Deliberative democracy and progressivism

2 July 2020

Democracy doesn’t always best represent the interests of citizens. How can we make democracy more inclusive and transparent? Promoting active citizenship would be a good place to start

Stefano Sotgiu

The relationship between citizens, democratic institutions and political organisations in Europe has been weakening for some time, as a serious crisis of representation has taken hold across much of Europe. This situation may only have worsened in recent months, given the extreme measures taken by many governments to tackle the impact of the global pandemic. Progressives must stand ready to challenge these shortcomings as we start to emerge from the crisis.

High quality democratic decisions must be central to the political agenda post-COVID19. In a context where public opinion is too often shaped by social media networks and fake news, and where the real dialogue between people and institutions is so often reduced to humour, insults, and acrimony, the Left must lead the democratic recovery by dramatically seeking to rebalance and reenergise the relationship between the citizenry and the state, at all levels of politics and society.

A more deliberative democracy

Progressives must promote access to mechanisms of deliberative democracy. This entails an organised democracy, where citizens have access to information in a timely fashion and can seek to influence decision-makers in a variety of ways. The way that politics happens online and via social networks must also change radically, as the online world must increasingly become a space where information is exchanged and meaningfully debated. Progressives have defend the quality of deliberation by creating their own platforms to discuss public issues. Moreover, they should never forget that the proximity between citizenry and governments is a key factor of democracy’s effectiveness.

The role of municipalities

Participatory an elevated role for local municipalities could be an answer, after years of budget cuts and neglect. Progressive-led local government must craft policies by listening more closely to citizens’ needs and proposals, and by helping them to be more informed and focused and able to deliberate on issues which can affect their lives. Citizens in left-wing local governments should be much more included in decisions, for example with recourse to public consultation mechanisms, participatory administration and budgeting, direct management of common goods, and monitoring activities.

In sum, far from token gestures, what the left must achieve is a shift in power towards the citizenry via their inclusion in decisions and in the direct management of common goods and services at the local level. Left-wing policies and leadership could stimulate the birth of forms of active citizenship which must be underpinned by a new progressive governing culture.

Helping active citizenship to develop

A stronger attention to the quality of democracy must permeate the political action of the Left. Democracy is the expression of equality between citizens. Making it more effective and participatory can overcome feelings of detachment, victimism and scapegoating that can be felt by citizens. It is in the interest of the Left, both through participatory policies and via the education and training of citizens, and by the economic, poliitcal and social opportunities that are available to them, to rebuild a relationship of trust between people and institutions. Through a renewed democracy progressives may involve citizens in the recovery of those people in the left-behind places, by restoring a feeling of belonging.

Thus far, these policies have been experimented at different levels of government, with public debate in France, participatory budgeting in Brazil, citizens’ assemblies in Ireland, and collaborative agreements on common goods between municipalities and citizens’ committees in Italy. While progress has been made, we must admit that our commitment to improving democracy and the quality of decisions is not enough – perhaps it may never be enough. We must seek to constantly make decisive improvements by working on new institutions, based on deliberation and participation. Progressives must make it a government culture, a systematic practice, thus challenging the appeal of any form of illiberal democracy that right-wing forces often pursue.

 Also, many trade associations and unions can also provide efficient means for policies to be addressed to employed and self-employed workers that are often difficult to engage with politically.Thus, reassessing the relationship between governments and local authorities and these organisations must also be a left-wing priority. Asking them to take responsibility, by inviting them to be involved in concrete and deliberations in a relationship of mutual trust can also help to rebuild faith and trust in democracy.

Clarifying once and for all the role of intermediate bodies such as unions and employer organisations can help the Left to build support, and to provide a meaningful and working alternative proposal to populism.

In sum, in order to defeat populism, the Left must return to play a patient role of political mediation rooted in local communities. Neo-municipalism, civism, deliberative democracy, and citizenship participation in collective decision making must become distinctive features of political action. Being a progressive must still mean believing in the empowerment of people and acting to reach it.