Upstreaming citizen participation

Representative democracy is not democratic enough. Today, citizens should be able to participate in the political process from the beginning, upstream, and not just at the end with their vote. Interview. Español Português

Hélène Landemore Manuel Nunes Ramires Serrano
4 November 2016

Hélène Landemore and Yannis Papadopoulos during the conference “What Democracy?” São Luiz Theater, Lisbon. October 7, 2016. Walter Branco. All rights reserved.

Manuel Serrano: Regarding your discussion at the Lisbon conference with Yannis Papadopoulos on political representation: is representative democracy democratic? Is there a B plan? 

Hélène Landemore: I have come to the conclusion that it is not – not democratic enough. So, we do need a B plan. I do not think that the B plan should be a return to assembly democracy, direct democracy, or mass democracy - the sort of democracy we imagine from Ancient Greece. I do not think this is feasible. The B plan should be a different kind of representative democracy. I call it ‘post-representative’, because I want to make it clear that it is something different.

It would not be so centered on elections and the delegation of power to a professional class of politicians. It would be a form of representation that puts ordinary citizens in charge – where people like us would make the decisions. It might not be all of us, directly. I don’t think this is plausible, it is way too utopian. Even with today’s technology, I do not think it makes sense. People are busy, they are not interested in making decisions every day, on every aspect of political life. But the people making decisions would be more like us.

Another element I want to emphasise, aside from the role of ordinary citizens, is that power should be about not just having the final say, about the final decision, but about the preceding agenda-setting process. This is something that, today, is entirely delegated to bureaucrats, experts, judges and professional politicians. And this is where most of the power lies.

MS: How would this work in practice? Can you give us an example?

HL: Take the case of Iceland. Between 2010 and 2012, they tried to rewrite their constitution. And the way they did it was using very innovative democratic mechanisms, including a national forum at the beginning of the process, whereby 950 randomly selected citizens were in charge of setting the agenda and establishing the basis of the debate, shaping the conversation.

What they did was upstream citizen participation to the process. They were asking ‘what do you want in your constitution?’, ‘What values do you want embedded in our social contract?’ That is the kind of conversation that we never usually have. It is substituted by backroom deals, which result in politicians telling us what we should vote on. And then they give us a choice – Europe or no Europe, for example. And the process ends up with Brexit.

We do not want this dichotomy: it is not Europe or no Europe, it is what kind of Europe.

That is not the right question. The question should be: what kind of Europe do we want? This is the conversation that ordinary citizens are never given a chance to have. Citizens do not have a say on the agenda. They are presented with the fait accompli of a new neoliberal construct with a common market, no question of political integration, and now it turns out that people are fed up with it.

We do not want this dichotomy: it is not Europe or no Europe, it is what kind of Europe. I do not know if we are ever going to be able to have this conversation, because a lot of trust has now been destroyed, but I feel that if we are to build a working democracy, we must start by putting ordinary citizens in power, and giving them the right kind of power - mainly the power of setting the agenda.


Michael Gove and Boris Johnson. Stefan Rousseau PA Wire/PA Images. All rights reserved.

MS: Can participation replace representation? What are the pros and cons of participatory democracy?

HL: I think this is a wrong dichotomy. Participation is not the opposite of representation. They are complementary. To me, participation of ordinary citizens is what you get at a randomly selected assembly. It is not direct democracy, because not everybody is, or can be there. People in the assembly are chosen through a lottery mechanism.

This being said, I am also open to more direct forms of participation, where you just open the door and let in everybody who wants to participate. This is what crowd-sourcing is about. To go back to Iceland: you had a group of 25 constitutional drafters, and what they did was put their proposals online, at different stages, for everyone to see. They put up, in total, 11 or 12 drafts. People could come online and give their comments and suggestions, make proposals, suggest amendments, or restructure chapters.

This is another form of participation, but you have to realize that people are not that eager to participate in a process like this, at all times, en masse. Turnout at participation experiments is in the range of only a few percentage points – not that many people. It is very important to open this door and leave it open, but you cannot count on mass participation – which is fine: people should not be expected, nor forced, to care about the political common good all the time: they have lives to live.

MS: In the light of recent referenda and plebiscites, in the UK and Colombia, do you feel that they are used to manipulate rather than to express citizens’ opinion?

HL: I do not think you can ask citizens to say yes or no, at the last minute, on issues which they have not had a chance to shape. The questions were framed in such a way that they lumped together a lot of dimensions. And there might be just one dimension that people reject so strongly that they are prepared to throw out the baby out with the bath water. This is what happens at referenda that are used as plebiscitary mechanisms, at the last minute, without having let people have any input upstream, early on in the process.

Referenda are now being used as plebiscitary mechanisms by the powers that be, but they are turned into protest mechanisms by the people. So, we get a stalemate between elites who try to dictate things, who try to get the public’s seal of approval so that they can say “Look: it’s democratic!”, and people who think ‘You know what? This is not working for us, so we’re going to blow the whole thing up’.

Referenda are now being used as plebiscitary mechanisms by the powers that be, but they are turned into protest mechanisms by the people.

Both sides lose. Take Brexit: do you think that the people who voted for it are actually all that happy with the outcome? I mean, they got their protest vote, but now, what? I think we need to go back to the issue of trust and empowerment, and also to reconfiguring what power means. Public deliberation has to take place in the same room as the agenda setting. People need to have their voices heard there, not at the end of the process, when the question has already been shaped, and is possibly the wrong one.

MS: How do you explain the rise of populism in Europe and the United States? Is this a symptom that citizens are fed up with politics?

HL: I think so. You could say that it has to do with globalization and with the economic forces that are basically depriving states from their economic sovereignty – that is, from their sovereignty on policy areas that should enable them to respond to their people’s wish for economic prosperity. Populism could be partly explained by this. And the solution would be economic, and probably to be found in more partnerships, international agreements, and cooperation.

But I think that the question is deeper than that. It has to do with understanding the fact that democracy is not democratic enough. If you take a long-term view, if you zoom out from the current situation and take a historical perspective, you can see that we have not been experimenting with modern democracy for long – from the 18th century on, actually. And its first version was not really democratic: only property owners had the vote, and only men, not women. It was a really limited kind of democracy. Then it improved progressively, and became more democratic with the expansion of the franchise.

The truth is that the creation of representative government in the 18th century was an effort to make the masses consent to power, not to give them real power.

But the truth is that the creation of representative government in the 18th century was an effort to make the masses consent to power, not to give them real power – which is something quite different. Democracy in Ancient Athens was about the power of ordinary citizens – that is, the ones who were considered citizens –: it was about citizens holding power, and holding office. They were randomly picked up and put in the position of setting the agenda at the Council of 500. Or they would just show up at the assembly and vote and shout and talk. They had power, in an immediate way.

Then, in the 18th century, what happened was that the elites saw the dangers of this, and they turned the discourse from ‘we are going to give you power’ to ‘we are going to give you the opportunity to consent to power’. Today, I think we have come to realize that it is not enough to only consent to power, you want to be able to shape the conversation and to have an actual say on what is to be discussed. This means that the vote is not enough.


Donald Trump. Evan Vucci AP/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.

MS: How would you describe the current situation of the European Union? Is it a terminal illness, or is there hope that the patient will get well soon?

HL: I think the EU was built on the wrong premises. It was an elite driven project, with very little consultation with the people and, by default, with a neoliberal agenda. And so, honestly, I am not sure it is going to be easy to rebuild. If we were to rebuild it, I think we should have a European-wide consultation, or deep involvement by ordinary citizens - for which, again, I would suggest lottery-based assemblies. I think there should be a citizen assembly of – say - 1.000 members, pulled from all corners of Europe, maybe weighted by the size of the country. You should pay them handsomely and give them a year to figure out a road-map for Europe – because, in the end, they are the ones who are going to have to live with the consequences. I would rather have these people, a sample of a 1.000 European citizens, make recommendations about the path forward than the now discredited "experts" in Brussels."

MS: Going back to the example of Iceland: what should we learn from it? Do you think we could apply it here?

HL: I do not want to sound too utopian, but none of what we have seen in Iceland seems unfeasible to me. Everything they have done is perfectly scalable. People always say to me: “Oh, Iceland! Its population is 320.000, like a small city in the US: how can this be an example for the rest of the world?” But a randomly selected assembly is perfectly scalable. A constitutional assembly of ordinary, non-professional citizens is perfectly viable. Crowd funding is perfectly feasible. For some countries, you would need many more formalities and involve many more specialists to process all the information and synthesize it properly. You would need investment. And you would need a new kind of infrastructure for politics and, definitely, a new frame of mind. So, I think you need younger people, or at least people with a more open-minded approach to politics.

MS: So, why are we not doing it?

Because there is a complete lack of political will or, rather, a lack of imagination. I think there is a feeling that if you randomly select citizens, ‘we will get a bunch of potentially dangerous people’. But no: what you have to do is just to explain that what you would get is a representative sample of the population. For one thing, 50% would be women – a huge plus – and you would get people who would normally never have access to politics. So, how can that be worse than what we have now?

To think that the only way to regain some control is by breaking free from all these international entities and returning to our small nation-states, where there are only people like us, is understandable - but very wrong.

At this point, I think that the advantage of having reached rock bottom is that, in a way, there is only one way up and maybe it is time for our leaders to try to experiment with something new. Make the random assembly an advisory body at the beginning, if you will. But the media should cover its discussions, you should promote widespread debating in the larger states, and start a movement opening up to something new, because politics as usual is turning people off. To think that the only way to regain some control is by breaking free from all these international entities and returning to our small nation-states, where there are only people like us, is understandable - but very wrong.

MS: Let us cross over to the United States: what do you feel about the political climate there? Can Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump truly represent the American people?

HL: The political climate in the US is terrible. Only 9% of the population approves either candidate. The system is not promoting any option that represents what people want. People put the blame on various things: the role of money in politics and the system of primaries, which tends to select polarized figures. I think that the problem has to do with what we were talking about: rejection of globalization, the loss of economic sovereignty – although the US still enjoys a good deal of it –, rising inequality, the loss of jobs, the feeling of displacement. And a distinct impression that political elites are not offering anything. I do not think anyone is happy with the candidates. Whatever the outcome, there is going to be a great frustration.

This interview was conducted on October 7, in Lisbon, at the conference "What democracy?” organized by the Francisco Manuel dos Santos Foundation.

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