Strengthening plebiscitary democracy with deliberative elements for democratic revitalization

Name: Julia Starrenburg
Department: Public Law and Governance, Tilburg Law School, Tilburg University
Supervisors: prof. dr. Frank Hendriks, dr. Charlotte Wagenaar, dr. Ank Michels
Project description

Although the Dutch are relatively satisfied with the functioning of their representative democracy, they are less satisfied with the way decisions are made. In light of this, it should be no surprise that they would like to be more involved in democratic decision-making. Forms of plebiscitary (vote-centric) and deliberative (talk-centric) democracy could offer a solution here. Plebiscitary participation processes give citizens the chance to vote directly on legislation or policy. In deliberative participation processes, citizens are given the opportunity to participate in a moderated dialogue on (policy) issues. Well-known forms of plebiscitary democracy are referendums and (online) polls, common forms of deliberative democracy are citizens’ assemblies (such as the G1000) and citizen juries.

Both plebiscitary and deliberative forms of democracy have advantages and disadvantages. Referendums, for instance, are valued because they allow all citizens to participate in the decision-making process, and by casting their vote they can often exert real influence on legislation or policy. At the same time, referendums are associated with polarization, with the oversimplification of complex issues into a simple yes/no question, and with superficially or incorrectly informed voters. Citizens’ assemblies are valued for the deliberative quality of the dialogue, the high level of information amongst participants, and the epistemic quality of the final decision. But they are also associated with a lack of impact on legislation or policy, with limited support amongst the wider population, and with over-representation of the so-called “participation elite” (the already politically active citizens).

It is possible that (some of) the disadvantages of plebiscitary and/or deliberative forms of democracy disappear or diminish when they are combined in one participatory process. However, systematic and empirical research into this possibility has not been sufficiently undertaken so far. That is why, within this PhD project, I will investigate ‘hybrid democratic innovations’, new participation processes in which forms of plebiscitary (vote-centric) and deliberative (talk-centric) democracy are combined. Central to my research is the question to what extent and in what way plebiscitary forms of democracy can be strengthened by combining them with a form of deliberative democracy, and how such combinations can complement representative democracy. The focus will lie on the institutional design of the hybrid process and the effects thereof on the inclusiveness of the process.

In the first project, I will take stock of what we already know about the inclusiveness of hybrid democratic innovations and how it could potentially be increased. The focus of this project will in particular be on the ways in which digital voting and consultations could contribute to increasing the inclusivity of hybrids. In the other projects, I will elaborate on several specific design features of hybrid participation processes and the relationship between those features and the inclusiveness of the process. To answer my research question, I will use qualitative research methods, such as (group) interviews, focus groups and case studies. Hereto I will collect data from concluded as well as ongoing hybrid participation processes in the Netherlands and abroad.