Daily President Trump challenges some aspect of the balance of executive, congressional, and judicial powers that form the core of American democracy, descending into blatant illegality defended through lies that do not seem even intended to be believed so much as they are expressions of the conviction that “you elected me and now I can do what I want.”
But even without the frightening, barely credible reality of Donald Trump, the current sorry state of American democracy would be evident. The US Congress has for many years ceased to make any serious effort to represent the desires of their constituencies, and the radical gap that has opened between the modestly left and the far right has made examples of genuine debate and deliberation few and far between, offering instead a kind of ideological kabuki. And, at some level, voters know this. Thus, poll after poll shows a majority of Americans of both parties would like to see greater gun control, but a 2019 Reuters/Ipsos poll found that just eight percent felt “Very Confident” that their elected officials would do anything about it. That electing Democrats leads to increased attention to the needy while Republicans regularly transfer wealth to the wealthy suggests that elections still matter, but, beyond that, what remains of American democracy is an open question.
The United States is hardly alone in this development. Traditional political parties across the established democracies of Europe are losing ground to new extreme right anti-democratic forces: the Freedom Party in Austria, the Danish People’s Party, the AfD in Germany, the Lega Nord in Italy, the National Rally in France, the Swedish Democrats, and the Party for Freedom in the Netherlands. Several have become the second largest parties in their countries, which does not bode well for the future of liberal democracy even in those countries that are most successful economically. So far, these insurgent forces have been held at bay by traditional forces of authority, but how long this can last is uncertain.
In the less established democracies in Russia, Eastern Europe, and Latin America, authoritarian leaders are being elected despite their open contempt for the democratic processes that are bringing them to power — Vladimir Putin in Russia, Viktor Orbán in Hungary, Andrzej Duda in Poland, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines. The painful experience with authoritarian communism in Eastern Europe and military dictatorship in Brazil seems to provide little stay against these developments. Further, the success of authoritarian government in China in lifting 800,000 people from desperate poverty, the reemergence of a remilitarized Russia as a force in European politics, and Donald Trump’s embrace of authoritarians in all forms lend encouragement to these anti-democratic forces.
There has been a flood of critical analyses of these developments with titles such as How Democracies Die (Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, 2018), How Democracy Ends (David Runciman, 2018), Ill Winds: Saving Democracy from Russian Rage, Chinese Ambition, and American Complacency (Larry Diamond, 2019), and I must add an older book, The Decline and Fall of the American Republic (Bruce Ackerman, 2010), which predicted the equivalent of the Trump presidency with uncanny accuracy. Many of these books are brilliant in their analyses of what has gone wrong structurally with contemporary democracy and constitute powerful warnings about the state of affairs in the United States and around the world. What they generally lack, however, is useful advice about what is to be done to restore faith in and the actuality of liberal democracy.
As we grab at straws, perhaps the most immediately plausible remedy for the failures of contemporary democratic government and for restoring faith in democracy itself is to replace representative democracy with direct democracy, that is, the system in which major decisions are put to a majority vote of the electorate. The possibility of direct democracy is generally raised with little attention to how it might work in practice and how we might get from here to there.
The Irish-Canadian legal scholar Roslyn Fuller, drawing on a deeply considered analysis of the Roman Senate rather than the simplifying clichés with which Roman governance is usually discussed, attempts to answer these questions in her new book, In Defence of Democracy. Fuller’s new book follows on her earlier book about Roman democracy, Beasts and Gods: How Democracy Changed Its Meaning and Lost its Purpose (2015). In the years between these books, she established the Solonian Democracy Institute to encourage research and experimentation on ways to increase citizen participation in democratic decision making, and she ran for Irish parliament on a platform which basically said that she would put all major decisions to a majority vote of her constituents. What she has learned from these ventures is readily apparent in her new book.
At the heart of Fuller’s argument is the conviction that representative democracy has been conquered by the oligarchic forces of monied elites and that elites will always overestimate their own wisdom while bending (or should we say, buying) policies to benefit themselves. As Fuller puts it,
in our democracy to date there has been a split between the ideology of equal participation and the practical reality of elites running the show: the political elites drafted and voted on laws; media elites decided which stories to publish; financial elites determined which candidates and parties to back.
Today, she maintains, with the virtually universal spread of digital technology, this elite control need no longer be the case. Digital media and already-existing software make it possible at low cost for the mass of voters to make themselves heard and to engage in direct and even deliberative decision making. If monied interests have corrupted the representative process (as they surely have — how else could one explain the recent massive tax cut for the wealthy?), Fuller argues that direct decision making by the electorate may be the only way to make it just too costly for special interests to bribe their way to the head of the line.
Those of us who live in states like California and have seen up close the way special interests use money and deceptive wording to bend the referendum process to their benefit might well question this basic hypothesis, and Fuller does not do justice to the rampant manipulation of digital media today. However, when she discusses the specifics of how direct democracy might work, she does offer suggestions about how these corrupting influences might be limited.
Before getting to her discussion of direct democracy itself, Fuller devotes a good deal of space to countering what she sees as the elite argument that the general public is not wise enough, informed enough, sufficiently understanding of their own self-interest, or rational enough to be entrusted with the responsibility of major decision making. She has good fun showing how regularly the general voter is underestimated in both the writing of libertarians like Jason Brennan and in social science research by serious scholars such as Larry Bartels and Christopher Achen as well as in the traditional media that reflects elite opinion. Thus, to take the two voter “mistakes” that loom large today — the election of Donald Trump and Brexit — she writes:
Rather than acknowledge that many people are seeking alternatives (Trump, Brexit) for an actual reason, or that whenever anyone asks, people keep saying they want change, anti-democrats continue to claim that we live in the best possible reality (indeed, this insistence that the status quo was terrific, despite all evidence to the contrary, was exactly what had such devastating effects for both the British Remain and Hillary Clinton’s presidential claim).
While her argument for the wisdom of the general voter is not entirely persuasive, she does open the reader to sense that voters really might understand their situation better than we have been taught to believe. To this she adds her sense that the elites are as likely to be wrong as the general voter, to which she argues “[e]ven if Brennan were to be correct (and he isn’t) that most voters are ‘ignorant, irrational and misinformed but nice,’ I’d take that over ‘sophisticated, rational and informed but evil’ any day of the week.” Here, as more generally, she simplifies the choices to make her point, which always tends back toward the self-interested positions of elites of all sorts.
Having made her claims for the potential of general voters, Fuller then takes up two other possibilities for improving the performance of contemporary democracy: a greater element of meritocracy and sortition, the practice of putting decision making to a small group of rotating, randomly selected voters. Fuller gives possible versions of meritocracy short shrift because for her all of them are strategies for keeping power in the hands of the elite. Sortition, she argues, may have worked for certain aspects of governance in Rome, but modern nations are just too large for voters to feel represented by a small group of voters even granted that the responsibility of voting for a limited period of time might focus their minds and encourage a greater grasp of the issues than the general voter has either time or incentive for. The ratios of those randomly selected to the populace of voters is just too large to ever be persuasive. Fuller concludes that those who would argue for sortition despite this limitation are seeking yet another way to enhance control by the elite by limiting decisions to a small group that “can be hammered by experts until they realize the error of their ways.”
Having cleared the ground, Fuller then offers her “Five Principles for Transformational (but Reasonable) People Power.” First is the shift to online discussion and voting, and with it the possibility of mass participation. Here she discusses already-existing software and offers examples, ranging from participatory budgeting in Reykjavik to the Pirate Party and the Five-Star Movement in Europe, which use software to develop policy from the bottom up. The referendum on Brexit is offered as yet another example of direct democracy, although here the challenge of making the transition to direct democracy is evident. The referendum, offered originally as an opinion poll, was then treated by the Leavers as binding democratic decision even though it came into direct conflict with the will of the legislators the public had elected to represent them. The result has been years of disarray in British government.
Second is pay for participation to level the playing field between those with the financial means to have time to vote and those struggling to maintain themselves.
Third is “focused, outcome-oriented deliberation.” Fuller acknowledges that social media platforms and various news sites have “all too often become the new arenas for […] petty, mudslinging, back-biting wars of attrition” and that for direct democracy to be genuinely deliberative will take carefully controlled media platforms that set limits on debate and point always toward arriving at conclusions. Fuller offers a number of suggestions about the establishment of procedures to make this process work and even comes close to meritocracy when she suggests that there be “a requirement that someone who wants to speak about a technical topic has formal qualifications in the area.” How this process is developed and controlled is clearly the crux of the matter. Fuller offers suggestions about how to proceed, but the larger point is to begin and to learn through practice in various smaller-scale environments.
Her fourth is “precarious, informal leadership (but leadership just the same).” The role of rhetors in the Roman Senate is offered as an example (i.e., individuals who had no political power but won their right to be heard and to help direct debates through their wisdom and eloquence). Her hope is that if the other elements of direct democracy were put in place, equivalent articulate and able individuals would emerge to help lead the process of direct democracy. Whether one credits this presumption depends on just how rational one takes the average voter to be. For those who remain skeptical, Fuller’s fallback position would be better risk the abuse of direct democracy than continue listening to a self-interested elite.
Finally, Fuller finds a small, not entirely clear role for sortition, not in legislating but in guiding the implementation of what has been decided upon by direct democratic voting. This is the least worked-out piece of her argument, but the will behind it is clear, which is to find more ways for more people to participate in government.
In the end, does Fuller make her case? I would say that she is not finally persuasive at the national level. However, direct democracy is already proven to work in more limited contexts, as it is already doing in several cities and countries. Direct democratic voting on the platforms of political parties, or on specific well-defined issues on the city and state level, would almost certainly have an impact on the individual’s trust in the democratic process. As this gradual buildup over a period of years from the local and regional to the national level is, in any case, how Fuller imagines arriving at full-scale direct democracy, there is nothing to be lost by trying and possibly much to be gained. This is particularly true in light of the evident loss of confidence in the historical parties of left, right, and center, which has left the door open to populist movements, many with anti-democratic tendencies. Genuinely listening to those one hopes to represent and building party platforms based on their desires would seem a natural step toward restoring faith in at least this component of democracy. For those who choose to work in this direction, In Defence of Democracy will prove a valuable guide.
Steven Lavine is the former president of the California Institute of the Arts.