The traps of direct democracy: how not to fall into them

Participation for the time-rich? Image by Ane Cecilie Blichfeldt, licensed by Creative Commons

I took part in an interesting “hangout” discussion last night on ITN‘s Truthloader channel – here’s the link:

The topic was whether new technology allows us to govern ourselves directly, and thus change politics in a way that has never been possible before. The discussion included Birgitta Jónsdóttir, an activist and MP from Iceland who’s been driving some radical changes to the Icelandic constitution using some online methods; and Naomi Colvin, an activist who helped set up Occupy London.

I’ve written about Occupy before, but in the middle of that I didn’t want to pour cold water when there were plenty of others doing precisely that. But I have to say that I was both inspired and depressed by Occupy – inspired by all these committed, creative people who put issues of social justice firmly on the political agenda; depressed by their embrace of a particular approach to internal democracy that has failed time and time again. They thought, and to an extent still think, that what they did was brand new, and yet seemed unaware of the long history of radical, egalitarian, participatory democracy, the problems that such efforts always encounter, and the ways out of those traps. And so, it was with a sense of sadness that I watched the demolition of Occupy because I felt “here we go again”.

The Icelandic case is interesting too. It’s touted — in this article, for example — as if it were all about direct citizen engagement through social media. But as Birgitta made clear, that was just one part of the story. The effort was a large scale, well-structured, formally constituted, managed, expert-advised and designed, deliberative process with some direct and electronic elements. It is precisely because the whole thing is plugged into and modifying those formal institutions that it is having an effect. Nor is this as new as it’s made out to be: some aspects are, but the overall structure of the process is not that different from things that have happened in deliberative democratic engagement for years around the world. And so yet again, I worry that the Icelandic campaigners will fall into holes that they need not fall into, simply because they don’t know those holes are there.

What are those traps? I don’t pretend this is a comprehensive list, but based on my research on democracy over the years, here are some very general ones to start:

  • Don’t try to be totally egalitarian to the point of promoting “structurelessness” over hierarchy. Structurelessness empowers those who have informal power – the time-rich with good networks, good communicative skills, better resources, because it’s so much harder to figure out how informal networks work. Formal hierarchies can serve to provide those without such resources the ability to access the system and be heard when they need to. The classic on this is Jo Freeman’s ‘The tyranny of structurelessness’, available from
  • Similarly, don’t put “process” completely above “substance”. You need to provide people with messages and narratives they can grab hold of, which means messages that are anchored in their daily experience, in symbols that are meaningful to them. Too much radical politics talks in symbols that are meaningful to insiders only, not to external audiences. 
  • Being effective will necessarily involve painful compromises, and activists need to learn to deal with that and not shout “sell-out” every time. One way of dealing with those tensions is to think strategically about movement structure, perhaps by splitting deliberately into “reasonable” and “radical” wings. John Dryzek’s book Green States and Social Movements has important advice on this.

And then there is a set of more specific traps about direct democratic devices:

  • Make sure your participatory institutions are plugged directly into formal, elected, law making institutions – if no law or constitution or practice is going to change as a direct result of the participation, people will stop participating, and your participatory institution will lose credibility. Novelty has its value, but it’s not a foundation for sustainable changes to politics.
  • Think about encouraging inclusion of the time-poor and the poorly networked. You might need to pay for attendance, like jury service.
  • For referendums, have low-ish signature targets (low numbers perhaps, rather than low percentages) otherwise only the rich or well-networked will be able to afford to trigger a vote…
  • …but don’t make the decision process too simply majoritarian. Include  consensus-seeking measures, such as requiring majorities across regions as well. How about a gender-majority rule too?
  • Allow multiple deliberative checks and balances, such as counter-proposals, elected committee scrutiny, legislative analyst reports, and so on, to check the impacts of proposals on other policies, other programmes.
  • Involve the media — new and old — at every step.

I promised Birgitta some links, so here they are:

There’s also the Center for Deliberative Democracy at Stanford University, although it focuses on the method designed by its director, James Fishkin, over most other things.

For those who want a little bedtime reading, here are some classics, old and new:


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