Democracy Without Participation: A New Politics for a Disengaged Era

Res Publica 24 (1):31-52 (2018)


Changing patterns of political participation observed by political scientists over the past half-century undermine traditional democratic theory and practice. The vast majority of democratic theory, and deliberative democratic theory in particular, either implicitly or explicitly assumes the need for widespread citizen participation. It requires that all citizens possess the opportunity to participate and also that they take up this opportunity. But empirical evidence gathered over the past half-century strongly suggests that many citizens do not have a meaningful opportunity to participate in the ways that many democratic theorists require, and do not participate in anything like the numbers that they believe is necessary. This paper outlines some of the profound changes that have been experienced by liberal democratic states in the 20th and early 21st Centuries, changes which are still ongoing, and which have resulted in declines in citizens participation and trust, the marginalisation of citizens from democratic life, and the entrenchment of social and economic inequalities which have damaged democracy. The paper challenges the conventional wisdom in rejecting the idea that the future of democracy lies in encouraging more widespread participation. The paper takes seriously the failure of the strategies adopted by many states to increase participation, especially among the poor, and suggests that instead of requiring more of citizens, we should in fact be requiring less of them. Instead of seeking to encourage more citizen participation, we should acknowledge that citizens will probably not participate in the volume, or in the ways, many democratic theorists would like, and that therefore we need an alternative approach: a regime which can continue to produce democratic outcomes, and which satisfies the requirements of political equality, in the absence of widespread participation by citizens.

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