VoiCED Project: Voting Citizens and the Ethics of Democracy

The Challenge

Political scholars and intellectuals alike agree that today democracy undergoes major challenges and that we live under regimes that are in some relevant sense post-democratic. Among the worrying factors warranting this bleak analysis, one concerns how democratic citizens engage in politics. Complaints about citizens’ incompetence, malice and selfishness are as old as democratic institutions. However, in the last few years these complaints have been renewed and widely emphasised in the public discourse: citizens are considered ignorant and biased in a way that prevents them from fruitfully engaging in politics. If one looks at normative democratic theory for an answer, there are not many reasons for hope. In fact, most accounts have not only failed to take these concerns seriously, but also expected citizens to be endowed with crucial virtues, such as reasonableness or unfettered regard for the common good. What should we realistically expect of citizens?

The Approach

The VoiCED project attempts to answer this question by providing a diversified theory of political obligation for citizens, political parties and representatives. The reason for this comprehensive approach is that each of these three actors plays a different but connected role in actual representative democracies. By scrutinising the triadic relation among these three agents of democratic politics, it is possible to see whether and how the democratic ideal of collective self-rule can be fulfilled.

The Objectives

Since voting is an essential, though by no way sufficient, part of any democratic process, a theory of citizens’ duties as lawgivers revolves around voting, the meaning and ethics of which it has to spell out. While recent approaches to the ethics of voting have focused on whether a duty to vote exists or not and according to what principles, such as justice or the common good, citizens should vote, I start with the following questions:
  1. How we should interpret voting (i.e. if it is an instrumentally rational action and/or expressive of individuals’ commitments)
  2. What kind of political equality voting represents (i.e. impact, influence or correspondence)
  3. If and why it is an essential component of democracy
  4. What options citizens have when they vote

The second objective re-joins recent works on the role of political parties and their motivational and epistemic functions in organising political competition, enhancing public deliberation, providing citizens with coherent party programmes, and setting the agenda in the public discourse. This objective asks:
  1. How to justify political parties in a way that is consistent with the broader democratic ideal of collective self-rule
  2. How parties’ capacity to fulfil their duties affects citizens’ obligation
  3. How parties should balance their obligations towards their fellow partisans, the citizens who vote for them, their constituency and the citizenry at large

The third and final objective aims to specify more in depth the further requirements that newly elected representatives ought to satisfy, in light of their partisan commitments and in order to allow citizens to properly act as indirect decision makers. This objective is being further pursued in my new project at the Goethe University Frankfurt (Divided Loyalties: Partisanship and Trust in Democratic Elections) with particular reference to the issue of political trust and political actors’ trustworthiness.

In pursuing these objectives, this project has not only aimed to tie together various literatures, such as those on political obligation, democratic legitimacy, partisanship and political representation, which albeit overlapping have been rarely addressed in conjunction, but also to intercept highly relevant debates in contemporary political science, concerning political behaviour and citizens’ competence, and in the public discourse, regarding the nature and value of democracy.

Research outcomes

VoiCED’s ambition was to spark interest in democratic theory and stimulate reflection on the role that democratic citizens are supposed to play not only among an expert audience (political theorists are already well enthused) but also among a larger public of students and lay citizens. In addition to the research effort per se, the project has succeded to achieve its aims through a variety of additional activities:

  1. On the ethics of voting:
    1. A reconstruction of the institutional significance of the act of voting and its implications for the justifiability of compulsory voting
    2. A defense of the equal power/equal impact view of political equality and showing how voting is necessary for realising this kind of equality
    3. An analysis of citizens’ duty to get informed before voting
    4. An overview of the duty to vote to be elaborated upon in a forthcoming book to be published by the Egea Boconi publishing house
  2. On parties and partisanship:
    1. An argument on parties having an obligation not only to their members but also to their traditional voters and that such an obligation can be discharged by including them in the relevant demos that selects candidates for office: “Partisans and Democratic Responsibilities”
    2. A defense of a parties-based view on campaign finance regulations
  3. On democratic representation:
    1. An argument about the role of trust in democratic representationbased on the idea that although proper trust in representatives is difficult, if not impossible, to achieve, a language of trust is still essential to democratic politics
  4. On democatic theory:
    1. A justification of the democratic value of elections based on their capacity to instantiate political equality and popular control

Overview of activities

VoiCED’s ambition was to spark interest in democratic theory and stimulate reflection on the role that democratic citizens are supposed to play not only among an expert audience (political theorists are already well enthused) but also among a larger public of students and lay citizens. Several activities have contributed to this:

  1. The research work was presented at 11 international venues, such as the ECPR Joint Sessions and General Conference, MANCEPT Workshops, BIAPT Conference and the REDEM project Workshops.
  2. The project has offered the opportunity for organising a workshop titled What Should We Vote for? with an international participation of senior political scientists. It has also offered a basis to be part of the organising and convenor team of two other international wokshops.
  3. The research material has provided the basis for developing a full-semester undergraduate seminar on Political Theory and Democracy which was taught twice at Sciences Po Paris.
  4. Ideas emerging from the project work have led to two opinion articles published in collaboration with Cyrille Thiébaut, a French political scientist, for the French version of The Conversation.
  5. Last, but not least, the project has created a platform to produce and publish a series of interviews with leading experts in political theory on the value of democracy and citizens’ role as lawgivers - an effort which is in full development.