Political Participation and Democracy

What is the relationship between political participation and democracy?

Democracy and political participation — such as protest or voting — feed off of each other. Social scientists argue that when democracy is strong, more people participate. Why? Because democracy opens up possibilities for political participation such as voting, protest, and working for political parties and other political organizations.

Some cross-national research using surveys bears this out (see Marien et al 2010 and Hooge). Other research finds that democracy is not as important as “good governance,” and when trust in institutions (trust in parliament, or trust in government, and so on) is high, people tend to participate (Hooghe and Marien 2013).

At a glance

  1. What is the relationship between political participation and democracy?
    1. What is political participation?
      1. Political participation is an attempt at influence.
      2. Political participation is direct decision-making.
      3. Political participation is political discussion.
    2. Some consequences of political participation for democracy
      1. The consequence of influence attempts
      2. The main consequence of direct decision-making
      3. The consequence of political discussion
    3. The causes of political participation
    4. The causes of political participation can lead to political inequality in democracy

What is political participation?

There are many definitions. A great start is to discuss noted democracy theorist Jan Teorell‘s “Political participation and three theories of democracy: A research inventory and agenda” (2006) and his classic definitions of political participation.

Teorell examines the conception, causes, and consequences of political participation as it connects to three broad theories of democracy. His theory is that what constitutes political participation depends on the theory of democracy.

Political participation is an attempt at influence.

Inspired by the work of Verba and Nie and perhaps the most popular definition, this is about influence over the personnel in government, and over the decisions they make. At heart is responsiveness – in keeping with Dahl’s idea that democracies are forms of government that are responsive to citizen demands, participation is a mechanism that -should- trigger response.

Participation is not a direct way to influence policy decisions – the direct way is to be a part of the group that makes the policy decisions.

Political participation is direct decision-making.

Here, participation in decision-making is done directly by citizens — not through representatives. Proponents of direct decision-making do not want to abolish representative institutions. Rather, they want to provide more opportunities for direct decision-making. The modern idea of participatory budget making is an example of quasi-direct decision making (depending on whether citizen decisions are binding).

Political participation is political discussion.

This follows from the so-called deliberative model of democracy. Deliberation is a means to form interests among the public, or it is the discussion that directly leads to the decisions themselves. Teorell prefers to call the deliberation as “discussion,” because discussion connotes a collective action (more than one person).

But, at the same time, it is different than direct decision making or an attempt at influence through voting and other participatory actions. As he puts it, “The point in defining deliberation as political discussion is that discussions aimed at forming opinions may occur even if no collective decision is to be reached” (791). 

We can measure the level of participation in society by thinking of these as three dimensions of participation. The overall level is thus related to the scores on each dimension.

DALL-E: “Edward Hopper painting of people at a protest holding signs”

Some consequences of political participation for democracy

Teorell neatly summarizes the theoretical consequences of political participation for democracy in his summary of Voice and Equality (792):

“This outcome-oriented evaluative criterion is given its fullest account in Verba et al.’s (1995) volume on participation in America. Their title, Voice and Equality, is suggestive in this regard. On the one hand, they are concerned with ‘voice’: what ‘preferences and needs’ are being transmitted to the political system through acts of political participation? On the other hand, they assess whether this voice is consistent with a principle of ‘equality’: are the activists representative to the general public in terms of the preferences and needs they transmit to the system? If not, the preferences and needs of each citizen are not given equal consideration. Taken together, these two facets form a picture of the degree of distortion in the participatory process. The more such distortion there is, the more imperfect is the protection of citizens’ interests (Verba et al. 1995: esp. Chapters 6–8, 16).”

Verba et al were concerned with whose voice is heard by government and how responsive the government is to all influencing attempts. The voice of all should be heard – but policy does not have to be a response to all voices.

Teorell summarizes his arguments as follows: a response model of democracy should include the degree to which

  1. the wants and needs of the general public is represented in the influencing attempts and
  2. the government is responsive.

The consequence of influence attempts

The consequence of influence attempts is the equal protection of interests.

Teorell then sets the research agenda, which was subsequently followed by Bartels, Gilens, and others:

“In terms of research design, answers to these questions would require data on preferences, needs and activity at the level of individual citizens, supplemented with elite level data from elected representatives and other key decision makers. Since responsiveness is an aggregate-level phenomenon, it must then be measured either across time within the same democratic system, or simultaneously across several systems. This would allow the necessary evaluation of the entire linkage chain running from citizens’ needs and preferences, over preferences expressed through participation, to preferences perceived, acted upon and dealt with by the elites” (794)

The main consequence of direct decision-making

The consequence of direct decision-making is self-development – it makes better citizens. Teorell’s definition of self-development is not clear. Most research is on the development of political efficacy – the belief that one has influence over government affairs. Also, the causal link is not clear. How do we know that it was direct decision-making that led to self-development?

The consequence of political discussion

The consequence of political discussion is that citizens become better informed, and form preferences. It can also lead to legitimacy of the democratic system: the discussion itself allows people to believe that government hears and understands their preferences; this belief is necessary for citizens to believe that their government is legitimate.  

The causes of political participation

The two main causes of participation are resources and incentives. Resources can be physical (material, such as income and wealth), human (education, knowledge, and skills) and social (access to networks that recruit one into a participatory action).

Next are incentives – these can general or selective. Teorell does not define a general incentive – it seems to be an expected reward for the entire collective (or, society). Individuals can still benefit from the reward even if they do nothing about it. If the world was only general incentives, no one would participate- this is the collective action problem. Teorell details selective incentives, which individuals can get specific, individualistic rewards for themselves if they do participate – excitement, money – or they do because there is a social norm (“voting as an obligation”).  Thus, people participate if they have the right kind or amount of incentives and resources. 

The causes of political participation can lead to political inequality in democracy

If the causes of political participation are material conditions, then any inequality in material conditions becomes a cause of political inequality. Even if the rewards are “selective,” the selectivity may be biased, and thus the outcome is political inequality.

As we discussed, democracy does not necessarily lead to economic equality. Rather, economic inequality has risen alongside the rise of democracy. Political inequality through unequal participation is both a cause of the rise of economic inequality and a cause of democratic backsliding.

Copyright Joshua Dubrow politicalinequality.org 2022