WP 3: Democratic Innovation

Coordination: KULeuven

During the past decade, various political actors and systems have implemented reforms aimed at democratic innovation. The dissatisfaction of citizens with the current linkage has triggered several governments to organize a democratic audit to assess the problems with the current mechanisms of linkage and to design more appropriate mechanisms (Andeweg and Thomassen, 2011). Various attempts to create a better linkage have been made. Citizens and party members are granted more say in the designation of electoral candidates and political parties have tried to develop new ways to reach to potential voters (Webb, Farrell, and Holliday, 2003). Political systems have initiated efforts for democratic reform, by using more open consulting procedures, expanding the scope of referenda and by changing electoral systems in an effort to make elections more responsive and transparent (Newton and Geissel, 2012). Experiments with deliberative democracy, too, have been introduced in various countries, in an effort to provide citizens with an alternative mechanism to take part in political decision-making. Within democratic theory, the essence of democratic legitimacy is argued to be found in these authentic deliberations among citizens (Dryzek, 2000). Although some of these experiments with deliberative democracy have been remarkably successful (Fishkin, 2011), voices have been raised too about the democratic potential of these democratic innovations. The quality of deliberation cannot always be taken for granted; while empirical research also suggests that it is extremely difficult to obtain representative samples to participate in deliberative experiments as typically those with lower education levels are more reluctant to take part in these deliberations.

Thus far, more than fifty different methods of democratic innovation have been implemented resulting in hundreds of cases of democratic innovation (for an overview see for instance www.participedia.net; Smith, 2009).

Political parties too have adopted democratic innovation methods and they have been increasingly engaged in policies aiming at reshaping political participation in their respective countries in recent years. Also within political parties decision-making procedures have been ‘democratized’ by for instance introducing direct democratic principles within political parties. These democratic innovations are often a reaction to the decline in electoral participation and party membership (Dalton & Wattenberg 2000, van Biezen, Mair & Poguntke, 2011) and are aimed to restore membership and legitimacy levels. One way to address the democratic deficit and restore legitimacy for political parties has been to grant party members more rights and voice in the intra-party decision-making process. By doing so parties attempt to make traditional participation such as party activism seem attractive again (Scarrow, 1999). The main domain in which more power has been granted to the grassroots is the selection of political personnel. It has been done by adopting democratic innovations such as direct decision-making (use of membership ballot to select candidates, party officials and party leaders) to the detriment of delegation. In the literature, the accent has been set on the explanations of this trend. For some, it is indeed a response to changes in citizens’ demands. Others have argued that they are disguised attempts to disempower activists and leads to plebiscitarian forms of decision-making (Katz & Mair, 1995; Rahat & Hazan 2011). There is a growing literature on some aspects of the selection of political personnel such as leadership selection or candidate selection. However, the recent phenomenon of parties adopting primaries for the selection of their head figure has not been systematically researched so far in the European context.

With the decline of party membership and the professionalization of politics (rise of the role of experts and consultants), the very nature of electoral campaigning has also changed. Parties have to rely more and more on expertise and capital-intensive campaigns, and less and less on labour intensive campaigns (Webb, Farrell & Holliday, 2003). Parties have always played a major role in mobilizing voters, and campaigns have been decisive moments in this respect. However, the impact of this shift on the mobilizing capacity of parties has so far not been thoroughly investigated.

To date, we do not have access to an in-depth study about the occurrence and the consequences of these innovations. It remains to be investigated whether these innovations indeed succeed in mobilizing groups of the population that thus far did not participate in political life. Furthermore it needs to be investigated whether these forms of democratic innovation can be reconciled with the functioning of political parties and political systems. Finally, we do not know yet whether these efforts to 'cure the democratic malaise' (Newton & Geissel, 2012) actually have any effect, i.e., whether they indeed succeed in restoring levels of political trust among the population.

Therefore, within this work package we investigate the occurrence and consequences of democratic innovation. In the first two projects the focus is on political parties. We look at political parties and at their attempts to create or recreate linkage with their members and citizens in general. The first project looks at what happens inside political parties and assesses the effect of primaries on internal party cohesion and on the party image in society. The second project focuses on the role of party activists within electoral campaigning. The third and fourth project look at the effect of decision-making procedures on trust and on the effect of new forms of participation on legitimacy and policy-making.

  • Project 3.1. Primaries in political parties
  • Project 3.2. The role of activists in political campaigning
  • Project 3.3. Democratic innovation and political trust
  • Project 3.4. The effectiveness of emerging political participation repertoires