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Home arrow Political science arrow Evaluating Democratic Innovations: Curing the Democratic Malaise?


Democratic innovations are as old as the hills, but systematic research on them is relatively new and underdeveloped. Much of it is fragmented and piecemeal, often organized around case studies that cannot yield clear cause and effect conclusions, and often concerned with innovations and experiments set in particular places and circumstances that make their likely effects in other places and circumstances difficult to judge. Impact research is difficult and relatively rare, particularly research over time that allows for the possibility that it may take many years before an innovation produces fruit. At the same time, the longer it takes for an innovation to have an effect, the more difficult it is to sort this out from other effects. Meanwhile, it is not unusual to come across passionate and dogmatic claims about new political practices. Some are optimistic and exaggerate their potential benefits, other are sceptical and borne out of the ‘nothing-works’ frame of mind.

In spite of all the mist and murkiness that surrounds research, it does suggest some conclusions. First, we should set aside the idea that instruments and practices of direct democracy can supplant the old institutions and operating modes of representative democracy. Democratic innovations are inevitably bolted on to and, therefore, inevitably shaped and influenced by the machinery of representative government and its political elites. Evidence about direct democracy in Switzerland and about the best examples of co-governance in other parts of the world clearly supports this conclusion. Indeed, evidence and theory suggest that the best examples of direct democracy in practice work well precisely because they are complemented by the activities of representative democracy - that is, when they are mediated by the parties, governments and leaders of representative democracy.

Similarly, if deliberative democracy means anything, it means political discussion conducted according to certain principles and according to certain rules of the organizers of forums. Purists who aspire to free and unconstrained debate according to the rules and preferences of only those who participate may not like this idea, but we cannot ignore the empirical evidence that it is how the world works, nor the theoretical case that it works best that way.

The second conclusion is that the evidence shows that citizens can, in the right circumstances, fulfil the requirements of democratic citizenship. They can, given the right circumstances, discuss with respect for the view of others, change their minds in the light of evidence and argument, and reach judicious conclusions that take account of the public interest. At present at least, the accumulation of evidence suggests that the sceptics who doubt the civic competence of the masses are wrong. This conclusion is based not only on the evidence derived from carefully constructed experiments with mini-publics, which create very special and ideal circumstances, but also on the real-world operation of direct democratic practices in Switzerland over a long period of time. It is also the evidence of the real-world discussions of the new social movements studied by Rucht in this volume. Rarely have the social sciences produced such a clear-cut answer to an age-old controversy, in this case dating back to Plato’s defence of philosopher- kings. It seems to be a case where empirical evidence is heavily on one side of the argument.

The third conclusion is that it is exceedingly difficult to overcome the powerful social, economic and political forces that induce political indifference and inactivity. Most democratic innovations, whether they are consultative arrangements, electronic communications and e-government, electoral reforms, or direct democratic instruments like New England town meetings, initiatives and recalls, have failed to make more than a small dent in the problem. Diffuse measures such as electronic notice boards aimed at large and general populations seem to preach to the converted. These are what one might term permissive innovations that ask citizens to react. In contrast, the Porto Alegre, Chicago, and British Columbian experiments with co-governance have been much more successful in activating the inactive. These are intensive, well resourced, well organized and highly focused innovations that provide citizens with the means of being proactive. They have in common a will on the part of political authorities for them to succeed, backed up by the necessary financial, organizational and professional resources.

One major exception to the generally disappointing impact of many democratic innovations involves the use of quotas for the inclusion of excluded and marginal groups on representative bodies. Women’s quotas, properly implemented, have succeeded in a short space of time and at very little cost to governments. However, there are trade-offs here as well. It is not possible to implement quotas for all minority groups in society when it comes to representation on legislative assemblies. Quotas (positive discrimination) for one section of the population reduce the chances of quotas for others, which may leave them with a sense of grievance and exclusion. This is not an argument against democratic innovations any more than it is an argument against quotas, which stand or fall on completely different sorts of arguments. All forms of government and all forms of political organization contain within themselves a mobilization of bias that makes certain things more possible and other things less possible. The argument here is that we should be aware of the possible knock-on effects and try to take account of them in our calculations.

The final message is most certainly not that ‘nothing works’. A few things work and some of them work very well (see also Geissel in this volume). It will be rewarding to study them more closely to see how and why.

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