The classical theory of participatory democracy is found in the writing of Rousseau and John Stuart Mill. Rousseau’s theory depends upon the participation of every individual citizen in political decision-making. The relationship between citizens is one of interdependence, such that each individual is equally dependent upon all the others viewed collectively as sovereign. Participation is important not only in decision-making, but also as a way of protecting private interests and ensuring good government. For Mill, as for Rousseau, participation has an educative function for citizens.
Popular democratic government is Mill’s ideal polity, in which participatory institutions foster active citizenship and a public spirited character. This is the mechanism through which the individual is made to take public interest into account and to make decisions guided by the idea of the common good, rather than by his own selfish interest. Thus, democratic institutions-especially local ones-are “a school of political capacity”.
In large and complex societies, direct participatory democracy is clearly impossible. Nevertheless, contemporary democratic theorists-such as Carole Pateman and Benjamin Barber-have argued in favour of participatory or “strong” democracy, in which the ordinary citizen is more fully involved in decision-making processes than is possible within the limits of representative democracy.
This could take the form of strengthening local democracy, so that citizens are involved in community affairs and social movements. Advocates of participatory democratic generally follow Mill in attaching importance to civic education a way of creating a more active and politically engaged citizenry. Above all, they believe that political participation is central to the good life for human beings and that it helps to restrain the abuse of power by public officials.