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On Having an Equal Say

Democracy
Institutions
Political Theory
Voting
Normative Theory
Zsolt Kapelner
UiT – Norges Arktiske Universitet
Zsolt Kapelner
UiT – Norges Arktiske Universitet

Abstract

Democracy is usually defined as a form of government in which citizens have an equal say in political decision-making. While there is much discussion today on whether citizens should indeed have an equal say and if so why, the more fundamental question of what it means precisely for citizens to have an equal say is often left unexplored. Rather than presenting a justification for their particular understanding of what it means to have an equal say, many democratic theorists merely stipulate their favoured definition. One of the most widespread such definitions spells out of having an equal say in terms of some version of fair equal opportunity for influence over political decision-making. However, under most interpretations of this requirement, one can rather straightforwardly construct scenarios in which individuals have fair equal opportunity for influence on political decision-making, yet intuitively we would be reluctant to claim that they have an equal say, at least in the sense relevant to democracy. This indicates that fair equal opportunity for political influence is at best a necessary, but not a sufficient condition of having an equal say; the definition needs to be amended. But how should it be amended in a principled, rather than an ad hoc manner? I would argue that the concept of having an equal say should be elaborated in terms of a conception of democracy as rule by the people. In a democracy, citizens rule, i.e., they author political decision and thereby fulfil the role of co-ruler of their polity, although in modern democracies they often delegate their decision-making power to elected representatives. Genuine co-rulership requires the equal attributability of decisions to each co-ruler. Equal attributability should be distinguished from collective attributability where a decision is attributable to a group, e.g., a committee or council, without it being necessarily attributable to each group member equally or even any particular group member. Where collective attributability obtains without equal attributability, I argue, there is no genuine co-rulership. Citizens are best seen as having an equal say when it is ensured that political decisions are equally attributable to each citizen as demanded by their standing as co-rulers. In addition to fair equal opportunity for political influence, this requires the provision of a rich set of rights, powers, and resources, for equal attributability, so understood, has both a causal and an institutional element. To grant each an equal say, democratic institutions must ensure that citizens play the appropriate causal role in producing the outcomes of the political decision-making process. But mere causal contribution is insufficient. In a jury trial, an expert witness may have a tremendous, perhaps even decisive causal influence on the verdict, yet she does not make the verdict; the jurors do, for only they have institutionally recognized decision-making power. But for both jurors and democratic citizens, to ensure that this recognition is substantive, and not merely nominal, they must be granted institutional protections, powers, and resources that guard them against illicit influences that might undermine their standing and authority as co-decision-makers.