What democracy is, what it isn't, why we should strive for it, and how we can achieve it

Why the Liberal Approach to Deliberative Democracy Will Fail

I have noticed several people who are engaged in advocacy for deliberative democracy (aka sortition, democratic lotteries, lottocracy, demarchy, etc.) asserting that the efforts to pursue these goals should remain “apolitical.” This is ridiculous.

Why do you support a transition from electoral systems to deliberative democracy? Is it not because you find electoral systems have routinely produced outcomes that are either undemocratic and/or harmful to the vast majority of the people? Is it not that you believe a system based on sortition rather than election will produce outcomes either more democratic and/or more beneficial for most people? Why do you believe these things? Is democracy inherently better than oligarchy, or is it instrumentally better because it is more likely to reliably produce beneficial outcomes? Or maybe because only the people can be trusted to defend those policies that are beneficial to the masses when they conflict with the interests of the wealthy and/or powerful?

Maybe there are other reasons I have not mentioned, but regardless of the reason that you support a transition to a different system for selecting who will make decisions for society, you must recognize that you are supporting a transformation of the political system. It is necessarily political, and whether or not such a transformation occurs will necessarily mean some will be winners and others will be losers. You support a political revolution, and yet you want to suggest that this idea is somehow apolitical?

Some of those who make such assertions seem to believe that such a transition, or the advocacy of it, of moving toward a more substantively democratic model, is neither a left or right issue, and seek to gain support from both. This also is erroneous.

Western/liberal/capitalist hegemony has attempted to twist the understanding of what left and right mean, such that many believe “left” means more government intervention in the economic sphere, or in administrative functions more generally, while “right” means less government intervention in economics, but perhaps with more intervention in social issues. However, this is an illusion created by the effect of limiting the scope of acceptable opinion.

As Chomsky noted (and I’m no fan of Chomsky, but he’s correct here): “The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum – even encourage the more critical and dissident views. That gives people the sense that there’s free thinking going on, while all the time the presuppositions of the system are being reinforced by the limits put on the range of the debate.”

In the wider sense, the left supports the broadest possible distribution of power and wealth, while the right supports greater concentrations of power and wealth. Of course, again, there is a lot of delusion around this in liberal societies as a result of rhetoric aimed at maintaining capitalism by either justifying or obfuscating its tendencies toward inequality. What is generally called “the left” in capitalist societies is really just centrist attempts to navigate some sort of mitigation of capitalism’s most egregious effects, often through the intervention of the still very undemocratic state, without ever encroaching on the power of the capitalist ruling class. A left of center politics advocates not only for the transfer of some economic benefits that will be completely reversible when the winds blow back toward the conservatives, but for the transfer of that power to the people. To advocate for real democracy is the essence of an actual leftist politic.

A primary problem among the vast majority of those who advocate for deliberative democracy is the assumption that “liberal democracies” were established and/or presently exist as fundamentally democratic, if flawed, systems wherein presenting well-reasoned arguments for a transition away from an electoral model toward random selection of officeholders should be expected to lead to the implementation of such changes. This is a failure to recognize that these bourgeois systems were set up to protect the wealthy from expropriation, and refined throughout their histories to eliminate possible ways of socioeconomic leveling that may have existed under their original structures. Worse perhaps, it necessarily results in approaches to bringing about an actually democratic society that do not address the fundamental contradiction between the interests of the bourgeois ruling class and those of the working masses. 

Even for those who might argue against the existence of a capitalist ruling class, and who believe that power ultimately lies with political officeholders themselves, should recognize that those who are currently in office, or who are in positions of authority in the mainstream, powerful political parties, have absolutely no reason to support a transition to a system that removes them from power and eliminates their social and economic advantages. Similar conditions exist for those who have attained status in the corporate media, and more importantly, those executives and editors who hold power over them. If a news anchor or journalist were to level significant critiques not just against specific persons or institutions within the system, but against the system itself, they know their livelihoods and their reputations would be attacked (while we must also acknowledge that the fact that they attained such positions already means that they demonstrated to the decision makers that they were loyal lapdogs of the status quo.

Undeniably, the path forward involves winning others over to support randomized selection of participants in, and more deliberative methods of, collective decision making. Likewise, we must certainly recognize that revolutionary class consciousness is not broadly held, and we must meet the people where they are in our advocacy. However, those of us who already grasp the necessity for real democracy must also understand that our struggle is revolutionary, and that those in power now will fight against it in every way possible. 

First, they will oppose it through debate. Most of us have heard all the arguments they will make:

“But if we just randomly select people, we could get criminals and sociopaths?” We already do.

“But don’t we need representatives with a certain amount of expertise?” Nothing in the electoral model provides this. Moreover, which fields of expertise are best? How do we predict which issues will arise and who should be called upon to solve them? Do we expect our legislatures to contain experts in every conceivable sphere? Do we expect all the other legislators to defer to the judgments of the expert in the topic at hand?

“Won’t average citizens be easy to bribe?” They can’t be any more corrupt than what we have now, but also, the incentive to bribe will be greatly reduced when each representative will have a very short term of service and will not be able to offer “service” over extended periods of time and multiple issues. Additionally, average citizens will be aware that they will once again be average citizens, and not privileged legislators, very soon, and will more often than not be guided to consider their decisions based on the perspective of the citizenry who will be affected by laws and policies, and not of a privileged stratum of people who are virtually immune from them.

I won’t go through every such objection and the responses to them. If you’re advocating for deliberative democracy to friends, family, co-workers, and neighbors, you’re already familiar with them.

Second, they will attempt to co-opt the model. To some extent, we play into their hands as we offer citizens assemblies and deliberative mini-publics as avenues to solve difficult social issues that have little or no bearing on the real distribution of power and/or wealth. If they can pacify a significant portion of advocates by utilizing these tools to not only boost their own popularity, but also create a chimera of democratic governance that does not threaten the underlying system, we will have gained little, and lost a great deal.

We must insist unflinchingly that the means for making such difficult decisions over seemingly intractable issues is also what should be employed in making all collective social decisions. That is, even as we pursue reforms as a way of demonstrating the benefits of deliberative democracy, we must not abandon the revolutionary cause of overturning the oligarchy of electoralism.

Third, they will fight on legal grounds.

Some will argue that the constitutional requirement requiring “republican government” necessitates elections. It doesn’t, but it will have to be litigated. 

Some jurisdictions have much more specific laws about how representation must be implemented. Several years ago, I attended a local public hearing on a proposal to change the nature of how a city council was elected. It had been until that point elected through several at-large seats by the entire city. Thus, the same electorate decided each seat, and there was considerable homogeneity among the council. The proposal was to transition to a district system to allow more diversity of representation both ideologically and demographically. I attended to propose the possibility of using a proportional representation model instead, but was informed that a clause in the state constitution required that every representative of every city council be elected by a majority of the electorate in the relevant jurisdiction. This made a proportional representation model unconstitutional, and would also make any non-electoral model unconstitutional as well.

Where such legal grounds may not already exist, they will legislate them. Where they are weak, they will strengthen them. They will create alternative institutions and obstacles to change. 

Consider the example of The Commission on Presidential Debates, formed to take control of presidential debates away from the independent League of Women Voters, and under the control of the two dominant parties. This has served to make it more difficult for third party nominees to participate in televised debates – just as some small but noticeable percentage of the population began supporting independent candidates and third parties. After Ross Perot earned enough public support to necessitate his inclusion in the 1992 and 1996 debates, and no doubt fearing the embarrassment that Ralph Nader could inflict on both of the dominant parties had he been allowed to participate in the 2000 debates, the CPD “established a rule that for a candidate to be included in the national debates, he or she must garner at least 15% support across five national polls of the CPD’s choosing” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Commission_on_Presidential_Debates). 

Of course, the particular impediments they will place before us will be different, but they will certainly not surrender easily.

Fourth, they will sabotage our movement. As the popularity of the concept increases in public opinion, those who benefit from the current system will find ways to vilify not only the ideological position in general, but also the movement, and its most prominent advocates. Vilification will then lead to threats, arrests, and finally, they will escalate from sabotage to violence. History provides us many examples: Malcolm X, MLK, Leonard Peltier, Mumia Abu Jamal, or lesser known people like the six activists who participated in the Ferguson protests after the murder of Mike Brown who have died under mysterious conditions since https://www.rollingstone.com/culture/culture-news/ferguson-death-mystery-black-lives-matter-michael-brown-809407/.

What If?

However, as a thought experiment, let’s imagine a hypothetical scenario in which the capitalist class and their politician lackeys did simply accept the arguments made by deliberative democracy advocates, and proposed and ratified a constitutional amendment enshrining the structure of sortition-based selection and frequent rotation of all public offices, and converting all unitary offices to plural ones (e.g. an executive council rather than a president). Would this deliver real democracy?

No. If you consider the various conditions of our society, it will be clear that misogyny, racism, homophobia, and ableism will pollute the process and outcomes. Similarly, the legacies of white supremacy, Christian supremacy, settler colonialism, Liberalism, and American exceptionalism will cloud the entire project. While the implementation of formal structures aimed at bringing about more authentically democratic outcomes will play a role in addressing these social ills, if we are not actively engaged in a collective project of specifically combating them, the progress toward realizing democracy will be far slower, and more vulnerable to reactionary backlash than if we attack them vigorously as part of the same revolution.

Similarly, we must also be concerned with the inequalities that are endemic to capitalism. A society in which some are rich, some obscenely so, while others struggle, and some are utterly impoverished; in which some are well-educated and have abundant access to nutritious foods, clean water, safe and comfortable shelter, health care, and a general sense of security, while others lack access to some or all of these will not lend itself to a democratic culture. Even within the facilitated deliberations of randomly selected assembles, if they are implemented without a concomitant social revolution, the underlying biases and material class differences will significantly weaken the democratic aspect of those assemblies, and their outcomes are far less likely to have the support of the populace than a society with a socialist economy and far less socioeconomic inequity.

Perhaps more importantly, but nearly invisible to most Westerners, is the pernicious influence of imperialism. If the people of any industrialized Western nation were to supplant the capitalist ruling class, after they struggle through their internal social differences such as those noted above, it is likely that they would collectively continue policies of imperialist exploitation of Global South nations and people. Even some subsets of the Western left (here I mean the actual left, the anticapitalist left, not liberals, who are right wing) fail to develop a strong proletarian internationalism, which is a necessary component of real democracy, and a necessary part of the defense against capitalist restoration (and thereby, the destruction of democracy).

This makes us natural allies of socialist, communist, and anarchist revolutionaries, and enemies of the capitalist class, and those who uphold the state apparatus that maintains their power and oppresses the rest of us. The tendency to pursue liberal reformist strategies instead of building a revolutionary movement is perhaps understandable given the centuries of liberal social conditioning to which we’ve all been subjected, but continuing to do so after a thorough analysis of the obstacles to achieving real democracy, via demarchy or any other course that might seem viable, is clearly folly.