible. More on direct democracy.

Athenian democracy had some of the characteristics of representative democracy. Some decisions were taken by chosen representatives, such as judicial decisions. However, the choice of officials was not by election but by lot.

2. Medieval taxation

One of the historical origins of the representative system is the principle that prohibits taxation not based on laws approved by the people who pay the taxes (“no taxation without representation”). At the time when this principle came into force, the taxpayers were mainly the wealthy members of the new middle class or bourgeoisie.

These people demanded representation in return for their money and used this representation to control the expenditures of the government. If the government wished to spend a lot of money on a stupid and unnecessary war for example, then the representatives would refuse to vote in the laws required to spend this money. Still today, budgetary control as a means for the people to check if government spending is worth paying for is an important function of parliaments.

Parliaments and representation owe their existence to taxation. The increasing costs of warfare, administration and infrastructure made the kings of the late Middle Ages dependent on the money of the wealthiest class of the moment, which happened to be the new middle class. Now and again, these kings were forced to organize meetings (for example the so-called “States-General”) where the representatives of the cities and the middle class could or could not agree to finance certain government projects. If they agreed, they did so because their interests would be served by the project. They always agreed by way of covenants, contracts or laws, whereby they not only authorized spending but also received certain rights and privileges in return. Because they paid, they were able to enforce certain reforms, at first only local and specific privileges, but later also more abstract rights, which had the advantage of being applicable in very different situations.


These meetings were gradually institutionalized into what we now call parliaments. Parliaments therefore existed before modern democracy. Starting out as an instrument for budgetary control in the hands of a part of the population, they gradually acquired more power compared to the executive (in most cases compared to the king) and they gradually engaged in legislation.

3. Contemporary evolutions

The most important evolution in modern times was the extension of the franchise. In the early period of the modern state, democracy implied the right to vote only for a small portion of the make upper class population. Gradually, more and more groups gained equal political rights: workers, women, and in some contemporary democracy, even resident aliens. This has been called universal suffrage.

The two world wars and the end of the cold war were considered victories of the democratic states over dictatorial ones. The end of colonization, however, although theoretically a victory for democracy, was in reality a mixed blessing for many new third world states, with the notable exception of India.

An analysis by Freedom House argues that there was not a single liberal democracy with universal suffrage in the world in 1900, but that in 2000 120 of the world’s 192 nations, or 62% were such democracies. (Wikipedia)

Also important and promising is the advance of corporate democracy.

4. Communes

Throughout history, and in many different countries and circumstances, small groups of people organized themselves democratically. Examples are the workers in the Paris Communes in the 19th century, the Swiss Cantons, the New England towns, the Italian medieval cities, the Early Bolshevik Soviets etc.

What is Democracy? (12): Direct Democracy

Democracy is usually considered to be a system of political representation of the people. However, representative democracy has some disadvantages which can only be countered by accepting some dose of direct democracy, and hence a mixed system.

In a representative system, I can agree or disagree with the decisions of my representative and I can only do this:

  1. afterwards, when it may be too late, and
  2. for the whole of his decisions.

I cannot agree or disagree with each decision separately, even though perhaps, he took some good as well as some bad decisions. I can only vote for or against the whole person of the representative.

This is not only a lack of finesse; it also reduces the power of the people to influence decisions and to judge politicians. A politician may take one very unpopular decision and still be re-elected, because all his other decisions are approved by the people. The people generally approve of the politician, and therefore, cannot disavow the unpopular decision at the election. However, this means that decisions can be taken against the will of the people, and cannot be undone by the people. The people, therefore, do not govern themselves.

In such a system, the will of the people cannot be adequately expressed because the people cannot vote on every political decision separately. As a result, the will of the people cannot be adequately implemented, which means that the people do not rule. The people yield their power and are unable to enforce the adequate implementation of their will.

The impossibility of issue-oriented choice rather than person-oriented choice creates the temptation to focus everything on the person of the politician. After all, that is the only thing left. When it is impossible, in a vote, to distinguish between good and bad deeds of the politician, then one is liable to focus on things as vague as personality, general convictions, “charisma“, image etc. The people vote for or against politicians, names or faces, not for or against ideas or acts because they cannot use their votes to distinguish between different ideas or acts.

Direct democracy can move democracy away from a system for choosing and legitimizing (or dismissing) leaders without reference to any specific content. It can create a system where the people can decide on ideas and acts and not just on the people who are supposed to decide in their place. Referenda or local consultations are ways to let people decide directly on certain issues that concern them.

What is Democracy? (1): International Democracy

Is democracy possible at a level that is higher than that of the state? A number of problems can only be solved at a transnational level. If democracy is important, then it is important that transnational decisions and organizations are democratic and based on the agreement of the people.

But is it possible ? Democracy is not at its best on a large scale. Efficient participation is difficult in very large groups. On the other hand, international cooperation can stop events taking place without the agreement of the people. If we have international cooperation, we can avoid the situation in which one country takes a decision that has a negative effect in another country (for example, the decision to build a nuclear plant just at the border with another country, without involving the people of this other country; or the decision of one country to start destroying its rain forests, irrespective of the consequence for the global climate). International cooperation in the sense of defense cooperation in institutions like NATO can protect the national sovereignty of individual states and therefore also the right to self-government of the people of these individual states. And finally, international cooperation allows a nation to solve problems which it cannot solve on its own (pollution for example). In everyone of these three cases do we see that international cooperation has a positive influence on self-government.

It is obvious that international organizations, set up to solve international problems and hence to give control to the people, must be democratic, at least when we remember that self-government is among the reasons for solving international problems. Some of these problems inhibit self-government because an individual nation is not able to deal with them. International organizations are set up to recreate self-government by solving problems that inhibit self-government. Therefore, one should not create an undemocratic international institution, because the purpose of such an institution is precisely self-government.

How can we make international organizations more democratic than they currently are? There are not many examples to inspire us. In any case, the people of the different states have to be represented in these organizations and not only in their own states. Direct democracy is also a possibility. Perhaps we can presume that we have a democratic decision from the moment that democratic states, in their position of members of the organization, take a common decision. These states represent the people and hence the people are indirectly involved in the decision. However, do these states have to decide unanimously? Or can we also apply the system of majority rule at an international level? In the latter case, we put aside entire nations. Is this acceptable? It is certainly not acceptable for the nations concerned. The reason why these nations joined the organization in the first place, was to solve problems that escaped their power and to recapture their sovereignty. They will never accept to be outvoted.

The fact that international organizations take away a part of the sovereignty of states in order to be able to solve certain problems, does not have to imply a weakening of democracy. On the contrary, it can imply the rescue of democracy, on the condition of course that these organizations are governed democratically. The people of every individual state have less democratic power because they are minorities in a larger entity, but the “people” of the whole have more democracy because they are now able to solve problems they were not able to solve when they were still divided.

International cooperation can also promote democracy because it implies mutual influence. A state that needs other states in order to solve environmental problems for example will find it more difficult to ignore demands from these other states aimed at an improvement of the human rights situation. The shield of sovereignty loses its strength and can no longer be used to counter criticism of human rights violations, because it is precisely the lack of sovereignty or self-government which forced the states to cooperate.