Note: This essay was originally published on Policy Network’s Political Observatory.
New forms of contact democracy and innovative forums that allow political and economic institutions to deliberate with citizens are important steps in the long-term battle to renew representative democracy for the 21st century. They should not be seen as a threat to formal systems of government but as important add-ons that enrich democracy and give a window into the complexity of governance
In the last century, the idea took hold that “modern democracy is unthinkable save in terms of parties.” Today, the evidence is overwhelming that the age of party democracy is coming to an end. The trends are now familiar: declining voter turnout; dwindling party membership; and rising volatility and fragmentation. Ideological polarisation has waned as traditional ‘left’ and ‘right’ no longer encapsulate differences on issues such as immigration and Europe. Global changes in the 21st century mean that the biggest challenges confronting our current generation – climate change, the banking crisis, the euro crisis, immigration, and overpopulation – cannot be solved at the national level alone. This growing complexity has moved parties away from their representative role to one of responsible government. Furthermore, in an age where relationships are much more horizontal, the vertical, centralised party model seems archaic. Representative democracy, as traditionally defined by political parties and elections, is being challenged. This contestation is twofold, coming from the populist cries against the establishment, as well as the most avowed supporters of democracy, tinkering with ways in which it can be improved.
Populism: threat or corrective?
In response to this democratic void, populist parties have flourished across Europe since the early 1990s. Many of these actors, from Podemos in Spain to the Five Star Movement in Italy, the National Front in France and Syriza in Greece, do not define themselves as ‘on the left’ or ‘on the right.’ They claim to bring democracy back to the general will of ‘the people.’ While their generally narrow definition of ‘the people’ – often exclusionary – is undemocratic, their claim that democracy has been hijacked by a self-serving and unrepresentative political establishment merits discussion. As Cristóbal Rovira-Kaltwasser recently argued, we should not demonise populist forces. They raise legitimate questions about the state of democracy today.
In the UK, it is this deep sense of political disaffection that unifies United Kingdom Independence party voters. Of course, there are economic and cultural drivers for populist support as well. However, Matthew Goodwin and Rob Ford have convincingly suggested that Ukip voters are not just disgruntled ex-Tories. While many voted Conservative in 2010, they had traditionally backed Labour. If anything, it is rather their fluidity and their “long and meandering walk across the political landscape” which ultimately brought them to Ukip. In the UK, as in many other European countries, people are fed up with the political cartel of the main parties. They may be offering contrasting sets of policies, but within that ‘false choice’ many people feel their voices and concerns are not being heard and addressed.
Instead of merely trying to ‘out-Ukip Ukip’ or devising strategies on how to ‘beat the populists,’ perhaps there is some merit in recognising that Ukip’s rise in support can potentially be a corrective for democracy: a warning sign to politicians, parties, and governments to re-evaluate the status quo of governance and representation. Centrists must fight the reactionary elements of populism but listen to the signal of legitimate discontent and revisit their own approaches to representation, governance and ensuring equality of political voice.
Contact democracy for the 21st century
How to bridge the demand for belonging, engagement and voice, and the simultaneous need for complex governing structures? There is no miracle solution for improving democracy overnight. But the gap between representativeness and responsibility can certainly be narrowed over time. In our report on Democracy Under Stress, Anthony Painter and I argued that one component of a mainstream response to the populist signal should be contact democracy. Based on a series of case studies of grassroots campaigns, movements and community organising groups, the notion emerged that positive contact between individuals, engaged in political dialogue and participation, lies at the heart of attempts to reduce conflict.
To complement these community-level campaigns and organisations, a more systemic approach is needed to entrench more equal citizen engagement. While these groups play an important role in encouraging political participation, they do not help overcome the representation problem. Research by Russell Dalton has shown that the educational and income discrepancies are far greater when it comes to individuals involved in protest and community organising than when it comes to voter turnout. The other part of the representation quandary is that an emphasis on contact democracy alone does not rebalance the power between ‘ordinary citizens’ and the elites.
Almost two decades ago, Arend Lijphart famously identified unequal participation as “democracy’s unresolved dilemma”. Suffrage may be universal, but if the young and the poor are not voting, who is representing their views? Last year, Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page warned that “America’s claims to being a democracy are seriously threatened.” With new data, they indicate that the preferences of the average citizen have zero impact on public policy. It is the economic elites who have influence, not only on policy outcomes, but also on which issues policymakers consider in the first place and even upon citizens’ preferences. In essence, they argue that the US is a contemporary oligarchy. Lijphart’s dilemma has intensified: even if the groups he is concerned about voted in droves, it would not matter. The latest HSBC tax fraud scandal shows that this problem exists beyond the US. The democratic fight was once about the right to vote; today it is about freedom of expression and whose voice is being heard. Roald Dahl’s claim that the “key characteristic of democracy is the continuing responsiveness of the government to the preferences of its citizens, considered as political equals” is far from reality. It is no wonder that misanthropy abounds.
Perhaps part of the solution lies in experimenting with more democratic innovations to move beyond thinking about ‘democracy’ as synonymous to ‘elections.’ As Paul Webb has convincingly argued, most people in the UK are “dissatisfied democrats” – while they have low trust in political elites, they nonetheless share a genuine desire for greater involvement in the political process. Public opinion data emphasises that people would like to change the process of politics, not just its output. Some of the same surveys quoted above also show that people would like politicians to be trustworthy and less self-seeking: to be better represented, and to have greater citizen involvement in political decision-making.
One idea is to revitalise the tradition of drawing of lots for citizens’ assemblies or ‘mini-publics,’ provocatively articulated in David Van Reybrouck’s book Against Elections. Of course, this idea is not in itself new. Many democratic theorists, from Dahl to Bernard Manin, Jane Mansbridge, Graham Smith, and others, have advocated incorporating the drawing of lots into contemporary systems since the 1970s. Originating in ancient Athens for choosing positions of political authority, it continued to play a role in the evolution of democracy throughout the Middle Ages, the Renaissance and into the 17th and 18th centuries. The tenuous link between democracy and elections is only about 200 years old. Since the American and French revolutions, we have lost sight of the real brilliance behind demokratia: the jury. Given its extensive heritage, it is surprising how quickly it ceased to play a role in contemporary political systems. As Manin points out in Principes du gouvernmenet représentatif (Principles of Representative Government): “the representative government was instituted with the clear awareness that the elected representatives would be distinguished citizens, socially distinct from those who elected them.” Our world has radically transformed since the 1800s, yet our democratic institutions have not. The traditional, vertical model of political parties is outdated in an era where relationships are much more horizontal and the nature of leadership has evolved from making decisions on behalf of people to initiating a process in consultation with them.
Experiments with random selection
Despite elections being tantamount to democracy for most people, democratic experiments with random selection have been ongoing for a long time. In Against Elections, Van Reybrouck details five examples: the British Columbia Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform in 2004; the Dutch Electoral System Civic Forum in 2006; the Ontario Citizens’ Assembly for Electoral Reform in 2006-7; the Icelandic ‘crowd-sourced’ Constitution in 2010-12; and the Irish Constitutional Convention in 2013. Given space restraints, the focus here will be on two other examples.
In Belgium, Van Reybrouck was one of the key organisers of the G1000 – a citizens’ assembly in which 1,000 citizens were invited to participate in a deliberative event in 2011. Before the summit in Brussels took place, people were invited to submit ideas to be discussed online, from which the organisers selected the 25 most prevalent themes. Sitting at 81 tables with experienced facilitators, note takers and translators, citizens discussed the three most popular topics as decided by the people: social security, the redistribution of wealth and immigration. In addition to those who were gathered together in Brussels for the main event, the G1000 was enriched with G-Home and G-Offs. The G-Home was a software application that made it possible for people who could not make it for the day to take part in online discussion. G-Offs were local initiatives based on self-selection, to simultaneously discuss the same issues as in Brussels while the G1000 was being livestreamed. In the end, all of the participants voted upon their most favoured recommendations. The last stage was a small citizens’ panel of 32 citizens, randomly selected from 491 applicants from all over Belgium who either took part in the large summit, the G-Home or G-Offs. They wrote a final reportof reflections and recommendations. While the Belgian government did not end up taking their recommendations directly into account, the process prompted a lively debate about democracy and has led to a campaign for a permanent minister of participation to experiment with different forms of participatory democracy. Moreover, the impact was not just internal; the G1000 has spread to other parts of Europe.
Perhaps most successfully, the Dutch have drawn on the G1000 for inspiration in the Netherlands. After holding their own G1000 in Amersfoort last year, they are now planning to organise eight to 10 G1000s in other Dutch cities this year, with a view to making the practice a regular occurrence. While it has been a completely bottom-up initiative, the Dutch government recognises the need to actively experiment and support new ways of ‘doing democracy.’ When I recently interviewed Ronald Plasterk, the Dutch minister of the interior, he emphasised that:
Democracy can and should be more than just representative democracy. We are used to thinking that democracy means ‘I vote for somebody who represents me, who then becomes part of the executive, who has a team of civil servants, who usually have other people to help them with their work.’ In the end, you are four steps removed from the individual who hopes to be determining what should happen in their environment….
These sort of citizen initiatives are informal democracy, which comes in many shapes. Formal democracy is elections, politicians, etc. Sometimes people in formal democracy see informal democracy as a threat. They question the legitimacy of citizen assemblies, thinking ‘we are the elected politicians.’ This is a mistake. No one doubts the legitimacy of the city council and the parliament. They see them as an addition to enrich democracy.
It is precisely this sort of recognition – that politicians and parties need to be more open to finding new ways of ‘doing’ democracy – that is missing in most places. It is heartening, however, that the Dutch and Belgian examples are just two cases out of many. There are indications that these kind of initiatives could help tighten the gap between representativeness and responsibility in the long term.
The random selection certainly increases representativeness, encouraging individuals who may not be active in ‘formal democracy’ to participate. It also prevents corruption, as individuals involved need not worry about political point scoring or about being re-elected. They are free, open to the various proposals put forth by experts.
Deliberation, as first envisaged by Aristotle, is a process that precedes choice, or the forming of one’s will. An individual is able to ponder various solutions before settling upon one of them. Arguably, the source of legitimacy from such a process is the process of forming a collective will amongst individuals involved. An imperative is that everybody has the right to participate in deliberation, hence the random selection.
Furthermore, when afforded the ability to have a real impact on decisions that affect them directly, citizens’ assemblies allow citizens to share in the responsibility of governing and develop a more complete understanding of the complexity of governance. If institutionalised, citizen assemblies would offer the opportunity for people to participate directly in making decisions that affect them at one point or another. Evidence shows that people take these opportunities seriously, and the quality of debate often surprises the ‘experts’ in the room.
Other democratic innovations
Experiments with improving democracy should not just be limited to citizens’ assemblies, however. The St. George’s House report, Changing Politics, recommends other ideas of how we can move “towards a new democracy”. Another way could be to have a certain percentage of local councillors chosen by lottery, to serve their community as independents without any party affiliation. More radical proposals have stretched to hosting ‘people’s debates’ in the House of Lords, where on a monthly basis, a randomly selected group of citizens could participate in deliberations about policy issues for a day. A further proposal is to reform the House of Lords to reduce the influence of party politics by considering random selection of some citizen representatives.
A response for the long term
Of course, contact democracy and other democratic innovations are not short-term solutions for rebuilding trust and alleviating political disaffection – the underlying drivers of populist support. However, in the long term, they have a real potential to improve both the legitimacy and efficacy of our democratic system. As the G-Home and G-Off examples from the Belgian G1000 show, technology can also help facilitate the expansion of deliberative initiatives on a wider scale.
The ideas are not without their critics. Competence, time and money are all valid objections, as is the obstacle of overcoming a self-selecting bias if participation is not mandatory. But these are not insurmountable problems. The biggest challenge is transforming these experiments from one-off trials into new institutions that rebalance the power between elected politicians (and the powerful, unelected economic elites who influence them) and the citizens.
Populism is a signal of democratic discontent. It does not mean we should listen to the sometimes extreme and often over-simplified solutions to complex problems put forth by populists. Nor does it mean we should get rid of parties, politicians and elections. But there are ways in which democracy can be improved and enriched, bringing the ideals of representation and responsible governance closer together. Democracy is about more than just parties and elections; other forms of representation can and should substitute them in areas where they are no longer effective. In this sense, populism can be seen as a corrective for democracy if it forces politicians and parties to relinquish their grip on power and experiment with new ways of giving people a genuine say in the decisions that affect them.