Representative, Associative, and Participatory Democracy: The Potential Intelligence of Democracy


Representative, Associative, and Participatory Democracy:

The Potential Intelligence of Democracy


Ned Woodhouse


Main point: Decisions become more intelligent as fewer important considerations are neglected. Because everyone has biases, and those holding organizational roles have systematic blinders, well-rounded consideration of problems/solutions requires interaction among affected interests. The more widely authority is shared, the less likely anyone can impose an unintelligent course of action. (James Surowiecki, The Wisdom of Crowds: Why the Many Are Smarter Than the Few, 2004)


Participatory Democracy: Each person speaks for herself. Conspicuous success: Advocates make a thoughtful case for more participation in more settings more of the time. Major shortcoming: Better suited for small localities than for national or global governance, with the New England town meeting as an exemplar. (Richard Sclove, Democracy and Technology, 1995)


Representative Democracy (sometimes called liberal democracy): Citizens vote for representatives, but exercise no direct control over policy outcomes. Conspicuous successes: Peaceful transfers of governing authority; legislators often are forced to abandon or weaken wrong-headed schemes because they cannot win majority assent. Major shortcomings: Have-nots are under-represented; weak incentives for actually reducing or heading off social problems; connections between citizens and representatives are tenuous at the national level, and even worse in a hypothetical global democracy.


Associative Democracy: Citizen-to-citizen cooperation in pursuit of common purposes, making liberal democracy less dependent on large bureaucratic corporations and governments. Think soccer clubs, environmental organizations, and churches, but covering many more realms of everyday life, with many more participants, and with professional staffs accountable to ordinary members. Conspicuous success: Toqueville’s America. Major shortcoming: Relies on episodic voluntary action, whereas government officials and business executives have reliable funding and institutionalized authority. (Paul Hirst, Associative Democracy, Univ of Massachusetts, 1994)


Workplace Democracy: Workers at all levels share influence; workers hire managers instead of vice versa. Conspicuous successes: Workers cooperatives in Mondragon, Spain. Major shortcomings: Existing management blocks the way; most employees cannot conceptualize the possibilities, and lack requisite training; consumers exercise a kind of tyranny.

(Robert Dahl, A Preface to Economic Democracy, California, 1986)


Deliberative Democracy: Proposed reforms to expand public deliberation so as to enhance the quality of policy outcomes in representative democracies. An example is “Deliberation Day,” a proposed new U.S. holiday on which millions of people would engage in structured debates about issues that divide the candidates in an upcoming presidential election. Major shortcoming: Feasible reforms are tepid, exciting reforms are infeasible for foreseeable future.

(Bruce Ackerman and James Fishkin, Deliberation Day, Yale, 2005)


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