Betting on direct civil democracy is not an innocent game. Patrick Luebwick warns that trying to promote democracy can also turn against democracy. He considers the advantages and disadvantages of initiatives related to direct and participatory democracy.
Belgium jumps on the bandwagon of democratic renewal. The elected representatives of the people increasingly seem to desire direct assistance through the insights and advice of ordinary citizens. There is a project under way in the German-speaking community where commissions drawn up by lot can provide input to Parliament. The federal government has just completed an online citizen survey inviting us to share ideas about the future of Belgium. The Vivaldi government itself also has a bill ready to allow bodies in which citizens selected by lot can engage in dialogue with each other, politicians, experts and civil society to formulate policy recommendations for state reform.
Various arguments are used to support these types of initiatives. Politicians present it as a good sign to increase political participation and citizen participation. Civic democracy as a means of bridging the gap with citizens and promoting democracy. Proponents often assume that citizen paintings drawn by lottery can speed up and improve political decision-making. Authors like David Van Reybroek, Manu Claes, and Helen Landmore like to base their pleas on the “crisis of representative democracy”: a political system that falters, lacks decisiveness, and causes citizens to give in. Painting citizens’ portraits will be the solution to all these problems. Activists, in turn, assume that citizens drawn by lot will be more likely than elected politicians to come up with their own solutions to political problems: a different immigration policy, better climate policy, a different vision of health care and education, etc. Of course, it is not certain whether civil democracy can meet all of these expectations.
Advantages and disadvantages
Citizens’ committees formed by lottery can have the advantage of hearing a greater diversity of voices than in Parliament, where only professional politicians are seated. It will also be possible to speak more freely because the participants do not have to walk in the line of a political party. Post has been neglected. Citizens’ committees may also be able to think long-term because there are no elections to consider. After all, many important topics require a vision and an implementation plan that go beyond the upcoming elections.
However, there are also drawbacks and pitfalls. There is much debate about the democratic legitimacy of painted paintings. After all, these are citizens who have been given a special political mandate, without being elected for it. They can make recommendations, but they cannot be judged by elections. The fact that citizens drawn by lot should not be afraid of elections is not a strengthening of democracy, but rather an erosion of it. In order to give citizens a greater role in this matter, a method that excludes most citizens is used. Moreover, citizen panels do not necessarily operate transparently and can be heavily influenced by the opinions of some of the experts who provide input or guide the conversation. After all, what does the average citizen know about constitutional law, state structures and monolithic packages of the judiciary?
There are still dangers lurking around the corner. After all, it seems that direct participatory democracy can give people a voice. If we inform citizens adequately and allow them to reasonably discuss with each other, we can track down the will of the people. This assumption is problematic. First, civic democracy may refer to what citizens see after deliberation Will be Think about a particular political topic. But the residents themselves are not yet convinced. The use of citizens’ committees thus runs counter to the idea that democracy is a form of self-government. After all, the well-thought-out judgments that citizens make by lot do not match what the current residents think or want. Democracy as autonomy is not served by a participatory shortcut that is taken over the heads of the majority of citizens. Rather, the strength of deliberative democracy lies in the attempt to involve the whole of society in political opinion and decision-making, particularly through open debate in the public sphere and through diverse civil society and civil society. Civil society†
Second, it is a populist delusion to believe in the existence of a homogeneous popular will. It is best to assume that citizens will persist in a fundamental difference of opinion even after informed and reasonable deliberation on all kinds of political issues. This is precisely the reason for the introduction of democracy and we must continue to cherish it. Democracy provides the space in which political and ideological struggle can be waged and in which we can continually disagree with one another in a nonviolent manner. Citizens will also continue to differ in opinion about the structure of the Belgian state after informed and reasonable consultation. Politicians who think their work to reform the state will be easier after a round of civil democracy are gravely wrong.
Much, if not all, of course also depends on the way the engagement is organized. The latest public opinion poll did not leave a good impression. Too complicated, too expensive, too little. This poll appears to have highlighted the gap between politicians and citizens, rather than helping to bridge it. It will also be of great importance that the citizen boards that the government wants to present are used in a reliable manner. They would not, rightly, have legislative power. To prevent citizens from feeling like they are being taken for a ride afterwards, it is necessary to agree well and express the status of the commissions and what will happen with their proposals. After all, quite a few participatory processes end in failure and leave citizens feeling disappointed. Think Citoyenne pour le Climat . Convention (CCC) set up by French President Emmanuel Macron in response to the Yellow Vests.
There is a danger that participatory expectations will exceed what is politically possible. This quickly creates a perception of false participation: politicians who engage citizens to give them the impression that they are being listened to. If this impression is given, it will only increase distrust of politics. So betting on direct civil democracy is not an innocent game. Attempting to promote democracy can also turn against democracy. Let’s hope to avoid this harmful side effect.
Patrick Luebwick is Professor of Political Philosophy at the University of Antwerp and Visiting Professor at the University of Ghent.
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