The following essay was presented as part of the day-long conference “Democracy in Trouble?” at the University of Pennsylvania’s Andrea Mitchell Center for the Study of Democracy. As the post-Cold War democratic order is straining under the dual threat of authoritarian and exclusionary movements on the national level and transnational oligarchic networks, the goal of the conference was to take account of the different facets and causes behind these developments. Originally published on the Mitchell Center’s website, these pieces are also natural fits for Public Seminar’s Vertical “Liberal Democracy in Question.”
Democracy is in trouble, or so we are told. In this essay I argue that the crisis of democracy as we know it — which has come to be symbolized by Trump or Brexit — is a sign of its vitality as a normative ideal. People the Western world over resent, distrust, and sometimes rebel against their political personnel and institutions precisely because these institutions fail to deliver the promise of democracy: people’s power. The silver lining of otherwise disenchanting events is that they tap into an obvious desire to regain control and wrest power from run-away elites, seen as no longer responsive to, and responsible for, the wishes of the population.
It is misguided to reject democracy in response to recent events. All in all, we simply don’t know what a genuine democracy is capable of. The only two versions we’ve experimented with so far are fifth and fourth century BC Athens and the various versions of electoral democracy we’ve iterated since the eighteenth century. But Classical Athens was profoundly exclusionary (of women and slaves among others) and in some ways too direct, allowing for oligarchs to take over the Assembly and bring down the democracy twice. And today’s democracies are so imperfectly representative that they generate in turn authoritarian and populist backlashes that also bring up the risk of tyranny. We can do better.
Democracy is, in theory, the only regime type that empowers us all equally. Why is that still worth defending today? For one thing, it makes us smarter. In the face of uncertainty, a fundamental circumstance of politics, we are better off, as a collective, giving everyone an equal right to speak up and thus a chance to contribute a possibly crucial argument, perspective, or piece of information — no matter who they are, what they look like, how articulate they sound, or how well they do on standard political science quizzes. Including all on equal terms in deliberation about our collective fate is, in that sense, smarter than any alternative decision-making process.
By contrast, regimes that exclude all, or even just subsets of their population, condemn themselves to the risk of blind spots, that is, the risk of missing important arguments, information, and perspectives from the excluded sectors of society. This might not matter in the short or even medium run, if the environment is sufficiently stable and the regime is lucky. But, in the long run and on average, a regime that taps all the brains of its population, as much as it can, is bound to outperform a regime that excludes too many of them (Landemore 2013).
Of course, involving all at all times, especially in mass commercial societies where citizens are busy with other pursuits, is not possible. We need representative schemes of governance, that is, delegation of decision-making power to a subset of the citizenry. Even Classical Athens, which counted only around 30,000 (male) citizens, depended on proto-representative forms of governance, whereby a few made decisions on behalf of the many. But the need to delegate power does not have to mean restricting the pool of potential representatives to a narrow subset of the population. In a democracy, the status of representative should be open to all. Additionally, the deliberations of representatives should remain open to the input of the larger population. Only then do we ensure that all the relevant information, perspectives, and arguments make it into the deliberation preceding the decision-making that ultimately binds us all.
How should we, then, choose democratic representatives? The Greeks used lotteries. This is why Aristotle defined democracy as “ruling and being ruled in turn.” We moderns, when reinventing democracy in the eighteenth century, chose elections. The argument at the time was that elections transfer consent and thus legitimacy to the rulers and, consequently, their choices. The presence of consent, on the egalitarian basis of “one person, one vote,” is supposed to give electoral regimes their democratic credentials.
But elections are ultimately an aristocratic selection mechanism, which depends on the principle of “distinction.” Elections only empower those who stand out socially in the eyes of most. Elections cause an oligarchic drift that it is hard for democratic regimes to resist. This is why the Greeks never used them to staff political offices. Even as the franchise has kept expanding and the restrictions on who can run for office have disappeared, access to power, in electoral democracies, remains limited to those who are either rich, well-connected, or sufficiently ambitious and talented to become either rich or well-connected. Democracy today, for most of us, means “being ruled” and almost never “ruling.”
As a result of this oligarchic drift built into their DNA, electoral democracies tend to suffer from the blind spots one would typically expect from oligarchic regimes. They ignore, among others, their poor, their young, their minorities of color, and the losers of economic policies like free trade or austerity measures. This is so because these people rarely make it to positions of elected power (or any power at all). Yet if they are not in the room where laws and policies get deliberated on and made, not only do their interests fail to be taken into account, but, even if they are taken into account, such interests are not as likely to be served properly, for lack of the proper first-hand perspective applied to explaining and promoting them. In the US, these blind spots of electoral regimes have harmed the welfare of the African-American community since the birth of American democracy and, more recently, the welfare of the working class since the rise of neo-liberalism in the 1980s.
This elitist bias of electoral democracy cannot be easily fixed and may only get worse with time. Unfortunately, when things become too bad — when minorities are neglected for too long, when majorities themselves start to feel too great of a disconnect between what they want and what elites get them — there is a risk that ancient Greeks were also familiar with: the demagogue. While the demagogue promises to fight the elites and return power to the masses, he — it’s usually a he — often ends up bringing down the democracy itself. As Plato foresaw it, democracy is always at risk of becoming tyranny.
What can be done to prevent this transformation? The temptation, in some quarters, is to have less democracy; to add further checks and balances; to insulate certain policy areas from majoritarian preferences and hand over political power to impartial and knowledgeable experts, at the national or supra-national level. Looking to the well-run models of China and Singapore, or to courts and independent agencies, some suggest various forms of meritocracy, technocracy, or “epistocracy.”
My view is that we need more democracy, not less. The flaws in our current democratic models come from their being excessively, rather than insufficiently, elitist and epistocratic. It is because electoral democracies only empower a fraction of their population that they fail to deliver good policies and, in turn, breed both authoritarian and populist backlashes. A genuine democracy would be open to all citizens equally and all the smarter as a result.
In my new book manuscript, I imagine and defend a new paradigm of democracy, which I call “open democracy.” In open democracy the exercise of power is as little gated as possible, even as it depends on representative structures to make it possible. Open democracy thus uses various non-electoral forms of democratic representation, including lottocratic representation, based on random selection; self-selected representation, based on self-selection; and liquid-representation, which is based on vote delegation and theoretically renders accessible to more people the status of elected representative.
In addition to being differently representative, the legislative power, in open democracy, remains open to the input of all ordinary citizens, thus ensuring that no relevant idea, argument, or information goes wasted. This can be rendered possible, for example, via the existence of crowdsourcing platforms where citizens can submit their ideas and engage their representatives.
What would an open democracy based on different forms of non-electoral yet democratic representation look like? Much more research and small-scale experimentation must be conducted before this question can be answered with any confidence. My guess is that it would look a lot more like an inclusive and technologically empowered version of Classical Athens (with, e.g., a central all-purpose randomly selected body regularly re-authorized by referendum and constantly open to popular input via online platforms) than the dysfunctional electoral democracies we live in.
Hélène Landemore is Associate Professor of Political Science at Yale University.