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.

The purpose of these principles is to make democracy less elitist by making it open to all citizens equally. She believes that this can be done by instituting novel forms of non-electoral democratic representation: for example, there is the lottocracy, a system in which representatives do not run for office but are randomly selected to serve fixed political terms. A lottocracy, Landemore suggests, would limit the chances that representatives will be bought off, since they are not running for office, and would likely allow for greater political, ethnic, gender, and economic diversity, since candidates are randomly selected.

Yet can there be a lottocracy in a country as big as the United States? Does open democracy end up being a utopian fantasy? To answer these questions, I spoke with Landemore regarding her thinking about democracy in a populist age, and how her vision of open democracy might practically be achieved.

—Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins

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. And reinforcing counter-majoritarian features of the American system or making it harder for the “wrong” people to vote—or calling for more “constitutional checks” and less “tyranny of the majority” (the standard move of liberals on both the left and the right)—will just make matters worse, in my view. When faced with alarming populist appeals, it is the instinctive temptation of many to double down on the undemocratic aspects of American democracy. But I think we should do the opposite. We need to open up the law- and policy-making process in a deliberate and deliberative fashion, without falling into the populist trap. And I believe that a system of open democracy, which is sufficiently inclusive of ordinary citizens, would effectually mitigate these populist tensions.

DSJ:Last November’s presidential election saw a record turnout, something that many would consider a strong sign of democratic vitality. Yet you would argue that elections, as they are currently structured, should not necessarily be “raised to the level of a democratic principle.” Why do you downplay the relationship between elections and democracy?

HL:First let me preempt a possible misunderstanding. While I don’t think elections are essential to democracy, voting absolutely is. But to me voting means essentially voting directly on issues, not voting for people who are going to make decisions on these issues for us. So, referenda and other mass moments of direct democracy are essential to democracy, whereas voting to elect representatives—what we generally mean by elections—is, again from my perspective, optional. Not every political system that could legitimately call itself a democracy needs to have elections; that’s why elections are not one of the five principles of my open democracy model.

I have come to downplay the relation between democracy and elections—for two reasons. One is that if you take the long view, from a historical perspective, elections were not always essential to democracy. In Classical Athens political offices were distributed on the basis of a strict willingness to participate (in open assemblies like the Assembly of the People, which were accessible to all citizens up to capacity) or on the basis of lot (the Council of 500, who set the agenda for the Assembly of the People; the nomothetai, who wrote the laws; and the popular juries, who judged political trials). Elections were deemed oligarchic by the Greeks and thus were used only for meritocratic positions, like administrative or military roles that required a certain type of excellence.

And it was not just in classical Athens that elections were rare. If you look at other ancient (and for sure incomplete and imperfect) forms of democracy around the world, as documented most recently by David Stasavage in his excellent book The Decline and Rise of Democracy—in ancient Mesopotamia, ancient India, Northern America, Mesoamerica, and Central Africa—you see that elections, in the modern sense, were non-existent. The main feature of these ancient forms of democracy, which were invented independently all around the world, was that all or at least most people with relevant interests (including sometimes women, as in the case of the Huron tribes), were consulted, and decisions were made after extensive debates. Even when only a few people were ultimately in charge of the decision-making process, one could argue that they were channeling the will of the rest of the community through the aforementioned consultatory and deliberative processes, and sometimes under the threat of removal.

Second, from a purely theoretical perspective, elections distribute power unequally in a way that contradicts fundamental democratic intuitions about political equality. Bernard Manin has brilliantly and influentially formulated the argument by saying that elections are based on a “principle of distinction,” such that only those seen as superior to others by some criterion or combination of criteria (e.g., charisma, ideas, oratory skills, looks, height…) have a chance of winning elections. While elections have a democratic face, to the extent that everyone gets an equal vote, they also have an oligarchic face, because of this principle of distinction, which means that only some people have access to political office. More often than not, the implications of election-based selection of rulers are largely plutocratic, bringing to power those who can finance expensive political campaigns. If we distribute power unequally, we shouldn’t be surprised if, in the end, the people in power are taken from a narrow socioeconomic elite and if, as a result, governance outcomes are unrepresentative of what most people want.

DSJ: As you know, Democrats and voting rights groups are outraged about the state of Georgia’s new voting laws, which impose strict ID provisions and changes to mail-in voting. And yet even if such laws were reversed, you would claim that such voting rights would not count as genuine participatory rights. Why is this?

HL: The right to vote in elections is crucial, especially if that’s all you have. So, relative to the situation in Georgia, of course we should be appalled by any tactics that aim to make it harder for individuals—particularly from historically disenfranchised groups—to vote. But at the same time, once you have this right to vote, it’s still a very limited mechanism for participation and, indeed, self-rule. You don’t get to choose the candidates who run for your vote, you don’t get to shape the platform on which they run, and at the end of the day, these candidates, once in office, are free to ignore your preferences. So, the right to vote in elections is an important political right, but it’s not a real participation right in the sense of a right that allows you to meaningfully shape laws and policies.

In fact, one could argue that voting to elect a representative is essentially voting to abdicate your right to participate in law- and policy-making. I mean this as both a provocation and a truth, one that Rousseau also recognized. I think a true participatory right involves being able to have a say, directly, on the substance of issues. Voting rights remain extremely important, in my model, but this means outside of a strictly electoral “democracy” and, instead, inside an open democracy framework, where citizens are regularly asked to decide on issues directly. I’m thinking of large-scale, possibly multiple-question referenda here, which are a common practice in Switzerland. I’m also thinking of the citizens’ right of initiative, which allows citizens to put an issue on the legislative agenda or directly to a popular vote, and the citizens’ right of referral, whereby citizens can repeal an existing law.

DSJ: Perhaps your thinking on elections and voting is best summed up with your remark, “Many of the regimes we call representative democracies are hardly democracies, are de facto usurping the term.” Can you elaborate on this?

HL: If you look at the history of our so-called “representative democracies,” they originate in what historians call representative governments, which were designed in opposition to the twin dangers of monarchy and democracy. Democracy back then was identified with mob rule and the tyranny of the majority. So the ancestors of our representative “democracies” were historically never intended to give the mass of ordinary people actual power. James Madison famously wrote that the American republic is characterized “by the total exclusion of the people in its collective capacity from any share in” government, and he thought this was a good thing! Representative government was built on republican and liberal principles, not democratic ones. The republican principles are popular sovereignty and popular consent, which sound democratic but are in fact compatible with government by an elected aristocracy, with the best and most virtuous at the helm refining and enlarging the popular judgment. The liberal aspect comes from the emphasis on individual rights as safeguards against governments, including the potential tyranny of the majority. Liberal rights have a connection to democracy, but again, they can be compatible with oligarchic rule.

The origins of so-called “representative democracies” explain why the US, for example—a republic, not a democracy, as the phrase goes—is so counter-majoritarian in its design and makes no room for the direct participation of the masses at the federal level. It also explains why elected representatives are so unresponsive to majoritarian preferences. In a 2014 study, political scientists Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page showed that the US in recent decades has taken the form of rule by economic elites—a kind of plutocracy, if you want to be extremely blunt about it, in which majorities have no causal impact at all on public policies once one controls for the preferences of rich people and economic groups. Meanwhile, Schlozman, Brady, and Verba have demonstrated that in Washington, D.C., 70 percent of the population gets represented by 6 percent of the lobbies and groups; whereas the class of people we call “executives,” who represent about 7 percent of the population, get over 70 percent of the lobbies and groups influencing policy to represent them. If we are honest with ourselves, we should admit that our so-called “representative democracies” are really at best liberal-republican-elected oligarchies, and sometimes downright plutocracies.

The rule of law is not enough to have a democracy; constitutional protection of individual rights is not enough to have a democracy; even universal enfranchisement is not enough to have a democracy. As the Greeks knew, having a choice of rulers is not the same as ruling. What you really need for authentic people power, in addition to an inclusive definition of citizenship, which the Greeks crucially lacked, is to be able to directly deliberate and decide outcomes where feasible, taking turn in representative functions where representation is needed, and retaining the ability, whatever your position in the system is, to shape the agenda of and deliberation on issues from the onset and throughout the process.

DSJ: What, then, is the political alternative to open democracy?

HL: Open democracy is first and foremost a new lens through which to see the problems of our existing institutions and to envision a new system. It is a new paradigm of democracy centering ordinary citizens rather than elected politicians. I envision legislative power in particular as something that ordinary citizens are supposed to exercise directly at some point in their lives, not all at once, but in turn.

More concretely, open democracy is a set of 5 institutional principles—participatory rights, deliberation, majority rule, democratic representation, and transparency—which all together add up to a political system open and accessible to all on an equal basis. The key institution is a deliberative body I call the open mini-public, a large randomly-selected body of citizens gathered for agenda-setting, general law-making, or topical issues, and connected to the larger public through various mechanisms.

As a theoretical paradigm, open democracy is radically different because periodic elections—and electoral representation in general—is not a core institutional principle. In theory, one could thus envision an entirely non-electoral form of democracy, a sort of version of what the Greeks of Classical Athens had, but more inclusive, more purposely deliberative, at a wider scale, and technologically augmented. In practice, open democracy is more likely to be implemented as a reformed version of our representative parliamentary systems: for example, by abolishing Senates and replacing them with randomly selected assemblies. It would only turn into something radically different if elected parliaments were replaced by lottocratic ones. Open democracy means making our institutions a lot more participatory, deliberative, majoritarian, and transparent.

So, “open democracy” is a vision rather than a turn-key alternative political system. I offer it as a different paradigm of democracy that could be instantiated in different ways, perhaps depending on cultural and political contexts.

DSJ: How would you respond to critics who would argue that open democracy
is politically naive?

HL: I would reply that the cynicism and so-called realism of “there is no alternative” have had devastating effects for 50 years. The conceptual space for political ideas from the late 1970s to 2008 was impossibly narrow. Since 2008, more so since 2016, and even more so since the pandemic, we can finally imagine again. Everything is on the table, from democratic socialism to police abolition to a universal basic income to democratic legislatures by lot. While we can debate the individual merits of each of these proposals, at the very least we need the freedom to envisage a different future. People need hope and a belief that a different, better world is possible. Besides, as far as what I’m recommending is concerned, it’s not just fanciful. It’s rooted in solid theory and 20 years of empirical evidence, which is more than the American founders had to go on when they invented their deeply original but also deeply flawed governmental system. I’m not saying we need to abolish elected legislatures at this moment. I’m saying we need to rethink our conceptual framework—and what we truly mean by democracy—so we can finally see all that’s wrong with our political system and then proceed to fix it one step at a time.

The American people deserve and can handle the honest truth, not some noble lie about the exceptionalism of American “democracy,” which anyway is no longer credible since January 6, if it ever was. American “democracy”—like many so-called democracies around the world—is a vulnerable oligarchic system that disproportionately benefits the rich. We’ve exported it, by force, to a lot of places, where it has often failed. In the 21st century it’s time to call a spade a spade and try to do better.

DSJ: I was surprised to see how little war is discussed in your book, especially since the crisis of democracy in this country is now regularly connected to the country’s “forever wars.” This year, for instance, marks the 20th anniversary of the war in Afghanistan. What is the relationship between open democracy and the decision to wage war?

HL: Indeed, I have very little to say on the topic in my book, so thank you for the opportunity to try to develop some thoughts here. I think that a more open democracy would be much less bellicose than our current system. In his essay “On Perpetual Peace,” Kant made the prediction that republican governments truly reflective of the popular will (even as Kant still envisioned government as a mostly aristocratic affair) would be less likely to go to war. Contemporary political science seems to have proved him right on this, at least when it comes to the likelihood of modern democracies fighting each other. I think this likelihood would be even lower in authentic open democracies, in which ordinary citizens take part in legislation and the authorization of war. For example, in a truly open democracy characterized by deliberation and transparency, the flawed rationale for the Iraq war beginning in 2003—that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction—would have had a much harder time surviving scrutiny. That said, given the prevalent nature of wars in the modern era and as long as dangerous dictators still exist, the best we can perhaps hope for is the existence of less imperialistic and more abbreviated ones. And for that too a more open democracy would help.

DSJ: The last chapter of your book argues that open democracy is an ideal for global governance—one predicated on what you describe as dynamic inclusiveness? How does it work? And how might you respond to the charge that open democracy is ultimately utopian?

HL: The status quo is profoundly unfair, so we will need to construct something better, closer to Kant’s idea of a loose federation of republics or, which would be my preference, of open democracies, combined with a global cosmopolitan right to minimal protections and the right of asylum to all individuals, regardless of where they happen to be born or live. My sense is that if we replicate electoral democracy on a global scale, we’ll have the same problems we have at the national level, just worse. Can you imagine the cost of running an electoral campaign on a global scale? We’d end up with a mostly male parliament full of billionaires, hardly a recipe for a more just world. The only other way, it seems to me, is to have an open democracy of a kind, based on sortition (lots).

Some decisions would have to be centralized at the federal (global) level, like facilitating coordination to fight climate change, for example, or to prevent tax evasion by international corporations. But most of the decisions could be left to the individual states or other geographic or even non-territorial entities. Democracy has centrifugal tendencies, as it should. Who counts as a member of the demos ought to be defined in more expansive ways as global integration inevitably progresses and our lives become more intertwined. At the same time, as we re-empower local decision-making, even in a globalized world, the size of the relevant public might shrink on decentralized issues, in a centripetal way. That’s what I mean by dynamic inclusiveness.

Is this vision utopian? It might have been just five years ago. But we are now in the midst of such a global crisis that I think it is less and less so, at least if I judge by the number of governments and organizations that are turning to me for ideas at the moment. What this interest in my work tells me is that people, including political leaders, need ideas, especially when the status quo does not work anymore. The worry, of course, is that the politicians who consult me and other deliberative democrats like me are just cynics in search of participatory-washing strategies, to calm down the masses. But the people I talk to seem to me sincerely motivated. They too see the limits of the system. They understand that they are part of the problem, and they want to be part of the solution. The worry is more the people I don’t get to talk to, namely people who actually do not believe in anything like collective intelligence, deliberation, or democracy, for that matter. And I’m not talking about the Trump voters here. I’m talking about the true cynics, those whose interests are too aligned with the current system and who have every incentive to resist change and oppose reforms.

Also remember, what does utopian mean? To me, it means it has yet to be realized anywhere. But that’s the added value of what I do. We need political theorists to think up worlds that don’t exist yet, in order to expand our imaginations. All I claim to do is provide a new lens through which to see the world. In order for things to happen, in life and in politics, you first need to visualize them.