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The reefs of cognitive incompetence

A long-established school of thought is highly sceptical about the likely success of bottom-up, citizen-centred innovations that try to increase the capacity of ordinary people to play a fuller role in political life. Plato argued that only the philosopher kings were fit to rule, Madison and Mill claimed that democracy can easily result in the tyranny of the majority, Schumpeter stated that the masses are incapable of any collective action other than a stampede (Schumpeter 1942: 283), Huntington talked of an excess of democracy bringing about a democratic distemper (Crozier, Huntington and Watanuki 1975). Most recently, Sartori (1987: 241) has argued that direct democracy will quickly and disastrously founder on the reefs of mass cognitive incompetence.4 Evidence for this claim is provided in survey and election studies showing that unhealthily large proportions of citizens are politically lazy, ignorant and gullible, and that if they have preferences of public issues at all, these are often unstable, unclear or contradictory (Campbell et al. 1960; Converse 1964; Zaller and Feldman 1992).

Others claim that this underestimates the capacity of mass publics, and on the basis of their own empirical evidence, conclude that ‘voters are not fools’ (Key 1966), that a sizeable majority of citizens have a good but general sense of current political issues, that their views are comparatively stable and meaningful, and that they respond to real world events in an understandable and rational manner (see, for example, Page and Shapiro 1993: 60; Dalton 1996; Evans et al. 1996).

What do studies of democratic innovations tell us about these claims? Are modern citizen bodies capable of informed, thoughtful and public-spirited collective decision making, or is this a hopelessly utopian ideal?

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