A response to Cody Hipskind, part 3 of 3

Cody Hispkind’s post is here. The previous parts of my response are here and here.

Political activism under a democratic system

A major tenet of democratic ideology is that people are the best representatives of their own interests: when provided sufficient opportunity, each person and each group of people are best able to understand and express their own values and ideas and the actions that should be taken in order to promote these values and ideas. This tenet is in contrast to “republican” ideology which shares with democratic ideology the idea that everyone’s interests should count equally, but asserts that some people (“a natural aristocracy”) are best qualified to determine what those interests are and how they should be pursued, and therefore those people should be in charge.

Elections are a republican, anti-democratic mechanism: they empower an elite to determine public policy for others (whether this elite may be called a “natural aristocracy” is a matter of taste, I guess). That elite should be able to represent itself, the democratic tenet asserts, but is quite unlikely to represent the majority of the people who are very different from it. Sortition, through the process of statistical sampling, creates a body that by representing itself would represent the public at large.

However, the capacity for self-representation is not a spontaneous, automatic capacity. Getting a group of people (or a single person, for that matter) to the state where it is able to represent its own interests effectively is not a trivial matter. From an institutional standpoint, there are clearly some preconditions that need to be met: there need to be enough resources at the disposal of the group so that reliable information can be gathered. There needs to be enough time to discuss matters, determine an agenda, fashion proposals, debate them, amend them, vote on them, evaluate the effect of the adopted policy, reconsider the matter and repeat the procedure over time.

But institutional arrangements are only a part of a well-functioning democratic society. A democratic society needs to adopt certain attitudes and habits that may be termed “a democratic mindset”: an open, critical minded attitude toward established and new ideas, a free flow of ideas and information, tolerance, solidarity and inclusiveness, etc. The more firmly established the democratic mindset in society the more can a sampled group of people be expected to reach informed and considered decisions that reflect their own ideas and interests.

In a democratic society, political activism should take an important part in making sure that a democratic mindset is maintained and nurtured. Activism should primarily involve daily, routine peer-to-peer actions which are by their nature democratic and which aim to affect popular opinion, rather than mass action which is by nature oligarchical and aim to affect the power elite. Mass actions should only result when the system is dysfunctional: when a crisis occurs or when a chronic problem is left unaddressed.

A major avenue for democratic activism could be the production of citizen controlled, state and community funded democratic media. Theoretical political education as well as dissemination of politically-relevant information through a multitude of media channels is a much more thorough and democratic method of political organization than the emotional whirlwind of campaign mobilization. The use of electoral politics as a vent for political and moral energy is in fact an infantilizing, repressive, apathy-inducing device. In a democratic society, the lack of the immediate symbolically gratificatory act of voting, which in fact is often a prelude to disappointment, would not be a reason to avoid becoming part of the political life. It is the prospect of speaking up, or acting, to promote a just cause, to influence your peers and influence society for good, the should motivate citizens of a democratic society.

3 Responses

  1. What is being discussed here is the public choice problem, which holds that those most affected by public decisions will invest the most to influence them.
    Sortition is mainly an attempt to make it more difficult to influence decisions by dispersing the deciders, the choice of whom can be influenced by money donated to the electoral campaign process. Money can still be invested in persuasion of individual deciders, but the dispersal is critical. That has historically been the main argument for it. It is not a perfect solution, but a great improvement. That should be the focus of kleroterians.


  2. I mostly agree with the thrust of what Yoram and Jon have written above. But i do have a few quibbles. As Yoram notes the skills and procedures for representing are not natural… and a prior truism is that a person is the best JUDGE of their own interests (rather than representative) the old saying). They certainly may be WRONG about what they think their interests are, but the key is that they don’t have any inherent bias AGAINST themselves that would systematically harm them (as may be the case with an aristocracy judging the interests of others). The old saying “Only the wearer knows where the shoe pinches” has value.

    As for mass mobilization, In addition to being subject to elite manipulation, this is inherently based on threatening, rather than rationality. A mobilized mass might fight for their rights, or to oppress a despised racial minority. Mass mobilization is like a raging fire, and not inherently “democratic.” When I am in a demonstration marching down a public street, and people start chanting “This is what democracy looks like!” I am sad they don’t recognize that, in fact “This is what a LACK of democracy looks like.” In an electoral system that lacks democracy, mobilizations are necessary… but they would no longer be needed or appropriate in a well-functioning democracy.


  3. Terry:> a prior truism is that a person is the best JUDGE of their own interests

    Yes, it’s important to realise that this is a truism, rather than an empirical observation. In Yoram’s case “a priori” would be more applicable than “a prior” on account of his reliance on deductive reasoning from self-evident propositions.


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