Democracy, Representative And Participatory (B)



Participatory democrats are cognizant of the critique of popular government as a euphemism for the rule of the passions—the sovereignty of the mob over cool reason as embodied in laws—and for that reason have focused on citizen (civic) education. Historical arguments about direct democracy have been conducted as arguments about education. Plato’s Republic is an argument on behalf of aristocratic education that denies that the majority has the capacity to govern. Rousseau’s philosophical educational novel Émile is an essay on democratic education.

Later democrats from Thomas Jefferson to John Dewey rested their case for democratic participation on the efficacy of democratic education. Dewey’s primary work on democracy is titled Democracy and Education (1954), and Jefferson was persuaded that in the absence of universal education for citizens, democracy could not work. Hence he deemed his work in establishing the University of Virginia (featured on the inscription he prepared for his tombstone) as more important in the long term than his presidency. The logic behind the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights was tied closely to the logic of civic education. Rights belonged to everyone but could be exercised only by those schooled in citizenship. In 1840 Alexis de Tocqueville spoke of the “apprenticeship of liberty,” the “most arduous” of all apprenticeships, as a precondition of prudent democratic government.

Classical participatory democrats agreed that popular passions had to be filtered if popular government was to succeed, but they believed that the filter should be within the heads of citizens, and that entailed intensive citizen education. For the participatory or strong democrat, democracy means the government of citizens rather than merely the government of the people. In this formulation citizens are as far from ordinary people as public-thinking and civic-minded communitarians are from self-absorbed, narcissistic consumers of government services.

It is here that participatory democracy can be associated closely with deliberative democracy. To act as a citizen is not merely to voice private interests; it is to interact and deliberate with others in search of common ground and public goods. The aim of participation is not merely to express interests but to foster deliberation and public-mindedness about interests. When Jefferson suggested that the remedy for the ills of democracy was more democracy, he intimated that democracy was deliberative and involved learning. Modern experiments in deliberative democracy such as those of James Fishkin (1991) have demonstrated that citizens can change their minds and become more open to public goods when exposed to deliberative procedures.


Fishkin’s deliberative poll experiments utilized the new electronic technologies in ways that suggest that those technologies may help create conditions conducive to direct democracy, affording large-scale societies some of the democratic possibilities of small-scale townships. On the World Wide Web the world becomes a village, and physical communities that are ruled out by size or distance can be reestablished as digitally convened virtual communities. If democracy depends on association and communication, digital technologies that facilitate them become obvious tools of democracy. Presidential elections in the United States have offered opportunities for interaction among citizens, such as “meet-ups,” that give a participatory dimension to classical representative electoral campaigns.

The history of democracy began with forms of engagement and participation that were dependent on small-scale township government. Over time systems of representation were tailored to changes in social scale and an increasing distrust of popular rule. As the scale of potential governance becomes global, new technologies have the potential to relegitimize forms of local self-rule that have been deemed outmoded, completing the paradoxical circle of the history of democracy.

SEE ALSO Aristotle; Campaigning; Decentralization; Democracy; Direct Action; Elections; Federalism; Internet, Impact on Politics; Jefferson, Thomas; Madison, James; Party Systems, Competitive; Political Parties; Rousseau, Jean-Jacques; Self-Determination; Voting Patterns; Voting Schemes 



Barber, Benjamin R. 1984. Strong Democracy: Participatory Politics for a New Age. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Dahl, Robert. 1956. Preface to Democratic Theory. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Dewey, John. 1954. Democracy and Education. New York: Free Press.

Dunn, John. 2005. Democracy: A History. New York: Atlantic Monthly.

Elster, Jon, ed. 1998. Deliberative Democracy. Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press.

The Federalist Papers. 1791. Introduction, table of contents, and index of ideas by Clinton Rossiter. New York: New American Library, 1961.

Fishkin, James S. 1991. Democracy and Deliberation: New Directions for Democratic Reform. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Michels, Robert. 1911. Political Parties: A Sociological Study of the Oligarchical Tendencies of Modern Democracy. Trans. Eden Paul and Cedar Paul. New York: Free Press, 1966.

Pateman, Carole. 1970. Participation and Democratic Theory. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. 1762. The Social Contract. In On the Social Contract, with Geneva Manuscript and Political Economy, ed. Roger D. Masters, trans. Judith R. Masters. New York: St. Martin’s, 1978.

Tocqueville, Alexis de. 1840. Democracy in America. Trans. Phillips Bradley. New York: Knopf, 1994.

Benjamin R. Barber

International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences
COPYRIGHT 2008 Thomson Gale

© 2016



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