Landemore: Open Democracy, part 1

I have recently started reading Hélène Landemore’s book Open Democracy (2020, Princeton University Press). Having gone through the first two chapters, I find the book very useful and I highly recommend it. Despite its somewhat clichéd title, and despite the occasional bow toward the self-serving traditional Western theory of democracy, Landemore is in fact offering (it seems so far, I should say) a rather radical critique of the status quo and does not shy away from throwing some heavy punches at theorists who in one way or another defend oligarchical ideologies. In fact, Landemore presents – even if intermittently and obliquely – a thoroughgoing critique of the elections-based system that is not only better argued than, say, that of Van Reybrouck, but also more radical than his. I can’t think of a comparable book from a mainstream US political scientist. (Maybe Dahl’s A Preface to Political Theory?) The fact that Landemore, now at Yale, is originally French, may be playing a significant role.

Here is a first installment of my comments. I hope to have quite a few more posts discussing Open Demcoracy.

“Open Democracy”

To start: the title, “Open Democracy”. This does not bode well. Is there such a thing as a “closed democracy”? Is this making an implied assertion that our current system is a closed democracy, while we should be aiming at an open democracy? The term “open” has the odor of a buzzword (as in “open source”) – a feel good term which like “democracy” itself, or “people power”, could really mean anything.

On page 2 (I am reading the electronic version, so page numbers are approximate), when discussing what are supposedly historical examples of democracies, Landemore gives what seems like a definition of “open democracy”: a situation where “in theory”, any member of the political community “could access the center of power and participate in the various stages of decision-making. Citizens could literally walk into the public space to be given a chance to speak and be heard”. This is contrasted with the modern situation where “many have the feeling” of being “left out of the most important centers of political power, while the political personnel form an elite that is separate from them”.

This is rather weak. The notion of “a chance to speak and be heard” is amorphous. When I write a post on Equality-by-Lot, do I get a chance to speak and be heard? If not, what does this expression mean? On the other side of the contrast Landemore is drawing, the complaint of “having a feeling of being left out” is also problematic. Might this not just be the whine of a spoiled, entitled Western citizen who is never satisfied with things, no matter how good their life is? At best, it is subjective and says little about the characteristics of the Western system of government.

A page or two later, however, things appear a bit different. On page 3, Landemore rejects the standard argument that modern elections-based government is a necessary consequence of the scale of these polities. She points out that the American founders of the system were explicit that they were aiming for a republic – elite rule – rather than a democracy. Such a basic and obvious argument is often swept under the rug by apologists of the status quo. For a mainstream US political scientist to make this argument, going as far as quoting the Federalist Papers regarding the desirability of the “total exclusion of the people in its collective capacity” from government, is to boldly break with tradition. Landemore then refers to what the founders were aiming at as “enclosure of power”. So now it seems that “closed democracy” is simply not a democracy at all. Why then use a term which includes the word “democracy”? Especially when the word “democracy” was explicitly rejected by the designers of the system? Why not just adopt their own preferred term, “republic”? Surely this would make things more accurate historically and more precise theoretically. Landemore’s choice can only be explained as a bow toward the proprieties of her discipline. (For clarity, I will not adopt Landemore’s open/closed terminology below and stick to the straightforward democracy-vs-oligarchy opposition.)

Democratic fashion: deliberative democracy, the epistemic argument

The contrast between the vagueness of “a chance to speak and be heard” or “having a feeling of being left out” and the concreteness of the critique of the republican ideology is typical of the entire introductory chapter. On page 12, for example, Landemore makes another attempt at defining “openness”. She offers multiple characteristics: being “inclusive and receptive of people and ideas”, “adaptability and revisability”, and “cultivating open mindedness”. This is again an unfortunate retreat to the vagueness which characterizes the “deliberative democracy” ideology which Landemore explicitly claims to ascribe to (p. 6).

Luckily, in her non-deliberative moments Landemore has much of value to say. This is the case, for example, when Landemore emphasizes that democracy requires equality at all stages of decision making – specifically including agenda setting – rather than merely at the final up-or-down decision moment alone (p. 6). In doing so she points out the oligarchical implications of the celebrated ideas of two of the most prominent 20th century political philosophers – Rawls and Habermas (p. 4).

Landemore’s embrace of the fashionable epistemic argument for democracy – that democracy is “the best way we have to figure out solutions to common problems” (p. 7) – is another point of weakness. The implication that the problems are “common” – agreed upon, affect everybody in the same way – and it is only the solutions that are elusive, is an elitist idea – even if the current version of this argument is that the truest wisdom is the wisdom of the crowd. Landemore claims that the advantage of the epistemic argument is that “it easily explains what is lost in a system that is less inclusive of voices and points of view. Such a system will not deliver as many good outcomes as it could” (p. 8). In fact, this is a much harder claim to defend than the straightforward claim that a non-democratic system produces good outcomes for the few and bad outcomes for the many. The real advantage of the epistemic argument is that it is less impolite toward established power.

Three forms of representation

The book’s agenda as presented on page 11 is to argue for three forms of representation: sortition, self-selection and “liquid” representation – which is some sort of electoral representation to be detailed out later. Offering a selection of mechanisms rather than a single one is a-priori problematic since it raises the challenge of arguing convincingly that three very different mechanisms are all desirable. Landermore’s admission at the outset that the liquid/electoral representation is not “fully democratic” but rather only “maximally lowers the barriers of entry to the status of elected representative” further raises suspicions about the motivation for including this mechanism on her wish list. It remains to be seen whether she will be able to demonstrate that “under the circumstances of mass democracies we probably need a combination of these various forms of democratic representation”.

19 Responses

  1. As I found van Reybroucks friendly critique very intriguing if not brilliant I wonder now what you missed in it, as you write:

    “Landemore presents – even if intermittently and obliquely – a thoroughgoing critique of the elections-based system that is not only better argued than, say, that of Van Reybrouck, but also more radical than his”?

    Also I wonder if all our theoretizing: yours, Landemore’s, van Reybrouck’s, my own and the one of many others will ever get us anywhere. To me who has studied political philosophy in Germany in the 90s it seems as if the form “theorizing” is a quite elite and anti-democratic thing in itself:

    Only few have access to it. Only few can take interest in in. This is not meant as a critique of what you do. More a sharing of doubst I have.

    My present impression is: what does bring us further in the development of modern times democracy are practical experiments with friendly access to the one’s in charge or in power.

    I take this also from my studies on the rise of Athenian democracy, from the division of the king-position in the “Archonts”, through Solonian reform and finally in Cleisthenian reform: The change came from the aristocrats themselves. Democracy was always done top-down, not bottom-up, it never was a grassroots movement. The aristocrats made democracy because they realized they were unable to change their OWN problems (stásis and tyrannis) for almost a century.

    If this was the same today, we need to build trust in the the tool citizens’ assemblies drawn by lot. Not our trust. Not the people’s trust. But the trust of politicians and powerful people of today. And this can’t be done just by theorizing. Politicians don’t like political theory. They aren’t moved by it.

    So I highly appreciate the friendly tone of van Reybrouck in his book: Because it is accessible to the only ones who could drive and bring the political change toward more and better democracy we urgently need today.

    And I’m quite bored about theoreticians like myself. I can see no progress in their discussions. We just keep ourselves busy in doing what we always have done since Plato take the wrong turn by founding the “Akademia” outside the town of Athens.

    Not always but on many days I have the feeling “political theory” is an illness in itself.

    We need more political practice, we need much more sortition, we need many more citizens’ assemblies on all political levels (local, regional, national, continental, global). Just getting used to it. Just let politicians get used to it. And no more “theory”. Cause theory always was meant as an anti-democratic intervention, ever since Plato invented it.

    If people themselves get used to have power, they do not easiily let it take away from them. This was so as the Cleisthenian party was expelled form Athens and the citizens in this very young democracy “took a stand” to defend their new institutions.

    We see similar developments today when ordinary people (and not theoreticians like us) “defend” their deliberations and the results of their deliberations against cherry-picking of elected politicians.

    Every citizens’ assembly drawn by lot is a progress, because it gets people used to have political power. And it gets politicians used to that not very bad things happen if they are led by the aggregated citizens themselves.

    Every further thought of us theorists is a waste of time.

    Still I will read the many articles of yours as I have done the last years. But I do this because I’m an old man suffering from incurable theory-illness. My productive contribution to democracy is the practical work I do: Talking to politicians and members of the administration. Convincing them in personal conversations to create permanent citizens’ assemblies as it is done e.g. in Ostbelgien.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Ardalan Ibrahim, > What you say is music to my ears. I am not a theorist (in politics at least) and I founded an association to test sortition in practice, sadly I didn’t have many echoes here. (cf now rereading the about it sounds to theoretical ;) but believe me (it deserves rewriting) I was testing rotating moderation with my neighbour/family/friend and I encourage you too!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. BTW I updated the about into something much more easy to read.


  4. Our association wants to empower people and to give everyone an opportunity to become an actor in local or global politics. To bring everybody around the table we offer two practical methods. These methods both use the systematic rotation of power and drawing by lot, aka sortition, to give everyone its chance.


  5. Ardalan,
    I disagree …. Simply put, we cannot know in advance what strategy or approach may turn out to be most useful for advancing sortition democracy. It is certain, however, that without the political theorists of the late 20th Century developing ideas about sortition, there would have been none of the hundreds of implementation we see today. One political theorist (academic, party activist, and author), Gordon Gibson, in British Columbia, for example, proposed the creation of a citizens assembly that was empaneled in 2004, and designed it from scratch according to theory.

    A key is the interconnection between theory and application and experimentation. If the theories of sortition had been widely known during the Arab Spring, how differently things might have turned out. That popular uprising only had ever heard of elections as the alternative to tyranny. Yes we need many more implementations until the concept is widely known, but if all implementations are distorted by needing to serve the interests of the current political class, the form of sortition that evolves will be toothless, and it will be discredited (deservedly) by the people.

    In short, theory and implementation are both essential.

    Liked by 3 people

  6. Ardalan,

    Hi there – great to have you participate in the discussion.

    Regarding Van Reybrouck: I have posted repeatedly about his positions so it should be easy for you to find my critique of his work on this website using the search box. This is typical.

    In general, it seems that like you Van Reybrouck thinks that the way forward is by convincing the established elite that they can gain by using sortition. This makes no sense to me. I think we must address ourselves instead to the great mass of people who are disempowered by the current political system. This of course is not easy and it is often frustrating, but still it seems to me the most promising route of action.

    As for theorizing: Theorizing about sortition is one type of sortition-related activity and I think it is a valuable one as a sortition-promoting tool (it is also pleasing in itself at times). If you find it worthwhile we can discuss/theorize about the value of theory – an activity that you have already engaged in in your comment.

    That said, I’d love to engage in other types of sortition-promoting activities if there are any that are feasible, and I’d be happy to listen to suggestions. (I have in the past tried to organize letter-writing and leafleting campaigns of various sorts with very limited success.)

    (Of course, when I refer to sortition-promoting activities, I am thinking only of activities that promote sortition as a tool for democratizing society. Applying sortition as a way to buttress the current oligarchical political arrangements – which is always the aim of elite initiated applications – is worse than useless AFAIAC.)

    Liked by 1 person

  7. three forms of representation: sortition, self-selection and “liquid” representation

    In what sense is self-selection a form of representation? I assume the claim is to represent others.


  8. *** I agree wholly with Bouricius’ response to Ardalan Ibrahim, and with his conclusion “In short, theory and implementation are both essential.”
    *** About the beginning of Athenian dêmokratia, Ardalan Ibrahim is right when he writes “The aristocrats made democracy because they realized they were unable to change their OWN problems (stásis and tyrannis) for almost a century” – better to say “a part of the aristocrats made democracy”. But it is wrong to separate that of theoretical endeavors. Cleisthenes was not only the leader of a nobiliary faction and a daring statesman; he was an intellectual. The “blending” of the dêmos, through radically artificial tribes, even cancelling the (official) use of family names, and integrating the marginal elements of the City, was a very abstract endeavor, which upsets modern historians who are prone to identify such endeavors with “utopian engineering” next to totalitarianism. The ostracism procedure, substituting the archaic “politics of exile”, was a very thoughtfully drafted procedure. Prior thinking may be useful.


  9. *** Yoram Gat writes “The fact that Landemore, now at Yale, is originally French, may be playing a significant role”. Whatever her personal life, Hélène Landemore is not only “of French origin”. She gives articles to the French media, she belongs to the French intellectual life. And sortition now belongs to the French idea landscape, especially since the Citizen Convention for Climate.
    *** Hélène Landemore gave an article to the newspaper “Le Monde”, in 2020 February, about this Convention. The article’s title is “The Citizen Convention for Climate could herald a new form of democracy”.
    *** Landemore writes : “This Citizen Convention for Climate has already carried out an historical task.” And “this convention has the merit of starting afresh questions of political philosophy that we thought had stabilized for two hundred years”.
    *** She conceptualizes the activity of the Convention, rather than as a kind of direct democracy, as “lotocratic representation”. She mentions the formula of a participant, “une France de poche” – “a handheld France” – formula next to Dahl minipopulus, but without using mini-peuple.
    *** She mentions various proposals of allotted Chambers.
    *** She concludes that with this experiment, there is an alternative to the rise of “antidemocratic populism” – something like Van Reybrouck’s line.
    *** Clearly we have here a way to an hybrid system, a truly hybrid system, leaning strongly towards (ortho-)democracy; something different of Rosanvallon’s discourse where sortition is only used to establish more complexity and protect polyarchy.
    *** Landemore avoids considering any of the (democrat-inspired) criticisms about the implementation of sortition and debate in the Convention.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. > And sortition now belongs to the French idea landscape, especially since the Citizen Convention for Climate.

    Yes – it is certainly much more available now for those who are ready to reject elections.

    > *** She conceptualizes the activity of the Convention, rather than as a kind of direct democracy, as “lotocratic representation”

    Yes – it’s great that she does not conflate those two ideas. I am looking forward to seeing what Landemore writes in the book’s third chapter: “The Myth of Direct Democracy”.


  11. Yoram, I am also currently reading Open D and will post more when I have more insightful comments. What seems like a good exercise, and I think a converastion that I will flesh out in a post soon (and in my thesis), is having Lafont’s Democracy Without Shortcuts speak to Landemore’s Open Democracy. Lafont specifcally critiques “lottocratic representation,” but I thin, her critique misrepresents Landemore’s position….. Re speaking to elites versus speaking to everyday citizens, I agree she is tryign to thread the needle like all acadmeics do, but I think she is BOLDER than many, especially since TrumpBrexit when all of a sudden, all of these “democratic theorists” have turned thmeselves into anti-populists.
    What I repsect about Landemore, ever since here first book, is that she does NOT secodn guess popular opinion. In her first book, she defended the French public’s rejection of the 2005 EU Treaty referendum, saying, “maybe the people were right and elites were wrong.” She does somehting similar but perahps more indireclty in saying that the rise of recent populisms is not a reason to FEAR democracy, but a sign of a democratic consciousness that representative government is NOT as democratic as it claims BUT that peole STILL want democracy.


  12. Hallo, Ardalan, I see where you are coming from. At the same time, I do not see a dichotomy between doing “theory” here and being involved in championing and taking part in pratical experiments.
    Speakign of which, am I right that you and some other folks are involved in organizing for a kind of Citiznes’ Council in Munich? If so, please update us, or post a link, gerne auch auf deutsch.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Ahmed,

    I’d be very interested to read your comments.

    I agree that Landemore seems much more willing than most academics to take her thinking where it leads her even if this means challenging orthodoxy. Her rejection of mass participation as a basis for a democratic system is an example of this, I believe (although I have yet to read her arguments).

    Mass participation is useful for brandishing your credentials as a radical democrat, while in fact being completely nonthreatening to the status quo. To put it bluntly, its advocates – Lafont is one – have nothing of value to contribute to the discussion. Maybe it was a discussion worth having in the Progressive era. These days are long gone.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Thank you. Suffering from severe theoretical illness myself I see what happens in my personal life: I have limited resources. And it’s much more fun to put them into “theorizing” but into organizing, making goog contact with officials and so on. So for me its a kind of economic question: If I put them in “theory” I won’t put my limited time, power and attention in practical work.

    But perhaps this is only my personal problem as I had some “deep dives” in philosophy over a couple of years in my twenties and thirties. I don’t know.

    You’re right as far as the “Münchner Bürgerrat – München kommt zsamm” is concerned. We’re woking on this since almost 3 years, talking to people from the administration and parties. But it’s something for Marathon runners and the pandemic doesn’t make things easier…

    But still we’re making progress.

    This is our current webpage:

    Liked by 1 person

  15. Thank you Yoram, for your kind answer! :)

    I really don’t want to bother or frustrate anyone heere (as I think times are hard enough for us all without).

    I agree much more on van Reybrouck’s strategy as on the public one. And I can give four reasons why:

    1) ALL successfull democratic developments I know where done top-down, not bottom-up. It was very hard for me, I hope you and others here believe me, to realize this. But we can see it in the development of democracy in Athens (Solon, Cleisthenes and so on) and we see the same in the self-democratization of some companies in the “new work”-movement: It’s always the same structure: Some people in power realize it’s better for them and better for the whole society to democratize. – I really put a lot of work into understanding what happened in Athens, beginning in the middle of the 7th century BC. And there is no other possible conclusion: Democracy was done by aristocrats who couldn’t solve the problems, who realized they had to do some kind of constitutional reform that sucked more people (non-aristocrats) into the responsibility for the whole (“the polis”). Solon tried this, but failed. Cleisthenes started to use sortition on a wide range, and succeeded.

    2) I’m self employed since more than 12 years living from business and personal coaching. I worked with more than 5000 people up to know with people from ALL classes on a regular basis. (except the richest 1-2 % here in Germany). I know from my intensive work what direct contact and personal conversation can do. – An experience that strenghened my trust in citizens’ assemblies btw. – And this experience is supported by our own successes talking to administration and politicians from several parties. I know from many other projects in Germany that had similar successes by building personal contact, by this building personal trust. – The “playbook” for this could be a little known book from an US-american journalist called Alan Deutschman, which is quite well known in the German “New-Work”-scene:

    Deutschman shows how radical and sustainable change is done. And that personal relationships are the key to it.

    3) There never was a “revolution” in the ancient greek world. The old greeks as odd as they were were far to smart to try it this way: They knew: Radical change can’t be done AGAINST the elites of a society. So they never did it. Instead they build ADDITIONAL institutions besides the existing ones – and then shifted responsibilities by the time. And this worked.

    The as near as can be to a revolution process I know is the episode around Ephialtes who was murdered after the Areopag (the council of the aristocrats) finally lost its political importance, leading to the “Periclean Era”.

    I have thought (and written) a lot about this, but I post it only below as it is all in German and I don’t want to leave anyone out who is not comfortable with it.

    4) Is van Reybrouck’s success that speaks for itself: As far as I know a few years ago van Reybrouck had personal contact to Wolfgang Schäuble the former interior minister and minister of finance in Germany, who is now president of the German Bundestag.

    You can read quite sceptical statements from Schäuble some years ago (ok I do it nevertheless it is in German, for example here:

    But Schäuble has become the most powerful advocate inside the political system for doing sortition and citizens’ assemblies, bringing the first federal one on it’s way:

    I’m not near enough to tell. But if you ask me, it was personal conversations that convinced Schäuble to try and step by step change his mind. (not only by van Reybrouck, but also by the great people form “Mehr Demokratie e.V.”, e.g. Claudine Niedel and Thorsten Sterk, to name some of them).

    Also Ilan Siebert ist doing a great job by convincing Parlametarians to do citizens’ assemblies by sortition in their constituencies (so calles “Wahlkreisräte”). He also does this by making personal contact and investing a lot of time in building personal trust. I highly admire him to be honest. You can find his initiative here:

    Similar processes we see in Ostbelgien and in Gdansk (Poland), done or supported by the also ingenious Marcin Gerwin.

    So all of this is enough to convince me that the main work is to convince people in power in personal contact on a basis of mutual trust and ongoing contact. You could call this “classical lobbyism”. And this is what I do with my little spare time and with my short life. OMG. May the times and our limited empathy help us all! ;)

    Who wants to read on why the old greek never did revolutions, you can find it here:

    How I found out democracy always was,always is and always will be an top-down-project (I really suffer writing this), can find it here:

    So if really anybody here “wants my advice”: Make contact. Make even contact to people you don’t really like beforehand. Do it non public. Do it in a safe atmosphere. Build trust. Do what all lobbyists have done at all times Work an becoming a trusted adviser. And sell them what is important to them. Cause I know from my own direct conversations with people in charge/ people in power: They really know that they’re having some really big problems today. They don’t show it to the public but they are in dispair, desperately looking for solutions. If you can find a way to take away the fear and the doubts for them: There is a way to make progresses in institutionalizing sortition and citizens’s assembly. Don’t fight them. Invite them.

    It takes a lot of time, nerves and really a whole lot of empathy. But it works.


  16. Ardalan,

    Agree with all you say — there are few historians (Ober being the obvious exception) who believe in the “Athenian Revolution”. The only rider I would add is that any sortition initiative needs to be clear about what it is trying to achieve and be designed accordingly. This is where, as Terry and Andre have commented, political theory and statistical science have an important role to play. And leading players in this field need to be open and honest about the strengths and limitations of sortition — at this Monday’s Paris/Oxford sortition workshop there was some criticism of Helene Landemore’s over-egging of the Icelandic pudding (both sortition and crowdsourcing had a relative minor role to play). Given her epistemic focus it’s understandable that she praised the diversity of the CCC but I think her new book is more interested in openness than democracy — in large modern states these two desiderata may well be opposed (she told me a few years ago that she has no real interest in representation).


  17. Ardalan,

    The notion that elites will cede political power simply because some empathic soul gives them a good talk-to is to me incredible. I think it is certainly not how history has shown things work.

    Yes, powerful groups have a lot of power and therefore they have a lot of impact on how political structures develop. They will use that impact to change things in ways that suit them, including, when it suits them, ceding some power to reduce personal or group risk.

    The question is how to get to a situation where such a calculation exists. This is where popular mobilization is required. Until there is powerful demand for democratization, it will not pay for the powerful to move in that direction.


  18. […] finally correct the conventional terminology (the unwillingness to do away with this convention was a huge burden for her in Open […]


  19. […] covering again what is by now a decades-old discussion. It seems (again, based on the review) that unlike Landemore’s Open Democracy (2020) these books are not about offering a(n ambiguously) far-reaching reform proposal and instead focus […]


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