Zaremberg and Welp: Beyond utopian and dystopian approaches to democratic innovation

A 2018 paper by Gisela Zaremberg and Yanina Welp has the following abstract:

This paper discusses the myths regarding both the conceptualization and the expected effects that are implicitly or explicitly presented in analyses of the so-called ‘democratic innovations’, that is, the new institutions that aim to increase public participation beyond regular elections. It is argued that these myths, together with the (fictitious) confrontation between direct and indirect politics, have generated false oppositions and reductionisms that mask the debate and limit empirical approximations to democratic innovation. A research agenda based on the concept of ‘participatory ecologies’ is suggested as a way to gain an understanding of the mechanisms of participation in a systematic way.

I found these excerpts of particular interest to the Equality-by-Lot blog:

In a participatory ecology there is no single mechanism that is able to deliver all the virtuous democratic effects. Empirical evidence supports this proposition. For example, a positive balance of participatory mechanisms was observed in Ireland with the combination of a citizen’s assembly selected by sortition, which opened an informed debate about abortion, and a referendum, as a fair mechanism to make legitimate decisions. A negative balance is exemplified by the experience with recall referendums in Japan, where recall is activated more against policies than against authorities; however, as the first is binding and easier than the activation of initiative, it is used more frequently.


The reflections presented here on the conceptualization and attributed effects of participation navigate between the two meanings of the word ‘myth’. One of them involves fabulous stories, generally referring to ancient times (as the idea of democracy in classical Athens is taken nowadays), while the other refers to imaginary stories that alter the true qualities of a thing, person or process. This would be the case, for example, of the idealized experience of sortition in Iceland 2011, which had much less significant effects than expected, but helped to build utopian thoughts around new models of democracy.

[D]eepening democracy does not imply annulling or limiting either associational social life or mechanisms and institutions, whether they are participatory or representative. On the contrary, the challenge consists in seeking the balanced co-existence of all these elements.

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