Book Review: New Institutions for Participatory Democracy in Latin America: Voice and Consequence,

New Institutions for Participatory Democracy in Latin America: Voice and Consequence,

Eds. Maxwell A. Cameron, Eric Hershberg and Kenneth E. Sharpe, New York, 2012, 263 pages.

Review by Midge Quandt

cameronbook          This book consists of a group of essays about participatory democracy in Latin America. Participatory democracy is direct citizen participation in the political arena; it is outside the system of elections, political parties and representative institutions. Examples appear in the constitutions of Bolivia and Venezuela; in the community councils of Nicaragua and Venezuela and in the policy conferences of Brazil. They are part of the same revolt against the failures of neo-liberalism that characterized the mass mobilizations of the 1990s and 2000s. This rebellion also toppled governments in Bolivia, Venezuela, Argentina and Ecuador. The wave of popular protest is background to the emergence of institutions of participatory democracy. These institutions sprang from the recognition of major defects in electoral democracy. Representative institutions did not represent the marginalized and were unresponsive to their needs. They formed a part of elite rule. Participatory democracy gave voice to the previously excluded. It was seen as a corrective to the rule of rotating elites.

Not so long ago, there existed a scheme that divided the “good” left from the “bad” left in Latin America. The good left was reformist and moderate; the bad left was radical, populist and irresponsible. Brazil was an example of the former, Venezuela, the latter. Participatory democracy was associated with the bad tendencies because direct democracy, it was thought, involved a pipeline between “the masses” and demagogic leaders. The leaders, notably Hugo Chavez, were above institutions, embodying the people’s will. Representative democracy was preferred by most U.S. observers, because it rested on the notion of the checks and balances that kept the unruly, popular will in check. For various reasons, the typology of good and bad left is no longer an organizing principle for analysis. However, as noted later, this distinction creeps in the back door in these essays.

Currently, participatory democracy is politically and intellectually respectable among mainstream commentators such as the political scientists who contributed to this volume. As long as participatory democracy does not eclipse the representative system of elections, it is not a danger to democracy.

The edited volume considered here belongs to the mainstream. The editors and authors prefer Brazil and Uruguay to Venezuela and Nicaragua because in the latter countries a strong executive, empowered by participatory democracy, tends to undermine representative institutions.

In these essays, the dangers of participatory democracy are seen to be several: it may strengthen authoritarian leaders who manipulate the masses to increase their own power; it can weaken liberal democracy by undermining the role of legislatures; it may ride roughshod over individual rights. (Observers on the left, like Steve Ellner, regard participatory democracy more favorably than do center-leftist writers.) These dangers of participatory democracy can be avoided if it is accompanied by strong representative institutions and the politics are correctly handled. (Venezuela has a weak legislature, so that Chavez could do much of what he wanted.) Robust representative bodies can check the power of leaders. At the same time, participatory democracy can expand democracy so as to include the voices of the hitherto excluded, such as indigenous people, farmers, the urban poor and women.

One example of the judicious combination of the two forms of democracy is seen in Brazil. There, national public policy conferences that begin locally and end on the national level have a say in political decisions. By prodding the legislature to focus on disadvantaged groups, these conferences open up policy to other voices than the elite. But the conferences, strengthened by Lula, do not thereby weaken the legislative branch of government or the executive.

One practice of participatory democracy is the liberal use of referenda. For example, in Uruguay, the referendum is used by political parties in the legislature to curb the power of the executive.

In Bolivia, under Evo Morales, direct types of participation took another form: the promise of the new constitution was realized by the creation of self-governing bodies in indigenous communities.

These practices lead the editors of this volume to conclude that participatory democracy, if rightly handled, can strengthen rather than weaken representative democracy. What does this mean? Who or what comes out ahead?

“Rightly handled” (my words) means, according to a favorite concept in political science, institutionalized. These political scientists look askance at the kind of participatory democracy which entails “a mass responding to the appeals of demagogues.” They also remove themselves from non-institutionalized forms of protest: sit-ins, demonstrations, strikes and land seizures. These forms lack the mechanisms for rational deliberation that characterize an institutionalized voice. And participants in these protests clearly do not follow the rules that the establishment had agreed on, such as the centrality of voting.

The editors go on to say that “Institutional design is important if institutionalized voice is to be effective. For participatory institutions to work, it is not sufficient for citizens to come together in these forums to exercise their voice . . . .The new institutions need a way to structure participation and encourage and educate citizens to have the virtues and skills needed to exercise their voices effectively, to deliberate, reason publicly and influence policy makers.” These goals are furthered by the presence of experts who work with citizens in many of these new bodies (to keep demands reasonable and moderate.) In other words, the institutions of participatory democracy should be “responsible.” The participatory democracy described here is much like the “good left” mentioned above: pragmatic, reformist (Uruguay, Brazil, Chile), not demagogic, radical, irresponsible (Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador). Responsible participatory democracy channels popular protests into safe and non-turbulent waters.

Centrists or liberal democrats put more emphasis on process than on ends to be achieved and so do some moderate leftists. It follows that these contributions to the discourse place more value on institutions than on social justice. Only if one is satisfied with the social democracy of moderate regimes can one enthusiastically welcome this book. However, it is useful insofar as it brings together analyses of participatory democracy in many countries of Latin America.