Three professors of political science outline a new form of democratic participation as a tonic to civic disillusionment.
According to Esterling (The Political Economy of Expertise, 2004), Lazer (co-author: Connecting Democracy, 2011) and Neblo (Deliberative Democracy Between Theory and Practice, 2015), American politics suffers from a crisis of confidence. In response to the increasing complexity of governance, the “partisan blood sport” of ideological polarization, and the dominance of special-interest groups, citizens no longer trust that their participation in the political process bears any fruit: “Contemporary democracy asks little more of citizens than their votes and money, and so it is no wonder that many citizens share a sense of dissatisfaction and disconnection from public life.” The three main responses to these “democratic deficits”—more direct voter participation, more trust in technocratic bureaucracy, and a call for energetic populist leadership—misunderstand the core problem, which is that the relationship between citizens and their representatives have becomes so deformed that people no longer trust that their political expressions matter. The authors argue for a means to revivify that relationship through “directly representative democracy,” the centerpiece of which is the establishment of online, deliberative town halls that permit public officials and their constituents to openly communicate. The authors meticulously articulate the five criteria that any institution would have to satisfy to properly qualify as directly representative—in short, any such mechanism would have to be broadly inclusive, promote an informed and rational exchange of ideas, be scalable to encompass a sizable constituency, and restore the legitimacy of deliberative participation. This work is a brief but impressively thoughtful analysis, both philosophically searching and empirically rigorous—13 members of Congress participated in this study. The authors are inventive but not idealistic—the point is to make relatively modest and manageable improvements in existing structures to produce simple payoffs. The crux of the study is a rational faith in the “latent capacity” of citizens to educate themselves when that effort is properly recognized and rewarded, essentially a trust in the possibility of self-governance itself.
An astute diagnosis of democracy’s current ailments and an incisive argument for a novel cure.