III Comparing innovations

Making better the citizens

Three general problems stand in the way of democratic innovations designed to give citizens greater power and influence over public policy. First, democratic innovations are covered by shadows of the past. They are most usually created by the political and administrative elites of the existing system, they are inevitably embedded in the structures of representative democracy and their operations are inevitably conditioned by the accepted routines and practices of the established system of government. Their effectiveness as innovations designed to change and improve political life is inevitably reduced, to the extent that they are sponsored and guided by the very individuals, institutions and routines they seek to modify.

Second, there is a long-standing doubt about the capacity of ordinary people, or at least a large proportion of them, to carry out their citizenship duties. This requires a degree of intelligence, knowledge and understanding, as well as a readiness to give the time and effort necessary for effective participation in public affairs. Many writers from Plato onwards doubt that many citizens are able or willing to do this. The merit of representative democracy, it is argued, is that it places power in the hands of elites who are qualified to rule. Experiments with democratic innovations, particularly those of a direct democratic nature, are bound to fail because they simply do not recognize the limits of mass political capacities.

Third, there is the closely related problem of the extent to which democratic innovations are able to combat the powerful social, economic and political forces that induce political ignorance and inactivity. One study after another has demonstrated how difficult it is to increase the levels of political awareness and participation of those who are not already informed and engaged. Many attempts to overcome this problem report, at best, modest and partial success - even when time, money and effort are invested in them. The effects also have a nasty habit of fading over time as the patterns of normal life reassert themselves.

This chapter will examine these three questions in the light of the growing literature on democratic innovations and the attempts to evaluate their impact.

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