Voters’ apathy and anger show why we must restore belief in democracy - RSA

Voters’ apathy and anger show why we must restore belief in democracy

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  • Deliberative democracy
  • Community engagement

The Hansard Society’s latest Audit of Political Engagement makes for grim reading.

As in previous years, the Audit of Political Engagement paints the picture of a disenchanted and pessimistic society suspicious of those in power. But this time the results are more extreme.

The scale of the challenge to democracy

72% of those surveyed said the system of governing needs ‘quite a lot’ or ‘a great deal’ of improvement, the lowest opinion ratings recorded by Hansard since it started producing these audits in 2004. 50% agreed that mainstream parties and politicians don't care about people like them.

Most alarming was the degree of scepticism about parliamentary democracy itself. 54% agreed that ‘Britain needs a strong leader who is willing to break the rules’ and 42% thought that ‘many of the country’s problems could be dealt with more effectively if government didn’t have to worry so much about votes in parliament’.

The audit lays bare the magnitude of the challenge facing our democracy and the urgent need to do something about it. Simply giving people more opportunities to vote is not the solution and might make it worse. 55% thought that ‘big questions should be put to the public in referendums more often than today’, compared with 76% three years ago.

People are also reluctant to engage in politics in other ways, for instance attending political meetings and campaigns or contacting politicians. Only 31% believe that ‘political involvement can change the way the UK is run’ which might explain this dearth of political activity. For the better or worse, political behaviour and political attitudes tend to reinforce one another and right now all metrics point downwards.

The promise of deliberative democracy

How can we respond to democracy’s woes? More discussion. Often an overlooked form of engagement, promoting discussion can help bring people together.  

Of course deliberation – informed discussion aimed at producing considered recommendations – will always be imperfect in the real world. But in an era of ‘fake news’, conspiracy theory and technical complexity, promoting high quality public discussion is deeply important.

This would enrich, not replace representative democracy. Deliberation isn’t a ‘zero-sum’ competition between static options, but a process through which people form and modify their opinions. Citizens still have their vote, but they are given a voice as well. They exercise public opinion, but they base decisions on public judgement.

Philosopher John Stuart Mill thought “schools of public spirit”, institutions such as the Town Hall meeting or jury, provided the optimal conditions for deliberation. He saved his highest praise for the randomly-selected deliberative body that presided over legal cases and policy debates in Ancient Greece.

The new “schools of public spirit” are citizens’ assemblies and citizens’ juries, both of which involve evidence-driven, facilitated discussion between randomly selected citizens

Insulated from the bewildering echo-chamber of political discourse, citizens’ assemblies generate thoughtful, informed recommendations on complex issues. They are rightly championed for this reason.

How deliberative democracy creates more optimistic citizens

Convening people with diverse perspectives to listen to expert presentations and discuss a topic at length would be a good way of addressing some of today’s most polarising issues.  

Figures such as Gordon Brown have argued for a Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit as the most effective way to have a productive conversation about the country’s future. There are a range of other long-term, complex issues that could also benefit from a more deliberative process from funding adult social care to tackling climate change…

However, there is also a more basic benefit. Mill argued that deliberation itself creates more engaged, informed, optimistic and socially-minded citizens – in contrast to the pessimistic and cynical subjects surveyed by Hansard.

There is substantial evidence which backs up Mill’s ideas. Through deliberation, participants acquire knowledge on the topic at hand but also cultivate more general skills related to learning, listening, problem-solving, advocacy, and justifying arguments.

Survey data indicates that participating in a deliberative process increases one’s trust in the democratic system and political representatives. As they negotiate a tricky question, participants come to understand the complexity of political issues, the constraints on action, and the trade-offs this necessitates.

Being asked to have a say increases people’s belief that their government is genuinely “of the people”. Participants also tend to become more trusting of each other. In an accountable environment, interpersonal communication tends to become more consistent, candid, and tolerant. Participants are far less likely to base their arguments on pure self-interest and many have reported the emergence of a shared identity in the assembly hall.

Finally, deliberators often experience a boost in confidence. Based on authentic, personal experience, these feelings of empowerment translate into sustained action. Citizens’ assemblies tend to send people back out into the world with a sense of common purpose, a drive for societal endeavour and a faith in their ability to create positive change.

Deliberative discussion is therefore much more than just a form of participation. It provides a gateway through which citizens might re-engage with politics and their communities more generally.

How can we build support for deliberative democracy?

There is the danger, however, that deliberative processes remain on the fringes, unknown to most citizens, and ignored by most politicians. Many people associate democracy exclusively with elections. Citizens’ assemblies are often unfavourably associated with routine focus groups.

Tackling this scepticism first requires raising the profile of deliberative democracy. In Ireland, citizens’ assemblies have helped to create high-quality debate in the run up to its controversial referendums on abortion and same-sex marriage.

There has been something of a positive feedback loop: as citizens’ assemblies have become more familiar, they have become more popular. Calls for additional citizens’ assemblies are now commonplace in Ireland.

Furthermore, as research on the Citizens’ Initiative Review in Oregon shows, when deliberative processes are properly publicised, they can improve the quality of discussion in wider society.

This is why the RSA is promoting deliberative democracy in the UK. We believe that once people get a taste for deliberation, they are likely to want more of it.

Workplaces, trade unions, and public services could themselves become ‘schools of public spirit’. Schools could host model citizens assemblies and public institutions could play a role as incubators of a deliberative culture. Suggestions have even been made for a new national holiday – ‘deliberation day’ – before political elections.


The Hansard Society’s Audit of Political Engagement highlights the need to make people believe in politics again. Deliberative democracy can restore that belief and create more engaged, hopeful, and better-equipped citizens.

This blogpost is adapted from a longer article by Riley featured in the latest edition of Stir to Action Magazine.

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  • Thanks for this piece Riley. I agree with much of what you say, although I always despair when I see the word 'apathy' being used (in the headline here, which I appreciate might not have been your choice of words). 

    Apathy suggests not caring. I often work with disadvantaged, disempowered people, especially young people, who care very deeply but choose to channel their frustrations where they think they might get a return on their effort. They will often not fully engage with the old establishments they see as the problem not the solution. That's not apathy, that's sensible discernment!

    Sadly too many of those who are part of the current establishment think that democracy IS government rather than government just being one component of a fully functioning democracy. The citizens I work with are very keen to embrace a new democracy, and would like to see improved government (especially more open & transparent), but they don't want to have more engagement with a broken, binary, adversarial political system populated by people they don't trust to look after anyone's interests but their own! 

    We're experiencing an interesting revolution in the Australian energy sector, with deliberative & participative approaches becoming the norm for complex decisions on energy policy. Almost everyone despairs at the failure of government, but enthusiastically embraces opportunities to be involved in shaping the future. 

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