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Cure for Democratic Malaise or Illness Accelerator? Public Discourses on Direct Democracy in Germany

Comparative Politics
Democracy
Political Participation
Referendums and Initiatives
Institutions
Florian Grotz
Helmut-Schmidt-University/University of the Armed Forces Hamburg
Christoph Deppe
Helmut-Schmidt-University/University of the Armed Forces Hamburg
Florian Grotz
Helmut-Schmidt-University/University of the Armed Forces Hamburg
Gary S. Schaal
Helmut-Schmidt-University/University of the Armed Forces Hamburg
Fränze Wilhelm
Helmut-Schmidt-University/University of the Armed Forces Hamburg

Abstract

Democracy is no perfect form of government because a discrepancy between the ideal of popular sovereignty and political reality always remains. Nevertheless, a normative claim of any democratic system is to permanently improve itself in order to become more democratic. How to achieve such “democratization of democracy” has been center-stage in political and academic debates on participatory reforms. The question which institutions would be best suited for fostering citizens’ involvement in political decision-making has been answered in manifold – and often controversial – ways. Even within one system, the same participatory reform may be assessed completely differently over time. From a theoretical perspective, normative evaluations of participatory innovations articulat-ed in public discourses are not less important than their instrumental performance. Following the “logic of appropriateness” (March and Olsen 1995), the social acceptance of new participatory institutions is of key relevance to make them work properly and to enhance their democratic legitimacy. Thus, when studying participatory innovations, we do not only need to explore how they function but also how they are evaluated by citizens and political elites, how different evaluations interfere over time and under which circumstances such evaluations change. However, the latter questions have hardly been investigated in the extant literature. Against this background, our paper explores public discourses on direct democracy in the German Länder, which has been a hotly contested issue during the last decades. Employing innovative text-mining tools (i.a. Word2Vec and Word Mover´s Distance) which allow for a fine-grained analysis of a huge number of documents, we reconstruct evaluative patterns of direct-democratic institutions in distinct discursive contexts (parliamentary debates and judgments of Länder constitutional courts in full text). In doing so, we reach at a differentiat-ed picture on how public discourses on the appropriateness of participatory reforms evolve, change and interact with each other.