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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Chevallier: The chic populism of participative democracy

A column by Arthur Chevallier in Le Point is yet another condemnation of the allotted committee monitoring the French vaccination campaign. The author sees the creation of the committee as a sign of weakness and hesitation. The government, he asserts, must act resolutely and dispose of attempts to over-communicate.

Chevallier is an editor at Passés composés and the author of the book “Napoléon et le Bonapartisme” published by Que sais-je ?.

The chic populism of participative democracy

Jan. 5, 2021

The allotment of 35 citizens to follow the vaccination campaign was aimed to be the perfect exercise in communication. It turned out to be the opposite.

Democracy is not about weakness. It is not about the promotion of amateurism. The creation of a committee of 35 allotted citizens which is supposed to follow the vaccination against Covid-19 invited mockery. What should have been proof of transparency turned into evidence of failure. If criticising the management of the crisis is less a matter of courage than of cynicism, since the matter is not as easy as it may seems, it is still necessary to denounce the unhealthy attempt to compensate for lack of efficacy by populism. Horizotalization of power is an illusion. Democracy did not gain its prominence by getting amateurs to run complex matters, but rather by its successes.

Without being aware of it, progressivism gives way to a stereotype of recationism. Since the 19th century, an ideology which may be called counter-revolutionary mocks democracy for being “feminie”, attaching to it labels such as the well-known “prostitute”, and hurling insults claiming that it is incapable of creating a powerful and harmonious state. History proves the opposite. Democracy is in fact quite often a radicalization of politics. In antiquity, Athens was at its height of power and imperialism at the 5th century BC, being its age where its democracy attained its most sophisticated form.
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Sicard: Replacing representative democracy with participative democracy is dangerous, Part 2/2

This is the second and final part of a translation of an article by Claude Sicard published in July 2020 in Le Figaro. The first part is here.

In order to put an end to the Gilets Jaunes revolt, Macron embarked in January 2019 upon what he called the “Great National Conversation”. This has consisted of organizing huge meetings in city halls with the participation of mayors and the local elected politicians, and urging the population to share their comments in person in during the meetings or through an online platform. Macron himself made many animated appearances in these meetings all over the country, which usually lasted more than four hours. Macron would take off his jacket and respond to all the questions addressed to him. Meetings took place in more than 10,000 municipalities, and 1.9 million comments were made. The “Great Conversation” was concluded with a press conference on April 25th, 2019. On that occasion Macron said: “I wished to meet you in order to draw the main lessons from the Great National Conversation and to propose to the nation directions for a new way that our citizens are looking for, a new way for our republic”. He has described the Great Conversation as “an unprecedented exercise for contemporary democracies”. This was therefore a mass popular consultation whose goal was to orient the actions of public institutions over the coming years.

That was followed by a second step. Following the coronavirus crisis, on May 25th, the “Health Conference at Ségur”. The crisis required great dedication from health professionals in order to make up for grave weaknesses of our public hospital system. It was therefore necessary to take their many demands into account without any further delay. Macron saw himself as forced to try to address as well as possible those demands, having been the first praise the exceptional dedication of the health personnel during the crisis, going as far as calling the first responders “national heros”. Macron initiated another great consultation, this time among 300 principal actor in the health sector. This was a second exercise, then, in participative democracy. The goal of this consultation was particularly ambitious. The prime minister defined it as follows in his opening speach: “To construct together the future of the hospital, to heal a system that was blocked and impoverished, and build a new health system organization in each territory”. The participants were given an incredibly short period for reforming our public health system: a month and a half at the most.
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Claude Sicard: Replacing representative democracy with participative democracy is dangerous, Part 1

A translation of an article from Le Figaro.

Replacing representative democracy with participative democracy is dangerous
Claude Sicard, economist and international consultant
July 6, 2020

Seeing his popularity ratings decline, Emmanuel Macron appeals to the French people for a reform. For this economist, the head of state’s seemingly bright idea is a mistake because making decisions concerning the future of a country requires thorough study and the assistance of experts.

Macron at the Citizen Convention for the Climate at the Élysée, June 29, 2020.

The distance in our country between civil society and the institutions never stops increasing. In every democratic system it is the law that the majority prevails: the dominant fraction imposes its will on the minority, and the electoral moment is decisive for the duration of the mandate of the elected representatives. These principles are increasingly questioned these days. Minorities are increasingly unwilling not to be heard, and moreover they too often observe that the elected do not always have the virtues which they claimed to have during the campaign. Pierre Rosanvallon, a noted researcher of democracy, tells us that we are seeing in our modern democracies the rise of the “people as a judge”. The “monitoring citizen”, he says, is replacing the “voting citizen”. In this way a tendency has developed in our modern societies toward the creation of “counter-democracies”.

CEVIPOF surveys confirm this claim: 70% of the French think that in our country democracy “does not function very well”, and assert that they have no confidence in the ability of members of parliament to address issues that the country is facing. The American political scientist Yascha Mounk, a Harvard professor, writes in his book The People vs. Democracy published in 2018 that “in North America and in Western Europe, a growing number of citizens are turning their backs on democracy: they are feeling that they have less and less influence over political decisions”.
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Today German Bundestag Live Committee Discussion of “Citizen Engagement” via Sortition

With the title, “A New Form of Citizen Participation,” a special subcommittee of the German Parliament [of the Bundestag or popular assembly] convenes a “technical discussion” of experts on October 6 at noon Berlin time on the upcoming citizens’ assembly on “the role of Germany in the world.” It will be live-streamed at

“A lot-based Citizens Council will produce a report on Germany’s role in the world. This project will be implemented as an independent undertaking of the More Democracy association [Mehr Demokratie e. V.] under the patronage of the President of the Bundestag,” reads the announcement of the Bundestag.

It continues that this kind of participation has been practiced in Ireland since 2012 as “Citizens’ Assembly.” The ambassador of Ireland will be a special guest of the committee to report on the Irish experience with “citizens’ councils.” [In Germany the term Buergerrat or “citizen council” has come to mean an allotted body of either the size of a panel or an assembly; it seems, the literal translation of assembly has the connotation of an Ekklesia or gathering of all.]

  • Dr. Nicholas O’Brien, Ambassador from Ireland
  • Roman Huber, Executive Director, Mehr Demokratie e. V. [More Democracy]
  • Dr. Siri Hummel, Acting Director, Maecenata Institute for Philanthropy and Civil Society
  • Dr. Ansgar Klein, Managing Policy Director, Federal Network for Citizen Engagement, [Bundesnetzwerk Bürgerschaftliches Engagement (BBE)] Advisory Board of Bürgerrat Demokratie [the organization which organized the CA on democratic reform in 2019]
  • Univ.-Prof. Dr. Roland Lhotta, Helmut-Schmidt-Universität Hamburg, Professor, Political Science, specializing in the German Federal System

More info in English regarding the upcoming CA on Germany’s role in the world:

Mark Rice-Oxley: Should citizens assemblies be mandatory?

Mark Rice-Oxley, acting membership editor of The Guardian, wrote a short piece entitled “Should citizens assemblies be mandatory?” He is supportive of the idea, writing: “Last year, I went to a citizens’ assembly. It was one of the most optimistic moments of 2019 for me.” “Perhaps a stint or two on a citizens’ assembly should be mandatory, like jury service or driving tests.”

Radio Podcast Series “Democracy in Crisis” on Democracy and Sortition

Last month, with WORT FM in Madison, Wisconsin, I helped organize a three-part radio podcast series “Democracy in Crisis,” that asked what’s wrong with elections and explored alternatives such as assemblies and juries. Thanks very much to those who took part. Additional thanks to Chris Forman, Yoram Gat, Adam Cronkright, Keith Sutherland, and Manuel Arriaga for suggestions and introductions.

We aimed to include differing approaches and points of views in each round-table discussion, and largely succeeded, imho. My own view—that in modern mass politics, characterized by polarization and geographical and intellectual self-sorting, minipublics function as exceptional, pluralistic spaces for the formation of citizenship—was nowhere represented; so, that gives me at least one motive for a follow-up program.

Below are links to the episodes, also found in most podcast applications under the program “8 O’clock Buzz,” published on Aug 27, 28, 29.

Democracy In Crisis, Part 1: What’s Wrong With Elections?
Across the globe, electoral fraud, corruption, disenfranchisement of minorities and the specter of fascism now seem the rule rather than the exception. In 2017, the London-based Economist Democracy Index hit its lowest score ever, including the downgrading of the United States from a “Full Democracy” to a “Flawed Democracy.” Today, we start a three-part series, Democracy in Crisis, which will explore the failures of our current electoral system and perhaps, provide some hope for an alternative model.
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Wang Shaoguang: Representative and Representational Democracy, Part 3/3

Part one, part two.

Wang’s skeptical evaluation of the Western conception of democracy and of the arguments for elections as a democratic tool are in fact merely a segue to his main topic which is the “Mass Line”. According to Wang, the Mass Line is the basis for decision making by the Chinese system of government. Wang describes the Mass Line as an ongoing process by which decision makers interact with the population in order to become informed and shape public policy. Wang quotes Mao Zedong as follows:

In every aspect of my party’s practical work, if leadership is to be correct it must come from the masses and go to the masses. This is to say, we must collect the views of the masses (disparate and un-systematic views) and, through study, turn them into collective and systematic views, and then we must go back to the masses to disseminate and explain them, turning them into the masses’ own views, enabling the masses to persevere, and to see these views implemented in practice. From the practice of the masses we must conduct examinations to determine whether these views are correct. We then must once again collect the views of the masses, and once again go back to the masses and persevere. This endless cycle will each time be more correct than the last, richer and more vivid than the last. This is the epistemology of Marxism.

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The benevolent dictator

The concept of the “benevolent dictator” occasionally plays a role in political discussion of democracy. The general thrust of the “benevolent dictator” argument is that democracy cannot be defined in terms of its outcomes because “a benevolent dictatorship” can produce any given outcomes, while still, by assumption, being anti-democratic.

Ober (2006), for example, says this:

Democracy is shown to be a non-instrumental good-in-itself (as well as an instrument in securing other goods) by extrapolation from the Aristotelian premise that humans are political animals. Because humans are by nature language-using, as well as sociable and common-end-seeking beings, the capacity to associate in public decisions is constitutive of the human being-kind. Association in decision is necessary (although insufficient) for happiness in the sense of eudaimonia. A benevolent dictator who satisfied all other conditions of justice, harms her subjects by denying them opportunity to associate in the decisions by which their community is governed.

This line of argument – the participative conception of democracy, or Schumpeter’s “classical doctrine” – sounds very high minded. Beyond the policy objective, political participation enriches the participators and ennobles them. As an argument against sortition, or against an outcomes-based conception of democracy it is, however, less than convincing.
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Community Cooperative in Australia Conspicuously Selects Board via Sortition

The Kyneton and District Town Square Co-op set up as an umbrella organization of community groups to democratically manage a historic school building / town square in Australia has a constitution that requires some board members be chosen by sortition.

Scroll down on their home page to see a video of Nivek Thompson speak about sortition and pick five board members out of a hat. Also, several of the activists pose with a placard “Lottery Democracy Lunch” and a sign reads “Lottery democracy arrives in Kyneton.”