Liberal democracy in the West is on the fritz. The leader of the free world larded his recent news conference with false claims, while British legislators dither over their citizens’ reckless decision to leave the European Union. At the same time, nationalist, xenophobic movements across Europe are on the rise — promising, like Donald J. Trump, to stick it to those out-of-touch elites who don’t understand the common people.
What is a mopey, Trumpatized liberal to do? When I need solace, I head (in my mind, anyway) to two beacons of hope: Denmark and Canada. There, too, democracy needs fixing, and thoughtful people are trying to mend the alienation between policy makers and voters — to persuade the experts and the common people not to give up on one another. They have almost convinced me that they might succeed.
It won’t be easy. Even in Denmark, that progressive utopia, liberal confidence in democracy has frayed. The left-wing Social Democratic Party governed Denmark for much of the 20th century, but now it keeps losing elections. “We’ve lost most on this question of immigration, foreigners,” Kristian Weise, who heads Cevea, a center-left think tank in Copenhagen, told me. “The response in the party has been to move to the right, to match the rhetoric and policies of the xenophobic populist right.”
Mr. Weise lamented the progressive elite’s refusal to double down on liberal principles and plainly communicate those principles to voters. “People growing up after 1989 within the Social Democratic movement became very nonideological, because suddenly there were no longer the big contradictions,” he said. “Politics became both technocratic and also very spin-oriented.”
After the end of the Cold War, it was tempting to think that the big questions were settled; experts would work out the details of democracy and capitalism. Yet as governments placed more trust in a technocratic elite, popular faith in government eroded. Across the West, rates of voter turnout and party affiliation declined.
“What we see emerging is a notion of democracy that is being steadily stripped of its popular component — democracy without a demos,” Peter Mair, an Irish political scientist, wrote in 2006.
Meanwhile in Denmark — as in so many places — the tide of global capitalism eroded familiar ways of life. Rural communities hollowed out, and immigrants with strange clothes and creeds moved in. “There are bigots out there, but we believe the majority attracted to the populist right is disenchanted,” Mr. Weise said. “They don’t feel the establishment is listening to them: ‘You can’t keep order in my world.’ ”
Uffe Elbaek, a member of the Danish Parliament, helped found a new party in 2013 called the Alternative. He told me that the Alternative seeks to “change the political culture” by crowdsourcing its platform through “political laboratories” that invite Danes to read policy papers and meet with experts. “This is not politics coming from above, or outside, but from the inside and bottom up,” Mr. Elbaek said.
In the last election, the Alternative ran on a platform that stressed environmental sustainability, social inclusion and public-private economic collaboration, and won 4.8 percent of the vote. The party has 10 seats in Parliament. It’s a start.
Deliberative democracy has been around since ancient Athens. But recently this approach to politics — which asks citizens not simply to vote, but to discuss policy and seek consensus — has received new attention as organizations and governments try to restore trust in the democratic process. Ireland established a Citizens’ Assembly with a mandate to advise the government on abortion law, climate change and other difficult matters. Britain convened citizen assemblies to consider health care reform.
Yet if we can’t trust ordinary citizens to identify fake news in their Facebook feed, why should we value their judgment on health care or climate change? Should people who dominate the town hall microphone to rant about Somali immigrants really advise politicians on immigration policy? “The typical citizen drops down to a lower level of mental performance as soon as he enters the political field,” the economist Joseph A. Schumpeter wrote. “He becomes a primitive again.” Was Schumpeter onto something?
I took these questions to my friend Peter MacLeod, who founded a Toronto-based consulting company called Mass LBP, which convenes panels of citizens to deliberate on public policy decisions affecting their communities. He said that policy makers’ anxieties about consulting the public are understandable — because they go about consultation in the wrong way.
The typical town hall meeting “happens when something’s gone wrong, or a decision has been made, and an elected official is trying to explain it,” he told me. “This is dressed up as an opportunity to have your say. We try to subdue tension and emotion by giving a rational, technocratic account of the decision. Then what we do — least helpfully — is ask people to do the very thing we know most people are petrified of, and that’s stand in front of a room of strangers and speak at an open mike.” Naturally, “it comes to seem that the essential quality of the public is volatile emotionality,” he said: Schumpeter’s “primitive” voter.
Instead, Mr. MacLeod’s company sends out invitations to randomly selected households and then draws names to assemble a representative panel of volunteers. They meet with experts and policy makers for several weekends to study an open policy question. Eventually the panels issue nuanced recommendations on matters ranging from hospital budgets to mass transit.
“If we start from the premise that people are more curious than we give them credit for, and that they are kind — if we design for their better angels — then lo and behold, the phantom public that seems to haunt public discourse disappears,” he said.
Deliberative democracy is no panacea. It can only supplement the electoral process, and cannot compensate for more systemic American problems like gerrymandering and the erosion of campaign finance regulation. Moreover, it can devolve into glorified market research that treats participants as focus groups, not engaged citizens. The result is outsize influence for well-funded interest groups and public relations consultants.
The great promise of a well-designed deliberative process may not always be better policy, but its potential to change the participants themselves. It can teach people to be better citizens by entrusting them with responsibility and pushing them to talk — and listen — to people who look and think differently. It may inch them closer toward what the historian David A. Hollinger has called a “postethnic perspective,” one that “promotes a stretching of the moral ‘we’ in realistic dialogue with people who begin with values very different from ‘ours.’ ”
The democratic process should civilize us all. “The basis of democratic citizenship is putting yourself in someone else’s shoes. This is democracy as empathy,” Mr. MacLeod said. A dose of empathy is especially needful in the United States, where understanding between Trump and Clinton supporters — not to mention the nearly 100 million voters who stayed home — has broken down.
The most dangerous threat posed by President Trump and his European allies does not lie in any single executive order or diplomatic crisis, but in their barren and cynical view of community. Sometimes I still worry that they are right: Maybe our prejudices and tribes are our most essential features, never to change. We have no choice but to hope that they are wrong.
Molly Worthen is the author, most recently, of “Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism,” an assistant professor of history at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and a contributing opinion writer.