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Participation by citizens in their civil society and government is a necessary, if not sufficient, condition of democracy. Civic participation refers to the voluntary activities of citizens in forming and sustaining independent nongovernmental organizations that contribute to the well-being of the community. Political participation pertains to the activities of individuals and groups aimed at influencing the public policy decisions of their government. Through their political participation, citizens prompt their representatives in government to be accountable to the people.

Unless there is some significant level of free and independent participation by citizens in the work of their civil society and government, there cannot be an authentic democracy. In addition to voting for representatives in government and using the initiative and referendum process to make laws, other kinds of political participation in a democracy include:

  • working in an election campaign to support a political candidate or political party,
  • contacting a legislator in order to influence her or his decision about a public policy issue,
  • writing a letter to a newspaper or writing a blog to influence public opinion about an issue,
  • donating money to the election campaign of a candidate or a political party,
  • organizing or joining a lawful public demonstration to support or oppose a public policy option or decision,
  • supporting an interest group in order to promote particular public policies.
  • Proponents of a participatory model of democracy advocate a high level of citizen participation in order to make sure that the government is responsive and accountable to the people it represents. They want citizens to be involved to the maximum extent in activities that might influence decisions in government in order to ensure that democracy is based on the will of the people. In particular, they favor constitutional provisions for citizens to participate directly in the legislative process, such as the initiative and referendum.

    By contrast, some advocates of the liberal model of democracy, while supporting the political participation of citizens, are most concerned with establishing and maintaining constitutional protections for individuals’ personal rights to seek fulfillment on their own terms. This approach may encourage citizens to emphasize private pursuits instead of intense political participation. Some advocates of the liberal model emphasize the individual’s freedom to choose, without undue public pressure, the extent to which he or she will participate politically and civically. By contrast, advocates of the participatory model of democracy claim that intensive and continuous participation by citizens is the best means both to personal fulfillment and to promotion of the common good.

    An ongoing question about democracy concerns the extent, intensity, and immediacy of participation that is necessary to make democracy work for the benefit of the people. If democracy is not extensively participatory, can it really be government of, by, and for the people? Or is a heavy reliance on the representatives of the people, who are judged periodically by citizens through public elections, sufficient to sustain an authentic constitutional democracy?

    John Patrick, Understanding Democracy, A Hip Pocket Guide