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The politics of participation

The politics of participation: From Athens to e-democracy

Matt Qvortrup
Copyright Date: 2007
Pages: 200
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  • Book Info
    The politics of participation
    Book Description:

    We live in an age of democracy. Very few people challenge the virtues of ‘government by the people’, yet politicians and commentators are fond of decrying the ‘crisis of democracy’. How do these views square up? This book provides the answer by surveying the philosophical history of democracy and its critics and by analysing empirical data about citizen participation in Britain and other developed democracies. In addition to analysis of major political thinkers like Plato, Machiavelli and J.S. Mill, the book analyses how modern technology has influenced democracy. Among the issues discussed in the book are why people vote and what determines their decisions, what prompts citizen involvement in riots and demonstrations, whether spin doctors and designer politics pose a threat to democracy and the influence of mass media on our political behaviour. More than merely providing an overview, the book also presents original analyses of timely issues such as referendums and the consequences of postal voting. An essential book for students of politics, history and media studies, this study puts the debate about democracy into perspective and offers a solid grounding for future discussions.

    eISBN: 978-1-84779-230-3
    Subjects: Anthropology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of illustrations
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Acknowledgements
    (pp. xi-xii)
  5. A note on the data
    (pp. xiii-xiv)
  6. Introduction
    (pp. 1-4)

    In human societies collective decisions can be reached as a result of three different mechanisms (or combinations thereof): by talking, by voting or by fighting.

    The politics of participation involves all three forms. We endorse talking and voting because they are activities based on peaceful and reasoned arguments, and we condemn violence because we know that might is not right. The ideal is peaceable decision-making, but as sociologists and political scientists we must acknowledge that occasionally – if options are limited – people resort to violence – even in democratic societies. It is not only among states that ‘war is...

  7. Part I Theoretical aspects of citizen politics

    • 1 Understanding citizen politics: a methodological overview
      (pp. 7-14)

      Before beginning this analysis of the problems of political participation, it is necessary to briefly consider how we might study a phenomenon as complex and multifaceted as politics.

      There is no simple answer to that question. David Hume, the eighteenth-century Scottish philosopher, inspired by Isaac Newton, suggested that ‘[p]olitics may be reduced to a science’ (Hume 1985), yet he failed to spell out what, if any, laws of politics obtained in his discipline. Political scientists of subsequent centuries, it seems, have not had much luck in their similar endeavours. Laws such as Robert Michels’s ‘iron law of oligarchy’ (Michels 1911)...

    • 2 Participation and democracy from the Greeks to our times
      (pp. 15-40)

      Whatever its form, citizen politics is based on the premiss that citizens can play an effective and efficient role in the political process. This is far from a trivial view. It is worth remembering that citizen involvement is historically the exception (Finer 1998): for much of human history, the ordinary people have not been citizens in the modern sense of the word, but were rather subjects of more or less despotic leaders and rulers. While this book is concerned mainly with positive – as opposed to normative – issues (withisrather than withought), it is important to stress...

  8. Part II Empirical foundations of citizen politics

    • 3 An empirical approach to citizen politics
      (pp. 43-57)

      Once upon a time British democracy was a beacon to the rest of the world, a shining example to be emulated. Gabriel Almond and Sydney Verba wrote of the British political scene in the 1960s:

      The participant role is highly developed. Exposure to politics, interest, involvement and a sense of competence are relatively high. There are norms supporting political activity, as well as emotional involvement in elections and system effect. And the attachment to the system is a balanced one: there is general system pride as well as satisfaction with specific government performance. (1963, 455)

      Some thirty years later, the...

    • 4 Bottom–up politics: riots and extra-parliamentary participation
      (pp. 58-66)

      Citizen politics is many things, but a major aspect of it is to speak up for oneself and one’s community. In this chapter I consider a number of different forms of political engagement, all of which share the feature of beingunrelatedto representative democracy. Citizen government and involvement include a broad range of activities, legal as well as illegal, new as well as old. Having looked at various forms of dissent (from citizen protests to terrorism), I turn to the mechanisms through which the citizenry can be consulted other than the ballot box.

      Thus far I have focused discussion...

    • 5 Top–down politics: e-democracy, citizens’ juries and designer politics
      (pp. 67-81)

      What can governments do if the citizens are unwilling to get engaged in politics through the usual channels? In recent years the answer has been provided by two mechanisms: citizen juries and e-democracy. In addition to those mechanisms, governments, in pursuit of votes, arguably, rather than the voters’ opinions, have developed methods and techniques for polling and measuring voter preferences through, for example,focus groups.

      Democracy, we are often reminded, means rule of the people. Yet, at a time of declining electoral participation, the legitimacy of public policies requires more than the usual mechanisms of public engagement. This is especially...

    • 6 Citizens as voters
      (pp. 82-98)

      As we have seen, voting is not the only form of political participation. It is, however, the most important one. Participation is important; yet voting is ultimately the litmus test of democracy. Democracy is impossible without free elections! Participation is not the main indicator of how democratic a regime is. Indeed, many authoritarian states have actively encouraged participation (e.g. in workers’ councils in Yugoslavia under Tito (Pateman 1970, 87)). Elections are at the centre of democratic activity. We cherish that our system allows ordinary people to participate, and yet turnout-rates seem to show a downward trend. Why? Some argue that...

    • 7 Excursus: the power of the representatives
      (pp. 99-112)

      We have seen that citizens are involved in government both as instigators of action and when they are called on to make decisions. Yet, while a strong case can be made for using elements of direct democracy as a complement to popular government, there have always been those who more or less fundamentally reject citizen involvement in anything but elections – as Schumpeter did (see chapter 2).

      One of the arguments against citizen politics is that it is impossible for the whole body of the nation to deliberate on matters of public importance. This view is at the core of...

  9. Part III Case studies in citizen democracy

    • 8 Decisions to hold referendums in the UK
      (pp. 115-130)

      Beginning with a history of referendums in the UK, this chapter considers the process of the initiation of referendums in the UK. While referendums in the 1970s were held as a result of intra-party divisions (i.e. in order to avoid political splits), those held or proposed by the New Labour Government since 1996 seem to suggest that referendums are being used for a variety of reasons, including to give legitimacy to controversial decisions and to wrong-foot political opponents.

      Referendums have become part of the constitutional tapestry of the UK. Proposed referendums on the European Constitution, the Euro and PR, and...

    • 9 Voting by the people: the referendums on the European Constitution
      (pp. 131-149)

      Having looked at how the decision to hold referendums is made, and having concluded that it reflects political opportunism rather than idealism, the question is whether such public consultations enable the voters to have a choice. Some writers have been sceptical, arguing that referendums, in reality, always result in a verdict that supports the ruling elite (e.g. Lijphart 1984). Indeed, the philosopher Michael Oakeshott noted:

      The plebiscite is not a method by which mass man imposes his choice upon his rulers; it’s a method for generating a government with unlimited authority to make choices on his behalf. In the plebiscite...

    • 10 Absentee voting: a comparative perspective
      (pp. 150-158)

      Problems with postal voting in recent elections in Australia and in the UK have attracted attention. This final chapter reviews international experiences with absentee, or postal, voting in developed capitalist democracies. In the wake of the 2004 federal election in Australia concerns were raised about the problems with postal voting in Australia. The Australian Electoral Commission recently acknowledged that there were serious problems with the distribution and production of postal voting packages especially in Queensland. This ‘fiasco’, led to severe criticism from Commission members (Uhlmann 2005, 48).

      Whereas these concerns have been addressed in a report prepared by the law...

  10. Conclusion: quo vadis democracy?
    (pp. 159-163)

    The Speaker of the House of Commons was not in a good mood. Her gaze was stern and her expression grave when she addressed the House thus:

    The level of cynicism about Parliament, and the accompanying alienation of many of the young from the democratic process, is troubling … It is our responsibility, each and every one of us, to do what we can to develop and build public trust and confidence [in democracy]. (Boothroyd 2000, 1113–1114)

    Ms Betty Boothroyd was right to warn Parliament against the ever-present dangers of political apathy – turnout has dropped in recent years...

  11. References
    (pp. 164-176)
  12. Index
    (pp. 177-186)