Modern Representative Democracy

At its simplest, representative democracy is to do with free and fair elections; it is about the process through which people choose their representatives, and about the accountability and legitimacy of those representatives. But democracy is about much more than the processes of representation. For it is also concerned with opportunities for people to participate in decisions between elections. And it is about how people organise themselves to participate in decision-making on issues of public importance (whether or not elected national, regional and local government representatives are there to represent them).
Democratic decision-making may be practised at the level of an organization or association (or a standards-setting process), or at the level of state government. Robert Dahl suggests that five standards or criteria are necessary for a democratic process:
1. Effective participation – so that citizens have adequate and equal opportunities to form their preferences, to place questions on the public agenda, and express reasons for affirming one outcome over another
2. Voting equality – at the decisive point in relation to a policy decision, every citizen must have an equal and effective opportunity to vote, and be assured that all votes will be counted as equal
3. Enlightened understanding –Citizens must have adequate and equal opportunities for learning about relevant alternative policies and choices and working out what choice would best serve their interests 

4. Control of the agenda – it is the demos as a whole that decides how and which matters are to be placed on the public agenda
5. Inclusion – all, or at least most, adult permanent residents should have full rights as citizens (source: Dahl 1989).
But Dahl (1998) also distinguishes between the ideal and the practice of democracy. Large-scale democracy, he argues, requires six political institutions if these five criteria of democratic process are to be realised: 1. Elected officials; 2. Free, fair and frequent elections; 3. Freedom of expression; 4. Access to alternative sources of information so citizens have rights to seek out alternative and independent sources of information from others, and those sources exist; 5. Associational autonomy: to achieve their rights, citizens have a right to form independent associations or organisations; 6. Inclusive citizenship: so no adult permanently residing in a country and subject to its laws can be denied rights that are available to others and are necessary to the previous five institutions.
To this list, we should clarify that it is constitutions or bills of rights that set out the ultimate limits of ‘government’, and are themselves subject to public scrutiny, parliamentary review and judicial process. In modern democracies, the concept of the ‘rule of law’ is also vital, for this reflects the essential idea that a regime has accepted limits on its powers and is bounded by law rather than might.
These approaches leave a great deal of room for variation between states; for example on the role of majority decision-making as distinct from more deliberative or proportional processes; in the way in which elections are carried out; in who may vote, by way of a handful of examples among many. We take up some of these differences in a later discussion on ‘democratisation’ and measurement of ‘democracy’. The inevitable emphasis on ‘representation’ in modern democracies gives rise to a number of structural problems which undermine its stability as a dominant political system. First, there is the inevitable fact that in any system which relies significantly on majority outcomes of complex voting systems, many individuals are likely to feel that their individual vote makes little difference. The maintenance of a societal commitment to democracy depends in part on its integration within an overall set of social norms that nurture and sustain democracy. But if the social norms that support representative democracy as an overall decision-making system weaken, the risk is that democracy might have little to offer by way of benefit compared, for example, to rampant individualistic consumerism. A second built-in structural problem with representative democracy is the in-built ‘tragedy’ which results from the mathematical realities of highly aggregated voting preferences. This is most curiously and potently visible in “Arrow’s Paradox”. In his 1951 publication Social Choice and Individual Values, American economist Kenneth Arrow proved that in certain circumstances it is not possible to construct a voting system to select between 3 or more choices and simultaneously satisfy a set of four criteria which ought reasonably to be satisfied by any system in which social decisions are based on individual voting preferences. Arrow’s four criteria were3:

1. citizen’s sovereignty: if all members of society prefer one particular option over another, then society should prefer that one too. 2. non-dictatorship: the social choice function should not simply follow the preference order of a single individual while ignoring all others.

3. positive association of social and individual values: if an individual modifies his or her preference order by promoting a certain option, then the societal preference order should change only by (possibly) promoting that same option.

4. independence of irrelevant alternatives: if we restrict attention to a subset of options, and apply the social choice function only to those, then the result should be compatible with the outcome for the whole set of options.
At the highest level of generalisation, Arrow’s theory demonstrates that it is impossible to aggregate voting choices in such a way that most people get what they want most of the time. This fact compounds the wider challenges facing participatory and deliberative democracy.
Two further features of modern representative democracies deserve to be highlighted further: the roles of political parties and of the media.

Political Parties
Political parties have been a fact of representative democracy since the nineteenth century. Yet they present significant challenges to the practice of representative democracy. Political theorist Noberto Bobbio presents the essential concern:
“The political promise of modern democracy, as representative democracy, was that those elected to serve the people would be free to take part in rational parliamentary deliberation unimpeded by sectional interests. They would not, therefore, be subject to any binding mandate predetermining their choice in political decision-making … Yet the liberal ideal of sovereign people composed of free individuals has been comprehensively refuted by historical practice, no more so than in the modern liberal democracies in which party-dominated politics and government reflect more a constellation of organised sectional groupings and sharply asymmetrical power relationships” (Bobbio 1987, cited in Mason 1999: 46).
Political parties help to make the practice of representative democracy more manageable; but among other ills they can also drive a wedge between elected representatives and the constituents whom they serve. Party loyalties linked to the work of so-called ‘whips’ whose job is to bring elected representatives into line with party positions may also undermine the individual judgment of elected representatives.
The role played by Party allegiances in different democracies varies greatly. It is linked in part (but not exclusively) to the electoral system in force and its propensity to deliver multiparty coalition governments. In the most general terms, two-party political systems (including those of the UK and the US) tend to be associated with majoritarian models of democracy, and (Lijphart, 1999) and  multiparty political systems tend to be associated more with more consensual models of democracy which, according to Lijphart (and discussed further below), generally perform better at dealing with environmental issues.
The political scientist Robyn Eckersley echoes some of these findings. She suggests that if notions of social and ecological responsibilities are ‘reasonably entrenched’ and state institutions are ‘reasonably reflexive’, changes of government should not lead to decisive shifts in environmental direction (2006).

Eckersley cites Sweden as a ‘leading green role model’; not because it embodies all the features of a good liberal democratic state but rather because it has evolved beyond them.
The contemporary literature on the practice of democracy includes proposals both in favour of political parties, and against them. The case in favour is made in a 2006 paper by analysts at the UK think-tank the Young Foundation (MacTaggart et al, 2006). The paper argues that political parties can “synthesise coherent strategies for the nation, cities, towns and counties”; “provide direct accountability to the public for broad strategy and direct actions”; “help to identify new needs, ideas and issues, and promote them”; “choose and groom leaders”; and offer “ways of achieving change – [as] specialists in mobilising opinion and power and influencing the apparatus of the state”.
Michael Mason highlights a very significant drawback of representative democracy which can be linked, implicitly, to a lack of political parties that are capable both of getting elected and systematically prioritising consideration of environmental interests. Mason argues that without consensus on key environmental issues, the long term strength of the environmental agenda within representative democracies is entirely dependent on the general growth in public environmental consciousness. In other words that “the appeal to common ecological interests by environmental groups demands an energy-sapping continual commitment to agenda-setting in the public sphere” (Mason 1999: 47).
From a sustainable development perspective, leading UK environmentalist Sara Parkin makes the case against political parties in a 2008 paper (Parkin, 2008). She argues that instead of the current system of electoral politics grounded in political parties, elected representatives should be selected based on job applications made against specific job descriptions. She argues for democratic engagement to be ‘as commonplace as shopping’. A compliment to this perspective is Saward’s proposal for a new approach to political representation so that it is understood as a process in which the relationship between citizens and representatives is continuous; a ‘broader’ and ‘thicker’ conception of political representation (2006).
From a climate change perspective, there is also considerable resonance in Sara Parkin’s worry that “at time of uncertainty, fear and worry, people do two things – they retreat to known territory (the tribal instinct) and become more easily attracted to strong, simple solution-mongerers who may or may not be charismatic” (Parkin, 2008). As climate impacts begin to bite, there is a real risk that the party political system will provide oversimplified bright lines between options for action based on ideological positions that are woefully oversimplistic for the nature of the challenges. This possibility visible in recent media coverage of the views of ‘climate sceptics’; and in the hard-to-halt tendency, both in the US and the UK, for responses to climate change, and particularly areas of scientific uncertainty, to become polarised along party political lines.

Democracy and the Media

Aside from the impact of business interests and campaign groups on democracy, no modern description of democracy in practice can be complete unless it takes account of another ‘non-voting’ actor: the media. Paper One outlined some of the ways in which media coverage of climate change issues is exerting an impact on climate policy; particularly as coverage of the views of ‘climate sceptics’ intensifies.
Whatever its format, the media is a powerful tool as a source of the information and opinion that feeds democratic engagement. The media doesn’t ‘vote’, and yet, whatever the subject, media coverage has helped shape public perception: “Few things are as much a part of our lives as the news”, argues Lance Bennett in his book News: the Politics of Illusion: “it has become a sort of instant historical record of the pace, progress, problems, and hopes of society” (Bennett 2002).
Boykoff and Rajan (2007) note in particular the vital importance of mass media coverage of scientific issues. They argue that this in turn affects how science is translated into policy, and that “[c]onsequently, the intersection of mass media, science and policy is a particularly dynamic arena of communication, in which all sides have high stakes” (Boykoff and Rajan 2007: 207).
The power of the media essentially lies with how it frames information. In a 2007 analysis of media coverage of climate change issues, Boykoff (2007) finds that the media has consistently framed anthropogenic climate change as contentious. And the climate agenda is now increasingly politicised in the mass media along ideological lines (See also Carvalho, 2007).
In a new major work, The Life and Death of Democracy (2009), British academic John Keane argues that the West now finds itself in a phase of ‘monitory democracy’. A central feature of this new form of democracy, as Keane sees it, is a process of surveillance and disciplining of politicians and elected power-holders via publicity, civil society campaigning, watchdogs, access to information, and constant news feedbacks.
Even further, Keane argues that what is distinctive is ‘the way all fields of social and political life come to be scrutinized, not just by the standard machinery of representative democracy but by a whole host of non-party, extra-parliamentary and often unelected bodies operating within, underneath and beyond the boundaries of territorial states’ (italics in original, p. 695).4 The media plays an important role in this model; yet as Ben Wilson argues in a review of Keane’s book in the Literary Review, “[m]onitory democracy stands a chance of working when it is combined with an active citizenry; yet at no time has civil society seemed so impoverished. The price to pay for all this monitoring is intense loathing of politicians, an incomprehensible babble, and voter apathy”.5
As to democracy and climate change; the broad issues at stake in the future impact of the mass media may already have been demonstrated; particularly given the controversy over climate science in the run-up to and immediate aftermath of the December 2009 Climate Summit. But a focus on the mass media is just part of the story. For the past decade has seen a powerful transformation in 

citizens’ use of the internet. The socio-political implications of this phenomenon are only just beginning to be acknowledged.
There is a very real ‘digital divide’ between people who are and those who are not able to access and take advantage of the participatory potential of information technology. But social networking and information technology-enabled participatory approaches have the potential to revolutionise democracy. The new ‘public spaces’ that are created by these approaches are often almost entirely disconnected from the formal processes of representative democracy. Yet they offer arenas where citizens can engage in dialogue, express views, vote on a diverse range of issues and shape the decisions of other actors. The extent to which these arenas come to be absorbed within understanding of formal political processes, or remain as parallel processes in the wider social realm, is one of the key factors determining the shape of ‘future democracy’.
Today, ‘e-democracy’ is rapidly becoming a distinct field of analysis and experimentation. The term is defined by Stephen Coleman, the University of Oxford’s first professor of e-democracy, as “…using new digital technology to enhance the process of democratic relationship between government and governed, representative and represented.” (Guardian Online article, cited in Parry, 2004). The term “e-democracy” may also be used as an adjunct to a narrow definition of ‘democracy’, to refer to the use of electronic voting in local and national elections.
‘E-democracy’ is linked to what has been dubbed ‘Politics 2.0’ or ‘open source politics’. For the time being, this concept remains fittingly best described by Wikipedia: “Open source political campaigns, Open source politics, or Politics 2.0, is the idea that social networking and e-participation technologies will revolutionize our ability to follow, support, and influence political campaigns. Netroots evangelists and web consultants predict a wave of popular democracy as fundraisers meet on MySpace, YouTubers crank out attack ads, bloggers do opposition research, and cell-phone-activated flash mobs hold miniconventions in Second Life.”6
The promise of Politics 2.0 lies with its potential to bring citizens closer to or even achieve a vision of democracy that involves free and easy access to the political process, greater transparency and accountability, deliberative and consultative democracy, a wider forum for discussion and a smaller space between the individual and political power (Hill, 2010). But there are downsides too: the risk of social and political exclusion resulting from a ‘digital divide’, and a host of emerging concerns about issues such as ‘cyber-bullying’ or the risk of ‘slacktivism’ (in which expressing views on the internet makes the ‘slacktivist’ feel good in the virtual world, but does nothing to pursue the in the “real” world) are among them. And there is nothing inherently more participatory about passive internet-based campaigning in which citizens are little more than the users of computers that allow them to sign on with expressions of support to campaigns developed by unelected policy ‘experts’.
Clearly, there are many challenges to be overcome if e-democracy and Politics 2.0 are to serve the interests of sustainable development, or galvanise citizen action to mitigate and adapt to climate change. We consider some of the issues that this raises in a little more detail in Paper Three of our project.


Halina Ward & Anandini Yoganathan

Halina Ward is Director of the Foundation for Democracy and Sustainable Development (FDSD). Anandini Yoganathan holds an MSc in environmental policy from the University of Oxford and is at the time of writing an intern with the Foundation for Democracy and Sustainable Development. FDSD is a small charity, launched in September 2009, which works to identify ideas and innovative practices that can equip democracy to deliver sustainable development.
Many thanks to Ian Christie for helpful comments on an earlier draft of this paper.
The paper forms Paper Two of the Foundation for Democracy and Sustainable Development’s project on the Future of Democracy in the Face of Climate Change, which aims to develop scenarios for the future of democracy and participatory decision-making in the face of climate change to 2050 and 2100. It is funded by FDSD with the additional support of a Future of Humanity grant from the Foundation for the Future (www.futurefoundation.org).

SOURCE  Foundation for Democracy and Sustainable Development

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