No, Bethlehem Does Not Have a “Participatory Democracy”

This was a mighty strange comment from Al Wirth:

“We’ve had a 50 percent attrition rate [since the start of the meeting] and I don’t think that’s a good model for participatory democracy,” said Al Wirth, a Lehigh University politics professor and a member of the Sierra Club who said he opposed single hauler for environmental reasons.

I suppose that wouldn’t be so good for a participatory democracy, but that’s fine because Bethlehem doesn’t have a participatory democracy, it has a representative democracy.

If people think Bethlehem’s city charter should be changed to remake local government institutions for participatory democracy, they can try to build support for that idea, but that is not the system of government that exists now. It’s weird that Al Wirth wants to hold the city to the standards of a political system that the city does not have, and does not claim to have.

In a representative democracy, voters elect representatives whose values they share, those representatives do their best to become experts on the issues, and then they vote based on their expert knowledge of the issues. Voters are free to try to persuade the representatives to adopt their views, but the key feature of representative democracy is that the only direct channel for voter participation is elections. On the days that are not Election Day, voters only have indirect tools like persuasion.

That’s all just a long-winded way of saying that people should disabuse themselves of the expectation that just because people bring 100 partisans out to a meeting, that participatory democracy standards should kick in and politicians have to vote for what the 100 partisans want. Expecting to impose the preferences of 100 people on 76,000 people is also a terrible approximation of participatory democracy standards, but it doesn’t matter because that’s not the form of government Bethlehem has.


  1. Again, there has been no public support whatsoever to go to one hauler. None. Zero. Nilch.

    The only “support” is poorly worded survey with its own flaws. As much as you like it, that’s only because it supports your view. If it supported the other side, you’d be on the issue of its flaws just as the opposition is.

    Also remember that this is coming up not because people are unhappy but because the city needs revenue sources.

    Face it – politicians listen to those who speak up.

  2. “Bethlehem doesn’t have a participatory democracy, it has a representative democracy.”

    I’ve witnessed repeatedly you advocating this excuse. Your view of the world is people should vote for 2, 4 or 6 year terms. Then just sit on our asses. Never question . Accept whatever comes their way until the next election because we live in a so-called “representative democracy”.

    By example– If Egyptian citizens legally elect a leader, who then decides to elect himself to become a dictator, they should all shut the hell up and take whatever comes till the next election (if one even comes again), right?

    Your remarks encourage public apathy. If this is how the under 40 crowd approaches ever encroaching government over the rights of a say in the policies of this country we’re screwed. Your contention that, politicians “do their best to become experts on the issues” is so naive that it is laughable. Any idiot can elected. There’s no resume nor educational requirement. There is no extraordinary wisdom endowed on those who hold office. Half these guys couldn’t get a job in the private sector. If you put 100% of your faith in them, you deserve what you get. Representative democracy only goes so far until it no longer is “representative”.

    My faith in the continued success of this government lies in people who (unlike yourself) do not relinquish themselves subservient to those who are granted the right to hold office. Those who among us who don’t feel that we have to grovel to be heard by those whom WE elected to office. Those who challenge leaders who may not hold our best interests. Thank goodness you’re voice doesn’t speak for what I believe are the majority.

    Quite frankly I find myself questioning why I even waste my time responding to your posts. Your blog has no more significance then mine except for the four who regularly leave comments. So now you have five who know you exist. Change the world!

  3. Jon Geeting says:

    To be clear – I am not in any way saying that elections are the be-all end-all of political action, or that people should shut up and accept whatever politicians do between elections. People need to build organized support for the issues they care about, and work through political parties to hand those issues off to candidates for office.

    The scope for political action in a representative democracy is huge. It’s just indirect action, at least in states/cities without ballot initiatives – citizens don’t vote directly on the issues, but there’s all kinds of stuff you can do to persuade politicians to vote your way, or persuade them that you can jeopardize their reelection chances if they don’t vote your way.

  4. Jon Geeting says:

    The poll showed plenty of support for single hauler, and very little opposition. It’s true that I’d be arguing for single hauler even if the poll showed it was unpopular, because I think politicians should do what they think is right, not what’s popular. Fortunately for my position, the poll showed a large majority wouldn’t mind if the city changed its trash market.

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