A letter to Prof. Martin Gilens

Dear Prof. Gilens,

My name is Yoram Gat.

I recently became aware of your new paper “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens ” expanding on your previous work (“Inequality and democratic responsiveness”, 2005).

I see the findings of this work, as I presume you do, as confirming the widespread public sentiment, consistently measured in many opinion polls and expressed for example in the 2011 “Occupy” protests, that the American system does not represent the majority of Americans (“the 99%”). I also presume that the American system is not unique in this respect: 2011 has seen protest around the world reflecting similar sentiments in other societies governed by similar systems.

I am writing to you to inquire whether you propose any remedies to the situation, and to propose one such remedy and ask for your thoughts about it.

My understanding is that the non-representativity of government is inherent in the political system we are familiar with. This system is usually referred to as the “Western democratic system”, despite the fact that, as your findings confirm, it is not democratic at all but is in fact elitist or oligarchical. Do you support some sort of reform that you think would increase the responsiveness of policy to public interests? Again, my understanding is that the only way to do so – i.e., to democratize the system – is to move away from the most fundamental feature of the Western system – electoralism.

It is a basic tenet of the Western political dogma that elections are a democratic – the democratic – institution. In fact, they are the opposite. They are an oligarchical institution producing a ruling elite that is very different from the typical citizen, and therefore holding a very different world view and serving very different interests.

The democratic alternative to the electoral system is sortition: selecting Congress as a statistical sample of the population using standard random sampling techniques. A Congress that is statistically representative of the population (along every conceivable dimension: education, income, gender, race, ideology, age, religion, etc.) can be expected to pursue public policy that would reflect the world views and interests of the 99%. This would create a truly responsive government, a democratic government.

I would be very interested in your opinion on this matter,

Best regards,

8 Responses

  1. nothing new in his research. It follows the theory first advanced by Robert Dahl, namely, that the US is not a democracy but a Polyarchy. In terms of remedies, many have been advanced by Chomsky, among others, and amount to, basically, greater activism and greater grass root political involvement. http://www.chomsky.info/talks/20130617.htm


  2. Have we thoroughly discussed the question: What protection is there against the potential tyranny of a statistically-representative legislative body?
    In the tripartite system the courts adjudicate minority rights. But that adjudication rests upon the assent of the majority.
    I know this is an old question.
    One response is…’deliberative-ness’. (i.e., time and money for the representatives to avoid knee-jerk initiatives or referenda).
    But … for example: eastern Ukraine at the moment; the U.S. South 150 years ago?


  3. Great letter Yoram and I look forward to the reply. I can answer Common Lots concern about “protection against a potential tyranny.” First off I doubt a group of average citizens would ever do such a thing but given there is a mathematical chance they might, then we should gradually implement sortition. The first phase which could last say 6 years would leave the elected body in place and but create a new chamber picked at random. The new chamber could review and reject bad legislation that does not meet the needs of the 99%. I think after 6 years of spectacular results, we would reduce and eliminate elected bodies in phase 2.


  4. Hi Andy,


    > nothing new in his research. It follows the theory first advanced by Robert Dahl, namely, that the US is not a democracy but a Polyarchy.

    First, I think this work is not directly comparable to that of Dahl. This work is empirical and quantitative, while Dahl’s was mainly theoretical and qualitative.

    Regarding Dahl, I think he stood out among mainstream political scientists for his relative clarity and rigor. Yet, even he was far from free from obfuscation and the conventions of his profession and as a result his work does not present a realistic picture of electoral system. His usage of the term polyarchy, for example, has shifted considerably over the years. I think Gilens in the paper discussed above gets much closer to the heart of matters (again, taking a quite different methodological path).

    > In terms of remedies, many have been advanced by Chomsky, among others, and amount to, basically, greater activism and greater grass root political involvement.

    I have great appreciation for Chomsky, but on this topic I don’t think he provides a satisfactory analysis. Saying that there should be “greater activism and greater grass root political involvement” is utopian unless a realistic path for achieving those goals is offered. Furthermore, it is unlikely in my mind that those goals, even if attained, would result in better government. This is no more than wishful thinking that ignores the problems inherent in mass politics. See my posts on this topic: here, here and in other posts and comments on this blog.


  5. David,

    I doubt that there is much to add to the old “tyranny of the majority” discussion. Yes – any body with power can abuse that power. But unless we assume a-priori that the masses are morally corrupt while the elites are virtuous, then there is no reason to think that if that body is unrepresentative (“the courts”) then it will be less abusive than if the body is representative.


  6. Thanks, Kevin. Unfortunately, in my experience most such letters remain unanswered, but I remain hopeful.


  7. […] the general equation between ‘electoralism’ and oligarchical rule claimed by Yoram Gat in his open letter to Professor Gilens, for the following […]


  8. Is “greater activism and greater grass root political involvement”, as mentioned by Andy Mont, a way to a real democracy? I am afraid that it could be rather a way to creating an elite of a specific kind. Activism in a real dêmokratia would aim to convince the ordinary citizens about some issue. In a polyarchy the aim is to convince them, if possible, but rather to convince the more powerful lobbies or elite groups; or to constitute a new elite group. The last temptation is natural enough for a militant group, the recruitment of which implies a kind of selection. The reaction of an activist group to a suggestion of sortition is a revealing test. For sortition, those “idealists-optimists” who are sure to be able, in a true deliberation, to convince the ordinary citizens, as their cause is so evidently good. Against sortition, those “realists-elitists” who think the one way is to create a new elite with good ideas and a big share of power.

    Liked by 1 person

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