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VOtIng Citizens and the Ethics of Democracy

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - VoiCED (VOtIng Citizens and the Ethics of Democracy)

Reporting period: 2019-10-01 to 2021-09-30

Liberal democracies seem to be at a crossroads. On the one hand, they stand accused, now more than ever, to be vulnerable to lay citizens’ poor decisions, untampered passions, and short-term planning. On the other, they are also blamed for not being democratic enough, for surrendering too much power to technocratic elites who pay lip service to the idea of popular sovereignty while being irresponsive to the citizens in whose name they are supposed to rule. This project has taken care of the first accusation (while future research aim to address the second): are citizens inadequate for truly democratic government? While this is an empirical question to ask, it relies on a previous normative issue: what should we realistically expect from citizens in the first place? Only if this latter question is spelled out in all its implications, we can hope to address the former.
If we turn to philosophy and political theory, we realise that they have often failed to raise to the challenge, because they tended to either ignore or even deny citizens’ possible incompetence as political scientists have largely presented it. Some have even endorsed a technocratic form of government (a contemporary and science-based remake of Plato’s philosopher king).
By contrast, VoiCED answers the normative question (what should we realistically expect of citizens in a liberal democracy?) by developing a diversified theory of political obligation for citizens, political parties and representatives. In so doing, it offers an original account of democratic obligation by looking at the specific duties that citizens have not only as subjects but also as authors of the law, according to the democratic ideal. For this reason, it focuses on the role citizens have as voters because through elections they select and authorize their representatives who are affiliated with various political parties.
VoiCED further advances the recent trend of an empirically based political theory in two ways. First, it explicitly acknowledges citizens’ indirect role in the law-making process by considering also political parties and representatives as fundamental actors alongside citizens. In a nutshell, the project reckons that we cannot determine what citizens should do to support a democratic system if we don’t adopt a comprehensive outlook that includes organisations structuring political competition and officeholders tasked with law making. Second, the project is sensitive to citizens’ diverse interests and more compatible with their persistent disagreements, as it offers reasons that democratic citizens may find acceptable, thereby motivating them to discharge their political obligation, which is necessary for the proper functioning of democracy.
The project also contributes to three literatures. Firstly, it advances the small but growing literature on the ethics of voting: while a proper justification of compulsory voting seems missing, the proposed account of citizens’ duties qua voters has focused on identifying citizens’ competence requirements for electoral participation. Secondly, VoiCED contributes to the literature on political parties by exploring the overlooked relations between parties’ functions in electoral campaigns, their internal structure and campaign finance regulations. Thirdly, the project highlights the importance of trust in the relation between citizens and their democratic representatives, as the researcher's future project aims to show.
VoiCED developed its theoretical goals in three ways.
First, it developed a network of like-minded political theorists through the organization of and participation in various international conferences in Europe, as well as through fruitful synergies with an outstanding Horizon project called REDEM (Reconstructing Democracy in Times of Crisis), led by the researcher’s supervisor. Either alone or in collaboration with other scholars, the researcher has organized six conferences/workshops, among which one was VoiCED final conference, which disseminated the project results and was attended by top scholars from the US and UK. While these were all held online due to the Covid-19 pandemic, they provided invaluable feedback to improve the researcher’s work and develop further lines of research. The same holds for the ten venues, between conferences and seminars, where the researcher presented her work in the past two years.
Second, VoiCED produced a successful book proposal, one published article, one accepted article, two articles under review, two chapters in edited collections, three draft papers and two co-edited special issue proposals, as well as one symposium proposal. While these outputs do not conform to the original plan, they are the result of a favourable expansion of the researcher’s network and of a less favourable and quite long review process that lasted from several months to one and a half year for all papers.
Third, the project also included a wide public communication strategy and while all the outreach activities planned could not be carried out due to the Covid-19 outbreak (most notably, high school meetings with students), most of them either have been or are in the process of being implemented. Concerning the MSCA, the researcher presented the programme in two introductory online meetings with PhD students from the FINO [Consorzio Filosofia Italiana Nord-Ovest/North Western Italian Philosophy Consortium] Doctoral Programme focusing on how to plan future career steps and prepare a successful MSCA application, and was Marie Curie Ambassador in the 2021 EU Researchers’ Night organized by the Superscienceme Project (). On VoiCED more specifically, the researcher co-authored two outreach pieces for The Conversation, contributed to an edited collection on the ethics of voting for the broader public (published by Feltrinelli) and started a series of interviews to political philosophy professor that will soon be uploaded on the website.
The project shows that an unconditional duty to take part in the political process through voting is unwarranted, but citizens appear to have a duty to be sufficiently informed when they attend elections. Since identifying the right threshold of competence is rather difficult, the project opts to offer a procedural account of the steps citizens ought to take to select and elaborate relevant pieces of information in a way that is neither demandingly impartial nor fully acquiescent to partisan biases and motivated reasoning. To this end, however, citizens must be able to trust at least some of the elected officials who are meant to represent them, because the democratic ideal of collective self-government cannot be realized if citizens systematically distrust those who rule in their name. The researcher’s future research project, which stems directly from the results achieved so far, aims to understand what it takes for representatives and partisans to be trustworthy in a context that is highly conflictual like the political game. Furthermore, it moves the focus from citizens’ individual duties to an investigation of representatives and members of parties, as well as to one key normative question: are elections the best selection device we have? Since many critics have recently objected they are inherently inegalitarian, we must understand whether they have democratic value and how they can be institutionalised to realise it. The researcher is currently postdoc at Goethe University Frankfurt.
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