Our Love–Hate Relationship with Democracy

It’s Election Day in the United States. As voters head to the polls, it is an opportune time to reflect on democracy and our role within it. Josh Lerner does just this in the following excerpt, “Our Love-Hate Relationship with Democracy,” from Making Democracy Fun: How Game Design Can Empower Citizens and Transform Politics.

Democracy is both wildly popular and deeply unpopular. While most people now see it as the ideal form of government in theory, they are increasingly skeptical of it in practice. As I will explain, this leaves us with three big problems: people are engaging in democracy less, trusting it less, and granting it less and less power.

Before delving into these problems, what exactly do I mean by democracy and participation? There are countless definitions, so I will take a broad approach. By democracy, I refer to the original Greek meaning of ‘rule of the people’. This includes representative democracy, direct democracy, participatory democracy, and any other system that enables a group of people to govern itself. This is not limited to the representative democracy of many Western governments, or even to government itself. Democracy can be just as valuable for governments deciding on policies as for organizations deciding on campaigns or friends deciding where to eat.

Participation in democracy also means different things to different people. Most political scientists focus on voting and other efforts to influence elections—what they usually call political participation. Others stress civic participation (in organizations and institutions), community participation (in local community affairs), or public participation (in government decision-making). When I discuss participation in democracy, I refer to all four concepts. In other words, I understand democratic participation as any effort to influence or participate in decision-making about how a group of people is governed. This can include voting, lobbying, campaigning, organizing, protesting, deliberating, and other forms of participation, at various levels of government or in other institutions that govern communities.

While democratic participation encompasses a wide range of activities in a wide range of institutions, this book mainly discusses one type of participation at one level of government. I focus on public participation at the local level, in which city residents help shape local government policies. This focus is not accidental. Advocates of deeper democracy see local participatory programs as a key space for reconnecting citizens with government, since they link concrete neighborhood issues with broader policies. Many of these initiatives are also experimenting with games and gamelike processes, to make democratic participation more popular. State and national programs have dabbled less in games, though at the end of the book I suggest how they might scale up local experiences.

In a sense, governments should not have to struggle to attract democratic participation. Over the past century both democracy and participation have become quite popular, in theory. Democracy—or at least representative democracy—is the political norm in much of the world, emerging as a new common sense. Parties across the political spectrum sing its praises, as do global institutions such as the United Nations and World Bank, and grassroots movements from the Tea Party to Occupy Wall Street.

Since the 1960s in particular, most parties and institutions have also been calling for more participation—not only in elections, but throughout policy-making. Citizens and officials increasingly expect that they will be able to (or have to) work together, and that this will make government better. While political leaders have championed almost any issue imaginable, none are openly calling for “undemocratic government” or “an end to citizen participation.” This is true even in countries that are utterly undemocratic and nonparticipatory, such as North Korea—formally known as The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

But there is a problem. While democracy and participation are widely accepted ideals, we are having trouble living up to them. Most people love democracy and participation in theory, but seem to hate them in practice. Democracy has become the political version of spinach. Almost everyone says it is good, but few people actually want to eat it. This is bad news for democracy, for three main reasons: disengagement, distrust, and disempowerment.