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Citizen competence

For the majority of citizens, family, work, leisure and sport are the most important things in life. For most, politics come low down the list of priorities. The mass critique of democracy claims this is because the majority of people are uneducated, unintelligent and lazy, anxious to claim their citizen rights but unable or unwilling to perform their citizen duties. Schumpeter (1942: 283) wrote that the masses are ‘incapable of action other than a stampede’ and in a similar vein Sartori (1987: 241) claims that direct democracy will quickly and disastrously founder on the reefs of mass cognitive incompetence. For elite theorists, however, the incompetence of the masses is better explained by the failure of political elites to encourage mass political participation or to actively discourage it.

Democratic innovations have tried to address the criticisms of the mass and elite theorists in two main ways. First, they have tested the claim that the masses are incapable of intelligent and informed judgements about the complexities and subtleties of politics. Second, they have tried to activate the inactive, mainly by way of electoral reforms, exploring new ways of informing and mobilizing citizens (especially by means of e-democracy) and by creating community groups to participate in civic affairs. The next section of this chapter turns to these two forms of democratic innovation and assesses their results (see also Geissel in this volume).

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