Landemore: Open Democracy, part 5

Rejecting “realism”

One of the strengths of Open Democracy is its normative ambition. Rather than lecturing readers about the need to be realistic and to accept elitism in various ways, Landemore insists that the democratic ideal of political equality should be taken literally. Calls for various forms of compromise are the norm throughout the scholarly literature of democracy. Often such calls are to some extent implicit (e.g., Dunn, see part 2 of this post series). Occasionally they are unabashedly explicit. In this genre Landemore focuses her wrath on Achen and Bartels.

Achen and Bartels take the Lippmann-Schumpeter-Dunn line of argument one step farther by explaining to their readers that while their impression that government does not in any way reflect public opinion is wholly justified by the facts, their frustration with this situation is wholly due to unrealistic expectations. Democracy implies elections, elections imply elite control, and elite control implies unresponsivity. It’s time to be realistic and readjust our expectations.

Landemore points out that it is the first link in the chain of implications that is false. Elections do imply unresponsivity, but that is simply good reason not to adopt elections as a mechanism for delegating power. Achen and Bartels’s argument that the Progressive-era “popular initiative” mechanism results in elite control as well should again be taken as an argument against the use of this mechanism, not as an argument for elections or as an argument against the “realism” of democratic ideals. The “realist” argument reflects a failure of the imagination, a willing submission to the status quo (p. 45).

Breaking with the mainstream of “reform”

The rest of chapter 2 is devoted to quickly discussing some reform proposals by other political scientists and to a question of terminology. Proposals by Jeffrey Green, John Keane, Ian Shapiro, Philipp Pettit, John McCormick and Michael Saward. All of these, Landemore says, are either “various rationalizations of the status quo” or “participatory variations on deliberative democracy” (p. 47). Again, Landemore’s willingness to dismiss this type of work as hidebound, and thus not only of little use but counterproductive, sets her apart from the run-of-the-mill academic reformers and makes Open Democracy a milestone in contemporary political theory.

In terms of terminology, Landemore argues against using the term representative democracy. She argues that it is at best redundant – since democracy is about representation – and historically tainted by the electoral, and hence elitist, associations of this term.

Landemore sums up (p. 52):

Our task should be […] to offer a substantively different paradigm of democracy, one that would take us past and beyond representative democracy rather thabn offer a few friendly amendments to it. Such a model would take representation for granted, with no assumption that it should necessarily translate into electoral mechanisms, and the emphasis would be placed instead on other things, including openness of the entire decision process to ordinary citizens. This emphasis is a radical departure from the principles of representative democracy as a historical construct, which is built on the exclusion of ordinary citizens from most of the spaces where real power is exercised.

2 Responses

  1. On Achen and Bartel’s book (“Democracy for Realists: Why Elections Do Not Produce Responsive Government”), I found it striking when I read it a couple of years ago. They unarguably document that elections cannot work to hold politicians accountable, and then shrug, and suggest stronger parties, etc. as a “realistic” alternative to actual democracy. I highly recommend most of their book, for its examples and evidence of why elections can never work…. but the reader should then go on to explore sortition as the workable alternative.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Yoram:> One of the strengths of Open Democracy is its normative ambition.

    Au contraire — this is its principal weakness. Landemore is a deliberative democrat — a normative research project that “ha[s] an improbable character . . . like islands in the ocean of everyday practice” (Habermas, 1996, p. 323). Unlike Shaw’s Fabians, democratic realists like Alex and myself prefer to “organize the docks”, rather than “sitting among the dandelions”. There is a big difference between formally constraining elites and attempting to marginalize them (at which point they will just retreat to the shadows). What you have in mind has more in common with Prohibition or the “War Against Drugs”

    Such a model would take representation for granted

    Exactly, and that’s what Landemore does. In fact she really doesn’t care about representation, just so long as there is sufficient cognitive diversity to generate “optimal” solutions to collective problems. If you think Trumpian populism is a problem you ain’t seen nothing yet, just wait for the reaction against the “Open Democracy” project. Helene is a first-class scholar (and she helped me greatly with my own PhD thesis) but she’s heading up the wrong street.


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