The Paradox of Participatory Institutions: Explaining the Limits and Potential of Large-Scale Experiments in Participatory Democracy
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CitationAbbott, Jared. 2020. The Paradox of Participatory Institutions: Explaining the Limits and Potential of Large-Scale Experiments in Participatory Democracy. Doctoral dissertation, Harvard University, Graduate School of Arts & Sciences.
AbstractIn an era when declining support for traditional political parties has given rise to anti-establishment populist movements around the world, participatory institutions (PIs) —formal institutions that give ordinary citizens a direct role in shaping public decision-making— offer an important set of tools for combating deficits in democratic legitimacy. Recognizing this, governments have implemented a bewildering diversity of PIs. But PIs that have a meaningful real-world impact—what I refer to as Binding Participatory Institutions (BPIs)—face a paradox: the conditions required for widespread implementation undermine BPIs’ success once established. On the one hand, parties only invest seriously in BPIs when they expect to benefit electorally. On the other hand, parties with an incentive to implement these institutions also have an incentive to politicize them. This stops BPIs from accomplishing their most basic goal: representing the communities they serve.
To understand this paradox, the first part of my dissertation explores the conditions that produce gaps between formal BPI adoption into national laws, and nationwide implementation (specifically when BPIs have been put into practice in all or nearly all of a country’s municipalities). While formal adoption is relatively common, nationwide implementation has been rare. I develop a theory to account for this variation, grounded in political parties’ electoral incentives. I argue that BPIs will only move beyond formal adoption and achieve nationwide implementation if they are promoted by a powerful institution – often a political party. In turn, parties will only implement BPIs if they place a higher value on the potential electoral benefits of implementation than on the costs. This will occur under two conditions: first, parties must face societal demand to implement BPIs. Second, parties’ political opponents must be incapable of taking advantage of the institution for their own political gain.
The second part of my dissertation explores the fate of BPIs after implementation. Specifically, why do BPIs often represent particular interests, even though they are meant to serve the whole community? I argue that the representativeness of BPIs —a measure of politicization and rates of community participation—is affected by the type of institution that implements them. Governing parties ordinarily have an incentive to exclude supporters of opposition parties, as they do not want to waste scarce resources wooing unswayable voters. So, while overall rates of participation can be high—since parties hope to attract as many of their own supporters as possible —BPIs implemented by political parties often suffer from high rates of politicization, and fail to represent broad community interests. By contrast, when technocrats take the lead in BPI implementation, there will be less politicization, but implementation will be top-down, and will generate little buy-in from citizens, producing low participation.
BPIs will only be implemented nationwide and be representative, when championed by political parties with an electoral incentive to promote cross-partisan participation. These are young, outsider parties that cannot rely on state resources to secure broad-based political support, and therefore have no choice but to rely primarily on programmatic voter appeals. When these parties implement BPIs, they do so to cultivate a reputation for good governance and democratic deepening. Politicizing the institutions would undermine this reputation, and low rates of participation would minimize the institutions’ electoral value—since few supporters or potential supporters would engage with or have knowledge of the benefits derived from them. Consequently, these parties have an incentive both to maximize participation and minimize politicization.
The dissertation explores the implications of this theory in nine Latin American countries, and draws upon over a year and-a-half of fieldwork in Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, Peru, the Dominican Republic, and Brazil. I conducted hundreds of in-depth interviews with local leaders as well as key national figures responsible for implementing BPIs in these countries, observed dozens of meetings, conducted archival research, and implemented a nationally representative survey of nearly 1,800 Venezuelans in 2018.
Citable link to this pagehttps://nrs.harvard.edu/URN-3:HUL.INSTREPOS:37365760
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