How deliberative and participatory processes can save democracy from itself



Picture of Alessandra Cardaci
Alessandra Cardaci

Lead Partnership Manager at Debating Europe

Think of a democracy. We imagine the electoral system, popular voting and a triumphant sense of human progress, whereby our collective political choices create a system that meets citizens’ needs.

But in the 21st century, it seems clear that elections—the cornerstone of any representative democratic system—are not enough. Once every couple of years, citizens exercise a democratic right to vote in the mainstream political arena, but this does not seem to generate results that complement a complex society. Instead, this has generated scepticism towards mainstream politics. Not only does this put democracy in imminent danger but, in order to save it, we must rethink it so as to regain people’s trust in politics.

Today, we see liberal democracies around the world struggling to respond to increasing levels of disinformation, polarisation, erosion of political norms, lack of media plurality and even full-blown democratic backsliding, including the undermining of civil rights and rule of law.

What should democracy look like in the 21st century?

Take the example of youth participation. It is rather well-known that in the lead-up to Brexit, it was found that young people were more inclined to ‘remain’ part of the Union than older voters. According to the Lord Ashcroft Polls displayed by the BBC, 73% of 18- to 24-year-olds and 62% of 25- to 34-year-olds voted to remain. However, turnout in areas with a higher proportion of younger residents tended to be lower. Speculatively, we must debate whether such a referendum was the most democratically effective tool in this instance to allow citizens to decide on such a complex, yet crucial, matter.

In France, during the first round of the 2022 French presidential elections, Politico reported that, again, it was the younger generation (i.e., 18- to 34-year-olds) that recorded the highest abstention rate. Again, we can draw from this another sign that mainstream democracy may not be able to respond to younger generations.

So, these questions naturally arise: what should democracy look like in the 21st century? Are elections enough to sustain our democratic systems and their outcomes? Shouldn’t we explore new processes, such as participatory and deliberative ones that are better connected to representative democratic bodies?

Give citizens a more permanent and meaningful role in shaping the policies affecting their lives

So-called ‘deliberative democracy’ is a good starting point to regenerate democracy, regain trust and engage the younger generation, but mainly it’s about empowering people to engage with the democratic kaleidoscope and citizens’ capacity-building.

These processes can also suggest ideas on, for example, how to use certain public spaces, or how to spend public money for some kinds of investments.

The OECD – and particularly its department on public governance, innovative citizen participation and new democratic institutions – is exceptional in its research on how to institutionalise deliberative democracy. They produce reports gathering representative deliberative practices to “explore the reasons and routes for embedding deliberative activities into public institutions to give citizens a more permanent and meaningful role in shaping the policies affecting their lives.”

Change asks for a change in politicians’ mindset and a revolution of the ‘status quo’

At this year’s State of Europe, Friends of Europe’s annual high-level roundtable, we humbly hope to contribute to more citizen-centric policy debates. Building a bottom-up approach, with citizens very much in the driving seat of the debate, Debating Europe, Friends of Europe’s citizen engagement platform, is mobilising its audience to give them the opportunity to take on their critical role as citizens. European citizens will play a central part at State of Europe this year and hold formal speaking roles, on par with our highest-level political representatives.

Proper deliberative democratic processes, systems and institutions will require mainstream institutions and policymakers to agree to give up a bit of their power and put it in the hands of citizens. As reported by the OECD, there are areas in Europe, and even in the world, that are already showing the way. However, most of the time, this asks for a change in politicians’ mindset and a revolution of the ‘status quo’.

Citizens themselves are asking for new ways of contributing to democracy. In a way, citizens are ready to ride the new deliberative wave – but are politicians, too?

This article is inspired by, and reproduces some content from, the EST Podcast where Alessandra Cardaci, Project Manager at Debating Europe, appeared as a guest.

This article highlights key themes that will be discussed at our annual State of Europe event, entitled ‘Making sense of transitions in an age of crises: a new social contract for a new era, on 27 October 2022.

The views expressed in this #CriticalThinking article reflect those of the author(s) and not of Friends of Europe.

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