Democratic Political Settings

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Jonathan Barker
University of Toronto

Democratic political action is difficult where social inequality is great. People low on the social scale are often barred, formally or informally, from political meetings. And in meetings women, poor people, and members of low status groups often fail to voice their views because they feel vulnerable to reprisals inside and outside the meeting. How can democratic political action be initiated under conditions of marked social inequality?


Many governments that give some respect to the rules of electoral democracy silence the voices of people of low economic and social standing. Many meetings where people raise and debate matters of public importance are structured to block their effective participation and reinforce existing hierarchies of class and social standing.


Even where most political settings are biased against certain people (the poor, women, youth, stigmatized groups, recent immigrants, disabled people) there are some some institutions and cultural values that support wider participation. It takes great energy, persistance, and strategic action to expand democatic practice. For example in fishing villages in southern India, the long-established Catholic church, newer fish-worker unions, and women’s associations contained values and practices that innovators could use to increase participation by disfavored groups, often by starting new political settings such as neighborhood assemblies. Trying to change formal and informal rules of participation in existing political settings usually runs up against entrenched elite power. New and reformed settings can establish a base of democratic experience for pressing change in older, powerful settings.


Strengthening already democratic settings and starting new democratic settings and organization are ways to sidestep the customs and practices that reinforce the existing social hierarchy. A new setting open to all offers people with little experience of expressing and advocating their ideas and interests an opportunity to gain experience and confidence.

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