The Creation of In/Competent Citizens

Flag DE [DE] Zur Produktion politisch in/kompetenter Bürger

Representative (RD) vs Activating Democracy (AD)

1 Are the relations between citizens and politicians in an electoral-representative democracy (RD, for example Finland) different from those in an activating democracy (AD) which combines representative and well-designed direct democracy (for example Switzerland)?

2 In which ways do the two political systems contribute to the formation of the personality structure (habitus) and of the collective ideas and images  of the two groups? What influence do RD and AD have on the self-esteem and political competence, as well as on the representations of political competence, of politicians and citizens?

3  On what kind of image of the human being are the two political systems (RD and AD) based?
From the point of view of comparative political studies of democracy, RD and AD are not different with respect to the quality of the political processes. According to Arend Lijphart (1999), it is possible to classify the great variety of democratic forms on a scale from majoritarian democracy at the one end to consensus democracy on the other. Wolf Linder (1999) argues that there is a trade-off between indirect (Wahldemokratie) and direct democracy (Abstimmungsdemokratie). The amount of political influence is a given, citizens cannot have both – high influence through referendums and at the same time high influence by means of elections. For Linder, political influence is a zero-sum game: what citizens win in referendum power they lose in electoral power.

From the point of view of the theory of established-outsiders relations (Elias and Scotson 1990), political reality looks different. The difference between RD and AD appears to be not only a matter of degree, but qualitative. This is the view I wish to present here. [*]

Established-Outsiders Figuration

Norbert Elias defines figuration as the changing pattern which human beings form with each other, and not only with their intellect, but with body and soul and everything they do and do not do in their relations with each other. An established-outsiders figuration in its simplest form consists of two interdependent groups which are related to each other as the established and the outsiders. The established group has greater resources of power than the outsiders group. Within the figuration certain collective images arise (for example, images of us/them, of what we/they are and ought to be).

Established-outsiders relations can be observed not only between politicians and citizens, but everywhere and at all times, for example between groups categorized as men and women, blacks and whites, national citizens and foreigners, settled and newcomers.

Established-outsiders figurations differ in many ways from each other, and they exist under very different conditions: they differ with respect to their complexity; there are many different power resources; the imbalance of power and the degree of interdependence vary greatly. However, certain regularities can be observed in all the various figurations:

  • the more powerful groups tend to stigmatise less powerful groups; they tend to perceive the outsiders who are dependent on them as of lesser worth than they themselves are—and to treat them accordingly;
  • the established groups always seek to monopolise the opportunities for power and status which are important to them;
  • if the balance of power changes in favour of the outsiders, counter-stigmatisation may occur;
  • cause and effect are routinely confused.

Reproduction of Representative Democracy (RD)

The ‘image of incompetence’

“[What argues against direct democracy] is that the mass of the citizens is as narrow-minded as it is easily seduced, on the one hand tending to block troublesome innovations as in Switzerland, on the other hand only too ready to be put before the carriage of demagogues like Hitler.”
Reinhard, Wolfgang (1999): Geschichte der Staatsgewalt. Munich. C.H. Beck, p. 435.

“Most people are not able to form sound opinions. They accept without question what the most powerful newspaper of our country says.”
Markku Myllykangas, lecturer, Kuopio University; letter to the editor, Helsingin Sanomat 2005.

“Referendums undermine the political responsibility of the representative system. They make the political discussion one-dimensional. They banalize and demonize public debates. In no country are referendums free from the dreadful influence of populist propaganda. Referendums regularly produce more heat than light.”
Wiberg, Matti (2001, pp.73-79) and in: Politiikka 45:3, 2003, p. 238.

These quotations convey the well-known idea of the political incompetence of so-called ‘ordinary people’. Many similar quotations could easily be added, and all of them paint a similar picture: ‘Ordinary’ citizens are people who have neither the capacity nor the knowledge which is needed to decide complex political questions. They are self-centered and short-sighted, driven by emotions and passions and not guided by reason, and they are not very interested in working for the common good. I use the term image of incompetence to refer to this cluster of ideas.

The image of the uneducated and politically immature citizen has accompanied the development of democracy since its beginnings. Again and again the image of incompetence has been used by the powerful and their allies to resist demands for greater democracy. James Madison (Federalist Papers, 1787/88), ruling liberals in 19th century Switzerland such as Alfred Escher and Jakob Dubs, the influential political columnist Walter Lippmann (Public Opinion, 1922), Joseph Schumpeter, Giovanni Sartori, and many others, all describe common people as politically incompetent and use the image of incompetence in their arguments against direct democracy.

The image of incompetence also played a prominent role in the debates for and against a ratification referendum/plebiscite on the Treaty establishing a Constitution for Europe. Recent and current debates appear as variations and reformulations in a long and repetitive cycle of the same arguments for and against direct democracy. The faith in the ability of all people to reach sound political judgements is opposed by the contention that this faith is naïve and unrealistic. Again and again, the political disempowerment of the people is justified by asserting their political incompetence. From a ‘realistic’ viewpoint, only a small part of the population has the necessary knowledge and cognitive capacity for the exercise of political power.

The incompetence of the majority can be explained or justified in different ways. For some, the distribution of political competence is given by nature. For others, political incompetence is a question of education. Others explain incompetence as an outcome of the division of labor: politicians, like engineers, are trained for their job, the rest of the people are not and they have better things to do than to engage in politics.

Inversion of cause and effect

In terms of the theory of established-outsiders relations, the image of political incompetence is a typical example of the way in which established groups represent outsiders. The image of the ‘stupid voter’ stigmatizes in the same way as the image of the ‘stupid black’. The stigma of political incompetence and immaturity symbolizes the superior power of politicians over ‘ordinary citizens’.

The pre-modern form of democracy, which was seen as the historic privilege of a particular group, did not exclude the possibility of oppressing others, something which was quite common in the old order. The ideal of modern democracy—that all people should be free and equal—is irreconcilable with any situation in which some are subject to the will of others. To exclude a group of people in a modern democratic society from rights which are self-evident for the others needs justification. In the United States of America, established groups developed an ideology which represented black US-Americans as inferior in order to justify the exclusion of black people from civic rights. In democratic states the exclusion of parts of the population from equal political rights is justified by nationalism. In strictly representative democracies, the establishment has developed an ideology which represents the majority of the population (voters) as cognitively inferior or ‘uneducated’, in order to justify representative government or the rule of the few.

There are many historical examples to show that a figuration which is characterized by durable and large imbalances of power between established and outsiders creates ideas and images which naturalize group membership. The existing social inequality between established and outsiders is no longer perceived as something socially produced, but as something natural. According to Pierre Bourdieu (1990), the more perfectly bodily and mental dispositions are tuned to the ‘order of things’, the more complete is the process of naturalization.

The image of incompetence presents a view of reality in which the majority of the population is excluded from political decision-making because most people have limited cognitive capacities. In this view incompetence is a property of individuals, and political incompetence is the cause and political exclusion the effect.

The theory of established-outsiders relationships presents a different reality. In this view political incompetence has its origin, not in individual people, but in the relationship between established groups and outsiders. It is not a property of citizens (Tilly 1998: ‘essence’), but an aspect of the relationship between politicians and citizens (Tilly 1998: ‘bonds’). It is the result of social organisation, an expression of institutionalized categorical inequality. The main difference between representatives and represented is not the quality of the intellect, but the different positions which members of the two groups occupy in the figuration. It is the difference between the political empowerment of ‘elites’ and the group charisma associated with it on the one hand, and the political dispossession of the ‘ordinary citizens’ and the group blame associated with it on the other hand. Exclusion of outsiders from political rights is a cause of political incompetence, which is rather the effect.

The stigmatisation of citizens affects the formation of the habitus. The image of the politically incompetent citizen is in itself an instrument for the production of incompetence. It contributes to reducing people’s self-value and discourages them from becoming active in politics. By inverting cause and effect it helps to justify political exclusion.

Political exclusion produces social conditions under which learning how to act politically becomes more difficult. The institutions, as well as the images of democracy and of the citizen, exclude people in many ways from political participation. The result of all this is political incompetence which—scientifically proven—can be used to justify political exclusion.

In a purely parliamentary democracy, the individual citizen’s access to political decisions is not really denied because of his/her individual lack of political skills and competence, but because he/she belongs to that group of people who are categorized as ‘ordinary citizens’. The question as to whether in reality citizens are politically competent, or not, does not matter in this context. The important question is: under what conditions do politicians feel the need, and are able, to represent and treat citizens as incompetent outsiders?

What the Swiss writer Iris von Roten wrote about the relationship between men and women before equal political rights were established can be seen as applying equally to the relationship between citizens and politicians in a parliamentary democracy, and therefore as an answer to that question:

“Without equal political rights for both sexes, men are held to be more important than women, are able—at the expense of women—to enjoy more of worldly life, and naturally wish to continue to be and to get more. For regardless of whether we are talking of power, influence, freedom, wealth and possessions, self-confidence, prestige and comfort—however much control is handed over to women must represent an equivalent loss to men. And men want to avoid that at all costs.”

Political incompetence does exist, and it is a problem for democracy. The image of incompetence makes it possible to explain the political disempowerment of ‘ordinary citizens’ by means of their political incompetence. The theory of the established-outsiders relations describes the relationship between incompetence and disempowerment in the opposite way: preventing access to political participation creates political incompetence. Preventing access to political participation is a fundamental property of purely representative democracy as a social figuration. Despite education for democracy, the production of political incompetence will continue as long as the institutionalized categorical inequality between citizens and politicians prevails.

Creation of “Competent Citizens”

Direct democracy: a qualitative change

In an activating democracy, citizens and politicians are interconnected and interdependent in a fundamentally different way than in a purely parliamentary democracy. In an activating democracy, that combines indirect with well-designed direct democracy, citizens share in decision-making and have the final word. They repeatedly have opportunities to act in effect as politicians and to become what Max Weber called “occasional politicians.” Thanks to their rights to initiative and referendum, voters have access to political decision-making and to determining the political agenda. The elected politicians are unable to monopolise the power to make political decisions, but have to share it with the citizens. The concentration of political capital or political sources of power in the hands of a small minority of established politicians is thus severely restricted.

The more even balance of power affects the way politicians and citizens are viewed. The image of the incompetent citizen is no longer dominant. It is replaced by an image of the citizen as someone who is more mature, more responsible, more politically competent and more self-confident. Citizens become decision-makers, directly and indirectly (the referendum threat). They cannot be ignored by the politicians. They must be heard and seen and treated as mature human beings. At the same time, the image of the politicians also changes; from ‘higher’ spheres they are brought down to share the same earthly reality with everyone else. Some politicians will probably experience this change not merely as a loss of power and status, but also as a gain in empathy and humanity.

Differences between RD and AD – some examples

The following examples should give empirical support to the claim that RD and DD are qualitatively different.


In Switzerland, the right to legislation belongs to both elected representatives and voters; in Finland it belongs only to the representatives. In Switzerland, a new constitution, as well as any changes to the constitution, are decided on by the citizens and the cantons; in Finland, exclusively by parliament. The Finnish constitution seemingly recognises the principle of popular sovereignty, but the political rights of the citizens are limited to participation in elections and popular consultations. Parliament alone can decide to call a consultative popular vote and it decides the wording of the question. Only two national plebiscites have been held: in 1931 on the prohibition of alcohol, and in 1994 on membership of the EC.

Use of language

Language usage is affected by categorical inequalities between citizens and politicians. In spoken and written Finnish it is very common for the words “citizens” (kansalaiset), or “the people” (kansa), and “decision-makers” (päättäjät) to be used to describe two mutually exclusive categories of people. Examples of this kind of linguistic usage can be found in reports on the government’s citizens’ participation projects and in the parliamentary debates about popular votes. Using such language supports traditional ways of thinking and acting, e.g. the notion of the citizen as a person who does not make political decisions on substantive issues. It reinforces the dividing line between citizens and decision-makers and in this way contributes to preventing the development of real citizen participation.

In Switzerland the word “citizen” (Bürger/Bürgerin) implies the right of participation in political decision-making. The people (das Volk) and the legislative cannot be seen as two incompatible or competing principles.  This would contradict the very sense of what democracy means in Switzerland, according to which “the people, or the free citizens all together, are the sovereign”. In Finland, however, the situation is different: In a referendum debate in the Finnish parliament (3rd March, 2005), MP Astrid Thors of the Swedish People’s Party said that the advantage of having a public debate associated with a referendum was more than outweighed by the negative effects of creating a competing decision-making system.

In a DD-type democracy the struggle between established and outsiders continues, and popular rights which have been won may be lost. From the rulers’ point of view citizens can be a hindrance to the smooth running of government. There is distrust of the people. But in Switzerland, voters are recognized as participants in the institutionalized political decision-making. They cannot simply be described as disturbing outsiders, as was done, for example in a Finnish referendum committee report (Komiteamietintö 1983:25, p. 55-56). In the report citizen-initiated referendums are described and rejected as popular votes initiated by “outsiders”. The authors of the report fear that citizen-initiated referendums would diminish the respectability or status of parliament and that they would be used as a means to control representative government. Popular votes should therefore be organised under the complete control of the representatives, and their result should be consultative.

Citizens’ participation

The case of Finland illustrates that in an RD-type democracy a top-down view of citizens’ participation prevails. Participation is seen as an extension of the authorities’ activities. It primarily means consultation, an instrument for getting to know the opinions, needs and expectations of the citizens. It is seen as an activity that takes place outside representative government and in subordination to it. Citizen participation should help to make decision-making more efficient and more legitimate. Responsibility is transferred to the citizens, but no decision-making power. Understood in this way, participatory democracy leaves the basic imbalance of power between politicians and citizens untouched.

Debates about participation and referendums reveal from what kind of democratic belief attempts to activate Finnish citizens proceed: it is a belief in purely representative democracy. Democracy means that the politicians have the right to act on behalf of the people, who are treated as minors. Referendum democracy is rejected. Neither participation nor the political will of the citizens is essential for democracy. On the contrary, democracy needs passive citizens who, unlike active citizens, do not disturb the smooth running of representative government.

An AD-type democracy implies a different idea and practice of citizens’ participation and democracy. Participation means having a voice, making decisions together with others, control of politicians by citizens, and the sharing of power. It is an instrument of the citizens for bringing their own views into the public debate and the decision-making process. Citizens’ participation has a significant impact on outcomes.


Research on happiness (self-reported subjective well-being) shows that different political institutions have an impact on it. A federal political system supports happiness more than a centralized system does, and democracies more than dictatorships. Drawing on studies of Switzerland, Bruno Frey and Alois Stutzer (2002) conclude that direct democracy matters: the degree of political participation contributes even more to subjective well-being than the level of personal income. When the Swiss cantons were compared, it was found that the more people were involved directly in politics through initiatives and referendums, the more contented they were with their lives.

In a recent study of Finland—a purely representative democracy—Kai Torvi and Pentti Kiljunen (2005) show that political participation does not matter: it is among the least significant factors for the subjective well-being of the Finns. Does this mean that people in Finland are not interested in having a voice in political decision-making? According to Torvi and Kiljunen, their study supports a different conclusion: people see no opportunity for political participation and that is why they do not care about it. While in Switzerland people can derive procedural satisfaction from the very existence of popular rights, people in Finland cannot do the same, because there are no direct-democratic rights. The most important factor for the subjective well-being of the Finns is belonging to the Finnish nation.

Informed citizens

Matthias Benz and Alois Stutzer (2004) have shown that citizens who have greater rights of participation are also better informed politically.

Rent-seeking and political control

Compared with an AD-figuration, a RD-figuration provides politicians with greater possibilities for putting their own interests first and the interests of the citizens second. Checks-and-balances should prevent politicians from exploiting citizens. But in a strictly representative democracy these mechanisms remain under the control of the established politicians. Experience shows that this kind of self-control only works within certain limits. Rent-seeking behaviour contributes to an increase in distrust of politics and politicians.

Direct democracy gives citizens additional possibilities of making proposals and of political control, independently of the wishes of government and parliament. It is thus better equipped to ensure that “lies are exposed and contracts adhered to, favouritism prevented and emergencies met (Claus Offe)”. This builds up mutual trust between citizens and helps to strengthen social cohesion. In short, direct democracy is also an institutionalised way of creating political trust between citizens.


Within a relationship of categorical inequality, politicians tend to form a relatively closed group and to develop an esprit de corps; a shared interest in maintaining a monopoly on resources of power binds them together and separates them from other people. Power over citizens increases the self-esteem of politicians, produces feelings of superiority, nourishes grandiose fantasies and a craving for power. The greater the imbalance of power, the more self-doubts are silenced and the capacity to tolerate criticism and learn from it is diminished.

The rule of the politicians weakens the self-value of people without a voice. It creates feelings of inferiority, dependency, and powerlessness. It fosters a tendency to seek protection from those in power and a need for strong leaders.


Benz, Matthias/Stutzer, Alois (2004): Are Voters Better Informed When They Have a Larger Say in Politics? Evidence for the European Union and Switzerland, in: Public Choice 119(1-2), pp. 31-59.

Bourdieu, Pierre (1990): La domination masculine, in: Actes de la Recherche en sciences sociales 84, septembre, S. 2-31.

Elias, Norbert/Scotson, John L. (1990): Etablierte und Aussenseiter. Reinbek bei Hamburg, Rowohlt, S. 39-40.

Frey, Bruno S./Stutzer, Alois (2002): Happiness and Economics. Princeton and Oxford, Princeton University Press.

Lijphart, Arend (1999): Patterns of Democracy. New Haven and London, Yale University Press.

Linder, Wolf (1999): Schweizerische Demokratie. Bern, Stuttgart; Wien, Haupt.

Tilly, Charles (1998): Durable Inequality. Berkeley and Los Angeles, University of California Press.

Torvi, Kai/Kiljunen, Pentti (2005): Onnellisuuden vaikea yhtälö. EVAn kansallinen arvo- ja asennetutkimus 2005. Elinkeinoelämän valtuuskunta, EVA.

[*] An earlier version of this text was published here:
Buechi, Rolf. 2007. Reflections on the Social Production of Incompetent Citizens. In: Zoltán Tibor Pàllinger, Bruno Kaufmann, Wilfried Marxer, Theo Schiller (eds.). 2007. Direct Democracy in Europe. Wiesbaden: VS Verlag für Sozialwissenschaften, p.71-82.
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