Landemore: Open Democracy, part 3

The crisis of representative democracy

Landemore again goes to the heart of matters when she states at the beginning of chapter 2:

My main point in this chapter will be to trace a certain understanding of the “crisis” of contemporary democracy not so much to contingent external factors (though they obviously play a role) but, rather, to the more fundamental democratic flaws in representative democracy’s original design. The main problem, I will argue, is that representative democracy was designed on the basis of electoral premises that prevent even its best, most democratized contemporary versions from reaching the full potential of genuine “popular rule”, that is, a rule that empowers all equally.

Due to these democratic flaws

the cognitive dissonance between the reality of the regimes we live in and the democratic expectations people attach to them can only grow over time.

Too often the crisis of confidence in electoralist regimes is attributed to a plethora of circumstances that are supposedly incidental, non-inherent to the regime itself: everything from globalization to technological change to polarization to Putin. In contrast, Landemore’s agenda is refreshingly clear and principled. While accepting that at least some of those phenomena have their effects, she does not see these are being root causes but, to they extent they are influential factors, as being symptoms of the root causes that are inherent to the electoralist system (p. 32).

It is unfortunate that this clarity is attenuated again by the mandatory gesturing toward propriety. First, why would Landemore write about a design that “fails to empower all equally” because it is based upon “mistaken premises” if by her own account the electoralist design had explicit anti-democratic objectives? Implying that the founders were incompetent democratically minded law-givers is somehow more acceptable, it seems, than maintaining consistency with the previous analysis and inferring that the founders quite competently designed an impressively successful anti-democratic system.

Second, the epistemic argument recurs. Landemore writes that the outcome of the “flawed” system is limited “democratic reason” which results in “suboptimal” solutions to problems being faced. Again, this adopts the “common problems” fallacy. In fact, the outcome is exactly the one aimed at by the designers of the system: solutions which are highly desirable for those in power and which are achieved at the expense of the interests of the large majority of the population. This very straightforward antagonistic model of political relations is routinely used when considering “authoritarian regimes” – official enemies of the West – but it is studiously avoided when discussing the Western system, even by Landemore who has already taken the bold step of calling that system an “elected oligarchy of sorts”.

Finally, Landemore politely leaves the “dissonance between the reality of the regimes we live in and the democratic expectations people attach to them” unspecified. This elides the harsh reality in which large parts of the population under those regimes are impoverished and living in anxiety and oppression, terrorized by those with power over them, and allows the reader to imagine the dissonance as something rather benign and subtle (and possibly no more than the product of unrealistic expectations).

Lack of urgency

The coyness around the substance of the “dissonance” continues throughout the first section of the chapter, which is devoted to describing the facts comprising the “crisis of representative democracy”. The section describes a debate between the “alarmists” – who note the decline in voting turnout, the widespread disapproval of elected bodies, the focus of the leadership of political parties on “rent-seeking”, political polarization, the rise of extremism and illiberalism, the irresponsiveness government to public opinion, increasing economic inequalities – and their critics who assert that “democracy” (in fact, electoralism) is very near its all time high in terms of prevalence worldwide. But nowhere is the immiseration of the citizens of electoralist regimes described. It is hard to imagine that the abstract terms employed to describe the concerns of the “alarmists” would be deemed sufficient to describe the problems with “authoritarian regimes” without an attempt to flesh out the outcomes with some statistics, e.g., the scale of homelessness, drug addiction and drug related deaths, incarceration, poverty, violence, deaths and injury due to insufficient health care, etc.

An associated unclarity is about the reasons for concern around the current state of the electoralist systems. Is it because of “instability” – namely that existing systems may fall apart so that we may not enjoy their benefits for much longer – or is it about the existing systems themselves – namely that if they do persist then we will continue to experience the horrible outcomes they generate?

To her credit, while many academics seem to be focused on the instability risk alone, Landemore indicates that she is worried about the latter issue as well. Still, it would have been a crucial contribution to the discussion to make the urgency of this worry more explicit rather than merely asserting that the electoralist regimes are “blatantly failing to measure up to the idea of a regime that includes all equally in policy decisions” (p. 29).

4 Responses

  1. Landemore writes that the outcome of the “flawed” system is limited “democratic reason” which results in “suboptimal” solutions to problems being faced. Again, this adopts the “common problems” fallacy.

    This is entirely in line with Helene’s previous writing on this topic. Bear in mind that sortition for her has been something of an after-thought. She is a deliberative democrat who believes in the epistemic potential of cognitive diversity — and this has nothing to do with political equality (in anything other than the minimal formalistic sense that everyone has equal chance of being selected and everyone should have equal right to have their voice heard), democratic legitimacy or representation.

    This elides the harsh reality in which large parts of the population under those regimes are impoverished and living in anxiety and oppression, terrorized by those with power over them.

    That would be because she doesn’t agree with your perspective (and neither do I). Please identify the liberal democracies in which large parts of the population are “terrorized” by the leaders they have elected.

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  2. Yoram, I’m reading this book carefully as I have her previous book and I think you are being a bit unfair. She does see here project as a “radical critique” of representative government. She never “coyly” supports elections but points out that they were ORIGINALLY designed to be aristocratic and that even after the expansion of the franchise and changing the term from “government” to “democracy,” elections have not lived up to their new promise.
    She has been on several podcasts talking about her book and she always mentions lotteries very near her discusion as a mechanism INHERENTLY more democratic not just epistemically superior.
    For example: https://democracyparadox.com/2020/12/22/democracy-without-elections-podcast-27/
    Or: https://www.listennotes.com/podcasts/the-political/episode-77-helene-landemore-gGBfXbKp0nv/

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  3. *lotteries towards the begining of her discussion, I mean. Also, she says the democratic “crisis” is something “baked into” the design of “representative government-democracy,” even when she acknowledges that external factors–globalization, inequality, technology–could be exacerbating the oligarchic features of elections.

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  4. Ahmed,

    I don’t see us as disagreeing. I have repeatedly emphasized that Open Democracy is outstanding in providing a radical critique of the status quo, in asserting that it is anti-democratic by design and in principle rather than due to circumstance.

    The coyness is when discussing the outcomes of this system of government.

    Again: I find the book very valuable. I would not have bothered going over it in detail if it were just one more of the run-of-the-mill “rationalizations of the status quo in the form of repackaged defenses of elitist democracy”. That said, the book has its flaws: a lack of a sense of urgency, an unwillingness to call out the oppression generated by the form of oligarchy the author insists on calling “democracy” (despite her sharp analysis regarding its true nature) is one of those.

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