What does democracy look like?
When most people think about democracy, they probably think about voting in elections for a politician to represent them in parliament. The politician is then tasked with ‘debating’ issues on their behalf. This representative model of democracy assumes that we can trust politicians to represent our views.
Of course, the reality can be very different. What if you don’t like any of the politicians that are running in your electorate? What if you think they are all out of touch with everyday reality? Or what if you like some of what they stand for, but not all of it? You are left with a blunt choice – out of these imperfect representatives, who is the least worst? It’s no wonder that many people love democracy in principle, but are disillusioned with its actual practice.
There are other models of democracy that try to improve on traditional representative democracy. One such model is deliberative democracy. Deliberative democracy puts talking, rather than voting at the centre of democracy. In a deliberative democracy, things are working well when there is genuine debate about the issues at hand, leading to thoughtful decisions that are informed and justified. Cast an eye around the political arena of today and deliberative democracy may seem like a utopian ideal. But theorists and practitioners have taken tentative steps towards working out how to embed deliberative democracy in practice.
A common approach has been to run one-off ‘deliberative forums’ or ‘mini-publics’. These events bring together ordinary citizens to learn about an issue, deliberate and provide informed advice to decision-makers. I’ve been involved in running such events myself. The value of such events is that the organisers can create the perfect conditions for deliberation to take place. They can ensure that diverse perspectives are brought into the room, they can provide participants with access to learning resources, and they can facilitate the events to support respectful dialogue. In Australia, the newDemocracy Foundation is a leader in running such events, and they do it really well.
The challenge for these events is to achieve any real influence over decisions. All too often, deliberative events are experiments that provide advice, but can be easily ignored. They usually come up with really good policy advice that seems to be consistent with the public interest, but their advice may not sit comfortably with the political platforms of the elected politicians.
In recent years, a new ‘systemic’ approach to deliberative democracy has emerged. This systemic approach focuses not on achieving deliberation through one-off events, but on trying to improve the quality of deliberation throughout the entire political system. This has a couple of interesting implications. First, it opens up the spaces in which we might look for democracy to be happening. Deliberation can be happening in cabinet meetings, in committees, in the media and in public spaces. The goal is to have more deliberation happening throughout the system. Second, it means that things that don’t look very democratic may in fact have a positive impact on democracy.
Jennifer Kent and I recently explored these implications in a paper published in Environmental Politics. We drew on Jenny’s PhD research with Australian climate action groups (CAGs). These self-organised, voluntary groups, made up of like-minded people with a shared concern about climate change, do not meet traditional criteria for advancing deliberation or democracy. They are unrepresentative and not particularly diverse in their membership. Despite this, we argue that CAGs advanced the quality of deliberation on climate change by bringing new voices and preferences into public deliberation, holding decision makers accountable and acting as trusted information sources for at least some citizens.
From a systems perspective, these self-organised, unrepresentative, but persistent
groups might offer greater value for democratic responses to climate change than minipublics set up specifically to deliberate on climate change. We hope our paper encourages others to look for democracy in unlikely places.
Our full paper is available here.
Credits: Photo by Takver.