Theses Doctoral

Designing Attentive Democracy: Political Interest and Electoral Institutions

Elliott, Kevin J.

This dissertation investigates the question: what do we want from our democratic institutions and how should we design them to get it? I argue that we want our democratic institutions to promote cognitive political engagement among all citizens and that accomplishing this task requires focusing reform efforts on electoral institutions like mandatory voting rather than small-scale deliberative forums.
Democratic theory has been dominated by deliberative theories of democracy for at least two decades. As this literature turned to the question of how to institutionalize deliberative democracy, the inherently limited scale of deliberative institutions like deliberative polling or participatory budgeting has made scholars like Simone Chambers and Jane Mansbridge worry that deliberation abandons mass democracy, and with it meaningful democratic legitimacy.
I argue that such worries are well founded because the effective inclusion of all citizens, not deliberation, constitutes the most important democratic value and that as a result, participatory institutions should be arranged so as to promote inclusion, even at the cost of values like deliberation. The first part of the project advances a novel conception of inclusion based on reflective cognitive engagement with democratic politics and demonstrates the central importance of inclusion within democratic theory. The second half of the project examines different institutions for their ability to promote inclusion and finds that, in the American context, most deliberative forums as currently designed are too small and feeble to do so but that adequately reformed electoral institutions like mandatory voting can promote inclusion and reflection well. One important implication is that in a world of limited activist resources and public taste for reform, democratic reformers in the United States should focus their attention on electoral organization and institutions rather than small-scale experiments if they hope to affect mass democracy.
This project sits at the nexus of empirical research on political participation, comparative institutional design, and the ethics of democratic citizenship. It considers questions like: when the resources of democratic reformers are finite, what is the most important goal for them to pursue? How demanding of the time, attention, and resources of its citizens must a flourishing democracy be? May citizens opt out of such demands? What specific reforms are most efficient at achieving the proper priorities of democratic theory? Answering these questions requires combining empirical insights about political behavior and the performance of different institutional arrangements with normative and ethical arguments regarding the priorities of democratic theory and the nature of democratic citizenship.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Political Science
Thesis Advisors
Johnston, David Chambliss
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
May 11, 2015