Landemore in Foreign Policy

Prof. Hélène Landemore has a hard-hitting new article in Foreign Policy magazine. From the outset, Landemore’s subtitle aims right at the heart of modern democracy dogma:

Democracy as it was envisioned was never about real people power. That’s what needs to change.

This radical attack on the electoralist system keeps on coming, paragraph after paragraph. Landemore seems ready now to finally correct the conventional terminology (the unwillingness to do away with this convention was a huge burden for her in Open Democracy):

The systems in place today once represented a clear improvement on prior regimes—monarchies, theocracies, and other tyrannies—but it may be a mistake to call them adherents of democracy at all. The word roughly translates from its original Greek as “people’s power.” But the people writ large don’t hold power in these systems. Elites do.

Representative government, the ancestor of modern democracies, was born in the 18th century as a classical liberal-republican construct rather than a democratic one, primarily focused on the protection of certain individual rights rather than the empowerment of the broader citizenry. The goal was to give the people some say in choosing their rulers without allowing for actual popular rule.

The Founding Fathers of the United States, for example, famously wanted to create a republic rather than a democracy, which they associated with mob rule. James Madison, in particular, feared the tyranny of the majority as much as he disliked and rejected the old monarchical orders.

Another important attribute of the article is that Landemore is making it explicit that exclusion from government is not merely a matter of making people “feel involved”, but rather translates into unrepresented interests:

While there is some wisdom to be gained from the aggregation of popular judgment in elections, pure electoral democracy misses out on all that can be gained from the diversity of knowledge and insight among the broader population. The key is to involve that broader group of people in a more deliberative and participatory way. Leaving them out creates massive blind spots, simmering resentment, and a systematic failure to address the needs and preferences of a portion, sometimes even a majority, of the population.

Examples of such failures abound, from the plight of the suburban working class in most advanced industrial societies, which is vastly underrepresented in all Western parliaments, to that of Black Americans, who are also still underrepresented in the U.S. Congress.

Such areas of underrepresentation might explain political events that surprised our pundit class: U.S. President Donald Trump’s electoral victory, the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom, and the yellow vest rebellion against a tax on gas in France. The example of the yellow vests, or gilets jaunes, offers a textbook case of the inability of electoral institutions to respond to the interests and concerns of a significant portion of the population that literally feels invisible—hence, the neon yellow jackets—and has in some cases given up on voting altogether.

It would certainly have been nice to see a much more explicit and a much more urgent description of the horrible consequences of the electoralist system, but “plight” is a good start.

Finally, when she proposes sortition as the way toward democracy, Landemore is also taking a more assertive stance on the role of allotted bodies than she did in her book:

The open democracy I envisage would center on a House of the People selected by a randomized civic lottery—a large-scale jury, if you will—in which ordinary citizens have a chance to participate as democratic representatives with legislative prerogatives of their own (for example, on climate change and other long-term issues that remain largely unaddressed by our current political systems). Such a body could replace—or at the very least complement—existing elected chambers. This House of the People would be a forum for nonpartisan, informed, and transparent deliberation.

It might take a while before a country gives so much power to citizens at the national level. But it is worth noting that France briefly toyed with the idea of replacing its third legislative chamber, a largely symbolic advisory body where representatives of organized civil society currently convene, with a Chamber of Citizen Participation. Various scholars and activists have called for abolishing upper chambers seen as corrupt or out of date, such as the Canadian Senate or the House of Lords in the United Kingdom, with so-called “legislatures by lot.” What might have seemed like radical thinking a few years ago is now entering the realm of the possible.

One Response

  1. […] of the book Open Democracy, has promoted sortition in an interview in The Nation magazine and in an article in Foreign Policy magazine. The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard College held a conference about […]

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