Challenges and Strategies for Democratic Participation

Lisa Irvin

July 2006


The problem of apathetic political participation can be conceptualized as both a cause and an effect of many of the critiques of democratic politics. Democratic practice is commonly understood as an adversarial process characterized by competition, conflict, and power struggles among elected representatives. The form of representative democracy is often connected to a notion of citizen political participation that primarily includes voting in elections. In its present form, however, representative democracy often leads to decisions "for the many being made by a few" that inadvertently (or not) under-represent minority (race, class, gender, etc.) interests.[1, 2]

In response to some of the obvious flaws and tensions inherent in the present U.S. democratic system, public dissatisfaction and discontent blatantly emerged in the late 1960's and early 1970's when people began to feel that existing democratic forms were not serving the interests and expressed opinions of the public.[1] It was during this time that localized strategies for community control, neighborhood government, worker control, and decentralized socialism were devised in response to the growing disillusion with the present system. Even President Nixon joined rhetorically in these efforts in his 1971 State of the Union address stating, "Let us give the people a bigger voice in deciding for themselves those questions that so greatly affect their lives." [1]

Convictions of more direct democratic forms of decision making have clearly influenced the frequency and increase of usage of terms such as "voice", "participation", and "consensus" in relation to political decisions in academic, political, and "New Left" collectives.[1] Such changes resulted in the emergence of forums, meetings, or hearings where the public was encouraged to voice their concerns, positions, and opinions. Despite these efforts, evidence suggests these participatory forms have not resulted in the transformation of democracy, but have however, introduced a new set of problems.

Political theorists argue that democratic participation involves two mutually recursive components: the political structure or culture that can enable or constrain participation and the individual who possesses the ability and responsibility to ensure their political voice is included in political arenas. [1,3,4,5] While these two dimensions of public participation are theoretically impossible to speak of as separate phenomenon, any project that attempts to encourage public political participation should consider both aspects in its design and implementation.

Individual Social Constraints to Democratic Participation

Class Differences:

Empirical evidence suggests that representative democracy often leads to decisions that reflect middle class, rather than lower class interests, a finding that is often attributed to the fact that there is greater middle class political participation than lower class participation.[1] While it has been extensively documented that socially and economically disadvantaged groups have lower political participation rates than middle or upper class groups,[3] there are a plethora of theories that attempt to explain why. Most, however, agree "economic disadvantage impedes equal participation in the making of culture, in public spheres, and in everyday life."[6]

Research in the field of social psychology has specifically investigated the relationship between socio-economic status and efficacy, finding a strong positive correlation between such status and perceived efficacy to contribute to the betterment of societal conditions.[7] Sunstein and Fishkin assert that many under-resourced populations hold the belief that the world is essentially just in order to avoid the cognitive dissonance that would result if they were to realize otherwise, in spite of the fact that, for them, there is no direct relationship between effort and economic success.[2] Such a process can distort the interests of the under-resourced and create what Marx and others have referred to "false consciousness". Such a consciousness can have the effect of normalizing inequities and reducing the possibility that conflicts of interests will arise from the awareness of unequal or unfair distribution of resources, opportunities, representation, and participation in political decisions. Mansbridge, calling on work from Hochschild and Bourdieu, nicely summarizes this phenomenon,

not only are dominated people powerless, but they also lack the power to name their own powerlessness; this lack is itself a kind a powerlessness in that people learn how make the heavy burden of powerlessness feel natural and freely born.[1]

This perspective helps explain lack of democratic participation by under-resourced groups and individuals as an adaptive rationalization that normalizes their existence in ways that reduce their motivation, knowledge, and desire to participate in public, political discourse. (This phenomenon is discussed in much more detail in the essays on oppression.)


Others, however, attribute lack of participation in political life to apathetic citizenry.[2,3] In his overview of the shortcomings of representative processes in liberal democracies, De Greiff argues liberal democracies have led to apathetic citizenry fostered by some sense of trust in elected representation and a belief in our present system's egalitarian rhetoric. Eliasoph's long-term ethnography of a few slices of American culture illustrates how political apathy is produced in everyday life over the course of conversations, interactions, and in the "backstage" of life.[8] Her findings suggest that a social norm exists that impedes political discourse in ways that censor such discussion in non-political and political spaces. Perhaps such norms get internalized in a manner that de-legitimizes political opinions to such a degree that individuals censor themselves even in situations where political discussion is encouraged, believing they, as lower class citizens, are not authorized to have such discussions.

Additionally, Huspeck and Kendell studied the political vocabulary of a "nonpolitical" community consisting of mostly male, unskilled workers.[4] Since their talk reflected the belief that their political ‘others" were power trippers and smooth talkers, they purposely talked in oppositional ways which justified their superior moral identity. This study suggests that commonplace assumptions and attitudes about the current political sphere often inhibit such groups or individuals from participating in such "morally reproachable" projects, clearly not realizing that their resistance and lack of participation contributes to their oppression.


In contrast to the individuals who choose not to participate because of their attitudes or perceived efficacy towards current politics, there, are others who have tried to participate, but have become disillusioned in their efforts. Despite the increasing quantities of public discourse, studies show that satisfaction with public discussion is low, indicating that many citizens feel as if these public opportunities are essentially a waste of time, claiming that there is not enough listening and response to concerns.[9, 10]. Thus, lack of public participation could partially be attributed, not to apathy or preconceived attitudes, but rather to individual frustration with ineffective public discussion structures and processes that do not encourage dialogic communication and leave citizens with the impression (and possible reality) that they are not being heard.

Clearly, the problem of political participation can not be traced to one or even a few variables. However, an adequate understanding of the difficulty cannot be attained by considering individual variables alone. While factors such as individual's perceived collective efficacy, adaptive responses, attitudes, identities, and frustration demonstrate one dimension of lack of political participation, they do not account for constraints located in the political structures themselves that reflect the role that the system plays in creating the conditions of individual constraints, inhibiting opportunities, or equitable chances for all interests to be integrated in public discourse.

Structural Constraints to Democratic Participation

Structural constraints consist of any structure that may inhibit access to public discourse opportunities or may systematically distort communication in ways that privilege certain interests, voices, and meanings over others. Such structures or systems result in marginalizing minority or alternative perspectives in ways that prevent equal representation. The distortion of fair and equal representation processes through the communicative event itself is explained by Deetz (1992):

Communication difficulties arise from communication practices that preclude value debate and conflict, that substitute images and imaginary relations for self-presentation and truth claims, that arbitrarily limit access to communication channels and forums, and that then lead to decisions based on arbitrary authority relations.[11]

Such communication problems have been attributed to the communication structures that function as a part of the political and economic system and preempt negotiation, discussion, and decision making about political issues, often in ways that benefit those who already possess most of the resources.

Similarly, Forester argues that the following questions should be investigated in order to identify politically debilitating discourses that are indicative of systematically distorted communication:

  1. Are particular groups, specifically the ones defined along racial, economic, or sexual lines excluded systematically from decisions that affect their lives?
  2. Is the political or moral illusion that science and technology can solve the problem, through professionals and experts, perpetuated?
  3. Is political argument, participation, and mobilization regarding a broad range of policy options and alternatives systematically restricted because they would pose inconveniences to the existing patterns of ownership, wealth, and power? [12]

Asserting that the political-economic system is often to blame for inequities in resources, opportunities for participation, and non-representative policy making structures, Forrester is also arguing for changes in communicative structures that would serve as a corrective for structural enablers of inequity, in hopes that chances for more holistic, fair, and deliberative decisions would be increased.

Additionally, Yankelovich's analogy of the "glass ceiling"[13] and Schattscheider's "mobilization of bias"[14] have also been used to describe some of the structural constraints of public participation. Referring to ways in which experts and professional politicians often control political agendas and policies, Yankelovich states that "beneath the surface of formal arrangements to ensure citizen participation, the political reality is that an intangible something separates the general public from the thin layer of elites---officials, experts, and leaders who hold the real power and make the important decisions" [13]. This argument is consistent with Habermas's claim that one of the ways that communication is systematically distorted is through the reliance on expert and technological knowledge that preempts other epistemologies and often excludes the input of everyday people from political processes.[15] Concurrently, Schattschneider claims that the political agenda is designed in such a way that selectively mobilizes participation among different groups and interests by determining agenda items that favor advantaged, rather than disadvantaged group interests.[14] Thus, the political system's ability to control the topics is another example of systematically distorted communication that maintains the status quo of the "have nots" and often improving the status quo of the "haves".

Overcoming Constraints to Political Participation

In response to the numerous individual and structural constraints to political participation, a number of community and public participation initiatives have since been conducted and studied in the last decade. Theoretically, it is safe to say that such initiatives were designed to increase public participation, input, and decision making in order to address and hopefully correct some of the structural and individual constraints that inhibit people from having a voice in decisions and discussions that affect their lives. Research on social movements has asserted the importance of providing the individual with opportunities to participate and therefore, counteract the tendency to remain inactive.[16] Along these lines, many of these community-wide relevant initiatives specifically addressed issues such as health care, education, housing, and community development and are designed to counteract previously mentioned constraints by providing structures that encourage access, participatory processes, and undistorted communication. Studies of such projects offer theoretical and practical implications that inform the design and implementation of similar initiatives in the future. Many of these studies show that "it is easier said than done" and illuminate the gap that sometimes exists between the world of abstract theory and the world of real practice.

Lessons Learned from Examples

In their study of a community health care initiative, Medved, et al researched a comprehensive community health model (CCHM) that strove to create a collaborative system between all the stakeholders involved: those who provide health care, those who pay for health care, and those who consume health care.[17] In the analysis of this public initiative, significant tensions emerged in relation to the content, process, and interests that the CCHM was not equipped to handle. Consequently, Medved, et al offered suggestions for managing inevitable tensions that may arise in similar initiatives that include diverse stakeholders and interests. In order to reduce such tensions, they suggest that dialogue be used as a technique that can make assumptions explicit, encourage participants to question them and to be open to others' viewpoints. They state that:

a prelude to thinking about tensions is the uncovering of the contradictions through dialogue where different assumption and considerations emerge from conversation between and among participants....Leaders or facilitators may choose to purposely foster conversation within groups and between groups about their assumptions and values related to these changes.[17]

Viewing dialogue as a way to reveal underlying assumptions and to provide opportunities for collaboration, Medved et al suggested that facilitators should play the role of the mediator and interpreter and be able to employ different strategies that are appropriate to the specific situation, sometimes requiring neutral interpretation and sometimes requiring more strategic interventions.[17] The value of this study for future community initiatives rests in its insightful understanding of the monumental role facilitation plays in initiatives that will inevitably contain diverse perspectives, insights, and assumptions. It is often not enough just to provide a discursive space for issues to be discussed among competing stakeholders. While community participation clearly has value in and of itself, groups often need "neutral" leadership that can foresee unproductive tensions and be able to employ a wide variety of techniques to transform them into ripe ground for collaborative problem solving.

Similarly, Zoller studied a community movement initiated by the World Health Organization (WHO) that engaged stakeholders to take a participatory role in community health and development.[18] Zoller also identified specific challenges and tensions that arose in this "significant attempt to invigorate public dialogue and develop democratic alternatives to bureaucratic organizing"[18] that manifested themselves as discontent and frustration among the participants. She found three predominant sources of tension in the process: neutrality of facilitators, beliefs about communication (a means or impediment), little agreement of about what kind of difference makes a difference (related to developing consensus and representing difference).[18] These findings suggest that participants in such initiatives often need direction and education. Neutral facilitators can impede the process by their extreme commitment to being merely conduits of the process and therefore unable to respond to participants needs for guidance, clarity, and education. Additionally, marginalized social groups often need participation education to counter resistance patterns and provide them with education about how to articulate their position in situations where they may be intimidated by their class, race, or other form of social difference. And finally, different assumptions about the role of communication can impede the process as well. Thus, education about the function of communication is important, as is more guidance on how to use dialogue as a form of non-polarized, collaborative discourse that allows for tension and disagreement to generate new possibilities for communities and organizations.[19] Such strategies could possibly assist participants in understanding the process in relation to the outcome, thereby reducing frustration with "all this talk".

And finally, Pearce and Littlejohn provided an extensive list of public discourse initiatives that integrate theories of dialogue, coordinated management of meaning (CMM), deliberative democracy models, facilitation, communication education, systematic questioning, and appreciative inquiry.[9] More specifically, the nonprofit organization, Public Dialogue Consortium (PDC) is perhaps one of the most theoretically and practically sophisticated models for public discourse and participation. The primary method used in the PDC to facilitate social change is through the use of dialogic communication,[20] which is grounded in the belief that dialogue needs to be systematically and strategically facilitated, assuming both education and guidance, as opposed to completely neutral, facilitation. A key piece of PDC's events rests in framing the event, the process, and the role of communication as creating the necessary structures to enable inclusion of all voices and interests. They also strive to provide the participants with the necessary education and skills to engage in this very different form of communication.[21] Although the facilitators were trained to be neutral, they were however, also trained to be strategic in ways that challenges people to "treat difference, disagreement, and conflict as socially constructed opportunities for exploration and growth."[20]

Thus, the design and implementation of the PDC accounts for and practically addresses some of the problems that were identified in the previously mentioned initiatives. Through advancing the practice of facilitation to specifically foster dialogic communication and through appropriate framing and education about the role of communication in relation to outcomes, the PDC design was able to forestall some of the tensions and problems that have emerged in similar initiatives. Its open-ended methodology also allows it to adapt and organize in ways most appropriate to the particular situation and participants. In terms of success of the initiative, Spano states that in 1999, three years into the implementation of such forum in a specific community, "there was a good deal of evidence indicating that the communication processes and structures developed by the PDC were successful in helping residents and city officials manage this particular issue (cultural diversity) constructively."[20]

Democratic citizenship and participation is a complex problem. Complicated by individual, structural, cultural, political, economical, and even psychological constraints and obstacles, there is no all-encompassing solution to this ubiquitous issue. There are clearly many potential sites to focus efforts to increase democratic participation.


[1] Mansbridge, J. (1980). Beyond adversary democracy. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

[2] De Greiff, P. (2000). Deliberative democracy and group representation. Social Theory and Practice, 26, 397-415.

[3] Eliasoph, N. (1998). Avoiding politics: How Americans produce apathy in everyday life. Cambridge, UK: University of Cambridge Press.

[4] Huspek, M., Kendell, K.E. (1991). On withholding political voice: An analysis of the political vocabulary of a nonpolitical speech community. Quarterly Journal of Speech, 77, 1-19.

[5] Giddens, A. (1984). The constitution of society. Berkeley: University of California Press.

[6] Frasier, N. (1997). Justice interruptus. New York: Sinclair-Stevenson.

[7] Fernandez-Ballesteros, R., Diez-Nicolas, J., Capra, G.V., Barbaranelli, C, Bandura, A. (2002). Determinants and structural relation of personal efficacy to collective efficacy. Applied Psychology: An International Review, 51, 107-125.

[8] Goffman, E. (1959). The presentation of self in everyday life. Garden City, NJ: Doubleday.

[9] Pearce, W.B., Littlejohn, S. (1997). Moral conflict: When social worlds collide. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

[10] Harwood Group. (1991). Citizens and politics: A view from Main Street America. Dayton, OH: Kettering Foundation.

[11] Deetz, S. (1992). Democracy in an age of corporate colonization. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

[12] Forester, J. (1989). Planning in the face of power. Berkeley: University of California Press.

[13] Yankelovich, D. (1991). Coming to public judgment: Making democracy work in a complex world. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press.

[14] Schattschneider, E. (1960). The semi-sovereign people: A realist's view of democracy in America. New York: Holt, Rinehart, Wilson.

[15] Habermas, J. (1984). The theory of communicative action, volume 1: Reason and the rationalization of society.. Trans. By T. McCarthy. Boston: Beacon Press.

[16] McAdam, D., Paulsen, R. (1993). Specifying the relationship between social ties and activism. American Journal of Sociology, 99, 640-667.

[17] Medved, C.E., Morrison, K., Dearing, J.W., Larson, R.S., Cline, G., Boris, H., Brummans, J.M. (2001). Tensions in community health improvement initiatives: Communication and collaboration in a managed health care environment. Journal of Applied Communication Research, 29, p 137-152.

[18] Zoller, H. (2000). A place you haven't visited before: Creating the conditions for community dialogue. Southern Communication Journal, 65, 191-207.

[19] Hyde, B., Bineham, J. (2000). From debate to dialogue: Toward a pedagogy to nonpolarized public discourse. Southern Communication Journal, 65, 208-223.

[20] Spano, S (2003). Theory, practice, and public Dialogue: A case study in facilitating community transformation. To appear if L.R. Frey (Ed), Facilitating group n: Innovations and applications with natural groups (2 vols). Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press.

[21] Pearce, W.B. & Pearce, K.A. (2000). Extending the theory of coordinated management of meaning (CMM) through a community dialogue practice. Communication Theory, 10, 405-423.

Use the following to cite this article:
Irvin, Lisa. "Challenges and Strategies for Democratic Participation." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: July 2006 <>.

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