Private Groups and Public Life: Social Participation, Voluntary Associations and Political Involvement in Representative Democracies

Private Groups and Public Life: Social Participation, Voluntary Associations and Political Involvement in Representative Democracies

Private Groups and Public Life: Social Participation, Voluntary Associations and Political Involvement in Representative Democracies

Private Groups and Public Life: Social Participation, Voluntary Associations and Political Involvement in Representative Democracies

Synopsis

This book focuses on the changing relationship between social and political involvement in Western Europe. Empirical case studies examine how new social movements interact with conventional political structures as individuals and groups experiment with new forms of political expression. The results indicate not a declining, but a changing democratic culture.

Excerpt

Many discussions of the working of contemporary democracy more often than not focus on citizens' participation by means of representation and popular control of government. This broad and formal conception of democracy as a political system, however true it may be, has also been subject to criticism with regard to its actual performance, particularly regarding the political involvement of its citizens.

This leads to questions such as: Is participation through the ballot box a sufficient means for the people to express their views on public issues? Is a system of indirect representation effective with regard to influencing collective decision-making? And, finally: Are democratic systems-as they have developed over time-capable of controlling the public actions of the state? These questions are not new. On the contrary, they have been discussed by political scientists, journalists and opinion leaders for a long time, leading to a great variety of answers about the feasibility of the democratic ideal as well as its performance in practice. in particular 'modern' models of democracy élitism (cf. Schumpeter) and polyarchy (cf. Dahl) have emphasized the emerging distance between 'politics' and 'society' as a necessary, if not inevitable, consequence of the working of liberal democracy in modern times.

Yet, at the same time there have always been analysts and other observers who have stressed the fact that such a distance between citizen and politician should be as minimal as possible and ought to be reduced where feasible. It comes as no surprise therefore that of late, particularly in Western Europe, the so called 'gap' between politics and society is considered to be the result of a tendency of political parties and established interest organizations to move away from societal functions and towards incorporation into the machinery of the 'democratic state'. in other words: existing political and social organizations, such as parties and, for example, trade unions, appear to have lost their roots in society and thus their role and function as promoters and guardians of various and often diverse societal interests.

On the one hand, this development has become visible, for example, in lower levels of voters' turnout at elections and in higher levels of electoral volatility. On the other hand, so it has been argued, this tendency can also be observed in the development of more or less formalized and often rigid

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