Day 6·Democracy Divided

Voters are disillusioned and often irrational, but experts say a democratic reboot could help change that

Research suggests emotion trumps reason at the ballot box, but political theorist David Moscrop says citizen assemblies and participatory budget-making could make us better voters and help revive Canada's democratic system.

Political theorist David Moscrop has a plan to fix Canada's democratic system

According to a Samara Canada survey, nearly half of Canadian voters say that they feel democracy has weakened. Political theorist David Moscrop believes a more deliberative, participatory demoracy could change that. (Graham Hughes/Canadian Press)
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Originally published on Sept. 27, 2019.

This story is part of Day 6's Democracy Divided series. Each instalment takes a close look at the health of the democratic system in Canada leading up to the Oct. 21 federal election.


For the first time in more than two decades of voting, Jeremy Cameron is undecided on who he'll vote for — or if he'll vote at all.

"I honestly don't feel that any of these candidates have earned my vote."

Cameron, 42, has historically voted for progressive parties, and was a member of the federal Greens at one point. But as the country heads toward election day on Oct. 21, he's worried about growing political polarization among voters and politicians.

"I'm personally disillusioned. I'm scared of what the future holds," Cameron, who lives in Calgary, told Day 6.

According to a recent CBC News poll, one-third of Canadians believe their vote won't make a difference. In a survey published by the Samara Centre, a non-partisan political engagement organization, nearly half of respondents said they believe Canadian democracy has weakened.

Eyal Winter says that citizens are more likely to vote based on emotions. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

But according to economist and historian Eyal Winter, voters themselves may pose one of the biggest challenges to the future of democracy.

Winter, who heads the Federmann Centre for the Study of Rationality at Hebrew University, has studied the way we vote and found it's hardly rational.

Rather than voting for the candidate who will best represent them, research shows that voters tend to be influenced primarily by emotions and their social circles, he says.

"It's the subjective connection between the voters and the candidates, but not really whether he's going to do a policy that favours me or favours my interests," Winter told Day 6 host Brent Bambury.

'Expressive' voting

Winter calls this "expressive voting." It's an approach the Jerusalem-based academic saw earlier this month during Israel's second election this year. Benjamin Netanyahu called the Sept. 17 election after failing to secure support in May. 

"Netanyahu has made huge policy mistakes. He has engaged in illegal activities and he's facing indictment, yet there are so many people who support him," Winter said.

"When you ask these people they say, 'We just admire the person.' They are voting for him because they feel — or those who support him feel — that he is their guy." 

We can maximize the chance that [democracy] works by including more participatory and deliberative citizen procedures.- David Moscrop, political theorist and author

But Winter warns that voters' tendency to use emotional shortcuts has hurt democracy in the past — and he says it may get worse before it gets better.

Historically, voters tend to double down on their emotions until they are personally affected by their choices, he said.

That behaviour won't change, he argues, "unless people will experience some shock, some political shock, in the way of violent conflict [or] in way of a big recession."

Deliberative democracy

Political theorist David Moscrop says the key to creating better democratic citizens is to make government more participatory and deliberative.

"That's more important today than it has been for decades as we face a growing number of challenges including, among other things, growing inequality and climate change," said the author of Too Dumb for Democracy? Why We Make Bad Political Decisions and How We Can Make Better Ones.

David Moscrop is a political theorist and the author of Too Dumb for Democracy?: Why We Make Bad Political Decisions and How We Can Make Better Ones. (Gooselane Books)

Moscrop says there are existing models that Canadian governments at all levels could adopt, including participatory budgeting and citizen's assemblies.

"Democracy, historically, has been a rough bet. It takes a very long time to build it and it collapses fairly quickly," he said.

"We can maximize the chance that it works by including more participatory and deliberative citizen procedures."

One example of participatory budgeting comes from Porto Alegre, Brazil, where thousands of residents have come together regularly since 1989 to set municipal budgets on everything from health care to infrastructure projects. Last year, B.C. voters convened a citizen's assembly on electoral reform.

He envisions a country-wide system that operates like voluntary jury duty: once or twice in every voter's lifetime, they would be called to a monthly citizens' assembly. Participants would be fed, offered child care, and maybe even provided with an honorarium.

Experts would be made available and, over a period of six months, the group of 100 voters would work together to decide on the best way forward.

Not only does research suggest that citizens tend to make thoughtful choices in community spending and planning, Moscrop says that they become "better citizens" and role models for their neighbours.

Kate Yoon, who studies political theory at Oxford University, thinks ordinary citizens deserve more of a say in government. She explains why there may be a case for randomly selecting parliamentarians — a radical-sounding idea with very old roots. 3:46

'Take part in a political activity'

But not all participatory democracy is deliberative, Moscrop says.

He points to referendums, including the 2016 Brexit referendum, as an example of "bad" participatory democracy.

"They don't ask people to deliberate. They don't really even ask people to think," he said. "They draw a line in the sand and say, 'You're on one side or the other.'"

While Moscrop argues that governments need to provide greater opportunities and resources for citizens to take part in democracy, individuals can also take action on their own.

He encourages voters to surround themselves with people who disagree "in good faith" and to interrogate their emotional reactions to information they hear from others.

"What I'm suggesting is take a little bit of time — it could be as little as 20 minutes a day, half an hour — and then every so often take a day and take part in a political activity," Moscrop said. 

He says that's more important now than ever.

"If you can build a competent, engaged citizenry, you're more likely to preserve democracy in the long run. That's my bet," he said.


Written by Jason Vermes. Democracy Divided series produced by Annie Bender. To hear more from David Moscrop, download our podcast or click Listen above.

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