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Liquid vs. Direct vs. Representative Democracy

Demsoc-LogoWhen we say “democracy”, it can evoke many different meanings and ideas for the average person – even some that contradict each other. But that is because there are many different ways to imagine and configure democratic infrastructures, all of which have their own pros and cons.

That is why we were intrigued by a short post we found from a great U.K.-based organization called Democracy Society that offered a delineation of three different kinds of democratic process – direct democracy, representative democracy, and “liquid democracy”:

Direct democracy is when every citizen can vote on each issue directly, this allows people an equal voice, independent of whom they are. Direct democracy has a number of drawbacks. Firstly many people don’t have the time or energy to continuously vote on single policy issues, also many people don’t feel informed enough to take the decisions, meaning they may not vote, this means that voting can become a privilege of those with free-time and confidence in their knowledge. The Second problem is that where direct democracy and popular assemblies, can work well in smaller and less complex communities, such as in ancient Athens, modern nation states are incredibly complex.

Representative Democracy has been the answer to the problems of direct democracy. People relinquish their vote to specific individuals through elections who represent them on the national stage. There are many problems with a representative democracy, as we can see here in the UK, those politicians who act as chosen representatives won’t necessarily vote with their constituents on specific [and even more general] issues, they certainly are unlikely to be able to vote with each individual constituent as large scale consensus is near enough impossible. What’s more, politicians can become bogged down in partisan politics, corrupted by power and divided and detached from the people they are representing. Additionally, this can lead to apathy on the part of the electorate.

Liquid Democracy is a combination of both.  In a liquid democracy people can vote on specific issues [direct democracy] as well as delegating their vote to an individual that represents them [representative democracy]. In a liquid democracy, politicians [optional] would also be able to delegate their vote to others, perhaps based on expertise levels. This is an issue by issue choice that individuals can make, so they do not need to vote directly on every issue simply because on one issue they felt they did not want to delegate their vote. Liquid democracy also involves a much richer system of communication and feedback between politicians and citizens, encouraging dialogue and trust. There are a number of possible issues with liquid democracy, a few; being the increased complexity of voting system that would need to be fairly technology reliant; limited engagement from the electorate on specific issues, which might limit any increase in real democracy; and also that it has never been tried on a large scale, so many issues remain unforeseen and unforeseeable.

The liquid democracy concept, also known as delegative democracy, has been around for a while now in the discourse of democratic theory, but it is still quite a new idea to many citizens. We are all pretty familiar with representative democracy, and direct democracy is fairly straightforward to understand. But I remember that when I initially found the idea fascinating, but didn’t quite get how it worked.

So I thought I would tack on the video below by the talented Jakob Jochmann, which explains liquid democracy quite clearly. Fittingly enough, Jochmann originally made the video for a political science course in democratic theory.

If you have experience working in groups or organizations that use direct or liquid democracy, we would love to hear your about your experiences and reflections on how the processes compare to other kinds of democratic arrangements. We encourage you to share them in the comments section below, or submit your story for the NCDD blog using our Dialogue Storytelling Tool to share not only the story, but the lessons you learned with the whole community.

Find the original Democracy Society post here: www.demsoc.org/2013/12/12/what-is-liquid-democracy.

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Roshan Bliss
An inclusiveness trainer and group process facilitator, Roshan Bliss serves as NCDD's Youth Engagement Coordinator and Blog Curator. Combining his belief that decisions are better when everyone is involved with his passion for empowering young people, his work focuses on increasing the involvement of youth and students in public conversations.

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