Theme Panel: Theorizing Democratic Participation

Theorizing Democratic Participation: Populist Perils and Deliberative Promises

In a time of democratic discontents, this panel proposes multiple lenses for theorizing democratic participation, both the perils of participation fueled by populism and the promises of innovative forms of deliberative participation. Traditional theories of democratic participation—focusing on democratic input through periodic elections for representatives and democratic accountability through diffuse public opinion—no longer seem to provide appropriate tools for comprehending rapid shifts and troubling regressions in democratic cultures, practices and institutions under diverse pressures of increasing economic inequality, declining social welfare systems, increasing salience of racial and national identities, and eroding of traditional governance institutions. This panel presents new work in critical theories of democracy that combine empirical and normative methods in order to theorize democratic participation under these changed conditions.

Theorizing democratic participation today under changed conditions requires first explanatory accounts of democratic deficits—for instance, the manipulation of identity and status anxieties by populists, the increasing political impact of raw opinions and feelings, the declining space for and impact of knowledge and considered judgments, the enfeeblement of popular control over policy and institutions in comparison with elite capture, and, the anti-democratic and anti-constitutional use of traditional institutions of constitutional democracy for regime entrenchment. In addition, we need acute normative tools for assessing various potential responses to these deficits—for instance, fully democratic and inclusive framings of populism, deliberative mini-publics systematically connected to the public political sphere in a way that enhances democratic control, and, early-stage citizen participation in processes of constitutional amendment and replacement. This panel explores how responses to many of the threatening cleavages and fragile institutions felt today call methodologically for pluralistic approaches combining empirical and normative theorizing, even as they call practically for new experiments in participation and alternative decision-making institutions beyond electoral representation and diffuse public opinion.

Christopher F. Zurn, University of Massachusetts Boston (Chair)