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The Importance of Participation for Democracy

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Centuries ago, the most common way for a king or emperor to earn political legitimacy was to associate with the prevalent religious ideology of their polis. The commonly held notions of the Divine seduced the emperors to rule in the name of God. But gradually, this mode of earning power and legitimacy faded and the rulers had to rule in the name of the people, rather than God. Later on, the idea that a government of a polis must be ‘of’ the people; ‘for’ the people and ‘by’ the people emerged out of that historical transition. But the question was, how is a rule of the people, and only the people, possible in a state (or polis)? Are not the people in a polis disorderly, rivalrous and chaotic, thus precluding an effective government? Is it not true that at that time when this discourse was emerging, the so-called irrational barbarians who would wish to rebel and take over the state could cause disruption and anarchy, if given a right to govern?

As we are talking about an era of reason, such questions had to be answered through rational propositions. There were arguments for a social contract, propositions to ‘civilize’ the ‘barbarians’ through despotism before granting them the liberty to be a part of the government. In short, the goal was to limit the power of the people to maintain the social order, yet retaining the rule of, for and by the people. Once the idea of liberal democracy prevailed, the question was: how would the people participate politically in the government of the polis? This question takes us to the current system of voting. But does that mode of participation matter? The rational choice theorists responded negatively, contending that an individual’s vote may not have that much impact to achieve his/her goal, hence consuming resources for that end counts for a loss. But this essay asserts, not only that political participation is important for the people in a democratic polis, but also the reasons and extent of political participation that play a crucial role in democracy and the ways and platforms through which people’s political participation can be materialized. Political participation is important for the citizens in many ways and there are different perspectives to describe that importance. The rational theorists Downs and Olson’s downplayed the role of political participation by arguing that a minuscule probability of impact caused by a vote implies that it is not rational to vote and if the shared objective is to obtain a collective good then it is rational to free ride rather than to consume one’s time, money and effort to obtain that. But despite these theories, people continued to vote and participate politically, defying the premises of Downs and Olson. This disparity between the theory and empirical reality indicated that there is a discrepancy in the way how the rational theorists perceive the gratification of voting and campaigning.

Schlozman, Verba, and Brady, in their research paper, assert that the fact that there are no material or tangible rewards or gratifications for political activity implies that there must be other kinds of rewards and fruits of participating in political activism. Some rewards can take social forms, such as interacting with new people and build rapport among them, the sense of satisfaction by being a part of civic causes or to influence the policies. Hence these rewards can be expressions of empathy, satisfaction, socialization. Thus political activities may not necessarily be an instrumental means to an end, but an end in and of themselves. Therefore, the incentive to participate politically stays, despite a blurred predictability of the achievement of the goals. Hence, the importance of political participation may not be universalized; however, different individuals may perceive its importance differently. There can be many reasons and motivations for the people to politically participate in a polis.

In their research, Schlozman, Verba, and Brady collect data from various political activists to know the reasons, motivations or incentives to participate. They describe the term political participation under the following codes: voting, campaign work, campaign contribution, contact, protest, local board membership, informal community activity, organizational involvement and church activity. They use the typologies of James Q. Wilson to describe the incentives or reasons to politically participate – considering Wilson’s four kinds of incentives: selective material benefits, social gratifications, civic gratifications and the desire to have an impact on the collective policy. Under selective material benefits, the researchers collected data mentions people’s career priorities, advancing personal cliental endeavors with officials, personal desires for a political career and other kinds of networking for material (career) benefits. Under the typology: social gratifications, some reasons to politically participate were social intercourse, chance to meet important or influential people, to get recognition from the respectable peers, peer pressure, excitement and pleasure. The selective civic gratifications included the people’s perception of citizenship duties, kindness to the hardworking peers, to improve their surroundings and their country.

The third typology: collective outcomes, included a chance to affect the government policies, for which the activists had very specific courses of action and narratives for each policy. This case study shows that there can be several reasons for the people to politically participate in a polis. Political participation is possible through various platforms and one of those platforms are democratic institutions. Democracy, ideally, should not be limited to the elections and voting, the people’s perspectives and their demand for transparency guarantees remain important even after the elected officials hold the offices. There must be a right to information and transparency, a right to influence decisions through their narratives and demand accountability of the corrupt officials.

In his case study of Latin America, Brian Wampler studies the participatory budgeting at a municipal level of three Brazilian cities and describes people’s political participation in terms of three types of accountability: vertical, societal and horizontal. The vertical accountability connotes citizens’ direct participation in the government such as via elections. Horizontal accountability refers to the whistleblowing acts within and surrounding the office in the form of distributive authorities. The societal accountability points towards the pressures that civil society organizations exert on the public office holders.

In the case of participatory budgeting in three Brazilian cities, Wampler (2007, 86) uses three factors that represent these three forms of accountability: the PB delegates’ right to make decisions based on transparent information (vertical), mass mobilization and public debates (societal) and legal implementation (horizontal). Such kind of an institutional setting which incorporates democratic decision making and accountability mechanisms are can be an excellent platform for political participation. The participation of the citizens in the process of governing the polis is valuable but to an extent. Moreover, certain kinds of participation may be better than others. This is because sometimes, more involvement of the diverse public narratives may compromise the efficiency and effectiveness of the public offices and institutions, which is counter-intuitive to the goals of democracy. Moreover, such democratic institutions may also allow for a collateral such as politically incorrect ulterior motives of interest groups such as majorities suppressing the minorities (which could be motivated by intolerance).

Wampler (2007), while discussing the case of Sao Paulo, notes in his research that the creation of parallel decision-making bodies may emasculate the authority of the municipal office and the technocrats. He also cites an interview of a council member who says that “the vote is not an informed vote”, thus such decisions, without a technocrat’s authoritative input may not succeed and that would reflect unfairly badly on the office holder. Hence these are not the right kinds of political participation by the citizens. Better participation in this context is that which gives citizens the opportunity to share their demands with the democratic institution such as PB through media and CSOs, but let the officeholders be autonomous in their decisions of adopting and rejecting the proposals, justifications in the latter case can be demanded by the citizens. This kind of political participation can be translated through media and civil society organizations. It is ‘better’ because it does not take away the role of public offices to preserve the social order and precludes ineffectiveness of the offices and dominance of majority interest groups.

In conclusion, political participation is important for the citizens in various ways. Different people may have different reasons and motivations to participate politically. Those reasons can be social, material, civic or related to collective policy outcomes. The democratic institutions also play a crucial role in keeping democracy relevant in the form of transparency guarantees and vertical, horizontal and societal accountability. Nevertheless, the power granted to the people must be limited in a way that it does not render the public offices ineffective and that it precludes threats to the social order such as ‘majoritarianism’ of interest groups and marginalization of minorities, which can be the case through an unlimited decision making power of the people.

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The Importance of Participation for Democracy. (2020, Jun 14). GradesFixer. Retrieved October 24, 2021, from
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