By Joshua Yesnowitz, DCI Fellow
The central question of the first-year writing seminar that I have taught this Fall semester regards the status of American democracy. In our class discussions, we have considered the defining characteristics of what we might term a healthy democracy, we have examined the challenges to democratic health that the United States presently faces, and we have examined potential reforms that might improve the nation’s democratic status. Given that the course has been meeting during the 2020 campaign, it is unsurprising that much of our attention has been focused on the role of elections in a democratic system. In reflecting upon the purposes of elections in a democratic society, William Hudson (2021), the author of our primary text, argues that US elections are quite undemocratic because among its many institutional design deficiencies, US elections do not allow for productive deliberation.[i] The partisan incentives for participants are such that several ideals of deliberation – open-minded inquiry, engaged dialogue and constructive disagreement, decision-making diversity, intellectual humility – are incompatible with the US electoral process.
To promote deliberative values in elections, Hudson (2021: 230) proposes increasing funding for public media and embracing the use of citizen assemblies and deliberative opinion polls, both of which could facilitate nuanced discussion and civic development.[ii] While these efforts are certainly well-intentioned and may succeed in making elections (marginally) more deliberative, Hélène Landemore, in her insightful new book Open Democracy: Reinventing Popular Rule for the 21st Century (2020), argues that deliberative democrats should instead advocate for “selection mechanism[s] for representatives” that would lead to legislative bodies “with good deliberative potential.”[iii]
Unlike reformers who seek to expand opportunities for deliberation before elections (among candidates and voters) and after elections (among officials), Landemore is provocatively suggesting that, if we are serious about popular rule, we should be globally shifting to democratic systems in which representative (but nonelectoral) deliberative practices and procedures are privileged in place of elections. Given the barriers to participation, the limits to who is perceived as a credible candidate for office, and the unequal outcomes that an electoral system often produces, Landemore (2020: 43) claims that elections “may legitimately be seen as preventing rather than facilitating genuine rule by the people.”
A simple yet important point that Landemore emphasizes throughout is that although the concepts have often been referred to interchangeably, representative democracy does not necessarily have to mean electoral democracy. Seeking to correct this misperception, Landemore (2020: 79) proposes “a non-electoral form of democracy that is both representative and deliberative.” This open democracy framework is a set of principles designed to maximize democraticity, that is “the degree to which a given form of representation satisfies or expresses the principle of inclusiveness and equality among citizens.”[iv] I will address one of the five institutional principles in this brief reflection – deliberation – not only due to the substantive focus of the website on which this blog post appears, but also because Landemore (2020: 37) herself claims that the objective of open democracy is to place “deliberation front and center in a theory of democracy.”[v]
In support of this proposal to move toward a system of democratic representation realized via deliberative decision processes, Landemore expertly synthesizes the voluminous scholarship on the empirical benefits of deliberation.[vi] While our author highlights many of these promising findings – for example, policies shepherded through deliberative efforts are well-reasoned; the chances of resolving collective problems are improved when deliberative approaches are employed; and ancillary positive outcomes include increased levels of community spiritedness[vii] – Landemore finds deliberation to be most desirable because of the democratic ideal of popular rule it signifies. Deliberative democrats, moreover, do not merely “consent to power” but also “exercise [their] power.”[viii] Especially refreshing is Landemore’s (2020: 140) recognition that deliberative bodies are arenas of “positive dissensus.” In these spaces, objections are welcome, conflict is present, compromise is not fetishized, and civility is not an end in itself.
In Landemore’s open democracy, deliberation would be practiced in “mini-publics” across the nation. Analogous to a “supersized version of [a] jury,”[ix] a mini-public is
a large all-purpose, randomly selected assembly of between 150 and a thousand people or so, gathered for an extended period of time…for the purpose of agenda-setting and law-making of some kind, and connected via crowdsourcing platforms and deliberative forms (including other mini-publics) to the larger population.[x]
Citizen participation will be determined by sortition (a lottery-based system of selection) and deliberators will be expected to serve for a certain period of time before their rotation in the mini-public is completed.[xi] Despite its non-electoral character, the deliberative form of democratic representation acquires its legitimacy, according to Landemore (2020: 105), from its “intrinsic democratic credentials” and assembly members will be duty-bound by a “discursive”[xii] form of accountability to provide justifications for their decisions.
The notion of “representing and being represented in turn”[xiii] is appealing, but is it viable? In the final chapters of Open Democracy, Landemore begins to explore this question through an examination of recent real-world examples that approximate some of the deliberative procedures favored by the author. (The word approximate is significant here, because all of these efforts have occurred within electoral democracies.) Iceland’s constitutional revision process in the early 2010s serves as the primary case study – with some supplementary consideration of France’s 2019 Citizen Convention on Climate Change and Brazil’s National Public Policy Conferences (which have been held since the early 2000s). While Landemore acknowledges some of the obstacles that must be overcome (including the enduring challenge of inclusion and diversity along with resistance from elected officials to enact some of the citizen-led proposals), the narrative also demonstrates genuine promise and opens up possibilities for subsequent developments. As future open democracy efforts proceed, though, a note of caution regarding the role of experts in the deliberative process is warranted. Despite Landemore’s assurance that administrators are an important (if adjacent) part of the proposed framework – “experts [will be] on tap, not on top,”[xiv] – I remain concerned about institutional memory loss caused by such high turnover (demanded by the rotation principle) and the strong possibility of “simulative democracy”[xv] (also known as elite capture whereby professional organized groups may exploit amateur assembly members in search of relevant information).
When discussing the boldness of the open democracy framework with my class earlier this Fall, several students expressed skepticism over the audacity and scope of Landemore’s project. I share some of these reservations, but as I suggested at the time, the most constructive way to engage with the text is to consider open democracy both as a formal proposal to be critiqued but also as a set of aspirational ideals upon which to critically assess our existing institutions. With its explicit commitment to inclusive and equitable forms of democratic representation and its contextualization of the relationship between partisan politics and deliberation, Open Democracy allows us to broaden our horizons for democratic reform. Returning to the beginning of this post, would open democracy improve the health of US democracy? Of course. Regrettably, though, the current state of democratic life in the United States is in such a perilous state that this metric is indeed a very low hurdle to overcome.[xvi] Hélène Landemore’s thoughtful provocation compels us to think about how to make the desirable possible; the next step, dare I say, is to deliberate on these alternative futures.
[i] Hudson argues that many features of the American system contribute to the undemocratic nature of American elections. Each of these design choices (e.g., the Electoral College, a malapportioned US Senate, separation of powers framework, single-member districts) undermine democracy because in addition to the preclusion of deliberation, they also lead to a “lack of equal representation” and an “inability to form electoral majorities.” See William E. Hudson, American Democracy in Peril: Eight Challenges to America’s Future, Ninth Edition (Washington: CQ Press. 2021: 189). While reform discussions about how to respond to these structural matters are vitally important, this post addresses proposals that seek to remedy aspects of the deliberation deficit.
[ii] For more on the democratic promise of deliberative polling, see the extensive work by James S. Fishkin and colleagues at the Stanford University Center for Deliberative Democracy (https://cdd.stanford.edu/). For media coverage of an “America in One Room” conference, one of the Center’s recent deliberative experiments, see Emily Badger and Kevin Quealy, “These Americans Tried to Listen to One Another. A Year Later, Here’s How They’re Voting.” New York Times (24 October 2020), https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/10/24/upshot/these-526-voters-a-year-later.html.
[iii] Hélène Landemore, Open Democracy: Reinventing Popular Rule for the 21st Century (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2020), 40. For an article-length presentation of open democracy principles, see Hélène Landemore, “Deliberative Democracy as Open, Not (Just) Representative Democracy.” Daedalus 146:3 (Summer 2017), 51-63. For further insight into the development of Landemore’s research program, see Nathan Heller, “Politics Without Politicians.” New Yorker (19 February 2020), https://www.newyorker.com/news/the-future-of-democracy/politics-without-politicians.
[iv] Landemore (2020: 87).
[v] The five principles of open democracy, as detailed in Chapter 6 (pp. 128-151) of Open Democracy, are (1) participation rights; (2) deliberation; (3) the majoritarian principle; (4) democratic representation; and (5) transparency. Together as a group in the order they have been presented, these principles, Landemore (2020: 129) asserts, “aim to institutionalize the ideal of popular rule as the equal right to participate in self-rule.”
[vi] For a fine review of this research, see Nicole Curato, John S. Dryzek, Selen A. Ercan, Carolyn M. Hendriks and Simon Niemeyer, “Twelve Key Findings in Deliberative Democracy Research.” Daedalus 146:3 (Summer 2017), 28-38. As cited in Landemore (2020: 139)
[vii] Landemore (2020: 37).
[viii] Landemore (2020: xiv).
[ix] Landemore (2020: 13). The jury comparison is somewhat unfortunate considering how Americans often look for ways in which to avoid court service.
[x] Landemore (2020: 13). These groups, according to Goodin and Dryzek (2006: 220), must be “small enough to be genuinely deliberative, and representative enough to be genuinely democratic.” See Robert E. Goodin and John S. Dryzek, “Deliberative Impacts: The Macro-Political Uptake of Mini-Publics.” Politics & Society 34:2 (2006), 219-244. As quoted in Landemore (2020: 64).
[xi] Landemore (2020: 142).
[xii] Landemore (2020: 203).
[xiii] Landemore (2020: xvii).
[xiv] Landemore (2020: 192).
[xv] Landemore (2020: 195).
[xvi] At the time of this writing, the Republican Party is seeking to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election without any evidence to support such an effort. When majoritarian democracy as an ideal has been rejected by a major political party, I fear that introducing proposals which seek to deemphasize the role of elections would be weaponized by bad faith political actors.