Advantages Gives everyone a say
Disadvantages Is that always a good thing?
Modern democracy, some suggest, is close to crisis. I set out to consider to what extent modern democracies do suffer from a problem of declining political participation and how this problem can be solved. The alleged problem can be tackled in four stages. Firstly (1), it is necessary to see whether participation is indeed declining, by looking at empirical data, and if so, how far and whether this trend is likely to continue. In dealing with this, (2) it will be necessary to look of a variety of possible reasons that can be identified – and these will have a bearing on later solutions. Supposing that participation is declining, however, it is still a separate question (3) how far this is a problem, so I shall then go on to examine the desirability of mass participation in democracy. Having thoroughly examined the problem, and identified reasons for addressing it, I shall end (4) by outlining some tentative suggestions towards re-invigorating the democratic participatory process.1. Is Participation Declining?
In the 1997 UK election, voting turnout fell to just 71.4% of registered voters. This seems to have been part of a post-war trend, and in 2001 the figure dropped even further, to just 59.4%.In France, Lionel Jospin was eliminated from the first round of the 2002 presidential election when almost three million left-wing voters chose to abstain. Although the voting rate was considerably higher in the second round, this mobilisation was principally a reaction against the far right candidate Le Pen, and thus atypical of normal participation.
In the USA, voting rates have tended to be much lower – around 50%. The voting procedures are arguably more complicated, and far more people (particularly in the past Blacks, Hispanics, etc) are de facto excluded by not being registered. In the 2000 presidential election, official turnout (86% of registered voters) was high; but this is obscured by the number of unregistered voters, the emergence of a ‘gender gap’ (men now falling behind women in participation rates) and the fiasco over votes in Florida.Of course, voting turnout is not the only, or perhaps even best, measure of political participation. Voting tends to have atypically high levels of participation, and take place too infrequently to count as meaningful political participation. Verba and Nie (Participation in America: Political Democracy and Social Equality (Harper and Row, 1972)) identify far more to participation – party campaigning, group activity, contacting officials and taking part in protest, for example. All the empirical evidence, however, suggests that it is only a small proportion of the population who engage any more than, perhaps, signing a petition or contacting a local official.
2. Why is Participation Declining?There are numerous reasons that can be identified for the decline. Some of these are specific, for example, the thesis that Britain’s low turnout in 2001 is attributable to a right-wing New Labour government alienating their core supporters through lack of concern to welfare issues.
More generally, a wide range of possible factors have been suggested. Political interest and the media coverage play a big part in determining how the election grips the public. The 2001 British case was probably atypical again – the media told everyone the election was over before it had begun, and the lengthy campaign (resulting from a delayed election due to foot and mouth) served to further put people off.Correlations have been identified between non-voters and those on low incomes, single-parent families, poorly educated, ethnic minorities and the generally ‘disadvantaged’. This does not in itself explain a decline in participation – certainly not unless we posit that these disadvantaged groups are growing. It seems non-voting is increasingly spreading to other groups.
One major group of non-voters appears to be the young. The perception of a civic duty to vote seems to have declined. As Clarke et al note, “If these enhanced differences signify growing life-cycle or – more ominously – generational gaps in civic duty, the 2001 decrease in turnout may be a harbinger of a future where levels of electoral participation in Britain more closely resemble those in the United States.” (H. Clarke, D. Sanders, M. Stewart and P. Whiteley Britain (Not) at the Polls, 2001 (electoral study online courtesy of Essex University, www.essex.ac.uk/bes/Papers/pollsrev.pdf - but only accessible, I think, if you’re a paid and registered user (I accessed it from college)))One notable reason for non-voting is provided by rational choice theory. From the point of a self-interest cost-benefit analysis, voting seems an irrational course of action for almost every individual. The potential benefit is infinitesimally small – after all, hardly any constituency elections are decided by a single vote, and hardly any governments formed by that single MP anyway. Since going to vote involves a certain cost (in time and effort), but is highly unlikely to make any difference to actual overall outcomes, it has been widely suggested that a strictly self-interested rational person would not take the bother to vote. Although this argument can be challenged, it highlights one significant flaw of our electoral system (something we shall return to later).
3. How far is Lower Participation a problem for Democracies?Many democrat theorists have despaired at falling levels of popular participation. They see public involvement as necessary in achieving the aims of democracy – which have variously included informed public decision making, deliberation, achieving consensus and legitimacy, avoiding war and conflict, encouraging a sense of community and more.
Not everyone has such a rosy view of democracy however. Many theorists question the likelihood of such benefits. Some favour elitist conceptions of ‘democracy’, or a restriction of participation. Joseph Schumpeter, for example, prefers participation to be limited to voting in elections, with the majority of the public keeping out of politics between such ballots (Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy (Routledge, 1976)).One noticeable effect of low participation is that it tends to be unequally distributed amongst the population. Studies have repeatedly shown a general correlation between ‘resources’ (income, leisure time, education, etc) and participation in general. If we ask ‘who votes?’ we find it is these people, the already politicised and educated. How much this matters depends on our views of democracy. Those who see it as an educative process, or one embodying equality, are naturally horrified by the imposition of a de facto oligarchy. To some elitists, however, it isn’t really a problem – they argue it is only those that have the necessary information that will vote, and this will produce better decisions. The result is a ‘back door’ into rule by an educated aristocracy, masked as the inclusion of all, but really excluding the uneducated mass. We could ask, however, whether the result is really informed decisions or entrenchment? Many of the voters, as already mentioned, are the already politicised – and that includes those with strong (perhaps irrational) party loyalties. Perhaps if we want better decisions, we need to encourage voting on behalf of semi-political, floating ‘issue’ voters (as opposed to those with dogmatic party loyalties).
If another of the values of democracy is taken to be a legitimation of political outcomes, then this too requires wider participation. If the public are involved in a decision, then they have reason to obey. Public involvement acts as a check against government corruption and self-interest. What’s more, the case is put more strongly by Joshua Cohen, who argues that it is democratic deliberation that decides what is in the public interest (rather than democracy aiming to identify a pre-existing right course of action) (J. Cohen Deliberation and Democratic Legitimacy in J. Bohman and W. Rehg (eds) Deliberative Democracy (MIT press, 1998)).Some see a decline in political participation as part of social degeneration. There is a perception that apathy amongst the young is part of declining moral standards and lack of respect. These views are typically unreflective – further empirical research would be needed to establish whether such claims were indeed true, and further whether or not they were life-cycle effects (i.e. the young are always apolitical and rebellious) or generational (or ‘cohort’) effects (i.e. today’s young really are different from what the older generation were like when they were young). There is a long historical tradition, however, that has seen political participation as part of the good or virtuous life.
The extent to which lower participation really is a problem depends fundamentally on why we value democracy. Democrats have put forward what they see as a number of valuable benefits – including (but not limited to) public involvement in self-government, public discussion, implementation of the collective will, accountability, justice, equality, freedom, promotion of economic growth and (moral/political) education of the participants. How far it fulfils any of these ends has been questioned, yet democracy (of at least some sort) has become an entrenched fundamental ideal of the west. It seems that if we are to get the most benefit from democracy, then we should strive to make it as participatory as possible (at least, short of coercing participation); and with this in mind we turn to our final question.4. What can be Done to Arrest or Reverse the Decline in Participation?
One of the simplest changes that could be carried out is to reform the present electoral system. The ‘first past the post’ system currently used in British General Elections plays a significant part in creating the illusion of voter powerlessness and thereby contributing to the claim it is rational not to vote (see earlier).Proportional representation (PR) is widely used (to some extent) in many European continental countries, and has been suggested as an improvement to the British electoral system (not least, its advocacy by the Liberal Democrats). Opponents of PR point to disadvantages, such as more complex electoral procedures and the possibility of weaker (possibly coalition) governments. The debate is a complex one in its own right, particularly because there are many forms PR can take. The most likely to be implemented would involve a ‘Single Transferable Vote’ and/or be a ‘top-up’ system for a House of Commons mostly made up of MPs elected by the current system. Now is not the time to be drawn into a full debate on the merits of such a system; it is enough to note that it would increase voter power and equality (no longer would elections be decided by just a handful in marginal constituencies). Such a move would also increase the perception of voter power, which is arguably just as important. The overall result being that electoral reform offers significant possibility for increasing participation.
A more radical alteration of the very way in which our democracy works is proposed by deliberative democrats, such as Joshua Cohen and Carol Pateman (C. Pateman Participation and Democratic Theory (Cambridge University Press, 1975)). They argue for much wider small-scale involvement in politics. They stress deliberation (in any groups, from schools, workplaces, families and specially organised public discussion fora) as important in providing the public education, reasoned consensus and proper decision reaching seen as so advantageous in democracy. The extent to which they have advanced concrete, practical proposals varies, but they have identified both a reason to increase participation and another area in which we can strive to improve our current democratic climate.The more ‘technocratic’ democrats favour future possibilities for ‘e-democracy’. So far, the only possibility to have entered public consciousness seems to be online voting. In fact, there are many more possibilities (see Steven Clift’s The Future of E-Democracy – the 50 Year Plan (http://www.publicus.net/articles/future.html) and The E-Democracy E-Book: Democracy is Online 2.0 (http://www.publicus.net/ebook/)) – the internet can make information widely available, provide an online forum for deliberation, offer accountability, feedback, election campaigning (and indeed, between election campaigning) and provide efficient communication links. That’s not to say the internet is inherently good for democracy – it could just as easily offer faceless and unaccountable government – yet the possibility is there if we can adapt new technology to offer new opportunities for participation.
ConclusionWhile I do not completely agree with all of the alleged benefits of democracy (at least in so far as they’d don’t necessarily follow), I believe that it is, at least, the best system currently on offer. Indeed, democratic values are so entrenched in our society it seems hard to imagine anything significantly different being established. And, if we are going to call our society democratic, and hope to achieve some of the alleged benefits, then I believe that we do need to maintain a sufficiently high level of participation, and some of the methods I’ve outlined at the end may help to do that.
(Oh, by the way, the finished essay was at least twice as long and had loads more references and things...)
Attention, this is the first review from this author
Instead of giving a negative rating, consider:
Help this member by giving your advice
Report fraud (for example plagiarism) or other issue with the review to the Ciao support team
Add your comment