"We do not learn from experience, we learn from reflecting on experience." -John Dewey
One way to look at a functioning democracy is to describe how different stakeholder groups, or people with a keen personal interest in an issue, get their needs addressed by the government. Stakeholders do this in several ways. For example, they might run for office, try to elect someone to represent their interests, join a protest, participate in a public hearing, vote on a referendum, contribute to a political party or special interest group, and any number of other activities.
We tend to assume that stakeholders always act in their rational self-interest, but quite often they do not.
Sometimes people strongly identify with political values that contradict their material interests, as when certain conservative Americans protest health care reforms that could actually help protect them and their families. In this instance, a personal value (let’s say, self-reliance) may override a material need (health care). Although this might not be “irrational” in the everyday sense of the word (lacking any rhyme or reason), it’s irrational in its economic sense; in economics, all rational decisions prioritize material concerns.
Stakeholders might also act against their self-interest if they’ve been co-opted. Co-optation/co-option happens when stakeholders’ efforts are diverted from their original purpose to a new one. For example, in environmental policy in Taiwan, government and industry have long been in league together to prioritize economic growth over other concerns. Since martial law lifted in July of 1987, more groups with a stake in their natural environment have protested industry pollution and expansion. In response, industry has wooed local government officials with promises that they and their constituents will benefit from the spoils of economic growth. Polluting industries regularly give money to these officials to put toward infrastructure, community groups and activities, and to put directly into their pockets. Often, community members are essentially paid off to silence their criticism of industry activity. In other words, their original intent to preserve their environment is replaced by their desire to satisfy immediate economic needs. This is a case of co-optation, and as you can see, it is not as simple as people acting in direct contradiction to all of their material interests (since they sacrifice long-term environmental interests for short-term economic interests).
Co-optation is a big problem for advocates of democracy who live in a system of hegemonic power. Rather than simply coercing people to act against their interests, co-optation achieves the same goal without raising too many eyebrows. It is a more subtle form of power play. And although giving people economic bribes is not incredibly subtle, persuading people to buy into political ideals that preserve a particular hegemonic order…well, how diabolical.
I don’t mean to say that all conservative skeptics of health care reform are co-opted by, for instance, insurance industry lobbyists. That might be going too far. However, it is important to realize that all of us, as stakeholders in particular issues, are susceptible to co-optation by several different means.
And if that’s the case, if we cannot be sure that all participants in a democracy are able to lobby government to address their authentic needs (leaving aside, for the moment, the difficulty of determining these “authentic” needs), then there must be another supplementary criteria to guide our policy decisions. This criteria could be a set of priorities, for instance, human health over economic development; at the very least, industry activity that negatively impacts local health could be subject to sanction. This actually happens, but to different degrees in different countries and with different penalties (some of which may not be very severe). In any event, this criteria would ultimately be upheld or changed by the political groups that come to power (unless they were written into the constitution), so again we’re faced with the problem of hegemonic power in a democracy.