Can “Lottocracy” Save Democracy From Itself?: Hélène Landemore on Inclusive Governance

Historians in the News
tags: democracy, Political theory, Representative Democracy

For well over a decade, scholars and pundits have proclaimed that democracy is in a state of crisis. Some argued that the epic failure to bring democracy to Iraq and Libya, and events in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, indicated a global “democratic recession.” Meanwhile, China’s political rise and economic advance, have indicated a viable political alternative to the “Western model of democracy.” Indeed, the Western model of democracy has not only become the embattled cause of right-wing nationalists, but the pandemic has shown that these states are ill equipped to deal with national emergencies requiring high levels of coordinated international solutions. On all sides, the critics argue, democracy appears endangered.

Yet what if “the crisis of democracy” is actually a sign of democracy’s vitality? On this reading, Brexit and Trumpism are, in reality, the products of resentment and distrust of political personnel and institutions that are failing to deliver the promise of democracy. In other words, democracy is not being rejected per se but rather an elitist political system that is failing to protect the power of the people. Such a suggestion lies at the heart of Hélène Landemore’s new book, Open Democracy: Reinventing Popular Rule for the Twenty-First Century, which argues that the problem today is not democracy in itself but rather the existing paradigm of democracy, which is too elitist and is incapable of fulfilling the democratic expectations of the people.

Landemore—a professor of political science at Yale University—traces the problem back to the 18th century and the emergence of modern representative democracy, a state of governance outlined in The Federalist Papers, which equates the decisions of elected elites with the people’s choice to vote for them. The problem, argues Landemore, is that this equating has proven false; as the system is explicitly oligarchic, elites all too often proven unresponsive to the wishes of the electorate, and we have reached the point where the people are rebelling against the system. Rather than reject democracy, though, Landemore calls for a more inclusive version of it that she describes as “open democracy.” It is undergirded by five key principles: participation rights, deliberation, majority rule, democratic representation, and transparency.


DANIEL STEINMETZ-JENKINS: Prior to Joe Biden’s election, pundits and intellectuals regularly argued that democracy was in a state of crisis. What Trump represented for these critics was the breakdown of democratic norms brought on by a populist backlash against established electoral elites. You, however, state the opposite: “One could argue,” you claim, “that the crisis of democracy as we know it is a sign of its vitality as a normative ideal.” Why do you see democratic vitality where others saw a democratic deficiency?

HÉLÈNE LANDEMORE: I have become convinced that the regimes we call “democracies” are not democracies in the authentic sense of the term and at the very least not sufficiently democratic by weaker standards (assuming, for example, that democracy is a continuum). Because our current systems fail to meet the democratic ideals of inclusion and equality, they end up also failing the good governance standard of basic responsiveness to citizens’ preferences. This failure in turn leads to citizens’ profound feelings of alienation from the systems that govern them, leading some of them to endorse various forms of reactionary populism.

One interpretation of our current predicament is thus that people are not rejecting democracy as an ideal but simply rejecting a system that claims to be a democracy but really isn’t. And if that’s the case, that’s healthy and a sign of democratic vitality, in my view.

The problem, however, is that most people who are unhappy with our so-called representative democracy are unsure about how to fix it. Many tend to believe that it’s just a matter of electing the right guy (they rarely imagine a woman in that position) or bending the rules in favor of the party that cares more about the values they think are right. So, in the end, there are a number of people whose desire for self-rule and freedom will lead them straight into the arms of populists or authoritarians. But I think there is a way we could redirect that frustration and desire for control toward constructive, perhaps even radical, authentic democratic reforms.

In other words, I don’t disagree that there is a crisis of democracy, but for me, Trump is a symptom, not a cause of democratic breakdown. If you get rid of Trump, you still have a failing democracy, and it’s just a matter of time before another Trump comes along.


Read entire article at The Nation

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