Democratic power, outcomes and ideology

This post continues the inquiry carried out in a few previous posts regarding how democracy can be measured. Thanks to various commenters for the discussions that encouraged further thought on this matter.

Dimensions of democracy

In a democracy, political power is distributed equally among all members. This should probably be considered the definition of democracy. However, there are two additional democratic dimensions: democratic outcomes and democratic ideology. Outcomes are democratic when power is used to serve everybody equally. Democratic ideology states that political power should be distributed equally. This normative statement could be justified either directly or consequentially. The direct justification is that equally distributed political power is the only just political arrangement. The consequential argument is that democratic outcomes are the only just outcomes and that democratic power is the only political arrangement that can deliver democratic outcomes. Presumably often those with democratic commitments believe in both the direct and the consequential arguments. The position that political power must be distributed equally even if this leads to undemocratic outcomes seems questionable. For those who adopt consequential democratic ideology, democratic results are a necessary and sufficient condition for democracy (i.e., for democratic power).

A-priori, there are 8 possible situations regarding the presence or absence of democracy along each of the dimensions of democracy. A wholly undemocratic society lacks all three dimensions: the dominant ideology is not democratic, power is distributed unequally and the outcomes favor some at the expense of others. A fully democratic society has all three dimensions present: the dominant ideology is democratic, power is equally distributed and outcomes serve everybody equally. Partially democratic societies could have some combination of situations along the axes.

As pointed out above, however, to believe that democratic outcomes can exist in a non-democratic society, or that non-democratic outcomes can exist in a democratic society we – as observers – need to adopt a non-democratic stance. Accepting that democratic power is uniquely suited for attaining democratic outcomes implies believing that the settings along those two axes must be aligned.

As for the relation between ideology and power, theoretically, power may be democratic in a society whose ideology is non-democratic. However, this seems unlikely, since it seems questionable that a society could maintain an equality of power despite normatively rejecting such a situation. That is, non-democratic ideology seems compatible only with non-democratic power. Conversely, however, democratic ideology may coexist with non-democratic power. In such a situation – the one that is present in most Western societies – there is widespread perception that society is not living up to its professed ideals.

It turns out that (for observers who accept democratic ideology) of the 8 possible states, only 3 are possible: a fully non-democratic society, a fully democratic society, and a society with frustrated democratic ideology.


Democratic ideology implies that people are the best judges of their own interests. If they weren’t, then democratic power would not lead to democratic outcomes, since those people who would not be able to properly judge their own interests would suffer undesirable outcomes. For this reason for observers who subscribe to the democratic ideology, the state of society is best assessed by the members of that society. Opinion polls are therefore the best tool a (democratically-minded) researcher has for understanding the situation in society.

The position of a society along each of the dimensions can be measure by soliciting the opinions of the members on the appropriate questions, such as the ones below:

  • Democratic ideology: Should everybody have the same say? Is it just? Does it lead to good outcomes?
  • Democratic power: Does everybody have the same say? Do you have the same say as everybody else?
  • Democratic outcomes: Does government work for everybody? Does government work for you?

It is the opinions of the members of society that are best informed on how their society is working. This does not mean, of course, that such opinions are infallible. But in general they are certainly a better indicator than the opinions of various experts – either domestic or foreign.

14 Responses

  1. Yoram>> “Outcomes are democratic when power is used to serve everybody equally.”

    Does the General Good really “serve everybody equally”?


  2. I have struggled with how democracy should handle minority needs and desires. Serving “everybody equally” is a problematic precept for democracy. If this was not a requirement, and majority rule was the norm, a majority might decide to harm the members of a hated minority group. But on the flip side would serving everybody equally prohibit affirmative action to address extreme discrimination against a minority’s ancestors, which leaves the current generation at a disadvantage? Similarly, having equal power as everybody else, can be reduced to a numbers game also, where each individual member of the 80% majority have equal say as every other member of society, but the equal say of the members of the 20% minority is always outvoted (let’s say in an accurately representative and well-informed mini-public). Being democratic is an essential feature, but also not sufficient for a humane society, simply because majority rule does not assure compassion, etc.


  3. “Serve everybody equally” is deliberately a vague term which is open to interpretation. It could very well be interpreted as “policy expresses a balance between everybody’s interests”, and in the case of (perceived) conflicts of interests, “balance” could very well be perceived as “majority rule”.

    “The general good” is even more vague, I think, which is why I used “serve everybody equally”. It may encourage people to think in terms of metaphysical or personal absolutes rather than acknowledging different points of view. Thus, the two terms could be interpreted similarly or differently. But this is a matter for experimentation. It would be interesting and useful to have different phrasings of the relevant questions in the “democracy poll” I am proposing.


  4. @Terry: Minority interests can be taken care in a parity jury design, For example in Austria’s “Social Partnership” decisions are made by employers and employees equally, even though the latter significantly outnumber the former.

    @Yoram: Do we really want vague definitions? Intentionally, to boot? Rousseau’s definition of the “General Good” as the aim of the General Will is specific and exact.

    Whereas the problem with “serves everybody” in a democracy is much more fundamental. Let’s take a war lottery where 1/10th of fighting age men must go to war. Surely those who must go are served very differently than those who can stay home.

    In other words, ex-post outcomes “for everybody” are not suitable to measure democracy. We must measure at the level of specific macro goals at the level of the polity, the General Public.

    Whereas we must apply Occam’s razor to ex-ante expected outcomes, it is logical that equal democratic decision power is fully sufficient to ensure for the General Good, as defined above.


  5. Democratic power: Does everybody have the same say? Do you have the same say as everybody else?

    Given the two components of democracy, isonomia certainly means that all votes have equal weight. But how to ensure equal speech (“having the same say” in the literal sense) is a problem that has eluded democratic theorists, both ancient and modern. (The clear answer to both questions is “no”.) The problem certainly can’t be resolved by the study of “logical possibilities”, the issue is how best to ensure representative speech and that has nothing to do with public opinion surveys. Given who sets the agenda of opinion surveys, it’s ironic that you see such an instrument as the ultimate test of democracy.


  6. Keith>> “How to ensure equal speech”?

    Generally, this logic refers Yoram’s three options, not to the process per se which I believe you have in mind.

    Even so, and off-topic, I am not sure there is a contradiction much less an impossibility regarding equal speech, particularly in internet times as Per Norbeck documented.

    Expert testimony of each side can certainly be apportioned equally, and the same goes for jury member speech or questioning rights rotation. (I believe it’s obvious for all of us in this forum that jury processes must be designed and moderated with rigorous neutrality in mind.)


  7. Is it tribalism that we are contending with here? Two obvious examples: Jim Crow laws instituted by a dominant majority; Ultra-Orthodox in Israel dominating through procreation.

    What happens when education or accommodation fail?

    Can sortitionally selected citizen juries only assure that ‘we get what we deserve’? Or can we rely on deliberative processes within those citizen juries to, eventually, choose to nullify their own ‘representativeness’?


  8. Hubertus:> Expert testimony of each side can certainly be apportioned equally, and the same goes for jury member speech or questioning rights rotation.

    Sure, but my concern is for the overwhelming majority of citizens who are excluded from the opportunity to speak and can no longer delegate that right to their chosen spokesperson. Democracy presupposes “everyone has the same say” (Yoram’s phrase) and that requires very careful institutional design (along the lines that Alex has proposed).


  9. Sure, but my concern is for the overwhelming majority of citizens who are excluded from the opportunity to speak.

    Very much agree, if slightly off-topic. It is troubling that many (most?) advocates for the mini-public institution seem to ignore that there must be a parallel participative process for the general public to inform the mini-public.

    Personally I think that a prediction market is the best tool. It ensures speech equality and the scientific principle for this parallel conversation. It neutralises the awareness bias so often induced by mass media (s. Freud/LeBon).


  10. Hubertus,

    Leaving aside epistemic considerations, the problem is that most sortition advocates assume that the deliberative exchange within the minipublic will [magically] reflect public preferences. At least David (Common Lot Sortitionist) is honest in acknowledging that he would rather the jury was not representative.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Agreed, big problem. Properly deliberated mini-public outcomes for a specific limited topic could be very different to polls of superficial public opinion about everything and the universe. After all that’s the reason they were invented. I saw this flawed argument in favour of the French CCC even on this forum: “Polls agree with CCC.”

    A famous example is the death penalty question. In Europe (where it has been abolished) it is a popular argument against endowing mini-publics with authority that they would re-introduce it – based on results of pollsters. (AFAIK, there is no evidence of what a properly run mini-public would decide on the topic.)

    Liked by 1 person

  12. I wasn’t referring to outcomes, only speech acts. I agree that the decision of a large, quasi-mandatory random sample will reflect informed public choices (it won’t matter who is in the sample). My concern (which I share with you) is regarding who gets to speak, as speech acts within small groups are not subject to the LLN. And that’s before we get to the epistemic problems (it’s better on the whole if people know what they are talking about).

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Considering technology – that’s why I mentioned Per above – I am not sure that “who gets to speak” is a problem of a proper future democracy. We now have the means to give everybody the “right” (and practical possibility) to speak. At the same time, it is a waste if the same argument is said more than once. Both aspects are important.

    On a prediction market as an open democracy technology, everybody gets to make predictions. And once a qualitative argument has entered the corresponding market talk, rather than writing the same thing again, moderation rules require participants to show agreement by clicking “agreement”.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. In large-scale representative democracies people delegate their speech rights (isegoria) to chosen political agents. The overwhelming majority of citizens have neither the inclination nor the rhetorical skills to speak themselves, but they are free to choose another agent — be it a person, a political party or a newspaper — to speak on their behalf. If we agree with Dahl that the demos must have exclusive control of the political agenda, then this is the problem that must be addressed and I can’t see how minipublics have anything to contribute (although they are the obvious vehicle for representative isonomia).

    Liked by 2 people

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