Good democracies need “good citizens”: evaluating democratic quality

Evaluations of democracy have largely focused on the quality of democratic institutions, while overlooking a key actor: the citizen.

Engaged citizens are a key element of high-quality democracy, reveal Quinton Mayne and Brigitte Geissel in their article ‘Don’t Good Democracies Need “Good” Citizens? Citizen Dispositions and the Study of Democratic Quality’. Democratic quality is determined by both an ‘institutional component’ and a ‘citizen component’, the authors suggest.  

On the one hand, the ‘institutional component’ of democratic quality includes: the social and political structures, opportunities, organisations, and processes that support democratic life – such as universal franchise, political parties, law-making, and justice systems. On the other hand, the ‘citizen component’ highlighted by Mayne and Geissel refers to how citizens act on the opportunities provided by the institutions of the following models of democracy: minimal-elitism, liberal-pluralism, and participatory democracy.

Unpacking these three models, the authors describe the minimal elitist model of democracy expects citizens to leave decision-making to elected politicians, political parties, and governments in power, without many checks and balances or further citizen involvement in decisions. In liberal-pluralist democracies, decisions rest primarily with elected politicians but are influenced or countered by constitutional protections and dispersed power in addition to citizen consultation, lobbying, and negotiation among political stakeholders.

The participatory model of democracy expects direct mass participation in decision-making. While decision-making power ultimately rests with elected representatives, citizens are expected to be regularly consulted on matters between elections.    

The authors further propose three ‘dispositions’ relating to these models:

  1. Democratic commitments: Broadly, this refers to citizen support for democracy, and specifically, to the values around who gets to have a say, who gets to decide, and how decisions are to be made.
  2. Political capacity: Citizens’ capacity to know their own interests and values, the capacity to choose the elites who will represent their interests, and the capacity to influence representatives and their agendas.
  3. Political participation: Citizen involvement in electoral and non-electoral decisions, mediated and direct participation, and ‘other-regarding’ participation which involves working through different viewpoints rather than competing interests.   

In addition, evaluations of democratic quality should consider how institutions and citizens, and citizen dispositions work toward the same model of democracy.

In conclusion, the authors suggest that research into the quality of democracy could address growing social polarisation by looking into how citizens engage with diverse political outlooks.

Quinton Mayne is Associate Professor of Public Policy, Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. Brigitte Geißel is Professor for Political Sciences and Political Social Sciences, Goethe-University Frankfurt (Main).

Photo: Jerry Kiesewetter/Unsplash

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