Practical Democracy: Creating A Bottom-Up Process

Including Everyone

Political systems are always an embodiment of human nature. Since we cannot divorce our political institutions from our own nature, the new machinery to support a democratic political process must harness our nature. It must make the qualities needed to represent the common interest desirable attributes in those who seek political advancement.

Given the wide range of desire and ability among the members of society, an inclusive environment must be arranged to encourage the greatest participation. Esterling, Fung and Lee show that deliberation in small groups raises the knowledge level of the participants and their satisfaction with the results of their deliberations.1 Pogrebinschi found that: 2

[...] policies for minority groups deliberated in the national conferences tend to be crosscutting as to their content. The policies tend to favor more than one group simultaneously...

If we are to create an environment for effective political dialogue, we must create a framework in which all citizens are encouraged to discuss their political concerns with their peers. Such inclusiveness can be achieved by arranging the voters in small groups where people with differing views discuss issues that concern them.

Each group will agree on the issues that most concern them and which member of their group best represents their interests. The individuals so chosen can deliberate with the choices of other groups to identify the community's most pressing issues and the individuals best suited to address them.

The inclusivity of the process depends in great measure on the size of the groups in which the people meet and discuss their concerns. Groups must be large enough to make a decision and small enough to encourage those who are not accustomed to the serious discussion of political issues to express their views.

If we examine the dynamics of such a process, we find that, when a group of people meet to agree upon one of their number to represent the others, there will be three kinds of participants: those seeking to advance, those willing to advance, and those who do not want to advance.

If none of the participants want to advance, the group will not make a choice and will drop from the process in accordance with their own wishes. Among groups that make a selection, those chosen to advance will be somewhere on the continuum from those willing to be selected to those seeking selection.

In such an arrangement, it is reasonable to think that active seekers of advancement will be chosen more frequently than those who only advance because they are willing to be selected. For that reason, after several iterations of the process, we can anticipate that all group members will be individuals seeking to persuade their peers that they are the best suited to advance.

Group Size

When persuasion occurs between two people, it takes place as a dialogue with one person attempting to persuade the other. In such events, both parties are free to participate in the process. The person to be persuaded can question the persuader as to specific points, and present alternatives. Under such circumstances, it is possible that the persuader will become the persuaded.

However, when persuasion involves multiple people, it has a greater tendency to occur as a monologue. The transition from dialogue to monologue accelerates as the number of people to be persuaded increases. The larger the number of people, the less free some of them are to participate in the process. In such circumstances, the more assertive individuals will dominate the discussion and the viewpoints of the less assertive members will not be expressed.

Viewed this way, we can say that when selecting representatives of the public interest, a system that encourages dialogue is preferable to one that relies on a monologue, and dialogue is best encouraged by having fewer people in the "session of persuasion". Under these circumstances, the optimum group size to ensure the inclusion of, and encourage the active involvement of, the entire electorate is three.

  • 1. Esterling, Kevin M., Fung, Archon and Lee, Taeku, Knowledge Inequality and Empowerment in Small Deliberative Groups: Evidence from a Randomized Experiment at the Oboe Townhalls (2011). APSA 2011 Annual Meeting Paper. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1902664
  • 2. Pogrebinschi, Thamy, Participatory Democracy and the Representation of Minority Groups in Brazil (2011). APSA 2011 Annual Meeting Paper. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1901000