💊 How institutional imagination can animate high-energy democracy

Mary Murphy argues that the recovery of democracy is contingent upon enabling participation and recovering trust. To achieve 'high-energy democracy', we need political and institutional imagination to develop political institutions capable of addressing ecosocial challenges – including sustainability and equality

A high-energy democracy engages citizens in imaginative dialogue. It requires organisational openness in rich forms of participatory and deliberative democracy. Political science and political sociology must find imaginative ways to contribute to the reform of political institutions, to make them resilient to contemporary societal challenges.

Contemporary social challenges

These social challenges, as characterised by Matthew Thompson, include inequality and polarisation; economic insecurity; consumer debt; stress and mental illness. They also include precarity and rising underemployment; disruption by robots and automation; climate breakdown, ecological catastrophe and extinction; and rising populism and neo-fascism.

Such challenges require big, imaginative ideas about the direction of travel needed to surmount them. We need capacity and policy imagination to identify the small first steps, and ways to encourage society along that journey. The relationship between mobilisation and democratic institutions is key. Institutional democracy must deepen and widen the means of participation.

Transformative and traditional democratic power

All pathways to high-energy democracy require two dimensions: more democracy (equalising structures) and more mobilised citizens (agentic power). In high-energy democracies, citizens are highly engaged. Their political institutions are highly responsive to citizens’ input. Institutions also enable significant and diverse methods of inclusive participation, thus developing and fostering trust. The type of transformative social change needed to match societal challenges requires imagination, ideas and language, through mobilisation and new forms of transformative power.

In high-energy democracies, political institutions are highly responsive to citizens' input, enabling significant and diverse methods of inclusive participation

High-energy democracy

Such transformative mobilisation needs to coalesce with traditional forms of elite democratic power and with strong local, regional and national state capacity, leadership and implementation processes. Political opportunity structures and policy processes in democratic institutions need to translate into a high-energy democracy.

Institutional mechanisms can include referenda and plebiscites, citizens’ forums and assemblies, recall policies, proportional electoral systems, reducing the voting age to 16, gender and ethnic political candidate quotas, citizen education, and strong supports for free media and civil society.

The importance of institutions

Institutions are ‘the formal and informal rules, norms, precedents, and organisational factors that structure behaviour’. As humanly devised constraints and enablers, they structure our political, economic and social interactions. We should not underestimate them. They influence our opportunities to be and do what we value, while also enabling and constraining our agency. And they can unequally impact on different social groups, often exacerbating social divisiveness.

Institutions influence our opportunities to be and do what we value, while also enabling and constraining our agency

We need new institutions with capacity to promote new norms, or revive old ones, to counter behaviours and beliefs that maintain myths of individualism, competition, consumption and selfishness. All these are values inconsistent with a balanced ecosocial settlement capable of meeting societal challenges by integrating ecological and social goals into the same policy tool(s).

Enabling institutions can creatively balance reciprocity, freedom and our collective interdependence. Local institutions are vital in reimagining work and care, in enabling or facilitating autonomy, and in facilitating collaborative work through a culture of co-production, collaboration and participation.

Imagination needed to improve social institutions

The health of democracy depends on citizens' active participation. However, motivation to participate requires political imagination to identify what might or can be won democratically. It also requires trust that political institutions can deliver what has been democratically agreed. Society needs to explore solutions from the perspectives of history, sociology, anthropology, geography, philosophy and religion, as well as political science, to improve our social institutions, especially the political ones.

Society has always (re)imagined political institutions

Anthropology and archaeology informed David Graeber and David Wengrow’s assessment that the freedom to re-invent ‘us’, individually and collectively, is what makes us human. According to their research, society has always, and still does, experiment with diverse forms of social organisation. People ‘give to’ and ‘receive from’ society. But they also ‘judge’ and have capacity for democracy and for political struggle.

Martha Nussbaum identifies imagination as an essential need. Deliberating about how to live together is intrinsic to the human capacity for self-creation and self-determination. Anthropological possibilities for forms of social organisation include collective and communal, as well as authoritarian models of power and decision-making.

Learning from the dawn of history

Graeber and Wengrow describe how many remote forager ancestors were bold experimenters. From one time of year to another, these ancestors broke apart and reassembled societies at different scales, in radically different forms, with different value systems. While diverse, a common tendency was constant alteration and awareness of diverse social and political possibilities. With such institutional flexibility, no social order was fixed or immutable; all were designed to be dismantled.

For our ancient ancestors, there was often seasonal variation in determining where on the political spectrum societies decided to be. This is applicable in contemporary contexts, too

Societies could step outside the boundaries of an institutional structure and reflect about its role, purpose, and relevance. They could make and unmake the political worlds in which they lived. There was often a seasonal variation in determining where on the political spectrum societies consciously decided to be. This is a possibility now openly discussed in the context of living with the seasonally endemic Covid-19 or with the seasonal impacts of global warming.

A plea for political imagination

Alternatives need not be highly developed as policy blueprints or detailed maps. However, we do need to imagine and articulate them inclusively, and have them ready as political possibilities before crises emerge. Our social and political imagination provides compass points; our institutional or programmatic imagination can articulate the first steps of travel.

Lessons point to the importance of framing alternatives in constructive, offensive rather than defensive language capable of mobilising a wide range of actors. Uniting rather than dividing society offers hope – as does being ‘for’ rather than ‘against’. The importance of who articulates alternatives underscores the need for institutions that support constructive leadership. Political struggle depends, in part, on the ability to imagine ‘alternative worlds’. The greatest poverty we should fear is poverty of imagination.

💊 Seventh in a Loop series examining how political scientists, and citizens, can take practical steps to strengthen democracy

This article presents the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the ECPR or the Editors of The Loop.


photograph of Mary Murphy
Mary Murphy
Professor, Department of Sociology, Maynooth University

Mary's research interests are ecosocial welfare, gender, care and social security, globalisation and welfare states, and power and civil society.

An active advocate for social justice and gender equality, she was appointed to the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission (2013–2017) and is currently a member of the Council of State in Ireland.

Creating an Ecosocial Welfare Future by Mary Murphy

Creating an Ecosocial Future
Policy Press, May 2023

the Irish Welfare State in the 21st Century Mary Murphy

The Irish Welfare State in the 21st Century: Challenges and Changes
Edited with Fiona Dukelow, Palgrave, 2016

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