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Participatory Democracy versus Elitist Democracy: Lessons from Brazil (review)

From: Latin American Politics & Society
Volume 47, Number 1, Spring 2005
pp. 133-138 | 10.1353/lap.2005.0008

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Latin American Politics & Society 47.1 (2005) 133-138

William R. Nylen, Participatory Democracy versus Elitist Democracy: Lessons from Brazil. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003. Tables, figures, notes, appendixes, bibliography, index, 256 pp.; hardcover $45.

William Nylen's engaging and timely book assesses the value and viability of participatory democracy. Nylen focuses on the attempt by the Workers' Party (PT) to inject some measure of institutionalized popular participation into Brazil's traditionally elite-dominated local politics. His aim is not just to evaluate the PT's efforts in this direction (and at a critical moment when the party has recently won national power), but to disseminate the key lessons from its participatory experiments to progressive activists in the United States. The book's central conclusion is that the PT's experience with participatory democracy can and should be replicated in the United States, which, like Brazil, suffers from various ills of elitist democracy.

The first two chapters outline these problems in each country. Like many democracies today, both countries face falling rates of participation in civic associations, lack of trust in government and politicians, and a general tuning out of public life. While a minority of citizens remain active in nonelectoral forms of participation, their activism is divorced from the "well-entrenched official politics" that is the exclusive preserve of "political parties, politicians, and their socioeconomic elite supporters" (9). Accordingly, what the United States needs, and what the PT provides in its participatory local governments in Brazil, is a bridge between the small group of nonelite activists and the elitist brand of official political institutions. Nylen thus does not argue for replacing representative democracy with participatory democracy, but sees the latter as a complementary corrective with the potential to reverse the tide of civic disengagement and break down the walls of elitist democracy. Recognizing that participatory democracy is not a panacea, Nylen still claims that it could serve as "a blueprint for a necessary democratic revival in the twenty-first century" (12).

Critical to this revitalizing potential of participatory processes is the idea of empowerment. Communitarians and New Leftists (both called Neo-Tocquevillians by Nylen) advocate increasing the opportunities to participate in public decisionmaking because participation produces empowerment for previously excluded, disengaged, or underserved nonelites. By empowerment, Nylen means "the transformation of an individual's prior mentality of fatalism and dependency on 'higher ups' and/or an active disgust regarding all things political, to a new sense of personal responsibility to struggle against systemic exclusion and domination, and a belief in one's efficacy to be successful in doing so" (27-28). While some scholars of empowerment see it as arising spontaneously as civil society reacts to particular historical junctures (like transition periods), other Neo-Tocquevillians -- including Nylen -- argue that political leaders can take deliberate administrative and legislative steps to stimulate participation, empowerment, and civic engagement.

The active pursuit of empowerment through participatory democracy became possible for the PT and the other parties of the New Left in Latin America with the wave of democratization that swept the region in the 1980s. Nylen chronicles the rise of the PT from its founding in 1980 through its steady progress in winning elections (especially at the municipal level) to its victory in the 2002 presidential race, paying particular attention to its ideological commitment to democratizing democracy through popular participation and "inverting priorities" (that is, favoring the poor and excluded). He points out how the PT's experiences in local government contributed to its gradual moderation and, at the same time, provided the party with opportunities to put its ideology into practice.

During the 1990s, the PT's city administrations implemented several pro-poor participation programs, but the party's trademark became the orçamento participativo (OP, or participatory budget), which is now practiced in most of the 187 cities currently in PT hands. The OP consists of a series of meetings at different levels in which citizens deliberate over and vote on municipal spending priorities, particularly for new public works projects like paved roads, sewage systems, health clinics, and schools. At the neighborhood level, the meetings are open to all, and those who participate choose delegates to represent them at the regional...