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The University of Southampton
Centre for Democratic Futures

Mending Democracy: Democratic Repair in Disconnected Times

Published: 29 April 2021
Carolyn, Selen and John

On 20th April 2021 the Centre for Democratic Futures hosted a discussion of Mending Democracy: Democratic Repair in Disconnected Times with authors Prof Carolyn Hendriks (Australian National University), Dr Selen Ercan (University of Canberra), and Dr John Boswell (University of Southampton), and featured contributions from distinguished readers Claire Mellier, Dr Oliver EscobarDr Marta Wojciechowska as well as from a global audience of democracy practitioners and academics.

Mending Democracy proposes a novel connective approach to democratic reform. In addition to a critical assessment of cutting-edge debates in deliberative democracy, it presents three rich empirical case studies. They include a citizens’ movement seeking to strengthen connections with their elected representative in the federal electorate of Indi in Victoria, Australia; the Knitting Nanas against Gas organising performative protests against coal seam gas mining in New South Wales; and the actions of patient groups and agency administrators in supporting patient welfare in the British healthcare system. The empirical cases uncover empowering and transformative modes of political engagement that are vital for democratic renewal. The diverse actors discussed in this book actively experiment with ways to improve and engage with conventional institutions of representative democracy. Everyday practices of democratic mending encompass crucial systemic repair work and strengthen the integrity of the democratic fabric in ways that are yet to be fully acknowledged by scholars and practitioners of democratic reform.

Each of the three reviewers praised the book and raised important questions and considerations resulting from their reading.

Claire Mellier approached the book from her perspective as a highly experienced specialist in participation, systems change and sustainability. She highlighted the successful connection between theoretical accounts of deliberation and the empirical analysis of activities and dynamics embedded within political and everyday practices. Mending Democracy resonated with her experience as facilitator; Mellier stressed that participants in deliberative spaces are keen to engage, hear and listen to fellow citizens rather than win an argument. She raised important methodological questions regarding the impact of participant selection on diversity and inclusion in democratic processes.

Oliver Escobar (University of Edinburgh) drew on his extensive work on social and democratic innovation with practitioners and academics. Escobar stressed the book’s novelty in integrating interpretive policy analysis and sociology of practices with a focus on the agency and work of backstage practices among practitioners and public administrators. Those actors often feel unseen and neglected by academics and high-level decision makers. For Escobar, the book has embedded in it a politics of visibility inviting us to take another look at those ordinary actors building bridges. He pointed out that the book highlights collective rather than individual or institutional political action.

Marta Wojciechowska is a political theorist at King’s College London with expertise in the relationship between political ideals and social practices of democracy and inclusion, especially in cities. Wojciechowska brought a critical theoretical perspective to the book and praised the authors for widening the remit  of connections in deliberative systems by moving beyond narrow foci on transmissions from public to empowered spaces. Wojciechowska highlighted the important argument made in the book that seemingly mundane activities are important for democratic outcomes. She raised important questions about inclusion and inequality and urged the authors to approach political participation from an intersectional perspective that acknowledges that actors vary with respect to access to resources.

The authors enjoyed engaging with the comments emphasising that expectations should remain realistic and that the book’s examples represent overlooked sites of innovation whose potential is significant, offering more concrete terms with which to think about deliberative democratic systems.

Mending Democracy

Democratic Repair in Disconnected Times with authors, distinguished readers and democracy practitioners and academics.

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