In classical democratic theory, the citizens have a central role in decision making process in that they are expected to be knowledgeable, attentive, and involved in political decision making. The classical theory of democracy is founded on the basis of rule of the people, by the people, for the people. It means that people decide and control the way they are governed. Moreover, the ideal citizen should have concerns beyond his or her own self-interest. However, this classical concept of democracy seems pretty much far from reality today. The empirical studies show that the citizens’ political knowledge and interest are not quite satisfying. What’s more, put aside the political attentiveness, some citizens even dislike politics, and avoid talking about it. This gap between the ideal and the reality led to dissidence about the democratic theory. Before having a look at the alternative theories to the classical one, we should keep in mind that the dissidence among the theorists of democracy does not stem from the refusal of the influence by the people, but it is a normative difference mainly concentrated on the level of the role of the people in political decision making. That said, we can look at the three different alternatives to the classical democratic theory: elitist view of democracy, pluralist view of democracy, and participatory view of democracy.
Electoral participation is the principal role of the citizenry. Citizens express their preferences pretty much only with the regularly-held competitive elections. They elect representatives to govern in their names. The elected officials can be held accountable with the next elections. In other words, citizens express their preferences every 4 or 5 years, but the daily decisions in government are made by the elected political elites. So, the role of the citizens in the decision making process is mostly limited to the competitive elections. The basis for democratic elitism comes from the idea that the citizens are not politically aware and knowledgeable, which leads them to have instability in political attitudes and to be open to be misled by new information. Therefore, the citizens should exert indirect influence on decision making rather than direct influence. That is to say, those uninformed individuals should take their cues from the rational ruling elites, and let the competent elites rule. In this type of democracy, informing citizens is not the main concern of the elites because it is considered normal that the citizens do not have political sophistications; therefore, the elites do not give complex discourse for the public. Elitist democracy gives minimal role for the citizens.
Its main difference from the elitist view of democracy is that the pluralists emphasize the group roles in decision making as well. So, the interest groups are also there to influence the choices of the decision makers. These groups represent the interests of various segments of the public. This is good for a broader democracy, as the interest groups, considered as the intermediaries between the elites and the citizens, help achieve compromises during the decision making process. Shortly, the democratic pluralism gives citizens somehow a broader but still a minimal role.
This approach emerged out of the dissatisfaction with the elitist and pluralist view of democracy. It is somehow a lot closer to classical democratic theory, and it suggests that as the participation increases, the inequalities in a society decreases. Participatory democracy requires more participation than it is allowed in the former two approaches. However, it doesn’t neglect the citizens’ being politically unaware and inattentive. What differentiates it from the other approaches is that the participatory democracy theorists interpret the citizen apathy as a result of the system that restricts the citizens’ role, therefore making them less willing to participate in politics because they feel less powerful. That is to say, participatory democracy suggests that when the obstacles put by the democratic elitism to keep the citizens away from the decision making process are overcome, the society would be reorganized in harmony with the real interests of the citizens and according to the real democratic values instead of an illusion of democracy.
If we are to create a spectrum of citizens’ participation in democracies, where minimum citizen participation is 0, and the maximum citizen participation is 10, the scale would resemble to this:
0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
Elitist democracy Pluralist democracy Participatory democracy
Making use of this scale, 1-if the general idea of the democracy is based on regular competitive elections, we could qualify it as elitist democracy where people have a say only at the ballot box, and the decisions are made by the elected elites. 2-if it is based on regular competitive elections and there are some interests groups that can influence the ruling elites, leading to a compromise during the decision making, we could say it is a pluralist democracy where the citizen participation is somewhat higher than in the elitist democracy. 3-if the citizens can exert influence on the decision making not only at the ballot box, but during the period between the elections as well, we could qualify this type of democracy as the participatory democracy where the citizens have a more central role rather than a peripheral role.
Observing today’s democracies, the realistic achievable democratic end should be somewhere between pluralist and participatory democracy on the scale.
I hope this article can help better understand when we hear people saying that it is always the elites who rule, and citizens do not really have a say as they are supposed to have in the classical democratic theory. So where does your country fit in the scale? Are ruling elites responsive to citizens preferences? Are the decisions made by those elites serve best interests of the people or the rich corporations that are represented by the interest groups? Do the citizens get to decide other than at the ballot box? Are they at the center of the power or at the periphery of the power? Lastly, is it the rule by the people, and for the people or despite the people ?