Citizen Participation: More or Less?

Larry A. Hickman

Like many of the other tools in the toolbox of democratic societies, the value of citizen participation in political decision-making is best judged in terms of the consequences of its deployment in specific circumstances. In some cases, for example, with certain California ballot initiatives, it is arguable that citizen participation has resulted in hasty and ill-considered public decisions taken without the benefit of sufficiently informed debate. In other cases, such as the participatory budgeting systems used by some Brazilian cities such as Porto Alegre, a high level of citizen participation has yielded remarkably salutary results. Construction projects such as roads and sewers have been allocated to poor neighborhoods, citizen participants have been introduced to the methods of deliberative democracy, and educational opportunities have been embraced and expanded.

For democracies, then, as opposed to theocracies and other types of dictatorships, the question is not whether there should be citizen participation but what form it should take. This question has received a wide range of responses. In his 2007 book The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies, Bryan Caplan argued that citizen participation in political processes should be limited. On his view, efforts to increase voter turnout should be abandoned, and educated citizens should receive additional votes.

Caplan’s view is hardly new. Some two and a half millennia ago, both Plato and Aristotle denounced participatory democracy as a profoundly flawed form of political association. More recently, in his 1925 book The Phantom Public, journalist and public intellectual Walter Lippmann argued that participation in political decisions by ordinary citizens is neither necessary nor desirable. Experts, Lippmann believed, should be at the service of governing elites—not ordinary citizens. In Lippmann’s view, the ordinary citizen should be asked to do nothing more engaging or demanding than to vote for the party in power when things are going well and for the opposition party when things are not going well.

The United States Supreme Court has apparently sided with Caplan and Lippmann. In a 6–3 decision handed down on April 28, 2008, the high Court upheld an Indiana law that requires voters to produce either a state- or federally issued photo ID. Because a “primary document” such as a certified birth certificate (or its equivalent) and a visit to a state motor vehicle agency are required to obtain an official photo ID, voter turnout among the poor, the elderly, and the handicapped will likely be reduced. The effect of this ruling will be to grant those who are affluent, young or middle-aged, and healthy with greater influence at the ballot box.

Progressives such as John Dewey have tended to take a very different view from that of Caplan, Lippmann, and the Roberts Court. In his 1927 book The Public and Its Problems, Dewey mounted an energetic response to Lippmann. He encouraged support for a free and vigorous press whose task would be to make the results of research in the social sciences available to every citizen. He denied that the “ordinary citizen” lacked sufficient intelligence or interest to participate in public affairs. And he called for greater support for a type of public education that would increase the critical skills that every citizen requires to cut through the web of disinformation that tends to be disseminated by governments, corporations, and other forces seeking to impede full discussion of matters affecting the public good.

If ordinary citizens were as distracted as Lippmann claimed, Dewey suggested, they would hardly be amenable to control by the educated elites in any event. And if experts were cut off from the needs and concerns of the general population, then their databases would dry up. They and their reports would become increasingly irrelevant.

Of course, Dewey was not advocating a pure form of participatory democracy. He recognized that men and women have different talents, needs, and interests and that when they associate themselves in groups larger than a mere handful, there is a tendency toward specialization in the various tasks required to support the continued existence of the group. One of those areas of specialization is the ability to act on behalf of other members of a group—or what Dewey termed a public—in ways that its members find acceptable. In sum, in order for a public to exist, it must have members who are able to take the lead in articulating its goals and interests and in representing those goals and interests to other publics.

Dewey was in fact calling for a form of deliberative democracy that would achieve a creative balance between participation and representation. He realized that deliberative democracies cannot function in the absence of experts in various fields and representatives who take decisions on behalf of a voting public. On one side, while participation within civic affairs could hardly be required, it should nevertheless be open to anyone willing to develop the skills necessary for involvement in the processes of public debate and decision making. On the other side, efficient government requires both representatives who are sensitive to public problems and experts who can advise those representatives on technical matters.

But what of Caplan’s claim that many of our fellow citizens are so ignorant or irrational that their participation in the political process would have harmful results? Dewey provided a two-pronged response to this type of thinking. First, he accepted a weak preclusionary argument: he admitted that there are cases in which putative participation in democratic processes by anti-democratic forces must be recognized and responded to as such. In deliberative democracies, it is imperative that spaces be left open for further democratic deliberation. Those who seek to close down those spaces may justifiably be precluded from full participation. It was on these grounds, for example, that Dewey opposed the American Communist Party of his day. He observed that its “participation” in democratic processes tended to undercut those very processes and preclude further deliberation. He also cautioned, however, that preclusionary decisions must be taken with care and sensitivity to historical and cultural contexts.

How can preclusionary decisions be justified? In their 2004 book Why Deliberative Democracy?, Amy Gutman and Dennis Thompson provided a baseline for citizen participation. Deliberative democracies involve a give-and-take in which citizens are free and equal and in which they and their representatives “justify decisions in a process in which they give one another reasons that are mutually acceptable and generally accessible, with the aim of reaching conclusions that are binding in the present on all citizens but open to challenge in the future.”

The second prong of Dewey’s answer to a Caplanesque argument is inclusionary. He called for an expanded and invigorated system of public education, including lifelong learning, in which every learner—including every current and future voter—would master the critical tools necessary to take his or her place as a full participant in the democratic process. For example, Dewey championed an educational process that emphasizes learning to learn rather than simply learning to take standardized tests. His prescription would effectively reverse the process that currently exists in many educational settings. Pedagogies of memorization and recitation of factual information as a means to understanding larger patterns would be limited. Instead, knowledge of factual information would be the fruit of educational practices that engage the talents, interests, and abilities of learners. Learning to learn would trump memorization of facts.

This second prong of Dewey’s response reveals the poverty of Caplan’s argument. It is unfortunate but undeniable that there are times when some of our fellow citizens exhibit traits that are best described as ignorant or irrational. But rather than simply accepting this fact, instead of offering a cosmetic solution by dividing citizens into an elite participant class and a nonparticipant underclass, Dewey wanted to attack the root causes of the problem. His proposal was to decrease the incidence of ignorant and irrational acts by enlarging the sphere of public education, including lifelong learning. He argued that educators should start with the premise that everyone is capable of knowledgeable and intelligent participation in democratic processes. Instead of dividing the educated from the uneducated, then, Dewey and other Progressives aimed to enlarge the pool of educated and informed citizens as far as possible.

Dewey and the other Progressives thought that the processes of deliberative democracy are themselves educative. Citizen participation should not be restricted, but expanded. In their view, when deliberative democracy does not work, the answer is not disenfranchisement. The answer is more education and thus an enlarged deliberative democracy.

Larry A. Hickman

Larry Hickman is Director of The Center for Dewey Studies at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale.

Like many of the other tools in the toolbox of democratic societies, the value of citizen participation in political decision-making is best judged in terms of the consequences of its deployment in specific circumstances. In some cases, for example, with certain California ballot initiatives, it is arguable that citizen participation has resulted in hasty and …

This article is available to subscribers only.
Subscribe now or log in to read this article.