What better way than democracy

Better democracy through new forms of political participation?

Markus Linden

The author

Dr., political scientist at the Research Center Europe at the University of Trier.

New forms of participation in democracy are welcome, but their value is commonly overestimated. New forms of participation make sense if they encourage argumentative disputes about alternatives. The unthinking expansion of participation opportunities, however, leads to more lack of transparency and inequality.

Democratic crisis and democratic resilience

The tenor of the debate in Western democracies is clear: Democracy is doing badly, this is the creed, which is postulated by scientists and journalists alike. Obviously, this dissatisfaction also manifests itself on the part of the citizens. In this context, data from political cultural research are cited. Accordingly, for example, trust in parties and parliaments has decreased significantly. Participation in elections is also falling. More than 20 years after the collapse of the communist system alternative, which was briefly followed by naive "end-of-history thinking" [1], negative diagnoses of the time dominate the discussion. [2]

The most prominent example of this is Colin Crouch's book "Postdemokratie". [3] Analogous to the continuation of successful films, another book by the author has meanwhile been published, the German edition of which is subtitled "Postdemokratie II". The term "post-democracy" existed before, but Crouch turned it into a catchy key word. His thesis is that the democratic institutions of the West are intact, but one can no longer speak of real democracies. Crouch's central criterion for this is the decoupling of the parties from their milieus. As a result, this leads to the rise of neoliberal versus egalitarian policies and to the elimination of civic participation. This system of rule is secured in particular through media manipulation. It is therefore no wonder that "Postdemokratie" first appeared in Italian in 2003.

One could of course justify Crouch's diagnosis with classical elite theories: If one follows Gaetano Mosca, the ruling class secures its power through the ability to organize. [5] This organizational monopoly, it could be argued, could be broken in a "functioning democracy" through the close ties between parties and their support groups. If these ties between society and parties cease to exist, the elitist entanglements between industry, politics and the media unfold their power unchecked. Politics is then the servant of capital. Crouch speaks of the rule of the global company.

So much for this admittedly superficial crisis diagnosis. Crouch's thesis of the downward trend in democracy completely ignores many positive aspects. One thinks, for example, of the establishment of the concerns of the women's movement, the environmental movement, homosexuals or ethnic minorities. Crouch's proposed solution is also quite unimaginative. He advocates stronger social protest. He does not mention institutional reform perspectives. But it is precisely in this that there is a strength of democracy over dictatorship. Democracies have strong institutional resilience.

The term "democratic resilience" describes the adaptability of democratic institutions to new challenges, but also the possibility of integrating new procedures into the existing democracy. Democratic resilience means that democracy can change and adapt without questioning its status as a democracy. [6]

If one now follows the general tenor of the debate again, it is quite obvious how democracy should be reformed. Ideally, this reform perspective can be read, for example, in the writings of the American political scientist Russell J. Dalton. [7] According to Dalton, the traditional institutions of democracy, i.e. parties and parliaments, are no longer able to meet the demands of the population. Representative democracy must therefore be supplemented by new forms of participation. Dalton's popular thesis is that more participation makes democracy more democratic, improves citizens' identification with democracy and leads to the consideration of suppressed concerns. Democratic resilience would therefore be a question of implementing new forms of participation. The aim is to close the gap that has arisen between society and politics.

However, two considerations or circumstantial evidence give rise to initial doubts about the formula "more participation equals more democracy": Firstly, a renaissance of the principle of representation has been recorded in the field of political theory. The works of Jane Mansbridge, Nadia Urbinati, Michael Saward and Bernhard Manin stand for this. [8] In their writings, representation is described as a process that promotes democracy and is normatively superior to direct democracy. Second, the discussion about the relationship between participation and representation is of course just as little new as the thesis of the crisis of democracy. As early as 1975, Samuel P. Huntington, Michel Crozier and Joji Watanuki had offered an inventory of the topic. [9] Her book "Crises of Democracy" can be read as a reaction to participatory democracy theories of the early 1970s and to the recession of that time. The situation is therefore quite comparable to today's. Crozier, Huntington and Watanuki come to a very different conclusion than Dalton, for example. They argue that democracy is not lacking opportunities for participation, but rather representative accountability. The lack of transparency between the government and the opposition - and not the lack of opportunities to participate - weakens democracy. Ultimately, the demand for more participation stands in the way of governability and transparency of democracy. Giovanni Sartori argues similarly when he claims that democracy must remain understandable and that there is a choice between government and opposition. [10]

Whether new forms of participation strengthen or weaken democracy today will be examined in the following on the basis of three different participation options. Arbitration procedures, direct democracy in the form of referendums and the new possibilities of online democracy will be discussed. To anticipate the thesis: These procedures are often overestimated. In addition, there is a risk that they will not be used as an element that is critical of rule, but rather as an element that stabilizes rule. The belief that the crisis of democracy can be overcome with new forms of participation alone is naive. This is shown by the following consideration of the three forms of participation.