Political Institutions and Democratic Citizenship
in Morten Egeberg & Per Lægreid, eds., Organizing Political Institutions. Essays
for Johan P. Olsen. Scandinavian University Press, Oslo 1999.
In his writings on democracy Johan P. Olsen takes as his starting point a fundamental
principle of the European and Western cultural heritage (Olsen 1990, 1991). Human beings
are different in many ways, intellectually, morally and in terms of resources. Although
such differences between people may be of great significance in many contexts, differences
of these kinds have no relevance when applied to the right to self-government. The
democratic creed is based on the willingness to accept that the design of regulations for
the common solution of problems and conflicts in society is a decision that affects
everyone to the same considerable extent and that every one is qualified to participate in
an equal way in the making of such decisions. Democratic self-government is thus seen as a
fundamental right. In a democracy everyone has the same right to be taken into
consideration and it is the duty of the community to ensure that this is what happens
(Olsen 1990, p. 24).
Two Interpretations of Democracy
Olsen goes on to say that there are two different interpretations of the concept of
democracy. One ideal is centred on society, the other on the individual. The first ideal
is based on the notion of the sovereignty of the people, the other is derived from the
idea of the sovereignty of the individual (cf. also March & Olsen 1995).
The socially-centred notion of democracy emphasises the role of the individual as a member
of society. The people are presumed to have a collective identity in the form of common
customs, practices and moral principles. The interdependence of members of society and the
feelings of belonging they share are emphasised. A socially-centred perspective lays great
store in the fact that the life-chances of individual human beings are affected to a great
extent by the social structures and the culture into which they are born and in which they
live. These structures both create opportunities and impose limitations. They create the
conditions for regularity and predictability. Through the process of socialisation, the
members learn societys common norms, values and expectations. Decisions are made on
the basis of culturally determined standards and conventions about what is good and true.
The individually-based interpretation of democracy accentuates the distinctive character
and primacy of the human being. The individual may not be subordinated to the needs and
considerations of the collective. Every person is of equal value in moral terms and it is
morally right to oppose any authority not based on the consent of the individual. The norm
is that the individual shall be free to form an independent judgement as to what is true
and good and be free to make decisions on the basis of these judgements. Individuals are
assumed to have the ability to choose and to take responsibility for their decisions.
Individual members of society also develop both morally and intellectually through the
exercise of freedom and responsibility of this kind. An individually-based society is
permanently changing as a result of the continual utility calculations on the part of
individuals and as a result of the adaptations made by individuals consequent on these
On the basis of a review of the Swedish social debate, Olsen concludes that the prevailing
view of democracy should most properly be characterised as socially-oriented. The Social
Democratic understanding of democracy, in particular, contains important collectivist
elements. This view of society emphasises the equal value of human beings, the need for
active participation and an equal distribution of resources. In consequence the Swedish
ideal of democracy lays great store by the sovereignty of the people and by equality.
Solidarity between citizens is an essential precondition if a modern society is not to be
fractured by internal conflicts between various groups, Olsen quotes from a Social
Democratic text (Olsen 1990, p. 19).
The Swedish Model
When the Study of Power and Democracy summarised its conclusions, these made clear that
the collectivist notion of democracy was closely connected with a particular stage in
Swedens history which is usually labelled the "Swedish Model". It is
assumed as part of this model that democracy is realised by decisions of a political
majority, a large public sector and centralisation. However, as authors of the study, we
were of the view that social changes meant that the load-bearing elements in this social
system were being weakened. Several of these institutions were connected with a type of
industrial society whose time had passed. This model of democracy was more appropriate for
describing the real workings of government of society as it looked several decades ago. As
a result the conclusion drawn was that the processes of change mean that society is not
moving closer to the collectivist idea of democracy of the Swedish model but moving away
from it (SOU 1990:44, p. 403).
This is not to say that democracy has deteriorated in a more general sense. Proponents of
an individually-oriented perspective on democracy would be able to find much of positive
value in the changes that have taken place in society. Despite the considerable
differences that remained between different social groups, the general direction of change
was clear. The qualities which were once heralded as the ideal of democratic citizenship,
such as being well-informed and enjoying economic and social independence, were
increasingly in evidence. According to one survey, forming an opinion independently of
others was the civic virtue that was most highly prized. The preconditions for the
autonomous taking of responsibility on the part of the citizens had been improved. From
the point of view of an interpretation of democracy more clearly identified with the
individually-oriented ideal, the conclusion was thus a fairly positive one. The direction
of change was increasingly towards autonomous and independent citizens.
These transformations created new problems. A gulf grew between latent and manifest
citizenship. The expectations citizens have of exercising personal influence increased
more rapidly than did any real room for action. As a result the subsequent development has
also been characterised by the powerlessness of the citizen. Many individuals have started
to look for other routes towards exerting influence over their particular situation.
Established organisations have found it increasingly difficult to retain their existing
members and to recruit new ones (SOU 1990:44)
Any assessment of the vitality of democracy must largely be based on an evaluation of the
commitment, knowledge, understanding and tolerance of members of the public. One of the
main aims of political institutions is to promote positive citizenship. As a result
participation on the part of citizens is built into the very definition of democracy.
However, widely differing interpretations exist as to how the individual should play an
active role in political decision-making processes.
Contending Approaches to the Study of Democracy
During large parts of the post-war period, the confrontation has been between two
approaches to the study of democracy. Of these, the participatory democratic view , has
made claims to be the classical one, while the other - the competitive democratic view -
has been considered revisionist.
The school of participatory democracy emphasises the significance of the actions of the
individual. Here, the key element of democracy involves all the citizens taking part in
political decisions. The power of the people lies in the right to co-determination and the
freedom to participate. The participatory democrats also make use of a broad definition of
politics; the requirement for participation applies to all the areas of social life.
Democracy should preferably be direct; through popular referendums, for example. Political
awareness is fostered in individuals through their direct participation.
On the other hand the school of competitive democracy considers the most important aspect
of democracy to be the competition by several elites or parties in free elections. The
power of the people lies in the freedom to change the government. Frequently this view
takes a restrictive definition of politics for granted; the emphasis is placed on the
activities of the representative bodies. In consequence a negative view is taken of
popular referendums and the emphasis is placed squarely on the freedom to call those
elected to office to account. The voters are often considered to lack the knowledge
required to make decisions on vital political issues.
In recent decades a third view has established itself as an alternative to both these
schools of thought. It has been characterised either as discourse democracy or
deliberative democracy (Fishkin 1991, Gutmann & Thompson 1996, Elster 1998). The key
idea is that democratic legitimacy derives from the dialogue of politics. Only those
decisions arrived at after the alternatives have been subjected to challenge in a free and
open dialogue should be accepted as democratically valid.
All three lines of thought may be criticised. The participatory democrats underestimate
the need for political leadership and for institutionalised forms for calling those in
power to account. The competitive democrats tend to overlook the requirement of popular
government for committed and responsible citizens. Discursive democracy risks neglecting
the requirements of democracy for effective government and effective methods for making
political decisions and implementing them.
The internal polemic between the three schools of democracy has made clear that all three
are associated with shortcomings. Each line of thought highlights a certain element of the
democratic polity but tends to neglect other elements which are also important. None of
the three schools can thus constitute a valid alternative by itself.
The Problem of Political Participation
Even though there exists a close connection between participation and democracy,
participation cannot be considered as the ultimate test of democracy. This would mean that
a proper democracy would require maximum participation, an entire population in a
permanent meeting. It was once observed that the conclusive argument against socialism is
that it would take up too many evenings. The requirement that distinguishes democracy
should be formulated instead in terms of rights. Democracy is realised to the extent that
the citizens have real opportunities to influence the decisions that affect them, to
choose their representatives, to form opinions and to join together to form independent
It could be said in more incisive terms that democracy does not necessarily require equal
power, but equal rights instead (Walzer 1983). Here, rights mean the guaranteed freedom to
exercise a minimum of power (the right to vote) and to exercise a greater measure of power
(freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, the right to make demands). It is not
legitimate for the winners, for the majority, to make use of their unequal power to
deprive the losers, the minority, of their rights and freedoms. While the majority holds
sway over the minority by virtue of the principle of majority rule, it would be tyranny to
conclude on that basis that it has the right to rule for ever. Democracy is not founded
solely on the rule of the majority but also on tolerance. Political rights are permanent
guarantees. They constitute the foundations of a process without end, an exchange of
opinions which is never completed. In a democracy, every situation is a temporary one. No
citizen can claim to have convinced his or her kinsmen once and for all. New citizens are
constantly coming into being and every citizen has the right to restart the discussion. It
is therefore inappropriate to characterise the ideal model of democracy as one in which
political power is equally distributed at any given moment. However, the requirement for
equal distribution does apply to the possibilities of achieving political power. Every
citizen is a potential participant, a potential politician.
A study of how democracy functions in practice must focus attention on three different
aspects: what the citizens are allowed to do, what they are able to do and what they
actually do. What the citizens are allowed to do represents their formal democratic
rights. These are an essential, but insufficient, criterion to determine whether a
democracy is functioning in real terms. The formal rights must also exist in tandem with
resources and skills, with an ability to exploit these rights. However, a functioning
democracy also requires something more than general knowledge, and that is active
The relationship between participation and democracy is to some extent a paradoxical one.
On the one hand not everyone need participate, while on the other some people must
participate. Politics can never be reduced to an automatic, a self-initiating, set of
operations, even if many utopias have cherished just such a hope, it is rather the
creative actions of human beings. The political individual, homo politicus, is an
essential component of every society. Political activity is not an essential part of every
individual person but it is a vital component of society as a whole.
Even though the scale of participation should not be seen as a definitive criterion of
democracy, data concerning who the participants are is nevertheless of great interest if
the aim is to assess the workings of the democratic process. How does the political
individual differ from other citizens?
Nor is political participation something that is cast in stone. Over time participation
may alter radically, both for society as a whole and for individuals. In periods of calm,
politics may be an affair for a minority of individuals, while in times of crisis a
greater proportion of the citizenry may be involved in political action. As far as the
individual is concerned, periods of enthusiastic commitment may alternate with periods of
retreat from public affairs. Entire theories have come into existence about such cyclical
swings between the public and the private (Hirschman 1982).
While no doctrine of democracy can enforce a duty to be political active in perpetuity,
the proposition that the citizen of a democracy should possess a certain preparedness to
get involved in politics can legitimately be made. Democracy presupposes that the citizen
is potentially in a position to represent his or her interests in an active fashion and
that in any case a minority is also prepared to involve itself in politics in a more
lasting and committed fashion (Scharpf 1975). A study of political participation at any
given point becomes in consequence a study of which citizens have on this occasion found
reasons to convert their readiness for action into action itself.
The level of participation that is actually observed may easily be misinterpreted, tending
both towards underestimation and towards overestimation. Concentrating on active citizens
neglects those citizens who are prepared for action but have for some reason decided not
to become involved. This fact forms part of the problem of interpreting silence. Passivity
and silence may be an expression of satisfaction and
self-confidence as much as of powerlessness and frustration. A measure of the number of
active citizens may therefore underestimate the latent political capability of members of
Conversely the observed level of participation may lead to an overestimation. Activity
need not mean influence. Attempts to exert influence may fail. A high level of
participation may be a manifestation of the desperate attempts of citizens to assert their
interests. The interpretation of the meaning of political activity is thus dependent on
the particular assessments of the citizens, their feeling of being able to exert influence
and the view they take of the legitimacy of the political system.
The question, then, is whether the level of political participation in Sweden should be
described as high or low. The answer will depend on the point of comparison. A first
possibility is to compare the real state of affairs with a norm of some kind. The theory
of democracy fails to provide any unambiguous answer. Irrespective of which standpoint is
adopted in this debate, it may be observed that the political institutions and (as a
consequence?) the pattern of participation of the citizens lies closest to the
competitive-democracy model. The ideal participatory democracy requires considerable more
active citizens than those of todays Sweden.
A second possible point of comparison is to relate Sweden to other democratic states. The
statistics on electoral participation show that we currently lie close to the norm for
states with proportional electoral systems. While other indicators are more difficult to
compare, Swedens position particularly in relation to membership of organisations is
a relatively high one. It is difficult to find forms of participation which lie on a lower
level than elsewhere. The inevitable conclusion is that political participation in Sweden
lies at much the same level as in other countries.
The third response to the issue of the level of political participation is to make a
comparison over time: has the activity increased or decreased? While the answer to this
question is not constant, it has also varied over time. A decade or so ago the conclusion
was relatively clear (Petersson, Westholm & Blomberg 1989). While party membership and
political participation in the institutions of representative democracy have remained
stagnant, the trend in other areas was upwards. A growing number of Swedes had become
involved in various forms of individual opinion formation, contacts and political
manifestations. The proportion of those making some form of written expression of opinion
in the media had doubled during the preceding twenty year period. The proportion of
persons who had spoken at a meeting on some occasion had all but doubled in size. The same
trend could be registered for collective expressions of opinion in the form of public
Stagnation and Decline
These observations were of great significance for the general conclusions reached by the
Study of Power and Democracy. At issue was a very noticeable increase in citizen
involvement. There was no support for the hypothesis that the level of political
participation varies in a cyclical pattern. In actual fact the political climate was a
great deal warmer during the "peaceful" eighties than during the
"stormy" sixties. The trends that could actually be observed represented a
long-term process of change rather than short-term fashion trends. The level of education
rose, women became more independent and access to information improved considerably. The
changes that had taken place in society must be considered a positive force from the point
of view of democracy.
It was therefore with some excitement that the results were awaited of the corresponding
study carried out a decade later, in 1997. Would the long-term, demographic forces have
continued to raise the level of participation [---]? Given that the level of education has
continued to rise, that more and more women have reached decision-making positions and
that the media landscape has been a flourishing one, the expected hypothesis would be for
participation to have risen. But reality had in fact taken a different path (Petersson et
Over the years interview surveys have contained questions designed to measure the extent
to which members of the public are administratively competent and thus able to put their
complaints into effect. At issue is whether the individual respondent feels able to
undertake the composition of a written appeal against the decision of an administrative
agency. Two thirds replied in the affirmative in 1997 while a third of the population do
not see themselves as being capable of composing a formal written appeal. These people are
not entirely helpless however. It turns out that the majority of the group are personally
acquainted with an individual whom they know could help them in such a case. Those who
consider themselves totally excluded, who are neither able themselves nor personally
acquainted with someone else who could help them, make up a tenth of the population.
Studies show that the level of administrative competence rose continuously from the end of
the sixties to reach its highest point at the beginning of the nineties. The 1997 findings
are particularly noteworthy in as much as that proportion is no longer increasing. Since
previous analyses show that administrative competence is closely connected with the length
of education, a likely hypothesis would be that this proportion would continue to increase
concurrently with the rise in the level of general education. Such is, however, not the
case. As a result the stagnation in the administrative competence of the citizen is all
the more remarkable..
Some of the other survey questions are designed to provide a picture of the citizen as a
participant in the opinion-making process. At issue here is whether the respondent has
addressed a meeting of an association or organisation and whether the respondent has
written a letter or an article for a newspaper or magazine. Measurements of individual
opinion formation showed a fairly clear-cut and substantial increase between 1968 and
1987. Subsequently, however, this curve was to flatten out. Although there is no sign of
any decrease, the positive trend that could still be noted at the end of the 1980s has now
Patterns of participation in public demonstrations have developed in a similar fashion.
After the first measurement taken at the end of the 1960s, there followed a twenty-year
period of continually rising participation. This trend was interrupted after peaking in
1987. During the 1990s, it has been a question of decreasing levels and stagnation.
While the question whether the respondent had at any time been in contact with an official
in order to influence a political decision did not form part of the 1987 survey, the
pattern for other indices is nevertheless largely in agreement with previous findings. The
rising level until the beginning of the 1990s has now been replaced by a slight
As for party activities, the changes have followed a rather different course. Here the
questions apply to participation at a political meeting or rally, membership in a
political party and serving in any official capacity in a political party. The maximum
level was recorded several decades ago. It was clear by the end of the 1980s that party
activities had stagnated although it was not yet possible to record any clear decline. The
contrast was nevertheless clear with other forms of participation which all showed rising
trends at this point. Now, however, a clear decline can be noted. The summary index shows
that party activity has halved over the last fifteen years.
For many years participation in national elections was at a relatively high level in
international terms. Any large-scale mobilisation of the electorate is, however, no longer
an issue. The record figure of almost 92 per cent had already been achieved by 1976. Voter
turn-out fell by several percentage points at the 1988 election and the figure for the
1998 election of 81.4 per cent means that Sweden is now back to the levels of the 1950s.
The picture of political participation in Sweden must now be revised. The analysis made by
the Study of Power and Democracy, which was primarily based on the citizen survey of 1987,
showed that people had become more active, although their involvement was mainly in
channels other than via the traditional parties. The change during the most recent
ten-year period has been quite different. No increase has been recorded in any of the
areas studied. The political involvement of the citizens has stagnated or is declining.
Participation within the political parties has reached such a low level that it must be
Even when the perspective is further extended to include participation in associational
life as well, the picture fails to become any brighter. Changes to the level of membership
in associations between 1987 and 1997 mean that the proportion of those who remain wholly
outside associational life has stayed largely unchanged. On the other hand the size of the
group of those who are members of many associations is declining. In this regard, too,
there are fewer and fewer enthusiasts. The changes between the two survey dates are more
marked in terms of activity and official service than in relation to membership. The level
of activity has fallen in an almost alarmingly uniform manner across various types of
organisation. If only formal membership is considered, the decline in the popular basis of
associational life has been relatively moderate. Behind the surface, however, a
considerably more dramatic change has taken place. Compared with the situation ten years
ago, what is clear today is that fewer Swedes are taking on associational duties and the
proportion of those active in associational life has also fallen markedly.
The trend in relation to commitment to associational activities is in accord with the
stagnation and decrease in political participation, particularly for activities within the
political parties. The small group of citizens which keeps associational life going has
become even smaller. This decrease brings into focus the question of where to set the
minimum level for the social movement ideal which is founded on the notion of a large
number of citizens becoming involved in organised forms of cooperation on a voluntary
basis. Associational Sweden is starting to creak at the joints. Many studies have shown
that the vitality of civil society is of major importance for both the workings of
democracy and for social development in general (Putnam 1992). The view of the future now
opening up is therefore a bleak one. The erosion of social capital may lead to negative
consequences for society as a whole.
Representative Democracy in Transition
By extrapolation a worrying trend can be discerned. If the internal vitality of the
parties continues to diminish, this will impair their capacity to formulate relevant and
attractive alternatives. Elections risk being seen in consequence as less and less
interesting. The result may be lower levels of voter turn-out. The stagnation of the
parties may become a self-perpetuating, negative spiral. The difficulties posed by the
need to recruit new individuals willing to take on political office are increasing.
Isolated party leaderships are becoming increasingly dependent on the media and opinion
polls. The problems for associational life and the political parties could develop into a
crisis for representative democracy in general.
Representative democracy may be considered as a system of communication. Voters and
representatives are linked together by an exchange of messages and signals. However, the
means of communicating in society varies strongly over time, particularly as a consequence
of technological change. From a historical perspective mass media have become the most
powerful institution for mass ommunication. But the media do not simply mirror social
changes, they also contribute to changing society, both directly and indirectly.
The media logic of modern journalism leads to greater attention being paid to particular
issues rather than to coherent ideologies. The idea that a political party should stand
for an overarching view of society is harder to realise in a consumer democracy. Politics
becomes more of a impulse purchase than a forum for beliefs and for joint projects. The
temporal perspective is foreshortened, the pace of the political process is accelerated.
The media become more important than organisation. The party leadership can reach out
directly to the voters without having to go through the lumbering party apparatus. Support
from the public purse for the parties makes members unnecessary. Problems of recruitment
for local parties are continually increasing. Considerations of publicity and media
consultants are becoming ever more important.
Democracy is a form of society based on cooperation and mutual trust. Interview studies
indicate that there is considerable support for civic ideals such as rationalism,
obedience to the law, solidarity and participation. Even though the majority of people
consider themselves to meet the ideal, there is a widespread notion that other people do
not show solidarity and try, for example, to avoid tax and to cheat on benefits. There is
an obvious distortion in the current process of opinion formation. The general public
underestimates the readiness of the general public to cooperate. The risk is that a
misjudgement of this kind will lead to a change in behaviour on the part of individuals.
Since many people believe that others are failing in their duties, there is a diminution
in personal readiness to be a good citizen (Petersson et. al. 1998).
When the Study of Power and Democracy concluded its deliberations in 1990, it was obvious
that the country found itself in a period of institutional reorientation. The form of
social organisation that had characterised Sweden for a considerable number of years had
been conditioned by relatively stable social structures. The effect was to reinforce the
impression of inevitability, control and permanence. The changes that could be discerned a
decade previously mean that these structures have been weakened without any new ones being
established. The process of social change appeared more open, uncertain and unpredictable
as a result. Although political institutions are slow to change, they need to be adapted
to changing conditions (SOU 1990:44).
The idea that democracy is realised to the extent that a single national power centre can
oversee and steer the entirety of social change is becoming increasingly unrealistic. In a
continually more differentiated, specialised and internationalised society it is hardly
credible that a single central body, such as the national parliament, will be able to fill
the role of the dominant centre of authority. The fact that a single person or institution
cannot have total control over the whole of society does not mean that social change
cannot be influenced. It is scarcely probable that the democratic direction of a modern
specialised and differentiated society can be based on a single dominant governmental
principle or decision-making process. Government has to be able to take account of many,
partly intersecting, considerations and interests. A strengthening of democracy will
therefore depend on the extent to which society changes and institutionalises a new
mixture of principles and processes.
A comparison of different governmental principles leads to a constitutional debate. A
vital democratic constitution provides rules for which roles the various principles,
participants and resources should be allocated. The rules clarify the allocation of
duties, powers and responsibilities. They establish the power of the political centre and
what rights and duties the citizens, their representatives, experts, bureaucrats and
organised interests should have. In this way they provide guidance as to how democratic
processes can be protected from the superior resources available to the rich, the
well-organised, the well-educated, the well-informed and the superactive.
The task of constructing political institutions which promote and help develop the
democratic consciousness of the public can therefore not be reduced to a choice between
either a purely collectivist model or an purely individualist one. The issue in practice
is to create institutions which realise the ideal of self-government. The democratic form
of government presupposes that there are autonomous individuals able on the basis of
critical reflection to take responsibility for living under a system of common rules.
There is therefore reason to repeat the concluding reflection of the Study of Power and
Democracy, to which Johan P. Olsen contributed. A key issue is what should be made the
object of collective decisions and what should be left to the individual, to groups of
citizens or to autonomous institutions not subject to permanent intervention on the part
of the central state power. A question of primary importance when it comes to finding a
new balance between a socially-centred and an individually-based view is how to bring
together the desire for social security on the basis of common rules and regulations with
the desire for individual freedom of choice. Ultimately this a question as to how to
combine the freedom of personal choice with solidarity and community.
Translated by Frank Gabriel Perry
Elster, Jon ed. 1998. Deliberative Democracy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Fishkin, James. 1991. Democracy and Deliberation. New Directions for Democratic Reform.
New Haven: Yale University Press.
Gutmann, Amy and Dennis Thompson. 1996. Democracy and Disagreement. Cambridge: Harvard
Hirschman, Albert O. 1982. Shifting Involvements. Private Interests and Public Action.
Princeton: Princeton University Press.
March, James G. and Johan P. Olsen. 1995. Democratic Governance. New York: The Free Press.
Olsen, Johan P. 1990. Demokrati på svenska. Stockholm: Carlssons.
Olsen, Johan P. ed. 1991. Svensk demokrati i förändring. Stockholm: Carlssons.
Petersson, Olof, Anders Westholm and Göran Blomberg. 1989. Medborgarnas makt. Stockholm:
Petersson Olof , Jörgen Hermansson, Michele Micheletti, Jan Teorell and Anders Westholm.
1998. Demokrati och medborgarskap. Demokratirådets rapport 1998. Stockholm: SNS Förlag.
Putnam, Robert D. 1992. Making Democracy Work: Civic Traditions in Modern Italy.
Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Scharpf, Fritz W. 1975. Demokratitheorie zwischen Utopie und Anpassung. Kronberg:
SOU 1990:44. Demokrati och makt. Maktutredningens huvudrapport.
Walzer, Michael. 1983. Spheres of Justice. A Defence of Pluralism and Equality. Oxford: