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What’s Behind the “Crisis of Democracy”?

According to the conventional wisdom, the biggest threats to liberal democracy today come from abstract groups of people, with one side blaming "elites" and the other decrying the poor judgement of the masses. Yet by ignoring the evolving role of political institutions, this dichotomy misses what is really going on.

Donald Trump is out of the White House, but nobody in their right mind would say that the world has been made safe for democracy. Trump’s return cannot be ruled out, and even if the man spends the rest of his days as the grifter cum internet troll that he is, the United States (and the world) must deal with a thoroughly Trumpified Republican Party.

The GOP is now bent on undermining US democracy through voter suppression and by subverting the results of elections that do not go its way. And the US is hardly alone in facing assaults on its democracy. Brazil and India – two of the world’s largest democracies – are both governed by far-right populists; and within the European Union, Poland and Hungary are accelerating their descent into autocracy.

It is no surprise that there has been a boom of “crisis-of-democracy” books since Trump’s election in 2016. But are current threats to democracy being debated on the right terms?

Some observers do not hesitate to blame the people themselves. According to this view, which could have been recycled straight from late-nineteenth-century mass psychology, ordinary folk are generally irrational and easily seduced by demagogues making false promises, be they about the benefits of Brexit, or in the vein of phony “working-class conservatism” in the US.

Others, meanwhile, blame “elites” for our political malaise. This privileged cohort, it is said, encouraged a form of globalization that benefits only those who travel in business class. Within individual nation-states, these high-fliers increasingly constitute what some critics call an oligarchy.

Although these two diagnoses are diametrically opposed, they share a methodology focusing on groups of people – be it the many or the few. What is lacking is a focus on the institutions of liberal democracy, and on how changes to these in recent decades may be facilitating the rise of authoritarian populists. Only by understanding those developments can we begin to transform the system, not just as an anti-Trump quick fix, but as part of a deeper realization of democratic ideals.

VOTE OR VOICE?

Each of the three books under review makes an important contribution to that effort. Among them, Hélène Landemore’s is the most ambitious. A political theorist at Yale University, she advances a new model of what she calls “open democracy,” a scheme that breaks with two liberal-democratic institutions that are usually taken for granted: elections and political parties.

Landemore thinks it is wrong to assume that the form of “representative democracy” constructed in the eighteenth century is the only way to realize “people power” in the modern world. In her view, that model does nothing more than ask citizens to consent to decisions by elites. A better approach, she argues, would replace elected representative legislatures with “open mini-publics.” These randomly selected assemblies, also known as “sortition chambers” or “lottocracies” (as in, rule by those chosen by lot), could number from 150 to 1,000 citizens, and would allow people to exercise power directly.

In Landemore’s scheme, citizen assemblies would be tasked not only with agenda-setting but also, crucially, with lawmaking. Their proceedings would be conducted in the open (another meaning of “open democracy” beyond “open to the people”), and they would be connected to the broader society through “crowdsourcing platforms” and additional “deliberative forums.”

The practical model, here, is jury service, which also provides a philosophical justification for Landemore’s proposals. We already generally accept that amateurs can make good decisions if they are sufficiently open-minded and properly advised by experts in a structured deliberative process. Landemore hastens to point out that this approach is not a form of “direct democracy” or continuous mass participation. People selected for the assembly would be genuinely representative (as in a jury of one’s “peers”), but they also would form a kind of temporary elite, since it is they – not the rest of us – who ultimately would get to decide matters.

Landemore sees this kind of system as far superior to one dominated by powerful politicians, who almost always hail from, and respond most to, higher socio-economic strata. Her ideal is for people to represent others and then be represented in turn – a riff on Aristotle’s notion that the hallmark of a proper political association is taking turns at ruling and being ruled.

Ultimately, Landemore believes that the problem ailing democracies today is a feature of the system, not a bug. The real issue is not globalization, media-driven culture wars, or whatever other explanations the current conventional wisdom offers up. It is that there is a design flaw in any system of electoral democracy based on party competition. Such arrangements are intentionally elitist; they are meant to keep the people out – even literally (Landemore notes that parliament buildings are supposed to look intimidating).

Moreover, Landemore believes that elections create inequality as a matter of course, because they are necessarily discriminatory. Voters deem some candidates to be better than others, often based on criteria that are not related to any capacity to further the common good – charisma or wealth, for instance. In this system, political parties act as gatekeepers to the political process, reinforcing exclusion and – as if all this weren’t bad enough – creating internal oligarchies (a charge that is as old as political parties themselves).

The obvious objection to Landemore’s “open democracy” would seem to be that it is unrealistic. But she would point to plenty of examples of randomly selected citizens deliberating in productive ways. Recent case studies include citizen assemblies making decisions about same-sex marriage and abortion in Ireland; the “crowdsourced” constitution-making process in Iceland (though professional politicians eventually put a stop to this); regulations of snowmobiles in Finland (not a trivial issue, as those who have experienced Finnish winters know); and, most recently, France’s Citizens’ Convention on Climate, which concluded its deliberations in late June 2020 with 149 proposals for moving to a low-carbon economy.

A more subtle objection is that such deliberative bodies also can end up favoring the privileged, either because those who feel unqualified will abstain or because more educated and eloquent participants will dominate the debate. Landemore concedes that in the Icelandic and Finnish exercises, which she observed first-hand, educated males played a particularly prominent role. But she offers the remedy of “oversampling small, vulnerable minorities,” on the assumption that a “carefully curated” group will be less likely to become a free-for-all for big (usually male) egos.

The strength of Landemore’s proposal is that she takes equality much more seriously than do other conventional contributions to what critics might call the “democracy-defense industry.” All too often, these end up offering hollow reassurances that everything will be fine as long as the Trumps of the world can be kept at bay. While lottery selection does not ensure equality of influence (since the rhetorically skilled will always have a natural advantage), it does give all citizens an equal chance of being chosen to participate.

True, opportunities for bribery and corruption would not be eliminated entirely, because the lucky ones chosen might still be promised lucrative “work” after – and depending on – their service (just think of the sinecures with which Tea Party Republicans often end up). But a lottocracy nonetheless would be an advance from today’s revolving-door systems, wherein politicians and lobbyists constantly trade places.

SHORT STRAWS AND SHORTCOMINGS

But while Landemore has good arguments for her proposal’s feasibility, there are also well-known principled objections to it that she does not quite address. For starters, her system promises inclusion and openness, but it ultimately excludes all who have not been chosen in the process of random selection. In large countries, many people will never get a turn (indeed, serving would amount to winning the lottery).

Less obviously, a lottocracy might fail to fulfill one of the functions that elections reliably serve: the peaceful resolution of conflict through vote counting. If one accepts political realists’ argument that elections are always essentially conducted in the shadow of civil war, the counting process serves to demonstrate the relative strength of each conflicting party.

If this point seems abstract, consider the events of this past winter. The attack on the US Capital on January 6 was a reminder of how important it is that the losers in an election accept that they are outnumbered. That recognition gives them a reason not to engage in civil war. Since there will be another election within a set time frame, there is an incentive for everyone to keep working within the political system: there is always the hope that they can increase their numbers in the next round.

What on Earth are losers in a lottocracy supposed to do? At best, they might try to mobilize fellow citizens so as to influence future sortition assemblies – perhaps through the kind of “crowdsourcing” that Landemore gestures toward. But if mass persuasion becomes a common practice, it would be only a matter of time before the system gives rise to organized groupings – which is to say, to political parties.

Landemore is too sophisticated a thinker to assume that all political challenges have a single rational answer that is ultimately discoverable with enough deliberation. Yet, like other advocates of deliberative democracy (and lottocracy, in particular), she appears to have an underlying suspicion that political conflict and partisanship are irrational, or at least vaguely illegitimate, phenomena.

Obviously, political parties have plenty of faults of their own. But if one wants to replace them, one must explain how else their standard functions will be performed. Among the important roles played by organized parties are structuring political conflicts (furnishing what the French social theorist Pierre Bourdieu called a “vision of divisions”); aggregating interests; and providing individuals with cues about how to position themselves politically in the absence of in-depth consideration of every policy question that arises.

To her credit, Landemore is self-critical enough to recognize these issues. She sees the danger of creating new (albeit temporary) elites, and she does not rule out the re-appearance of political parties of some sort. To provide additional mechanisms for deliberation, she would also allow for referenda and citizen initiatives as default measures for losers who feel that lottocratic institutions have made a fundamentally wrong decision.

In any case, one need not go as far as abolishing elections to see that sortition chambers could play a useful role in situations where highly fraught moral issues need to be debated (as in Ireland’s abortion decision), or where conflicting parties need to set the terms of competition. That could apply to the shape of election districts, salaries for legislators, the overall size of parliaments, or any other issue where professional politicians have a conflict of interest. (In fact, the German government would benefit from this system, having failed to find a satisfactory plan on how to cut seats from the Bundestag, which is currently the largest democratic parliament in the world.)

IT’S ALL POLITICAL

Whatever concerns one might raise about Landemore’s proposed solutions, she certainly has identified a real problem. Armin Schäfer and Michael Zürn, two distinguished German political scientists, confirm as much in their own illuminating study. In The Democratic Regression, they, too, lament a “lack of openness” in today’s democratic political institutions. But they see this less as a design flaw in election-based systems, and more as the outcome of specific political developments in recent decades.

Schäfer and Zürn argue that the reasons for resurgent “authoritarian populism” today are distinctly political, rather than primarily “economic” or “cultural,” as the conventional wisdom would have it. Reinforcing Landemore’s own diagnosis, they show that parliaments have become much less responsive to the political preferences of less well-off citizens. In many democracies, the political chorus sings with an upper-class accent and is paid for by the wealthiest.

Given that MPs do seem to be very different kinds of people than the overwhelming majority of voters, it is no wonder that trust in parliaments has declined precipitously. Further compounding citizens’ sense of not being truly represented is the fact that many decisions have been taken away from parliaments altogether. As Schäfer and Zürn show, the role of so-called non-majoritarian institutions has increased enormously in recent decades. For example, between 1990 and 2008, central banks gained greater autonomy in 84 countries.

This insulation of elite decisionmakers skews political outcomes in a particular direction. According to Schäfer and Zürn, non-majoritarian institutions exhibit a “cosmopolitan bias,” promoting international rules, open markets, and individual rights. As a result, they tend to strengthen one side in what the authors view as an increasingly important conflict within liberal democracies: that between “cosmopolitanism” and “communitarianism.”

Schäfer and Zürn choose these terms consciously to avoid any normative asymmetries in the analysis. They note that there is nothing wrong with citizens valuing the nation as a political community and objecting to overly porous borders. The problem arises when communitarians do not feel properly represented in either parliaments or non-majoritarian institutions (which, according to Schäfer and Zürn, are dominated by “liberal globalists”). It is under these circumstances that they will turn to “authoritarian populism” as a form of protest.

Schäfer and Zürn define authoritarian populism as a set of substantive political positions that includes nationalism, a distrust of complicated democratic procedures, and a corresponding desire to implement the will of the majority – effectively understood as a homogeneous Volk (people) – as directly as possible. But in offering this description, they do not quite explain why communitarian preferences have taken an anti-democratic turn. Perhaps it is that authoritarian populists are not just communitarians trying to give the supposedly voiceless a voice, but, rather, unsavory political entrepreneurs who seek to deepen polarization by suggesting to citizens that their country is being taken away from them – a kind of existential challenge that might justify breaking democratic norms.

Schäfer and Zürn marshal strong empirical evidence – including plenty of statistics – to trace a larger trend that has featured too little in contemporary discussions of democracy’s troubles: the shrinking space for political decision-making at the level of the nation-state. When it comes to proposing solutions, however, their book is less convincing. They call for resisting the “temptation of technocracy,” trusting citizens more, reducing inequality, improving civic education and the public’s understanding of “complexity,” and reclaiming some control over non-majoritarian institutions. But they do not really explain how these well-meaning proposals are to be implemented.

Schäfer and Zürn’s most concrete suggestions are similar to Landemore’s. They support selecting citizens by lot to make policy, insisting that unless such assemblies have decision-making power, they will be dismissed as political placebos. Schäfer and Zürn also note that the role of experts in advising such bodies cannot be so large that it radically alters the results that the participants initially preferred. As Landemore puts it (borrowing an old adage), the experts should be on tap, but not on top.

TAKING EQUALITY SERIOUSLY

Unlike Landemore, Schäfer, and Zürn, French economist Julia Cagé has rather little patience for lottocracy. She argues that by excluding too many people who might be eager to participate, such schemes not only risk harming people’s interests; they also may deny citizens what Hannah Arendt called “public happiness.”

Cagé’s views on democratic participation might sound overly idealistic (one is reminded of Oscar Wilde’s quip that the problem with socialism is that it takes up too many evenings). Nonetheless, she offers strong support for the argument that lottocracy itself can end up appearing strangely elitist. Seeing plenty of mileage left in representative democracy as we know it, she would prefer that we stick with political parties and focus our efforts on realizing the full potential of universal suffrage. Hence, she opens her passionate, polemical, and ultimately optimistic essay with the observation that democracy does not exist and will still need to be invented.

But how does one do that? Like Landemore, Cagé urges us to take political equality seriously. Yet, for her, that means not abandoning the promise of giving everyone a free and equal voice in decision-making. To that end, she offers an array of intriguing suggestions for how to tweak existing institutions.

For example, Cagé proposes a fundamental reform of campaign finance. Political parties are not distant from the people by nature, she argues. Rather, they are made that way by depending too much on wealthy donors who face too few restrictions and too little competition. In France, political donations are even tax-deductible, creating a perverse situation in which the poor end up subsidizing the political preferences of the rich.

Picking up ideas from authors like legal theorist Bruce Ackerman and Democratic Representative Ro Khanna in the US, Cagé wants a system in which all citizens receive a publicly financed “democratic equality voucher” to spend on a candidate or party of their choice. But she takes the idea even further, proposing a “voucher for associational life” that could be used to support professional media organizations (of which ordinary citizens could also become shareholders) or civil-society groups.

Among other things, this instrument would help to reduce the power of philanthropists who get to pick pet projects in exchange for tax deductions. Moreover, spending a voucher doesn’t take too many evenings, whereas engaging in lottocratic deliberation most certainly does. Remember, the less well-off lack not only cash but also time.
In addition to putting the financing of democracy’s basic institutions back into the hands of citizens, Cagé wants to ensure more of an equal voice for generally under-represented groups. She is duly scandalized by the fact that people with working-class backgrounds constitute a mere 5% of British Members of Parliament, and only 3% of deputies in the French Assemblée Nationale. To correct for this imbalance, she suggests a “Mixed Assembly” in which gender and class parity are guaranteed.

Cagé demonstrates that democracy does not just need to be more deliberative (a goal apparently shared by French President Emmanuel Macron, who has called for a “Republic of Permanent Deliberation”). It also needs to be more descriptive in terms of mirroring different parts of society. Genuine representation of different socio-economic identities, in particular, sends a signal that the system is truly open to workers and the less educated.

Cagé’s manifesto to “reconquer democracy” is a treasure trove of institutional innovations. Her proposals do not always come with enough details, and some of them merit more philosophical justification than she gives them (for example, descriptive democracy is not so obviously an ideal). But, overall, her book, like Landemore’s, is effective in re-orienting the reader away from the short-term solutions peddled by what she calls democracy’s collapsologues. If we are serious about engaging with today’s threats to democracy, such attempts to rethink political basics are indispensable.

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