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

Why a Liberal Approach to Demarchy Will Fail

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

Why do you support a transition from an electoral systems to a demarchic one? 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 democratic lotteries rather than election will produce outcomes 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?

What is political?

Maybe there are other reasons I have not mentioned, but those who support a transition to a different, more democratic system for selecting who will make collective social decisions must recognize that we are supporting a transformation of the political system – a revolution. It is necessarily political. Whether or not such a transformation occurs will necessarily mean some will be winners and others will be losers. How can such a revolution be apolitical?

Sometimes the use of “apolitical” is conflated with merely not having a partisan position within the given electoral framework. Consequently, some many believe that 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. Though it’s true such a transformation neither supports, not is supported by, the Democrats or Republicans, Tories or Labour, SPD or CDU, etc., but that doesn’t mean it’s not political.

Liberalism has attempted to twist the understanding of what left and right mean, such that many believe “left” means more governmental intervention in the economic sphere, or in administrative functions more generally, with perhaps less interference in personal or social issues; while “right” means less governmental intervention in economics, but 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.”

The Common Good, 1998, p.43

A better understanding of the left-right spectrum is that the leftmost position indicates the broadest possible distribution of power and wealth (perfect communism and democracy), while the right tends toward greater concentrations of power and wealth (absolute autocracy).

Liberal states employ 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 (or the pretense of such intentions) often through the intervention of the still very undemocratic state, without ever encroaching on the power of the capitalist ruling class. In contrast, and actually left-of-center politics advocates not only for the transfer of some economic benefits via top-down implementation (that will be completely reversible when the winds blow back toward the conservatives), but for the transfer of political 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 a demarchic model is the assumption that “liberal democracies” were established and/or presently exist as fundamentally democratic, if flawed, systems. It is not uncommon for “progressives” in liberal societies to believe that presenting well-reasoned arguments for policies that will benefit the vast majority (without being overtly harmful to others) should result in their being approved and implemented by their “democratic” governments. Unfortunately, such beliefs are built on indoctrination into liberal-capitalist hegemony rather than on a sound analysis of political history.  

These bourgeois “democracies” 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. Reviewing history demonstrates a repetitive pattern of the masses organizing to utilize the tools available to them within their constitutional systems to foster democratic change, only to be offered limited concessions that are later gradually reclaimed by the ruling class.

Even those who doubt the existence of a capitalist ruling class and believe that power ultimately lies with political officeholders themselves, should recognize that those who are currently in office, or hold 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 the mere fact that they attained such positions implies they demonstrated themselves to be loyal lapdogs of the status quo.

Our Struggle Is Revolutionary

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 (toward any revolutionary politic) is not broadly held, and we must meet the people where they are in our advocacy. However, to grasp the necessity for real democracy must also include understanding that our struggle is revolutionary, and that those in power now will fight against it in every way possible. 

First, they will oppose us 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. Electoral systems are rife with problems, including that they attract those who desire power and privilege, and promote those who are successful in self-marketing and/or deception.

“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 if 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 not become career politicians, but will instead soon be once again average citizens. Therefore, they 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 possible objection and the responses to them. If you’re advocating for democratic lotteries to friends, family, co-workers, and neighbors, you’re probably already familiar with them. Many of us are already equipped with the responses to these questions, but as the movement grows, we will have to make them over and over again, to larger and larger audiences. However, even if we are persuasive it our arguments, the struggle is far from over.

Second, they will attempt to co-opt the model.

Many advocates of sortition will often note the recent increase in employment of citizens’ assemblies in attempting to address issues that elected legislatures are unwilling to tackle: abortion and gay marriage in Ireland, climate policy in France, whether to change voting systems in British Columbia, and many others. While potentially demonstrating the merits of lottery-selected citizens’ assemblies for collective public decision making, some examples also demonstrated how the status quo created barriers to democratic outcomes.

For instance, the French citizens’ assembly on climate change reached conclusions that the government refused to implement or even put to a referendum.

“Macron promised in the spring of 2019 that all propositions from the CCC would be ‘transmitted without filter’ to Parliament, subject to a nationwide referendum or sent for direct executive implementation. However, President Macron backtracked months later, first by granting himself the right to reject several of the CCC’s propositions, including a tax on dividends in order to finance ecological transition, the reduction of speed on the highway, and the modification of the preamble of the Constitution to place the protection of the environment above other liberties…In the end, considering the bill on ‘climate and resilience’ proposed to the Parliament as well as direct executive directives, 10% of the CCC’s recommendations were accepted by the government without modification, 37% were modified or watered down, and 53% were rejected.”


In British Columbia, they did hold a referendum on the assembly’s proposal, but the bar set for a double super-majority requirement proved to be slightly too high.

“The referendum required approval by 60% of votes and simple majorities in 60% of the 79 districts in order to pass… It won by simple majority in 77 out of 79 ridings, easily passing one hurdle of the double super-majority requirement. But it won 57.4% of the total votes cast, falling a few points short of the required 60%.”


Therefore, even if elected assemblies begin to more frequently call on lottery-selected assemblies to address such issues, the struggle at that point has just begun. Despite any perceived benefits of employing citizens’ assemblies in this way, we create new challenges by offering them as avenues to solve difficult social issues that have little or no bearing on the real distribution of power and/or wealth. 

Elected assemblies will retain the mantle of the “democratic mandate” while lottery assemblies have only delegated legitimacy. Elected assemblies will be able to determine which issues they want to delegate, and retain the authority to ratify or veto the determinations of citizens’ assemblies. Alternatively, they can foist that responsibility onto the electorate by referendum, which can enable them to avoid accountability for their positions while potentially also serving as a backdoor veto for solutions that do not serve their interests.

Getting citizens’ assemblies in the public eye and demonstrating their potential effectiveness can seem like positive exposure, yet by creating the appearance of increased democracy while actually giving citizens’ assemblies no “teeth,” while public support for democratic lotteries may increase, the demand for systemic change is likely to be severely dented by complacency resulting from the chimeric victory. It would be far better for the prospect of real democracy to instead build public support in a manner that creates momentum for change. 

In general, revolutionary momentum will come from generating public support through advocating directly to the people and modeling demarchic structures in organizations in which more people participate, and applying bottom-up pressure rather than appealing to the powerful for top-down implementation. However, it is also true that despite these potential setbacks, we should not simply avoid any avenues for building broad public support. 

Real democracy will not be handed to us by those who benefit from electoral oligarchy, and appealing to them must not be the primary way of trying to replace elections with democratic lotteries; nevertheless, it can be “an arrow in the quiver,” even if only to demonstrate to the people how the existing power structure will block improvements for the masses to maintain their own power.  However, as we utilize such means, we must be aware of the potential pitfalls, and must persistently demand that not only must these methods be used for making decisions about seemingly intractable issues, but that they should become the standard in making all collective social decisions. That is, even as we pursue reforms to demonstrate the benefits of democratic lotteries and citizens’ assemblies to gain greater public support, we must never rest content with such reforms, but must tirelessly guide the people toward 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 if our movement ever succeeds in overcoming the two hurdles above, the legal challenges will ensure, and that will inevitably be one of the issues that will have to be litigated. 

Some jurisdictions have much more specific laws about how representation must be implemented. Several years ago, at a local public hearing in Austin, Texas was held regarding a proposal to change the make-up of city council from seven at-large seats elected by the entire city to a district system, ostensibly to allow more diversity of representation geographically, ideologically, and demographically. In the previous system, the same electorate decided every seat, producing consistent homogeneity among the council. However, when a proportional representation model was proposed in that hearing as an alternative to either of those two options, the chair noted 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, thus effectively making proportional representation illegal for local governments in Texas. Obviously, it 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 place it 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/.

Is Formal Democracy Enough?

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 sortition 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, governor, or mayor). 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 can 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.