Landemore: Open Democracy, part 8

Chapter 6 of Open Democracy presents “institutional principles” of “open democracy” – Landemore’s ideal system. These are aimed to be compared and contrasted with the principles of “assembly democracy” – the Athenian system, and with the principles of “representative democracy” – the present day electoralist system.

“Assembly democracy” and “representative democracy”

The initial section describing the principles of the Athenian system and of the electoralist system presents a rather conventional view of both those systems. The names used for as labels for those systems are themselves more easily attributable to convention than to their descriptive power. The Athenian system is labeled “assembly democracy”, putting the emphasis in that system, following convention, on the assembly. Landemore does mention the “less often remarked upon” equality of “opportunity to participate in the agenda-setting Council of 500”, but this remains a detail rather than a focal point. The electoralist system is labeled “representative democracy” and is presented as having a commitment to “equality” despite the fact that equality not only is far from the reality of this system but was also explicitly denied as a design goal at the outset.

The conventional approach persists throughout the description of those systems. There is the supposed contrast between “constitutionally entrenched” modern individual rights and the lack of those in Athens. It is far from clear that this conventional contrast is more than apologia for the modern system. In terms of either “institutional principles” or ideology it would in fact be hard to show that such a contrast exists. The Spartan sympathizers in Athens, for example, enjoyed freedom of expression and action that are almost unimaginable in modern “democratic” societies.

Another conventional contrast that Landemore adopts is in the attitudes toward the majority principle. Landemore says that majoritarianism was wholly embraced by the Athenians but is embraced with reservations in the modern system, where it is supposedly feared for potential of “tyranny of the majority”. It is true that “representative democracy” is historically ideologically anti-democratic and thus anti-majoritarian. However, this is a vestigial feature of the modern system and in its contemporary form “representative democracy” is ideologically democratic – and thus committed to majority rule – even if it is substantively oligarchical.

A surprising feature of Landemore’s analysis of the Athenian and the modern system is her claim that both those systems do not provide an institutional setup for democratic deliberation. This is very clearly true for the modern system, but in order to argue that this was the case in Athens as well Landemore focuses solely on the mass setting of the Assembly and in this way ignores the deliberative scale of the Boule. This is a major oversight, and is especially inexplicable given that Landemore is herself advocating for the use of allotted bodies as a site for democratic deliberation.

A notable exception to the conventionality of the description is on the issue of inclusivity. Bucking convention, Landemore does not prefer the modern system over the Athenian one in terms of inclusivity. She argues convincingly that both those systems refer to a certain, pre-defined, demos. The Athenian system is often criticized for defining its demos restrictively. But of course the demos of the modern system used to be very restrictive as well. And indeed, the modern demos is still far from universal. Neither of those systems is inherently exclusive or inclusive (p. 130).

“Open democracy”

Having described the Athenian and the modern systems, Landemore turns to a description of her proposed system. This system, she says, will amplify “the most normatively appealing” principles of the systems described earlier. Landemore’s description is quite vague. It does have a radical aspect: reliance on allotted bodies for legislation so that law is “initiated, supervised, contributed to, and vetted by ordinary citizens” (p. 142). She even hints that this may make elected politicians redundant altogether (p. 144). However, these few pithy statements are surrounded by long passages dealing with familiar amorphous terms such as “participation”, and “deliberation” and “transparency”. The bottom line is quite confusing. It is ultimately unclear what roles allotted bodies are supposed to play and most of the space and energy is spent playing up “popular vote processes” – vaguely defined variants of the “popular initiative” process.

Participation, she says, should “clear a path from the periphery of power to it center”. In particular, it should “ensure access to ordinary citizens to agenda-setting power”. Concretely Landemore mentions popular initiative processes for proposing new laws and holding a referendum on existing laws and participation in allotted bodies. She mentions Switzerland as “the best existing model for such rights”, where “participation rights in the form of citizens’ initiatives are real and meaningfully practiced on a regular basis”. Landemore also proposes some details such as “not placing signature thresholds too high” and making sure historically disenfranchised minorities can participate.

Other than participation in allotted bodies, which is mentioned only briefly, “participation” seems like an endorsement of “popular vote processes”. While Switzerland is offered as a positive example, no explanation for why a very similar process is (presumably) not working as well in California and various other US states. It is also unclear why the Swiss system is considered a success. It is true that Switzerland enjoys relatively high popular trust in government compared to other electoralist systems, but the connection between this and the “popular initiative” process is far from established. (Other countries with high trust in government – the Scandinavian ones – do not have a “popular initiative process”.)

According to Landemore, a major new component of her proposed system would be deliberation. Here we are treated to the standard “deliberative democracy” doctrine about how “rational” deliberation is required for legitimate decisions and how “advances in the study of human psychology” show that deliberation makes decision making better. Allotted bodies are mentioned but the extent of their authority remains vague. Specifically, citizen initiative review bodies are offered, which again puts the focus on the popular initiative process and seems to indicate a rather limited role for the allotted bodies.

In general, Landemore’s embrace of “popular vote processes” goes very much against her critique of the notion of “direct democracy”. Why wouldn’t such mass processes show the same anti-democratic effects that elections do? How can such processes incorporate deliberation “by construction” (p. 150) when Landemore argues that deliberation can only occur at the small group setting? Why devote so much space to these processes if ultimately they should “not necessarily” be frequently used (p. 149)? It is hard to avoid the suspicion that Landemore is using the warm-and-fuzzy feeling generated by mass decision-making processes as a cushion to soften the sharp edges of the hard-core idea of replacing elections with sortition. It is unclear whether this is due to a reluctance on Landemore’s part to follow her pro-representation, anti-electoral stance to its natural conclusion, or merely a rhetorical device to avoid shocking her readers.

13 Responses

  1. Landemore focuses solely on the mass setting of the Assembly and in this way ignores the deliberative scale of the Boule . . . Landemore argues that deliberation can only occur at the small group setting.

    Perhaps that’s the reason, because it’s not at all clear how a group of 500 persons could “deliberate” in any meaningful sense (the top limit for a deliberative group is normally viewed as 18-24). Before the UK second reform act, Parliament was piously referred to as the deliberative forum of the nation, but Bagehot argued that genuine deliberation had long before passed to the Cabinet. I’m not aware of any literature describing the form of deliberation practiced by the Boule, and this is why historians view the Athenian council as an administrative magistracy, rather than deliberative body in the policymaking sense. The only thing the council could really do as a collective body was to vote as to whether or not to put an item on the agenda for the assembly — this vote would be an impartial and representative one (especially given the deme basis of its composition), thereby protecting the sovereign assembly from domination by aristocratic factions. Statistical representation and active deliberation are incompatible goals.


  2. Keith, I think we can make statistical representation and deliberation compatible through dividing a mini-public of, say 150 members, into 10 small groups of 15 members who can deliberate and bring their results in to the plenum. Such practices were implemented already with some succes, also in the Netherlands (C1000) under the supervision of David Van Reybrouck!

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Ronald,

    That’s true in principle, but given the variance introduced the numbers would need to be far larger. Statisticians have argued that a quasi-mandatory randomly-selected jury with only an up/down final decision function would need to be at least 1,000 strong and the variance introduced by information cascades in break-out groups would make the number even larger. Another factor is that small groups always require moderators (to ensure against dominance) and this would be impossible in a political context where complete impartiality is required. So I think these constraints (and the costs involved) mean that it’s far more practical for the deliberative function to be positioned upstream of the randomly selected jury. “Deliberative democracy” is a normative aspiration, with even Habermas acknowledging that it’s almost impossible to achieve in the real world, hence the fact that democratic theorists have now moved on to the “deliberative systems” approach.

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  4. The key theorists are Jane Mansbridge, John Dryzek and John Parkinson. Here’s a summary of the deliberative systems approach:


    Deliberative system thinkers are realists. They recognise that for all but the smallest of populations genuine democratic involvement and control at every stage of the decision-making process is impossible. As a result, from a systems perspective, not all individual elements or institutions within the system need to be deliberative, but the system as a whole must be. This removes the focus of attention away from trying to democratise every institution or decision within a democracy. The systems approach instead focuses attention on trying to understand how different institutions interact, and which institutions and interactions have the most chance of increasing the deliberative capacity of the system as a whole.

    This is very much in line with the Kovner/Sutherland approach which recognises that different kinds of deliberation (speech acts and silent deliberation within) should be the province of different democratic bodies.


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  5. Keith,

    You constantly repeat certain beliefs you hold and give them an inappropriate sense of certainty.

    You say that “historians view the Athenian council as an administrative magistracy, rather than deliberative body,” despite the fact that many modern historians do NOT hole this view. It is not known exactly how the Council of 500 operated, but it is known that they proposed precisely worded resolutions, and that they engaged in discussion of some sort. This means they must have deliberated in some way (did they use committees? designated drafts people? plenary sessions? we don’t know.) But this random body of 500 managed some sort of deliberation as part of normal business.

    You assert that “the top limit for a deliberative group is normally viewed as 18-24.” Depending on procedures, (such as breaking into committees, etc.) a body of a 1,000 can certainly engage in a deliberative process, just not all at once in one room.

    You also say that “statisticians have argued” that for adequate statistical accuracy a body would need to have a thousand members. Perhaps a statistician you agree with has said this, but other statisticians observe it depends on the voting threshold required to adopt and many other factors. If a random sample of 150 people vote 90% in favor of a policy, the statistical likelihood that a body of 100,000 random members would fail to also pass the policy (though likely by a larger or smaller majority margin) approaches zero.

    Regular readers of this Blog know where you stand on a variety of issues. It would be preferable if you didn’t pretend you were speaking the wisdom of historians, statisticians and normal understanding, when you are merely asserting your opinions that are also disputed by historians, statisticians and normal understanding.

    Liked by 4 people

  6. Terry,

    1. In the case of the Boule, the absence of evidence (“it is not known exactly how the Council of 500 operated”) should make us sceptical that it was a body with sovereign legislative powers. As the administrative secretariat for the Assembly it would have been necessary for it to provide precisely worded resolutions, but are we supposed to believe that these emerged from the internal deliberations of such a large group of men? It strikes me as more plausible that individual Council members acted as the conduit for proposals (given the deme based constitution, everyone would have known someone on the Council) and then the proposal was put to a show of hands as to whether or not to put it on the Assembly agenda. The proposer would have been responsible for the precise wording and the role of the Council would have been to ensure that the sovereignty of the Assembly was not undermined by the agenda being taken over by powerful factions. This is pure speculation but it strikes me as more plausible than the idea that a body of 500 operated according to the principles of 20th century deliberative democracy.

    2. In my response to Ronald I acknowledge that deliberation in break-out groups would be possible but pointed out that this would exponentially increase the size of the overall body (along with the tricky issue of moderation).

    3. In my PhD thesis I devoted many pages to the relationship between sample size and decision threshold. In the case of Brexit (52/48) the jury would need to be 6,766 strong (with 2% margin of error) to accurately reflect the views of the citizen body. For issues where there is a 60/40 decision threshold (with 10% margin of error) the jury need only be 271 strong, but even there a statistician like John Garry (who knows a lot more on the subject than you and I) argues for 1,000 minimum — I imagine primarily for the sake of public confidence. Bear in mind the smallest size of an Athenian jury was 501, and this presupposed balanced advocacy and no jury deliberation.

    So, no, I don’t accept that I’m just “repeating certain beliefs”, I’m just not being blinded by pious wishful thinking.


  7. *** Yoram Gat writes “The electoralist system is labeled “representative democracy” and is presented as having a commitment to “equality” despite the fact that equality not only is far from the reality of this system but was also explicitly denied as a design goal at the outset.”
    *** As historical assessment, it is somewhat exaggerated. Maybe we can say that, on the whole, about the Founding Fathers of the American Republic. But for instance we can see in the 1798 constitution of the Helvetic Republic (one of the short-lived “sisters” of the First French Republic) clear egalitarian tendencies; and the sentence ”La forme de gouvernement, quelques modifications qu’elle puisse éprouver, sera toujours une démocratie représentative” indicates explicitly the model of “representative democracy”. This model has been one of the ideal models of the representative republic since its beginning, even if it became hegemonic only later.


  8. Andre,

    I was not aware of the case of the Helvetic Republic – thanks for bringing it up. It is interesting that the term “démocratie représentative” was used as the ideal aimed at. I was referring primarily to the US where the term “democracy” was never used in the 18th century in a positive context, and I believe the situation in France was the same.

    But in any case, the terms used are of secondary importance. What is important is the ideology – explicit or implicit – that motivated the system’s design. Are there any texts from the Helvetic Republic which indicate a real commitment to political equality? (If so, is there any indication for why elections were preferred over sortition?)


  9. Yoram:> I was referring primarily to the US where the term “democracy” was never used in the 18th century in a positive context, and I believe the situation in France was the same.

    Texts (and the intentions of their authors) need to be read in the context of the political languages that were prevalent at the time. There is no god’s eye perspective.


  10. *** I said that the idea of “representative democracy”, late in English speaking countries, has appeared in French speaking countries since the French Revolution.
    I quoted the constitution of the Helvetic Republic, a short-lived “sister republic”.
    I will quote two instances, from very different French revolutionaries.

    *** Robespierre (speech 17 pluviôse an II – 05 February 1794)
    “Democracy is a State where the sovereign people, guided by laws which are his work, does by himself all that he can do well, and by delegates all that he cannot do himself ”

    *** Roederer « moderate revolutionary » , supporter of Bonaparte and later Count of Napoleon’s Empire (speech 13 ventôse an IX = 04 March 1801)
    “Representative democracy is where one part of the citizens, chosen by the other part, make the laws and have them executed. It is democracy in the sense that the representatives are chosen, without condition of birth, by all the citizens, without distinction of birth; but it is representative democracy, and no longer pure democracy, because it is no longer the government of the totality of the citizens, but only of a part of the citizens (…) This is the idea that we found in the word representative added to the word democracy”

    *** These ideas excluded any democratic use of sortition. Except maybe in some underground circles, or in the mind of some Swiss republicans, a complex case.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Andre:> These ideas excluded any democratic use of sortition.

    Indeed. And in both cases the justifying ideology was democratic (as opposed to the American founders’ appeal to republicanism).


  12. Thanks, Andre.

    The Roederer’s phrasing (“one part of the citizens, chosen by the other part, make the laws and have them executed”) seems like standard elitist/republican phrasing.

    Robespierre’s speech, on the other hand, equating republicanism and democracy and emphasizing equality as the root value of the revolution, is very different. My understanding of the attitude toward democracy in the French Revolutionary rhetoric largely relies on Francis Dupuis‐Déri’s work (whose work I was referred to by Arturo Iniguez). According to Dupuis‐Déri, not only is Robespierre’s pro-democracy rhetoric atypical of the Revolutionary rhetoric as a whole, but Robespierre’s own rhetoric has changed over time and he and his faction only embraced the term “democracy” toward the end of their influence.


  13. About Robespierre’s ideas on “representative democracy” , we must look to the file about a major political issue: the appeal to the people on the fate of Louis XVI. The Girondins had proposed to refer to the people (to the “primary assemblies”) the ratification of the judgment passed on the fallen king. Robespierre answered by his second speech “on the judgment of Louis Capet” (28 décembre 1792). Against the appeal to the people , Robespierre gives various arguments. Some are pragmatic, and in the circumstances – revolution, foreign and civil war – it could obviously be argued that “necessity knows no law”. But other arguments challenge actually the ability of the “primary assemblies” to deliberate effectively and to exercise sovereignty.
    *** First argument: “You assure me that these discussions will be perfectly peaceful, and free from any dangerous influence; but guarantee me therefore beforehand that the bad citizens, that the moderates, that the feuillants, that the aristocrats, will find no access there; that no talkative and astute lawyer will come to surprise people of good faith, and to move to pity about the fate of the tyrant simple men who will not be able to foresee the political consequences of a disastrous indulgence, or of a thoughtless deliberation. Well, who is more talkative, more skillful, more fertile in resources , than the schemers, than the “respectable people”, that is to say, than the rascals of the old and even of the new regime?”
    *** Second argument: “But citizens, will it be the people who will be at these primary assemblies? Will the farmer abandon his field? Will the craftsman leave the work to which his daily existence is tied, to leaf through the penal code and deliberate in a tumultuous assembly on the kind of punishment that Louis Capet has incurred, and on many other questions which perhaps will not be less foreign to his meditations ?“
    *** These arguments obviously could apply, and sometimes more strongly, to all important matters on which a sovereign people can deliberate. The sovereign people, according to Robespierre, had to entrust to “delegates all that they cannot do themselves”, but actually considering these arguments they cannot seriously “themselves” do anything important.
    *** The French Revolution was very different from the American Revolution because, among others, the absence of representative tradition, the intensity of class struggles, the religious conflict etc … But the Jacobins had ideas about representation not so much basically different from the Founding Fathers : the yearnings and interests of the common citizens had to be refined and filtered through a new elite.

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