U.S. President Joe Biden is set to host a virtual summit this week for leaders from government, civil society, and the private sector to discuss the renewal of democracy. We can expect to see plenty of worthy yet predictable issues discussed: the threat of foreign agents interfering in elections, online disinformation, political polarization, and the temptation of populist and authoritarian alternatives. For the United States specifically, the role of money in politics, partisan gerrymandering, endless gridlock in Congress, and the recent voter suppression efforts targeting Black communities in the South should certainly be on the agenda.
All are important and relevant topics. Something more fundamental, however, is needed. The clear erosion of our political institutions is just the latest evidence, if any more was needed, that it’s past time to discuss what democracy means—and why we should care about it. We have to question, moreover, whether the political systems we have are even worth restoring or if we should more substantively alter them, including through profound constitutional reforms.
Such a discussion has never been more vital. The systems in place today once represented a clear improvement on prior regimes—monarchies, theocracies, and other tyrannies—but it may be a mistake to call them adherents of democracy at all. The word roughly translates from its original Greek as “people’s power.” But the people writ large doesn’t hold power in these systems. Elites do. Consider that in the United States, according to a 2014 study by the political scientist’ Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page, only the richest 10 percent of the population seems to have any causal effect on public policy. The other 90 percent, they argue, is left with “democracy by coincidence”—getting what they want only when they happen to want the same thing as the people calling the shots.
This discrepancy between reality—democracy by coincidence—and the ideal of people’s power are baked in as a result of fundamental design flaws dating back to the 18th century. The only way to rectify those mistakes is to rework the design—to fully reimagine what it means to be democratic. Tinkering at the edges won’t do.
The best starting place to rectify such flaws is to better understand how they came about. Representative government, the ancestor of modern democracies, was born in the 18th century as a classical liberal-republican construct rather than a democratic one, primarily focused on the protection of certain individual rights rather than the empowerment of the broader citizenry. The goal was to give the people some say in choosing their rulers without allowing for actual popular rule. In other words, representative government historically favored the idea of people’s consent to power over that of people’s exercise of power.
The Founding Fathers of the United States, for example, famously wanted to create a republic rather than a democracy, which they associated with mob rule. James Madison, in particular, feared the tyranny of the majority as much as he disliked and rejected the old monarchical orders. He wanted to create a mixed regime with aristocratic and popular features whose main goal would be to protect individuals as much from powerful minorities as oppressive majorities. Alexander Hamilton even defended the ideal of a government that would include a president elected for life.
The federalist founders were thus explicit in their intent to create a republic that would not rest on demos Kratos, or “people’s power,” but instead on the power of elected elites, restrained by a complex system of checks and balances. They aimed to staff representative assemblies with a natural aristocracy of talent and wisdom capable of enlarging and refining the views of common people. In this way, the system would serve as a filter, maximizing the individual competence of representatives while accepting the costs of reducing that group to a sociologically and economically homogeneous group.
The next historical step in the evolution of representative government was to go from parliamentary democracy—where the legislative assembly was seen as a place of deliberation among individually superior minds—to party democracy. Elections became a competition among policy platforms in which individual citizens or their representatives could exercise their vote.
In the process, we moved from the Madisonian view of electoral representation as a proxy for public sentiment to something quite different. Party competition was seen by some as an effective system to ensure the periodic removal of the worst political leaders or, in an even more optimistic view, as a rational battle of ideas among partisan platforms.
The move to this form of the political regime was accompanied—and buttressed—by the flattening out of social distinctions and what the French historian Alexis de Tocqueville saw as an irresistible equalization of conditions. It was during this process that we started to call modern societies and by extension their governments, democracies. This began around 1830 in the United States and France and 1870 in the United Kingdom, despite the remarkable fact that women and minorities did not get the right to vote until much later. But while there was some real but limited progress toward sociopolitical equality, actual decision-making power—over anything from economic to foreign policy—remained in the hands of the elites.
Not only is this unequal distribution and indeed concentration of power hardly compatible with the idea of democracy, but it also makes the system vulnerable to systematic failures of governance. One of the main advantages of democracy, according to thinkers from Aristotle to W.E.B. Du Bois, is its capacity, when properly institutionalized, to tap into the distributed collective wisdom of its entire public. Along these lines, Aristotle thought that two heads were better than one. More poetically, Du Bois argued that “in the people, we have the source of that endless life and unbounded wisdom which the rulers of men must-have.”
Yet by design, representative democracies only sample the wisdom of a narrow subset of the population, namely the one that wins elections. Such a subset has globally skewed male, wealthy, educated, and of the locally dominant ethnicity. One might also add the following traits: charismatic, articulate, tall, and extroverted. It is not clear that any of these qualities—undeniably useful to win electoral campaigns—have any bearing on the capabilities of our ruling class to legislate well. This is especially problematic if, as some social scientists argue, the collective competence of a group is only partially a function of individual qualities and more so a function of the group’s diversity. Parliaments as we staff them might well be too homogenous for good lawmaking. Meanwhile, the rest of the population—including the introverted, inarticulate, short, and shy, as well as, typically, poor and Black or other people of color—is left to opine, at best, from a distance, if they don’t retreat from the system altogether.
While there is some wisdom to be gained from the aggregation of popular judgment in elections, pure electoral democracy misses out on all that can be gained from the diversity of knowledge and insight among the broader population. The key is to involve that broader group of people in a more deliberative and participatory way. Leaving them out creates massive blind spots, simmering resentment, and a systematic failure to address the needs and preferences of a portion, sometimes even a majority, of the population.
Examples of such failures abound, from the plight of the suburban working class in most advanced industrial societies, which is vastly underrepresented in all Western parliaments, to that of Black Americans, who are also still underrepresented in the U.S. Congress.
Such areas of underrepresentation might explain political events that surprised our pundit class: U.S. President Donald Trump’s electoral victory, the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom, and the yellow vest rebellion against a tax on gas in France. The example of the yellow vests, or gilets jaunes, offers a textbook case of the inability of electoral institutions to respond to the interests and concerns of a significant portion of the population that feels invisible—hence, the neon yellow jackets—and has in some cases given up on voting altogether.
These democratic flaws at the heart of representative democracy are sufficiently serious to account for at least some of its current institutional crisis, which may be better described as a chronic illness due to a congenital defect. Perhaps other factors, such as globalization, unfettered capitalism, and rapid technological change, as well as the economic inequalities they entail, made things worse in some countries. But make no mistake: Each of these vulnerabilities is part of the initial design.
Some may see this essay as a call for revolution. It is not. We have inherited the legacies of the 18th century, both institutional and ideological, and we should figure out how to make do with them, at least in part and for the time being. Yet having a clearer idea of what an authentic democracy should look like can usefully guide institutional reform in more radical directions—ones that are compatible with current power structures and prevailing ways of thinking.
Wherever possible, we should build new models of democratic decision-making so they can nudge the old ones aside as those become obsolete. That, I believe, is our best hope for renewing democracy.
There are many proposals for what a true democracy should look like, and they are all worth debating. My view defended in my book Open Democracy, is that an authentic democracy would center on ordinary citizens rather than elected politicians. One way forward, therefore, is to break with the dogma of electoral representation as the only—let alone the most democratic—a form of representation.
If democracy is truly ruled by the people, then all of us should be able to represent and be represented in turn—that is, have an equal chance to engage in lawmaking and policymaking on behalf of the rest of the group. The ruling, in other words, should not be a job reserved for those who can win elections. It should be accessible to all.
The open democracy I envisage would center on a House of the People selected by a randomized civic lottery—a large-scale jury, if you will—in which ordinary citizens have a chance to participate as democratic representatives with legislative prerogatives of their own (for example, on climate change and other long-term issues that remain largely unaddressed by our current political systems). Such a body could replace—or at the very least complement—existing elected chambers. This House of the People would be a forum for nonpartisan, informed, and transparent deliberation.
Furthermore, such a body should be open to the input of the larger public, including through mechanisms that enable individuals to put issues on its agenda or trigger a referendum on its proposals or even convene a citizens’ assembly—a large body of randomly selected citizens gathered to deliberate about a specific issue.
Critics of this idea might argue that putting ordinary citizens at the center of our democratic process naively assumes that politics is an amateurs’ sport. To some extent, that is correct because having a say about the common good and defining the law that governs all of us should be open to all, regardless of class, gender, age, race, education levels, or other characteristics. Only once we acknowledge that fact can we both live up to the ideal of political equality and tap the collective intelligence of the whole.
But more importantly, when given the proper resources and the same access to experts that elected officials routinely enjoy, the so-called amateurs can cultivate skills and legislate well. The proof of concept here is provided not just by the example of ancient Athens, which essentially functioned based on open assemblies and randomly selected councils and juries, but the modern-day as well. Ordinary citizens in recent times have demonstrated their competence on all kinds of issues, from the more technical, as with the 2004 Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform in the Canadian province of British Columbia, to the more controversial, as with the 2012 Constitutional Convention and 2016 Citizens’ Assembly in Ireland, which deliberated on marriage equality and abortion, respectively.
In 2019, in a landmark case given the size and diversity of the country, French President Emmanuel Macron entrusted 150 randomly selected citizens with the task of generating bills to curb greenhouse gas emissions in ways that align with social justice. After nine months of hard work, and in consultation with experts, they succeeded. While foreign policy has only been put on the agenda of citizens’ assemblies a few times, there is no reason to think that ordinary citizens would be less equipped to make decisions on these issues as well. Particularly when it comes to decisions related to starting or ending wars, it would seem both fair and smart to involve a much more representative sample of all affected interests.
Just as in an elected parliament, citizen legislators should avail themselves of existing knowledge. They should be served by a loyal bureaucracy and have easy access to experts. And these bureaucrats and experts should be put “on tap, not on top,” to use a phrase common in deliberative democracy circles—meaning they are available to advise but are not the decision-makers. In addition, assemblies of citizen legislators, just like parliaments, should be autonomous and self-ruling, including in the choice of experts appearing in front of them.
If those conditions are in place, the risk that the House of the People could be captured by technocrats and bureaucrats is not nil, but it is arguably less than in existing systems where elected officials are so busy raising funds and campaigning that they have every incentive to delegate the actual business of legislating to others.
What about accountability, you might ask? Accountability is an overused and underdefined term that we have come to identify within the very process of modern politics. After all, we should be able to remove elected officials who have underperformed. But elections can be a blunt and not particularly effective tool. There are other ways to sanction people for disappointing or wrongful use of power. More importantly, accountability has a broader meaning: the presentation of accounts, namely justifications for the laws and policies imposed on the population. Deliberative assemblies of ordinary citizens are a much better place than elected parliaments to generate such explanations.
What about the democratic legitimacy of randomly selected legislatures? This objection shows how much our political intuitions are shaped by the historical centrality of elections. Yet consider juries, the democratic institution par excellence according to Tocqueville. Do jury members lack democratic legitimacy because they have been selected by lot rather than elected? No. The intuition of our current system, in which we emphasize the exercise of power rather than the consent to power, is that the democratic legitimacy of jury members comes from the fact that they could be any one of us. We could be them. But what this example shows is that elections are not strictly necessary for either democratic representation or democratic legitimacy.
Does an open democracy still sound like science fiction or perhaps like a dated vision of politics only fit for small and homogenous Greek city-states? Only if you ignore the now close to 600 examples of randomly selected deliberative bodies documented at the local, regional, national, and international levels in the last 40 years, according to data compiled by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).
While such bodies often face resistance on the part of existing structures, which tend to view them as competition, several have had an important impact. Deliberative polls conducted by electric utilities in Texas between 1996 and 1998 were largely responsible for a major reversal in the state’s energy policy, turning it from a pure oil and gas state into a leader in green energy. The Irish citizens’ assemblies on marriage equality, abortion, blasphemy, and the right to divorce have all led to constitutional changes, and the Irish Citizens’ Assembly on climate led to the recently enacted Climate Act. In France, despite much resistance from Parliament, between 10 and 50 percent of the Citizens’ Convention on Climate’s recommendations were incorporated into real law, producing the most ambitious French climate bill to date. In fact, in 81 percent of the 55 examples of randomly selected bodies for which OECD data is available, public authorities accepted at least half of the recommendations that citizens developed in these processes.
The next phase of democratic transformation is to build more empowered, permanent citizens’ assemblies with legislative capabilities of their own. This has already begun. Examples include the region of East Belgium, which inaugurated the first permanent Citizens’ Council with agenda-setting power in 2019, and the city of Paris, which just convened a similar council of 100 Parisians, with more power still.
It might take a while before a country gives so much power to citizens at the national level. But it is worth noting that France briefly toyed with the idea of replacing its third legislative chamber, a largely symbolic advisory body where representatives of organized civil society currently convene, with a Chamber of Citizen Participation. Various scholars and activists have called for abolishing upper chambers seen as corrupt or out of dates, such as the Canadian Senate or the House of Lords in the United Kingdom, with so-called “legislatures by lot.” What might have seemed like radical thinking a few years ago is now entering the realm of the possible.
First, the summit needs to question and broaden the definition of democracy. If the aim of pro-democracy forces is simply to return to some imagined pre-Trump or pre-Brexit utopia, then we will have learned nothing. If the solution is simply to empower courts and raise supermajority thresholds to try to protect the system against populist surges, then we will possibly worsen the problem caused by elitism and democratic deficits in the first place. Returning to the core idea of people’s power—and interrogating the conditions under which the wisdom of the many can be channeled into law and policymaking—should be the starting point of any conversation.
The second pitfall to avoid is holding a summit on democracy that is itself elitist and exclusionary. The only invitees, as far as we know, are more than 100 world leaders, who are likely to be very educated, wealthy, and rather old. Just as this year’s U.N. Climate Change Conference, known as COP26, (and all 25 before it) failed to be truly inclusive and representative of the diversity of climate interests and concerns around the world, summits that only gather people from the top of various social, economic, political, and other hierarchies are premised on a flawed idea of what produces collective wisdom. As a result, it risks reproducing the blind spots that yielded the world’s democratic crisis in the first place.
Democratic leadership can come from surprising places. I would hope the summit organizers at the very least invite participants from former citizens’ assemblies, who could bring a diversity of background as well as unique perspectives on a different kind of democratic politics. Better yet, they could start thinking about institutionalizing the principle of an international citizens’ assembly for the summit’s next iterations, as several thinkers, including myself, have called for in a joint letter to Biden. Such an assembly could follow the model of the Global Assembly on the climate crisis, which ran in parallel to the COP26 meeting in Glasgow, Scotland.
Finally, when it comes to the situation in the United States, one hopes that Biden’s summit will be an opportunity to change the country’s mostly sterile public conversation about democracy. Americans must finally allow themselves to question the foundations of the Constitution they so uncritically worship. The achievements of the Founding Fathers, as brilliant as they were, need to be reassessed in light of more than two centuries of dramatic change and a wealth of new social scientific knowledge. If we are to overcome the many profound challenges we face today, we need to be as bold and visionary in our time as they were in theirs.