6. Beyond Representative Democracy?
According to the minimalist definition associated with the political economist Joseph Schumpeter, democracy is simply a matter of leadership selection. Democracy ‘does not and cannot mean that the people actually rule in any obvious sense of “people” and “rule”’, he wrote in 1942. It ‘means only that the people have the opportunity of accepting or refusing the men who are to rule them’. However, this version of democracy now seems hopelessly anachronistic. It seems that citizens no longer simply want to elect their leaders every four or five years and do as they are told in the period in between. Rather, there seems to be growing demand from citizens to be more involved in the ongoing process of deliberation and decision-making.
In response to this demand, there has been a proliferation of experiments in other forms of democracy. Some complement and support the representative model that goes back to the late 18th century. But others suggest the possibility of moving beyond it. Decision-making could function quite differently while remaining within a constitutional framework that guaranteed the rule of law, an independent judiciary, media freedom and minority rights. In other words, liberal democracy may be compatible with alternatives to representative democracy. Europeans should therefore be open to forms of democracy that could complement or even ultimately replace representative democracy.
This chapter examines direct democracy and deliberative democracy, the two main alternatives to representative democracy. These two forms of democracy can be thought of as contrasting responses to the limitations and weaknesses of the representative model. Whereas direct democracy tends to polarize, deliberative democracy seeks to overcome polarization and create consensus. Views about these two forms of democracy therefore tend to reflect assumptions about how adversarial and competitive democratic politics should be (for example, deliberative democracy is popular among centrists). Direct democracy and deliberative democracy create different opportunities – and dangers – for liberal democracy.
The aim of direct democracy, which goes back to the Athenian city-state, is to give the electorate an opportunity to take decisions in a more immediate way than is the case in representative democracy. Direct democracy’s most common methods are referendums, citizens’ initiatives, agenda initiatives and recall elections. Referendums are already widely used in Europe, particularly for amending national constitutions. Some European countries also have provisions for citizens’ initiatives (which give the electorate a vote on a measure proposed by a number of citizens) and agenda initiatives (which put an issue on the political agenda and require a specified authority, usually the legislature, to consider and/or act on a proposal).
Cultural attitudes to direct democracy vary across Europe in ways that do not fit neatly into Lijphart’s contrast between majoritarian and consensual democracies. The UK – the paradigmatic majoritarian democracy – has selectively used referendums to deal with questions of constitutional reform, and with the issue of membership of the EU. Its recent experience illustrates how direct democracy can conflict with representative democracy. Germans, meanwhile, are suspicious of direct democracy, which is considered another ‘lesson of Weimar’. But Switzerland – according to Lijphart’s typology, one of the most consensual democracies in the world – makes more use of referendums than any other country in Europe.
Nor is it even clear whether direct democracy should itself be categorized as a majoritarian or consensual element. Referendums are generally seen as ‘the most extreme majoritarian method of decision-making, that is, even more majoritarian than representative majoritarian democracy’. But Lijphart argues that, when referendums form part of the process of amending a constitution, they should actually be seen as an ‘anti-majoritarian device’ – in particular, because they give minorities the opportunity to campaign against a proposed amendment. In other words, whether the introduction of referendums makes a democracy more majoritarian or consensual depends on their exact role in the political system.
Whether the introduction of referendums makes a democracy more majoritarian or consensual depends on their exact role in the political system.
Switzerland has had provisions for direct democracy in its constitution since 1778. Its political system is sometimes called a ‘semi-direct democracy’: that is, a representative democracy that makes extensive use of elements of direct democracy. Citizens’ initiatives and referendums are used at both the national and cantonal level. Typically, Swiss citizens vote on several initiatives, constitutional proposals or treaties three or four times each year. Passage of a measure at the national level requires a double majority: that is, a majority of the overall vote and a majority of cantons in favour. Though the Swiss system has sometimes produced controversial decisions, such as the banning of the construction of minarets in 2009, it is generally considered to work well.
A number of other European countries, such as Denmark and Ireland, require referendums for constitutional amendments. Referendums have often been held as part of processes for deciding whether to join the EU or whether to ratify major EU treaties, such as the Maastricht Treaty in 1992 and the Constitutional Treaty in 2005. Thus the EU can be said to ‘generate’ referendums. Because referendums have often led to the rejection of further European integration, some ‘pro-Europeans’ tend to oppose them. However, because of the way in which decisions taken in referendums have been overturned or, in the case of the rejection of the Constitutional Treaty by Dutch and French voters, bypassed, many Eurosceptics also see referendums on EU-related issues as discredited.
Notwithstanding these cultural differences and disillusionment about referendums on EU issues, the demand for direct democracy seems to be increasing across Europe – particularly, but not only, from populist figures, movements and parties. This is in part because of the development of digital technology, which has created the possibility of dramatically expanding the use of referendums. Historically, direct democracy was widely seen as being possible only in small city-states like Athens (though the Swiss case challenges this assumption). But as we have seen, some now see the possibility of using digital technology to scale up direct democracy and create a kind of ‘virtual agora’. Others have suggested that what Europe needs is ‘a digital version of Swiss democracy’.
The first key question here is which issues referendums should be applied to. Referendums seem to work best where there is a simple choice between two alternatives, each of which can be easily implemented by parliament. The debate about Brexit in the UK in the three years since the referendum in June 2016 illustrates this. What may have seemed like a simple binary choice between leaving the EU and remaining in it turned out to be a much more complex choice between different kinds of relationship with the EU. Moreover, leaving the EU is far from straightforward. Thus, a referendum meant to resolve a nationally divisive issue in a way that cut across political lines instead deepened division and caused paralysis for several years.
A second question is whether referendums should be advisory or binding. Binding referendums are not easily compatible with the structures of representative democracy and have the potential to undermine it, though the experience of Switzerland suggests they can work if they are well integrated into a system of representative democracy. Conversely, if referendums are merely advisory, and can be easily rejected by governments and parliaments, they risk being discredited. It can be particularly dangerous when there is a lack of clarity or agreement about whether a referendum is binding – as the example of the UK’s referendum on EU membership again arguably illustrates.
In addition to referendums, agenda initiatives have become increasingly popular in Europe – confusingly, these are often also referred to as citizens’ initiatives. In 2012 Estonia created a People’s Assembly to crowdsource proposals for reforming its democratic processes. The assembly generated over 2,000 proposals, 15 of which were submitted to parliament. Parliament accepted three of the proposals and partially implemented four more. One of the laws passed created an ongoing right for citizen-led proposals to be submitted to parliament through a new platform, Rahvaalgatus. Also in 2012, Finland passed a Citizens Initiative Act, which enables citizens to submit legal proposals to parliament once they have 50,000 signatures. This process led to the introduction of equal-marriage legislation.
At the European level, the European Citizens’ Initiative aims to enable EU citizens to participate directly in the development of EU policies. But the mechanism is widely seen as having been a disappointment. Since it was introduced with the Treaty of Lisbon in 2007, only four petitions so far have reached the threshold of 1 million signatures required for the European Commission to take action – and none has yet led to a legislative proposal. This illustrates that agenda initiatives, rather than undermining the existing system of decision-making as referendums can, run the risk of failing to have an impact at all. In the worst case, agenda initiatives can resemble a petition which rulers can choose to accept or reject, as in the pre-democratic era.
Deliberative democracy is a much more recent idea, which has emerged in theory and in practice only in the past several decades. Influenced by the work of the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas, it is based on the insight that the quality of political discourse matters in a democracy. Advocates of deliberative methods such as James Fishkin argue that citizens must be able to weigh ‘competing arguments for policies or candidates in a context of mutually civil and diverse discussion in which people can decide on the merits of good information’. The idea of deliberative democracy has become particularly popular in the past few years against the background of widespread concerns about the way in which social media may be debasing political discourse.
The hope is that deliberative methods may provide a way not just of elevating debate but also of bridging the gap between elites and the public that characterizes much of politics. Advocates argue that such methods can achieve this without abandoning the idea of expertise or lowering the quality of decision-making: ‘Popular deliberative institutions are grounded in the public’s values and concerns, so the voice they magnify is not the voice of the elites. But that voice is usually also, after deliberation, more evidence-based and reflective of the merits of the major policy arguments.’ It is also claimed that deliberative democracy reduces polarization – the process of deliberation can induce reflection and lead participants to change their minds.
Deliberative methods have usually involved the creation of a ‘mini-public’ – a small group of citizens that is representative of the population as a whole – that meets in person to deliberate on a particular political issue in an organized setting. The earliest version of this was the ‘deliberative opinion poll’, which Fishkin first described in 1988. Other forms of deliberative democracy include citizens’ juries and citizens’ assemblies. The idea behind each of these methods is that, if the group is genuinely representative and deliberates under the right conditions, ‘its considered judgments after deliberation should represent what the larger population would think if somehow those citizens could engage in similarly good conditions for considering the issue’.
Citizens’ assemblies are now by far the most popular form of deliberative democracy – so much so they have become almost synonymous with it. They bring together a small group of citizens – usually around 100 or fewer – to discuss a particular issue and make recommendations. Citizens’ assemblies are often chaired by an academic, politician or judge, and receive evidence from experts in much the way that parliamentary committees do. Advocates of the approach say that, if they are well organized, such forums are a uniquely powerful tool for increasing participation in decision-making and creating a political debate that is ‘future-’, ‘fact-’ and ‘other-regarding’. Citizens’ assemblies have also been endorsed by the Financial Times.
Advocates of citizens’ assemblies often point to the example of Ireland, where the format has twice been used for constitutional reform. Between 2012 and 2014, a constitutional convention including 66 members of the public alongside 33 representatives chosen by political parties discussed the Irish constitution. The convention recommended the legalization of same-sex marriage, which, following a referendum in 2015, became enshrined in law. Between 2016 and 2018, a citizens’ assembly consisting of 99 members of the public considered various questions, including abortion, fixed-term parliaments, referendums, population ageing and climate change. After 12 weekends of discussion, it voted to recommend ending a constitutional ban on abortion; in 2018, again following a referendum, the proposed change became law.
Citizens’ assemblies have also been used in a number of other European countries. Perhaps the best known is the Icelandic National Assemblies, which consisted of around 1,000 randomly selected citizens who met in 2009 and again in 2010 to agree a set of core values that would form the basis of a new constitution, though this was ultimately never adopted. The British and French governments have both also recently established citizens’ assemblies to discuss climate change. In the UK, there are a plethora of other citizens’ assemblies at the national level and in various cities and regions. Citizens’ assemblies have also been tried in Austria, Belgium, Poland and Spain. The above-mentioned Estonian People’s Assembly included ‘deliberation days’ and is therefore also sometimes considered a citizens’ assembly.
Unlike with direct democracy, deliberative approaches have so far been largely analogue. The intensive interaction that gives deliberative democracy its value is difficult to replicate online.
Unlike with direct democracy, deliberative approaches have so far been largely analogue. The intensive interaction that gives deliberative democracy its value is difficult to replicate online. But one could imagine a kind of online citizens’ assembly, which could involve far more people than an in-person assembly – particularly as technology evolves – and, assuming it were representative, even obviate the need for a ‘mini-public’. An innovative experiment in online deliberation is vTaiwan, a consultation process that was developed by the Taiwanese government together with g0v, a digital activist group, following the Sunflower Movement of student/civic protests in 2014. The process, which uses the opinion-mapping tool Pol.is, has been deployed to debate a series of complex issues and has led to a number of policy changes.
As with referendums, one of the principal challenges is to identify which issues are suited to deliberative methods. Citizens’ assemblies seem to work well where the issue is clearly identifiable and the answers do not require deep understanding of policies and legal restrictions – often, this means a local issue that directly affects people’s lives. But as Richard Youngs has argued, it is not yet clear ‘whether participatory initiatives can move to a higher political level and contribute meaningfully to democratic revitalization’. The Irish experience suggests that, when citizens’ assemblies are scaled up, they may work best on conscience issues such as abortion or same-sex marriage. But it may also be possible to use them for other issues such as those associated with education and healthcare.
A second challenge is to ‘systematize’ deliberative methods. This revolves around the question of how exactly deliberation should influence policy, and whether recommendations should be binding. Few experts advocate binding recommendations. But if citizens’ assemblies are merely advisory, and do not translate into policy change, they may become indistinguishable from old-fashioned consultations and will likely do little to deepen democracy. In this respect, it is striking that China has also used deliberative methods such as citizens’ assemblies, which suggests the approach is compatible with authoritarianism as well as democracy and can limit democracy as well as deepening it.
Towards an integrated democracy
Direct democracy and deliberative democracy both have the potential to help reinvigorate democracy in Europe. But much depends on how exactly they are used, and how each fits into other democratic processes and institutions. The challenge, therefore, is to integrate new elements of direct and deliberative democracy into the existing system of representative government. Much research now focuses on how to ‘evaluate democratic innovations as complementary parts of a political system’. Integration may involve complex permutations of elements of direct and deliberative democracy and of online and offline forms of participation for different kinds of issues and at different levels of democracy in Europe.
The Irish experience suggests that citizens’ assemblies and referendums can work well when used together. Other experiments around Europe also combine direct and deliberative democracy. As mentioned, the Estonian People’s Assembly included ‘deliberation days’ as part of its process. In France, the Parlement et Citoyens website brings together elected politicians and citizens to discuss policy and collaboratively draft legislation. Many of the experiments in participatory budgeting that are taking place in cities around Europe, such as Decide Madrid, allow citizens to debate and propose legislation as well as vote on local investment projects.
As with the experiments by so-called digital parties, the issue of who participates in direct and deliberative democracy potentially raises difficult questions about inclusivity. There is a lack of data on this, often because of a fear that data collection would deter participation. For example, Better Reykjavik, a platform for generating ideas, abandoned the collection of data on age and gender after participation slumped. But what data there is suggests that often participants are people who are already engaged in politics in other ways. For example, the Estonian People’s Assembly found its participants were likely to be ‘educated, professional, right-wing males’. That said, there is some evidence that young people do participate, so to the extent that the crisis of liberal democracy is generational, these initiatives may help.
Even if these new elements of direct and deliberative democracy can be made to work, the extent to which they can help solve the broader crisis of liberal democracy is not yet clear. The evidence so far suggests a cautious assessment is advisable. In particular, regardless of whether populism is understood as a cause or symptom of the crisis, the introduction of alternative forms of democracy does not seem to do much to stop its rise. For example, Estonia’s experiments with direct and deliberative democracy are generally considered to be among the most innovative and successful in Europe. Nevertheless, as Youngs points out, this did not prevent the far-right Conservative People’s Party of Estonia (EKRE) from becoming the third-biggest party in the Estonian parliament in national elections in March 2019.