Landemore: Open Democracy, part 9

Chapter 7 of Open Democracy presents Hélène Landemore’s assessment of the constitution-writing process in Iceland that took place following the 2008 financial crisis. Landemore describes this process as “the first domino of the classic electoral democracy model to fall toward a more open democracy model at a national level”. This seems to me to be a highly over-optimistic assessment of the significance of the process. First, this process was a dud, its outcomes being eventually dismissed by the Icelandic parliament. But more importantly, this was conceived from the outset as a one-off process, not a fundamental change for how things are done. Furthermore, this one-off process dealt in very abstract subjects – phrasing articles of a constitution. By construction it was clear that would not be able to serve as template for the workings of anything like a sortition-based policy making body. The idea of radical democratization (by abolishing elections or at least creating a sortition-based co-equal chamber) was never on the agenda. Thus, the entire discussion in the chapter – and below in this post – should be understood in this light. This was not a momentous occasion whose outcomes did or could have affected how politics is done. The analysis is therefore mostly a theoretical exercise. (A detailed analysis of the workings of the French CCC – which dealt with setting practical policy – could be much more instructive in this sense.)

With this diminished significance, even a radically democratic process would hardly justify the notion that it would serve as a “first domino”. However, as the analysis below indicates, the process itself is far from living up to an aspiration as serving, if not as a template or a model of a democratic process, then at least as an inspiration. Landemore’s celebratory tone is wholly unwaranted.

As Landemore describes the Icelandic process, it had three innovative “open” aspects: the National Forum – an allotted body that met for one day and “established the main viewpoints and points of emphasis of the public concerning the organization of the country’s government and its constitution”, the assembly of amateurs – a body elected from among candidates that were not incumbent professional politicians and which was to draft a proposal for the constitution, and the crowdsourcing phase – an online platform on which the assembly of amateurs would post drafts of the constitution to which the public could post feedback comments on the platform itself or on social media platforms.
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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.
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The True Representation Pledge

This is the final chapter from my book published last year entitled “True Representation: How Citizens’ Assemblies and Sortition Will Save Democracy.”

What if we were to demand that every candidate for President, Senate and House of Representatives sign a True Representation Pledge? The pledge strategy can be used in any election, in any country, at the national, state, provincial or local level, wherever people want to demonstrate the potential of sortition and citizens’ assemblies, by targeting an important issue that politicians cannot resolve.

In signing the pledge, each candidate would promise, upon being elected to office, that:

  • They would quickly enact legislation to authorize and fund a national (or state, provincial or local) citizens’ assembly to decide an important issue, identified for the pledge.
  • The citizens’ assembly would be conducted with a briefing book prepared to fairly represent the pros and cons of a wide range of views on the chosen issue.
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Landemore: Open Democracy, part 7

Having argued in Chapter 3 that all mass democracy is representative (i.e., cannot be based on mass participation on a basis of equality), Landemore proceeds in chapters 4 and 5 to offer an analysis of representation which aims to determine which mechanisms of representation should be considered as good. The idea, it seems, is to define criteria for good representation that would allow the examination various forms of representation – electoral, allotted, self-selected, “liquid” – and assess their quality. Doing so we will “complicate our understanding of democratic representation” (p. 80) and allow us to overcome the established habit of regarding electoral representation as the only good representation.

All of this may seem like a constructive way to proceed, but in fact it is a framing of the question of government and democracy that is already committed to a set of problematic conventional assumptions. This framework conceives of government as being created through an act of delegation of power by individuals to representatives and thus focuses on the supposed act of delegation as the critical point which needs to be analyzed and rationalized. This leads to a formalistic discussion regarding the notion of representation and regarding formal properties of the mechanism of appointment of representatives. The author then finds herself encumbered by a set of questions to which the answers are often blurry or unsatisfactory. With this formalistic focus, government as an ongoing phenomenon in the world – its policy outcomes, primarily, but in general the role government plays in the world – is sidelined, ignored almost entirely. The result is a morass of “analytical hair-splitting” (Landemore’s own expression, p. 108), which does produce a lot of complication but despite much effort produces little insight.

Landemore follows convention, then, by putting heavy emphasis on the notion of a “representative” – someone (or some group) being recognized as “standing in for” a group (or for another group). This notion which is supposedly fundamental serves no useful purpose in the discussion as far as I can tell. A-priori it is unclear that such a “standing in for” relationship is necessary for government in general or for good government in particular. This is thus a poor starting point. Having started with “representation”, Landemore now spends her effort on defining what democratic representation is (representation that is “characterized by inclusiveness and equality”) and what legitimate representation is (representation that has been “properly authorized”). At the outset neither of these characteristics seem clearly meaningful or useful, and the lengthy discussion that ensues does little to dispel this suspicion. It is also rather surprising that in this theory of representation the matter of deliberation – which was so prominent in previous chapters – plays a very minor role.
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Landemore: Open Democracy, part 6

The term “direct democracy” could have two meanings that are a-priori distinct but are often conflated in discourse. The first meaning is: a system in which all group members are directly involved on an equal basis in all important decision making. The second meaning is: a system which employs certain devices, notably votes on legislation, involving a formal equality among citizens, and which avoids formal delegation of authority. Since the two meanings are not the same and since the first meaning is by definition a form of democracy, I’ll use “direct democracy” to mean the former. The second meaning I’ll call “non-delegatory mass politics”.

In chapter 3 of Open Democracy Landemore makes her argument against the standard reformist idea that direct democracy can and should be achieved through non-delegatory mass politics. As Landemore mentions, this idea is quite common among anti-electoralist movements. The idea certainly has an intuitive appeal since non-delegation seems like the obvious antithesis of elections. Devoting time and space to a tight argument against this idea seems therefore like a well-justified effort. Beyond the intellectual value of such an argument, it serves a practical purpose as well in

paving the way for democrats to reconquer sites of real power by disabusing them of the notion that gathering in public spaces in large numbers marching against authorities, or letting popular social media personalities end up as de facto leaders is enough, or even all that democratic.

Accepting that democracy is always in some sense representative […], and indeed needs to be, would save a lot of these social movements from the sort of conceptual and practical dead ends that the Zappatistas, Occupy, the Indignados and other proponents of assembly democracy in the Arab Spring, in Turkey and elsewhere count not find a way out of. It would allow for the civic energy mobilized by these movements to be channeled into constructive decision-making beyond demonstrating and occupying and generally go from noise to signal. (p. 76)

Furthermore, recognizing that representation is inevitable will help stave off the danger that “under the guise of immediacy and spontaneity […] self selected groups [would] speak[…] in the name of the whole” (p. 76).

Landemore’s position, like her position regarding elections, is commendably principled and uncompromising:

It is simply not the case that democracy as a political regime can ever be truly direct even at the small scale of a city or a canton as opposed to being always mediated and based on some kind of political delegation of political authority. (p. 63)

[T]he possibility of direct democracy breaks down as soon as the group expands beyond a few hundred people. (p. 65)

[T]he interesting question is not: direct or representative democracy? But instead: What kind of representation should we favor? The real opposition is […] between more or less democratic forms of represntative rule. On one extreme, ordinary people actually get to rule […] (as in Ancient Athens); at the other extreme the representative system is open only to an elite few. […] Our contemporary electoral ‘democracies’ fall somewhere on this continuum and, arguably, rather close to the elitist, closed side. (p. 78)

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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.
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Landemore: Open Democracy, part 4

Landemore describes (p. 34) Bernard Manin’s analysis of the electoralist regime as a mixed regime whose oligarchical element is the use of elections which favor those who have a chance to be elected and whose democratic elements are the periodic renewal of the mandate and – to a lesser extent – from the principle of the freedom of opinion and from public debate of ideas. She then discusses how this regime is defended by two normative political scientists: Nadia Urbinati and Jurgen Habermas.

For Urbinati this regime is democratic because representation is “a mode of participation that can activate a variety of forms of control and oversight”. The representatives supposedly give voice to their voters and create an alignment between voters’ wishes and actual policy outcomes. Landemore rejects this “metaphorical” participation as being unconvincing.

Landemore describes Habermas’s model as resting on deliberation in two tracks – the mass track and the decision-making track. Landemore sees the model as lacking an explanation of how the mass track influences the decision-making track in a meaningful way. Even if it did, she asks, how is the unregulated mass discussion a proper way to set the decision-making agenda? In particular, mass deliberation inevitably leads, Landemore says, to the formation of parties and thus to partisanship which is antithetical to deliberation.

In short, Landemore points out, what seems like a fairly straightforward point, that “deliberative democracy” is some combination of naive wishful thinking and apologia for the status quo. What is less straightforward is why, given that Landemore recognizes that this is the case, she continues to “embrace” this theory of democracy.

The road not taken

In the second section of chapter 2 Landemore asks why the new regimes of the end of the 18th century represented an ideology of competence of virtue of the leadership rather than an ideology of mirroring of the people or a leadership which is “the people in miniature” – when both ideologies were available and discussed at the time. One possible answer, which Landemore attributes to Yves Sintomer, is that the missing ingredient was a grasp of statistical sampling. Another answer is Manin’s claim that the notion of consent of governed, expressed through voting, was dominant.
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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.
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Landemore: Open Democracy, part 2

“Open”

Revisiting briefly the matter of the title of the book: In Part 1 I objected to Landemore’s choice of the term “open democracy” to describe her ideal for government. In short, I find that the word “open” is essentially meaningless and I suspect that the reason for using it as a modifier is that doing so allows to apply the word “democracy” (as in “closed democracy”) to the existing Western eletions-based regimes. On page 15 of the book, Landemore herself notes that the term is already used and abused in politics – as when it refers to transparency. Landemore also makes the connotation of open-source software explicit and claims that there is a likeness between “open democracy” and open source software because “in a democracy the law should be something to which all have access and on which all can make an impact. Everyone should be able to write and claim authorship over the law”. Again, this is too vague to be useful. It is certainly not true at all that open-source software is democratic in any meaningful sense. For one thing, open source is often financed and controlled de-facto by powerful interests. In fact, if anything an analogy may be drawn between open-source software and the “closed” electoral system where a superficial, formal equality is a mask for inherent systemic inequality.

Technology, direct democracy

Too often political reform advocates have a laissez faire “it’s all good” attitude and they embrace any proposal that is making the rounds. Having an “open mind” may sound like a good idea, but in fact not examining proposals critically is recipe for dissipating energy and missing rare opportunities for change. Landemore does not make this mistake. Despite the invocation of the open-source connotation, Landemore explains that her book is not about democracy through technology. This is good. The barriers to democracy are not technological and focusing on technological solutions is therefore a distraction. Another thing Landemore is explicitly not offering is the “antiquated and largely impractical ideal of direct democracy” (p. 17) – a system where mass participation is a central feature. Her reasoning will be laid out in chapter 3 of the book, so it remains to be seen how convincingly it is argued that this is not the right way forward. But argumentation aside, the conclusion is the right one in my opinion. Rejecting mass participation is therefore an important step in clearing the ground for better ideas.

What is an elite?

On page 18 Landemore has an important clarification of the term “elites”. She writes:
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Landemore: Open Democracy, part 1

I have recently started reading Hélène Landemore’s book Open Democracy (2020, Princeton University Press). Having gone through the first two chapters, I find the book very useful and I highly recommend it. Despite its somewhat clichéd title, and despite the occasional bow toward the self-serving traditional Western theory of democracy, Landemore is in fact offering (it seems so far, I should say) a rather radical critique of the status quo and does not shy away from throwing some heavy punches at theorists who in one way or another defend oligarchical ideologies. In fact, Landemore presents – even if intermittently and obliquely – a thoroughgoing critique of the elections-based system that is not only better argued than, say, that of Van Reybrouck, but also more radical than his. I can’t think of a comparable book from a mainstream US political scientist. (Maybe Dahl’s A Preface to Political Theory?) The fact that Landemore, now at Yale, is originally French, may be playing a significant role.

Here is a first installment of my comments. I hope to have quite a few more posts discussing Open Demcoracy.

“Open Democracy”

To start: the title, “Open Democracy”. This does not bode well. Is there such a thing as a “closed democracy”? Is this making an implied assertion that our current system is a closed democracy, while we should be aiming at an open democracy? The term “open” has the odor of a buzzword (as in “open source”) – a feel good term which like “democracy” itself, or “people power”, could really mean anything.

On page 2 (I am reading the electronic version, so page numbers are approximate), when discussing what are supposedly historical examples of democracies, Landemore gives what seems like a definition of “open democracy”: a situation where “in theory”, any member of the political community “could access the center of power and participate in the various stages of decision-making. Citizens could literally walk into the public space to be given a chance to speak and be heard”. This is contrasted with the modern situation where “many have the feeling” of being “left out of the most important centers of political power, while the political personnel form an elite that is separate from them”.
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