Is there a problem with democracy? Phil Parvin argues that the time has come to engage with the wealth of data that has emerged about citizens, their motivations, and their abilities, and take a clear-headed view about what democratic states can expect of them. A more representative politics, as opposed to a more participatory one, would better meet the challenges of the 21st Century.

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Our philosophical understanding of democracy is at odds with reality. Citizens can’t or won’t do the things that democracy requires of them. Democratic institutions don’t operate in the way democratic theory needs them to. The lived reality of democracy for millions of people around the world is out of kilter with narratives that many academics, politicians, and activists construct about its strengths and weaknesses, and its ability to ensure legitimacy, freedom, and equality. What should we do about this?

The tendency among many political philosophers and democratic theorists has been to cling to the traditional narrative regardless: to fit the round peg of democracy into the square hole of reality. This is because we’ve tended to be possessed of an optimism about politics and about people which is misplaced. We’ve held to a view of citizens as broadly reasonable and civil. We’ve given people the benefit of the doubt, often preferring to understand bad decisions as failures of the system, or of institutions, or of individual politicians, not citizens. Hence, it’s often thought that the answer to democracy’s problems is more democracy. If democracy is to produce the kind of outcomes that we need it to, it is often suggested, we need to diminish the role of representative institutions, and especially non-majoritarian ones, or perhaps even reject the representative model entirely, in favour of an alternative that places power more directly in the hands of citizens themselves.

But citizens are the problem. Or, at least: they are an important part of the problem. Citizens are partly responsible for some of the worst aspects of our politics. We should therefore think very carefully about how we should incorporate them into decision making, and whether we should even want to do any such thing. Whatever one’s views about Brexit or the election of President Trump, for example, it’s difficult to argue that the process which produced these events looked anything like the kind of politics democrats defend. And yet this is what democracy tends to look like: not a civil process of deliberation among free and equal citizens or a collective pooling of epistemic insights aimed at identifying and resolving political problems, but a fractious system characterised by conflict, by rancour, by a rejection of reasoned argument or facts, by lies, and by power in the raw. Defenders suggest that democracy enables citizens to work through their differences and reach consensus on complex issues of governance. They are wrong.

The view expressed by contemporary epistocrats that we should be wary of giving citizens too much control over decision making isn’t popular, but it’s also not new. Many in the history of political thought have been critical of democracy. It’s actually an open question how involved ordinary citizens should be in decision making, and how they should be included. In a recent article for PSR, I suggest that we should not encourage wider citizen participation, but instead empower institutions to better represent citizens’ interests in the absence of widespread participation. For a growing body of evidence in the fields of social and political science, public policy analysis, cognitive science, and psychology strongly suggests that the biggest problem for democracy is not the ‘representative model’ or even corrupt politicians. It’s that citizens do not and cannot play the role that many democrats would like them to, and need them to.

We know from hundreds of studies across many disciplines conducted over the past century that citizens know little about politics and that they are beset by cognitive biases and group-attachments which limit their capacity for rational argument. We know that citizens’ capacity to engage appropriately in democratic debates is thwarted and constrained by structural factors beyond their control, primarily entrenched inequalities in the distribution of wealth, education, and civic infrastructure. And we know that vast numbers of citizens are cynical about politics, while an even greater number simply don’t care about it at all.

Many democrats assume that people will participate more if the system is reformed in such a way as to show them that they can make a difference. But there’s little evidence to support this claim. And in any case, even if giving people more power did in fact mean that more of them chose to exercise it, we’re still left with the awkward fact that people, when given the chance, tend to act in ways which are out of kilter with the hopes and expectations of many democratic theorists. People often vote for policies which harm the planet, minorities, and many of their co-citizens. They also vote in ways which harm their economic interests, and the interests of their children and grandchildren. They don’t (in the main) do so out of malice. They do so because they are acting in circumstances of limited information and unequal social resources. They’re often doing their best, but their best leads to outcomes that do not best serve them or anyone else, except, often, a small group of elite actors who stand to make some money out of it.

Democrats often argue that our politics should be ‘citizen-centred’. But most democratic theory isn’t citizen-centred at all. It’s grounded in a vision of citizens as many academics would like them to be, not how they actually are. A theory which foregrounds an idealised and unrealistic conception of citizens is actually theory-centred: it pays lip service to respecting citizens while in fact subordinating them to the demands of ideal theory. This approach dominates the field, and it’s a problem.

In my PSR piece, I draw on recent work in democratic theory to suggest what a genuinely citizen-centred politics might look like. Something I don’t say explicitly in that piece, but which informs its central thesis, is that we need to distinguish between a citizen-centred theory and a citizen-centred politics. Too often, we assume that the two are the same. We’ve tended to think that a theory which foregrounds the interests of citizens must necessarily translate into the politics in which citizens are at the centre. But this is a mistake. Putting citizens at the centre of politics may not be the best way of protecting their interests. I suggest that in many cases citizens’ interests may in fact be best served by other people making decisions on their behalf, and other people engaging in political deliberation, not them. I argue, in effect, for a stronger emphasis on representation, and a bolstering of representative institutions. I argue that it’s time to put the ‘representative’ back into ‘representative democracy’.

Because the time has come to think seriously about democracy, to engage with the wealth of data that has emerged about citizens, their motivations, and their abilities, and take a clear-headed view about what democratic states can expect of them. It’s time to determine what democratic theorists can reasonably expect of democracies. I suggest that doing so should lead us to reject the introduction of greater democracy and citizen control in favour of harnessing the power of representative institutions and also non-majoritarian organisations to identify and resolve political problems.

We should ensure that citizens’ concerns are heard and that they are formally included in the democratic system, and that the power to elect or reject governments remains with them. But we shouldn’t assume the best means of feeding citizens into the system is through widespread participation. The growing body of work on possible democratic innovations like minipublics can provide a starting point for working out how we might introduce citizens in ways which circumvent the problems inherent in democratic politics at the mass level. Introducing top-down institutional reforms is a better approach than attempting to rebuild the kind of grassroots civic and associational life that widespread participation requires, and which has all but disappeared in contemporary democratic states. We should seek reforms which harness the power of representative institutions to ensure good governance informed by citizens. But citizens should not directly control the course of decision making.

Focusing less on participation and more on representation would take some of the pressure off citizens to act in ways that they do not or cannot, and reduce the pressure on them to ensure against tyranny. A more representative politics, as opposed to a more participatory one, would better meet the challenges of the 21st Century, and would provide a much better grounding for an egalitarian politics than alternative theories which emphasise citizen participation and control.

This is not as counter-intuitive as it sounds. Many believe that the kind of view I defend leads to hierarchy, exclusion, and a pernicious form of elitism which is disdainful of the public, especially the ‘uneducated’ or ‘disadvantaged’. On the contrary, it ameliorates some of the negative effects of structural inequality by not requiring disadvantaged citizens to solve their own problems through mechanisms of participation from which they are excluded.

If you’re an egalitarian, you shouldn’t focus on holding individuals responsible for the improvement of their own circumstances through participation, because many of them cannot participate for reasons beyond their control. Instead, you should focus on making representative institutions operate more effectively, enabling them to hear citizens’ concerns, and resolve them. A truly citizen-centred theory, which genuinely focuses on how we might do best for citizens, and poor citizens in particular, would not necessarily require citizens to be at the centre of our everyday politics.

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Note: This article draws on the author’s recent paper in the Political Studies Review and originally appeared at the PSA blog. It gives the views of the author, not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy or the London School of Economics.


About the author

Phil Parvin – Loughborough University
Phil Parvin is a Senior Lecturer in Politics at Loughborough University. He tweets @PhilParvin. You can read his article ‘Representing the People: British Democracy in an Age of Political Ignorance’ in Political Studies Review.

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