PV-04: Democracy and Participation
Concepts of democracy and participation are applicable and important in many human group activities, including national politics. Marginalised groups have particular needs to learn how to represent their rights through democratic processes, and majority groups have particular duties to ensure marginalised groups can participate and contribute. Democracy is a contested concept. It may not survive in its present forms if education systems fail to promote it effectively and establish recognition of its importance in all learners.
Democracy is fundamental to the values and characteristics of modern European states. Democratic government should work for the common good, and to protect and promote human rights. But there are many different democratic practices, and some states have greater levels of democracy than others. In most democracies, all adult citizens elect the legislators who make the laws, but not all democracies elect the government, and only a few elect the judiciary. Elections have to be fair, secret, and held at fairly regular intervals. But democracy is not simply the will of the majority: the rights of minorities and individuals must be respected. Democracies should try to balance the views and rights of all citizens. Inclusive citizenship education must prepare all learners to participate responsibly in democratic decision-making and use it to preserve and extend human rights, equity and a sustainable global future, and to understand the difficulties of achieving this in modern diverse societies through cooperation and reconciliation of different interests.
Why it is important in context of inclusive citizenship education?
Education is responsible for preparing people to participate actively in a democratic society. Effective representation of all individuals and groups in a country requires individuals to participate in democratic processes, at a minimum, to discuss issues, to express views, and to vote and/or stand for election. These processes are complex. Learning to participate in a democratic society requires both knowledge and experiences of involvement in decision-making as well as the skill of rational reasoning and discussion; together, this learning is ‘education for democracy’.
People and groups who are most likely to face discrimination or social exclusion are also most likely to find it hardest to assert their needs and rights through democratic structures. Lack of democratic engagement and representation of an already excluded group will make it unlikely that their position in society is improved through democratic processes by policy-makers. For this reason, ‘education for democracy’ is especially important for disadvantaged groups. It is also necessary for those who are not disadvantaged to understand that it is important to encourage the disadvantaged to participate in the process of democracy, and to ensure that minority rights and views are not overlooked.
Context, issues, processes
Simple voting is not the only democratic process; there are many other democratic decision-making methods for large and small groups which can be learned through practice during education.
Participation at any level of community, national or global activity requires skills, self-confidence and some understanding of collective benefit. These qualities can be fostered through well-planned educational activities which create safe opportunities for group decision-making, shared leadership, responsible civic action and an understanding of how minorities can be excluded – wittingly or unwittingly – from these processes. These should be core activities for all learners with special support being given to marginal or disadvantaged groups to be fully involved. People who do not feel engaged or valued in their schooling may not develop the capacity to participate in democracy and may remain disenfranchised throughout their lives.
Some people think that the gradual spread and stabilisation of inclusive, pluralist democracy across Europe, or indeed its survival can, no longer, be assumed. The elections of populist and increasingly authoritarian and illiberal politicians and regimes in European countries require citizenship educators urgently to reassess their work. They must now take responsibility for promoting a commitment to inclusive democracy in all learners.
Educators have a unique and important responsibility to equip all learners with skills, knowledge, values and practical experiences that promote rational discussion and inclusive democracy.
An inclusive learning setting will be managed to ensure that disadvantaged learners develop the skills of participation in order to assert their rights throughout their lives.
In representative democracies, decision-making groups are appointed through periodic public elections. Important features of this system include:
- defining who is entitled to vote; and which posts of responsibility are elected (local/national/wider; parliament; government/executive; judges; police ….
- who actually votes;
- how do they decide who to vote for and what information informs this;
- how elections are conducted and regulated.
- How much power an elected leader has (e.g. to suspend democratic processes and civil rights in the interests of national security)
- WHO CAN VOTE? Eligibility to take part in democratic elections is associated with legal citizenship of the state or country, other criteria (such as age, serving prison sentences or mental health) may also apply. All residents may not be eligible, but all will be affected by decisions made. Migrants are at risk of being left out of important decision-making processes. Politicians may consider who can vote to re-elect them and make decisions that favour electors rather than those who cannot vote. May make it difficult for the marginalised to vote
- SECRET VS PUBLIC VOTES
If each person’s vote is known only to them then the danger of threats, intimidation or rewards for votes is reduced.
- INFORMATION For people to decide how to vote they need information about the consequences of each outcome. Controlling the sources and content of public information gives huge power to influence elections through selection and distortion of available information. Media ownership and editorial control are therefore critical factors in the working of mass democracy. Individuals and corporations with a lot of money can use it to dominate information media. Different amounts of campaign information in favour of different candidates or political parties can lead to electoral advantage for some. Some form of regulation is required to ensure that those with most money to pay for communications don’t overshadow those with less.
- SHORT TERM POLICIES
If elected politicians face another election within a few years, they will be less inclined to make decisions which yield long-term benefits but have short-term costs. They may fear a loss of support from voters who feel the costs but don’t gain the benefit.
- POLICY AND IDENTITY
ethnic, religious or other loyalties may influence voters to vote for a candidate who belongs to the same group as they do or one who promises to favour their group. Some people believe their interests can only be represented by a politician from their group because others do not understand their situation. This may lead politicians to distort policies to favour larger groups and may increase divisions and inequality within the country.
- WHO IS BEYOND GOVERNMENT CONTROL?
Some large transnational corporations and financial operators can wield significant power over national economies. Their decisions regarding investment, currency trading, employment and use of resources may be beyond the control of an individual government. Although these decisions can impact whole populations, the democratic electors have no direct control over them and governments may fear economic reprisal if they seek to regulate the corporations or control international financial manipulation in the interests of their populations. Because of this, democratic elections may not alter or shape aspects of the economy.
- HOW BIG CAN A DEMOCRACY BE?
Politicians elected across large populations may have very little contact with, or knowledge of, the people they are meant to represent. This raises a question over how big a population can be governed effectively by a single tier of elected representatives and whether a democratic structure can be effective for large international organisations.