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.
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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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This Is Not a Democracy

A version of this article was first published in the run-up to the 2020 general election in Aotearoa/New Zealand by the public interest journalism platform The Dig as part of a series on Transitional Democracy. You can find the original article here.

By Alison McCulloch

Aren’t we lucky, we’re constantly told, that we live in a democracy, a government by and of and for the people. Except our system of government is none of those things. It’s certainly not by the people, it’s barely of the people and we’ve surely gathered more than enough social and economic data to show it’s not for the people.

But how could it be otherwise when it’s based on elections, given that elections are incompatible with democracy. No, that wasn’t a typo: elections are incompatible with democracy. It might seem a surprising statement on its face, given we are raised to equate the two. But one need only scratch the surface of how electoral systems like ours actually work to see the truth of the claim.

What elections actually do is elevate elites to power — those with greater than ordinary wealth, influence, connections, education, charisma, celebrity, privilege… And rule by elites is in fact the antithesis of ‘Democracy’ which properly applies only to governments where power is exercised by the people, the vast majority of whom are ordinary. Electoral systems do not do this; they cannot do this.

The Westminster-based system we live under serves us very badly. Not only is it undemocratic, it is unresponsive to ordinary people, it is cruel and divisive, and yet virtually from the cradle we are taught that it is sacrosanct, an article of religious faith, untouchable, and that while we might tinker around its edges, there is and can be no better, more democratic system of government.

But this system is a cultural product like any other, something Māori (see glossary at end for discussion of Māori terms) know only too well, having had it imposed on them as if prior to the arrival of British colonists, this land were a kind of political terra nullius. It simply wasn’t so. It’s a point the report of Matike Mai Aotearoa (the independent Māori working group on constitutional transformation) makes in setting out both a Māori critique of the current system, and proposals for a way forward.

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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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Partitioned Sortition: Ensuring Proportional Representation despite Random Selection

This post was withdrawn at the request of the author. You can still read the post on the author’s blog.

Consent of the governed

A few months ago I offered the following operational definition of “democracy”:

A regime is democratic to the extent that the people who are governed by that regime believe it serves their interests, where their opinions are equally weighted.

This definition is (quite close to being) an objective operationalization of the notion of democracy, I claimed. (It is not a full operationalization since the method by which people’s opinions about the regime are collected still needs to be fully specified. That, however, is an open-ended research program, so it cannot be fit into the space of a blog post.) It is certainly much more specific than the “essentially contested” literal “people power”. It is also more specific and less open for subjective interpretation than procedural definitions such as Schumpeter’s or Dahl’s, as well as having the advantage of not making quite absurd a-priori assumptions about the value of elections (or any other institutional procedure).

The proposal garnered some mixed reactions. Along with some support, there was a lot of criticism. Several commenters were concerned that this metric would indicate that China, Russia or other rivals of the West are more democratic than the West itself, a notion which they found patently absurd, it seems. Another objection was that an outcomes-based criterion for democracy cannot be satisfactory because any outcome can be produced by a dictatorship. It was also argued that according to this definition those who expose corruption in government and thus reduce trust in government could be blamed for destroying democracy. Occasionally the tone was that such a definition was a revisionist innovation and that whatever the definition of democracy is (no real alternative was offered, I believe), this obviously does not come close.

This seemed to lead the discussion to a dead-end. Yes, Prof. Wang Shaoguang has a pretty similar definition for what he calls “substantive democracy” and a survey he cites shows that this idea has wide support in China and its surrounding. But Prof. Wang and the Chinese are Chinese, so clearly they have nothing to teach Westerners about democracy (or maybe these are not even their true opinions and they are merely saying whatever they are saying in order to please whoever is eavesdropping). Moreover, even Prof. Wang still leaves room for “formal democracy” that would be defined differently.

It is only with great and inexplicable delay that I have recently realized how solid and respected is the pedigree of the proposed definition. Continue reading

Ferey: Populism against science: a new political cleavage?, Part 2/2

This is part 2 of a translation of an op-ed by Camille Ferey in BibliObs. Part 1 is here.

Analyzing the legitimate reasons for criticizing science

If the ideological dimension of the cleavage between rationalism and populism has been clarified, there remains a real phenomenon behind it. There exists a mass of untruths (lies and errors) whose effects on humanity are deleterious: climate-skepticism, historical denialism, anti-Darwinism and various kinds of conspiracy theories. But there is a pressing need to analyze the real causes of these untruths rather than to attribute them to the mental dysfunction of idiots: democracy cannot be defended by being anti-democrats.

The foremost of these causes is a political one: the process of scientification of politics and technicalization of democracy. Liberal capitalism largely subordinates collective decisions to mathematical economic models that are presented by a stratum of “experts” that are linked to power as eternal truths. In this way, presenting political choices as scientific ones, a rhetoric that was widely used in the management of the COVID19 pandemic (the decisions, said Edouard Phillipe, are not political, they are scientific), exposes science to skepticism from that point on whenever choices prove to have negative consequences. How can we believe, for example, the irrefutability of economic laws after the 2008 crisis? Dismissing any critical reflection of a technical-scientific vision of politics, immediately branding such reflection as mistrustful and irrational populism, and eliminating from public debate a set of subjects under the pretext that they are matters of science, thus contributes directly to putting science in doubt.

Another cause, this one sociological, can explain the lack of confidence in science. As history and sociology show clearly: no science is neutral in the sense that it may be produced by an observer with no characteristics and no purpose. Science is produced by scientists and if the scientists all belong to the same social class or to the same group, their products will necessarily be affected. And so, the fact that over the centuries scientists were men can explain the great delay in research about feminine sexual organs as well as about certain diseases such a endometriosis, which afflict only women.

If today women are slowly gaining ground in science (even if with much difficulty, for the scientific establishment is barely opening up and renewing itself), this is not happening with regards to the working class due to the length and uncertainty of the path leading to a career in research (being inversely proportional to the ridiculous sums and the small numbers of the scholarships available). Therefore, as science is going to be done by the wealthier classes, it will necessarily to some extent be done for the wealthy. Objectivity and neutrality grow from pluralism and equality. Without those, as the philosopher John Dewey wrote in 1927, “a class of experts is inevitably so removed from common interests that it becomes a class with private interests and private knowledge, which in social matters is no knowledge at all. [The Public And Its Problems, p. 207]”
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Ferey: Populism against science: a new political cleavage?, Part 1

Camille Ferey is a doctoral student at the Université de Paris-Nanterre where she is writing a thesis about theories of participative democracy and democratic social movements. She wrote the following op-ed in BibliObs back in July.

Populism against science: a new political cleavage?

Rarely does science provoke as many hopes and controversies as it has been doing over the last few months.

It is a matter of great importance: upon the progress of science depends the neutralization of a disease that has confined half of humanity, upon its instructions and warnings depend our rights to travel, to meet and to kiss. However, many commentators talk about the threat of “distrust” that undermines the authority of science, if not of the authority of Truth itself, in our democracies. Furthermore, this dominant narrative confounds this phenomenon of skepticism (which is very real) with a different phenomenon, a political one: populism. The political cleavage is then reduced to a binary opposition between reason and populism, and consequently all criticism of scientific and political institutions is ruled out.

Mistrust of science and political non-conformism: a problematic confounding

It is a widely circulated narrative, with its opinion polls, its statistical studies, its indicators and its media talking points: democracies are suffering because of the irrational acceptance by a growing number of citizens of a mass of fake news, alternative truths and conspiracy theories (vaccines are bad for your health, the theory of evolution is a lie, climate change is a hoax). Yet, this narrative never asks whether what is taking place is a rejection of scientific theories, of scientific protocols, of scientists, of institutions of research, of technical applications of science or of its political uses. This vagueness allows to systematically associate this distrust with a specific phenomenon: populism, which is designated willy-nilly as both a cause and an effect of the regime of errors and lies.

The latest CEVIPOF poll on the relations between science and society establishes a correlation between, on the one hand, “an indicator” of mistrust calculated based on questions such as “Do you think that science brings more good than bad, as much good as bad, or more bad than good?”, and, on the other hand, “and indicator of populism”, based on the following questions: “Politicians are generally corrupt? A good political system is one where citizens rather than a government decide what they think is better for the country? Democracy functions best if the representatives are allotted citizens?”. A surprising definition of “populism”, which rather resembles the definition of democracy, or maybe of common sense.
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