In search of democratic representation

The drafting of the Icelandic constitution, combining drawing lots, election, participation and referendum, gives Hélène Landemore the opportunity to reflect on democratic institutions: how can representation be made democratic?

The writing of a new constitution in Iceland, in the early 2010s following the political upheavals that accompanied the financial crisis, is a process that has still been relatively little studied in France. However, it is an innovative democratic experiment, which combined drawing lots, election, public participation and referendum. The latter serves as the backdrop for the latest book by Hélène Landemore, associate professor of political science at Yale University.

At the roots of political representation

The question at the centre of this book is not so much that of democratic deliberation, which was the subject of his previous work (Democratic Reason: Politics, Collective Intelligence, and the Rule of the Many, 2012), than that of political representation. “The central contribution of this book,” she writes, “is to rethink democratic representation in such a way that it is open to ordinary citizens.” (” The central contribution of this book is to rethink democratic representation in a manner that opens it up to ordinary citizens. ») (p. 11). The observation made by Bernard Manin on the mixed nature of electoral representation, both aristocratic and democratic, serves as a starting point for her reflection. Hélène Landemore recalls that this observation was assumed by the American and French revolutionaries who intended to keep the people at a safe distance from collective choices and that it was not denied by the first philosophers of deliberation (Rawls and Habermas). She proposes to demonstrate how this form of representation leads to a regrettable “closure of power”, which excludes “ordinary citizens”. To put it in a word, the thesis developed consists not in thinking of democracy without representation, but in rethinking representation to make it democratic.

The concept of representation which is retained as a basis for reflection is generic: it is conceived as “the fact of acting (stand for) on behalf of someone else (individual or group) who is recognized and accepted as such by a relevant audience” (“ By representation, I thus mean the act of standing for someone else (individual or group) that is recognized and accepted as such by a relevant audience. ») (p. 55). Nothing binds a priori representation in elections, which is also consistent with classical analyses of constitutional law. Nor does anything link representation to democracy: a form of representation may or may not be democratic. The “democracy” (a notion coined by the author) of representation is then based on the egalitarian and inclusive nature of the procedure for designating the representative (p. 87).

It is well known that political philosophy and constitutional theory ritually oppose representative democracy and direct democracy, the paradigmatic example of the latter being that of classical Athens. This opposition is not entirely fair, argues Hélène Landemore, insofar as Athenian democracy was also representative – collective choices were not the work of all citizens, but of bodies empowered to decide on behalf of the city. Of course, this representation was not based on election, but on two other mechanisms: drawing lots and self-selection. The first served to populate the Council and the courts, while the second was the principle that presided over the composition of the assembly of the people – which physically could not bring together more than a quarter of the citizens. Each of these two forms of representation, described as lotocratic for the first and self-selected for the second, is analyzed in detail, notably thanks to the work of specialists in Greek democracy (pp. 89-97).

Three forms of democracy

Through the conceptual shift thus made, not two but three forms of democracy are opposed: representative democracy (understood in the classical sense of the term), direct democracy and open democracy conceived as a “political regime in which the real exercise of power is accessible to ordinary citizens via new forms of democratic representation.” (” Open democracy is the ideal of a regime in which actual exercise of power is accessible to ordinary citizens via novel forms of democratic representation. “) (p. xvii). The question that then arises is that of the difference between direct democracy, which “is not a viable solution” (p. 55) – mainly for reasons of practicability – and open democracy. For Hélène Landemore, the essential difference lies in the number of citizens involved in the political decision. While direct democracy presupposes massive participation of citizens (as in the case of the referendum) (p. 74), open democracy is based on forms of representation based on drawing lots and self-selection which mean that not everyone participates in decision-making.

Once these distinctions have been made, Hélène Landemore can tackle the principles that must be at the root of open democracy and that justify it. She distinguishes five of them: the right to participation, deliberation, the majority principle, democratic representation and transparency (chapter 6). She then analyses the criticisms and objections that could be raised against her theory of representation (chapter 8), in particular the question of its applicability at the level of contemporary nation-states (even if her last chapter considers other political scales), the risk of capture of deliberation by organised groups, the example given being that of the Californian popular initiative, that of illiberal democracy (understood as a risk for the rights of minorities), which the Swiss democratic model allows the author to ward off, or the idea that this form of representation would not be possible without continually mobilising citizens – an argument dismissed due to the representative nature of the democratic model promoted.

Remarkably, the book combines three contributions that are rarely brought together. First, Hélène Landemore deploys an extremely fine and current knowledge of the theories of democracy. From classical authors to the most contemporary references, all the arguments are considered, presented and analyzed, after each concept used has been precisely defined. Secondly, she bases her analysis on several contemporary experiences that she has directly studied. These are, on the one hand, the Icelandic constitutional reform previously mentioned (which is the subject of chapter 7) and, on the other hand, the Great National Debate, which was held in France at the beginning of 2019, and the recent Citizens’ Convention for the Climate. Other examples are used, but these form, with Athenian democracy, the basic references of her argument. Finally, the author brings a new vision of what political representation is and offers the conceptual tools to look at historical and contemporary democratic experiences in a different light.

Challenges of open democracy

This renewed vision seems to us to open up several avenues of reflection in the institutional domain, of which we will limit ourselves to citing four.

The first concerns the responsibility of the rulers. Hélène Landemore convincingly puts forward two arguments on this subject. First, elections are not a very effective way of putting responsibility into play, since the studies used show that people vote for a project and not only on the basis of a record. Furthermore, we can imagine mechanisms of political responsibility including non-electoral forms of representation. The analysis of Athenian institutions in particular demonstrates this, from preliminary examinations to the ostracism of leaders, through accountability mechanisms or the publicity of debates. As citizen participation becomes institutionalized, the question of the forms of responsibility of citizens drawn by lot will have to be asked.

The argument also raises the question of scaling up of open democracy. “If the constituent process can be reinvented in such an innovative and inclusive way, why can’t the legislative procedure?” writes Hélène Landemore on the Icelandic case (p. 153), which could be associated with that of the Irish assemblies. However, it is one thing to give an opinion (including in the form of a legal text) on a specific question and another to conduct parallel reflections on very varied subjects, which may partly overlap and which call for coordinated responses, as the government and Parliament must do. There is no guarantee that successive or parallel citizens’ conventions can take these coordination needs into account.

This leads us to a third issue which relates to the notion of “ordinary citizen” widely used by theorists of deliberative democracy. In order to overcome the above coordination difficulty, one might be tempted to resort to drawing lots to compose a permanent assembly. In the introduction to her book, Hélène Landemore defines “ordinary citizens” as opposed to the socio-economic elite. But, in the rest of her text, the latter are rather opposed to professional politicians (p. 142 for example). The question then becomes the following: what makes a first-time elected official stop being seen as a citizen and become perceived as a politician on the very day of his election? To put it another way, would a parliamentary assembly drawn by lot for five years really have different democratic characteristics from an elected parliamentary assembly?

What connection with the election?

A final question concerns the notion of participation. The election allows for the combination (in an incomplete and sometimes unsatisfactory way) of two dimensions: not only to designate representatives, but also to allow everyone to participate in this designation on an equal basis. However, this is not the case with randomly selected mini-publics: while their recruitment is certainly more egalitarian than what an election could produce, it ends up distancing all the people who have not been selected. And the ability to contribute voluntarily by self-selection does not allow this equality of participation to be reestablished, given on the one hand the biases observed in this area and on the other hand the lack of certainty as to whether this participation will be taken into account. To put it another way, of the two principles of democracy put forward by Hélène Landemore, namely equality and inclusiveness, the election plays – imperfectly – on both sides, while the drawing of lots maximizes equality, but at the cost of inclusiveness (in any case for the citizen who was not lucky enough to be drawn and who can therefore no longer participate in public life).

These questions, raised by the thesis developed by Hélène Landemore, invite us to reflect on the possible articulation between the three forms of representation mentioned by the author (electoral, lottery and self-selected). The latter does not propose a “turnkey” institutional system, but emphasizes several times that mini-publics drawn by lot should play, according to her, a central role in open democracy. The Icelandic example underlines how essential this articulation is, insofar as the constitutional project was blocked by Parliament – and therefore never came into force. The Irish assemblies and the Citizens’ Convention for the Climate provide other interesting case studies.

The questions raised show the novelty, depth and originality ofOpen Democracy. This book shows that political philosophy is moving on its foundations. Constitutional analysis will in turn have to, thanks to these conceptual clarifications, draw new ways of organizing the now plural forms of expression of the general will.