What Is Participatory Politics?

By Chaebong Nam

Digital technology has changed the ways we perceive the world, communicate with others, and engage in all spheres of society at large. The civic-political sphere is among those facing the most revolutionary change. The affordable technology makes it possible that civic actors can access political information, express opinions, and circulate information, and mobilize far more easily and widely than ever before. The political realm is now more open, more fluid, more cross-sectional, and more unpredictable than ever before. It is participatory, indeed.

What Is Participatory Politics?

Is the participatory tradition new? Hardly. On the contrary, its roots are rich in American political history.  A variety of strands––though they are not necessarily related to one another––embrace the same spirit of grassroots participation. To name a few examples, we can count diverse forms of activism (community organizing, protests, and petitions), philanthropic activities (charity or community service), and lifestyle politics (vegetarianism and awareness raising) (Zukin et al. 2006) as well as assorted forms of community inquiry practice and self-governing group efforts (Addams, 1910; Bruce, 2008; Longo, 2007).

The participatory tradition is too broad and too amorphous to be pinned down with one single definition. That said, one common theme stands out across such deviations: Participatory activities pursue broadening the horizon of politics into ordinary communities in which people live their everyday moments. Their ultimate claim is made against the classified institutions of politics and government of today, which is electoral activity-centered and elite-dominated. Here is the reason that we adopt a broad conception of politics in our understanding of participatory politics.

Let's dig a bit further into the historical roots of participatory politics, specifically in the context of American history. We can track the contemporary root back to Benjamin Barber’s ideas about strong democracy (Barber, 1984). His critiques pointed to the problems of a representative democracy system or thin democracy. The represented system made sense realistically for the sake of efficiently running the system, as citizens delegate some of their rights to a small group of elites. Nonetheless, what it turned out to be is, as we all often witness, is that ordinary citizens have been sidelined from important facets of political life, from sharing public goods, engaging in dialogue, and deliberating, to judging and deciding public issues. Citizens have also lost the pleasure of participation itself (p. 24). Barber’s proposal to demand more direct participation in the institutions of politics and government is responding directly to this problem.

The classical root of participatory politics can be traced back to John Dewey. He stressed the importance of engaging in problem-solving and inquiry to sustain a broad sense of political and cultural life. His idea is epitomized in his famous phrase,“A democracy is a more than a form of government; it is primarily a mode of associated living, of conjoint communicated experience” (Dewey, 1916, p. 87).

Dewey's idea resonated in the ‘60s student movements later on, specifically in the Port Huron Statement that embraces many dimensions of participatory politics––as an art of collective problem-solving and a remedy for individualism and social isolation, as well as equal protection for different views. Interestingly, the Statement also embraces outlets for personal grievances and aspirations as part of politics. This element, as readers may notice, reminds us of their sweeping motto, "The personal is political." In the early 1970s, Hannah Arendt advanced the philosophy of the participatory tradition. Her own theory of action was conceived around the concept of participatory democracy, which she noted in her 1972 essay “On Violence” was the “common slogan of many contemporary and social movements.” Arendt (1958) developed her own theory of action in connection with participatory democracy. Action is a mode of collective activity (acting together, the “sharing of words and deeds”; p. 198), in the political realm, in which citizens disclose themselves to others and contend in the political arena to define collective life.

Briefly, although participatory politics is nowadays perceived as tilted towards leftist ideology, it has roots in non-denominational and non-ideological soils inside and outside American history (such as seen in Jean-Jacque Rousseau and John Stuart Mill, as well as Karl Marx, and also going much further back to ancient Greek society). Participatory politics converges around a type of political action that is “peer-based, interactive, nonhierarchical, and collective” (Jenkins, 2009). This is the definition we adhere to on participatory politics.

Five Types of Activities

We articulate five clusters of activities that constitute participatory politics: investigation, dialogue and feedback, circulation, production, and mobilization (for more details, see Kahne et al., (2014)).

• Investigation. Civic actors actively seek out, gather, and analyze political information about issues of public concern from a variety of sources. Questioning and checking the veracity of mainstream power-and elite-produced information is essential here.

• Dialogue and feedback. Civic actors voice their own perspectives at various spaces on- and offline, engaging actively in dialogues and practices of weighing in on issues of public concern. The gist of these dialogues is that group leaders’ decisionmaking is relatively easy owing to the non (to less) hierarchical structure. Bottom-up and collective feedback is highly encouraged.

• Circulation. Information sharing with a broader audience is pivotal to gaining traction for change. Civic actors disseminate information in multiple ways both on- and offline. In the pre-Internet age, circulation was carried out mostly in offline gatherings; in our digital age, it is done almost ubiquitously and at far higher speeds in the form of one or two clicks.

• Production. Information has power. Civic actors in participatory politics check the veracity of information produced and controlled by a small group of elites. They also produce new information that introduces different perspectives than those produced by the mainstream powers.

• Mobilization. The ultimate goal of participatory politics is to have the political influence to create change. A rallying cry is an important step towards this goal. Civic actors persuade and recruit others to join this collective action within and beyond their own networks.

Taken together, these five sets of practices articulate the ways participatory politics work from agenda setting, opinion formation, and collective political action to political influence. Of course, there is neither a linear procession nor an equal share across these five practice sets in real-world cases. All cases may have different sequences across them, and some sets of practice may stick out from the others. The assorted patterns of participation, though, are the real essence and strength of participatory politics. 

We now see this participatory tradition reviving and shaping itself into a new form in the digital age. We all know that digital technology has too great an influence to be ignored. 

Participatory Politics in the Digital Age

Here is the second question: What is different about contemporary participatory politics? What remains the same? The rise of “new” media (it is worth to discuss the meaning of “new,” and we revisit this topic at a later time) apparently has diffused this participatory culture across society. The key issue in participatory politics, in the pre-Internet age in particular, was how to secure the means of media production that enabled people to produce and circulate new information. The wrangling over those means in our digital age, generally but not entirely, may no longer be as intense as it was before. Media production is no longer something allowed to be exclusive to nor appropriated by small fractions of society. In theory, today, everyone can create media products. We can consider three features to be kernels to this "new" participatory culture.

The first feature is the rise of young people as key civic actors. Referred to as “digital natives,”  they are naturals at navigating through the digital world, searching for information and circulating it, and expressing opinions in various formats. Young people are among the best beneficiaries of the new communicative capacity in a digital age; their digital adeptness has indeed placed them at center stage of the political participation sphere.

Second, what this new clique of civic actors brings to the political sphere is quite new. The young folk leverage their new communicative capacity in the cultural domain; they express their opinions and emotions via audio, video, text, or performative art and media. The influence from these cultural expressions can be easily spilled over into a political sphere. The border between the cultural domain and the political one has become increasingly perforated, and both are feeding each other’s potential more actively than ever before.

As a matter of fact, cultural expression of thoughts and opinions are, in and of themselves, political acts. Of course, the transition of influence from cultural to political domain was not unprecedented in the pre-digital age; but the key difference from the old age is the speed and scope of that transition. Once a cultural/political message goes viral in the digital realm, a day or even few hours will see that message spreading throughout society. This can open the door to mobilization and political influence at far faster speeds and far wider scopes than ever before.

Their new communicative power can be described as the “self-actualizing” expressive power, noted in Kahne et al. (2014). Arising in the cultural domain, self-actualizing power easily penetrates the political domain and is driving similar change. The crossing over of political and cultural domains is, in fact, both a cause and effect of the increasing self-actualizing expressive power in the digital age.

Third, amid this rearrangement, the original hue of participatory dimension remains the same. Youth media production, with or without new media, is being centered on peer-based and interactive activities; it also espouses the significance of collective power and nonhierarchical structure. The main difference from the past that we witness in the digitally driven participation is that the five sets of participation aforementioned became more common, ordinary, and entrenched in young people's daily lives (Jenkins, 2009). They leverage affordable access to the tools to support those peer-based and collective engagements, which brings a new dimension of politics that is more dynamic, inclusive, and egalitarian to our brave digital world. 

Now What?

Our concern is now oriented toward a normative end. How can we also help others leverage such great potential for political participation? The roots of participatory politics lie in discontent, frustration, and disillusion about institutionalized politics. Participatory politics has offered important lessons to restore democratic values in various contexts, but that doesn’t mean that we abandon our institutions of politics––representation systems, political processes, legislature and rulemaking steps, and governmental agencies. On the contrary, our suggestion is that we find a way to funnel such raw and vibrant energy of grassroots participation back into the calcified institution of politics. It’s not about abandoning, but about restoring. We need to bring the civic-political breath of life back to the institutions, so that we make them more lively, inclusive, and just. Citizens also can enjoy “the pleasures of participation, the fellowship of civic association, and the autonomy, self-governance, and enlarging mutuality of continuous political activity,” as Barber said (p. 24).

Certainly, there are risks we should mind. The digital space is self-contradictory––it can be simultaneously constructive and destructive, supportive and dangerous, collaborative and anomic, engaging and alienating, unstructured and structured. How then can we help young civic actors maneuver effectively through such contradictions, generating successful civic-political agency? What are the challenges, and how can we cope with them?  What core values should we keep in mind?  (Please see the post, “What We Value” on this specific topic.)

Here is why we created a set of ten top principles, known as the Youth and Participatory Politics (YPP) Action Frame. Our website presents each principle with supporting cases, and we will soon discuss the details in another post.

* See the related posts: What We Value: Equity, Efficacy, and Self-Protection and Four Themes in the YPP Action Frame



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