“We must expect more from our ideal of democracy”

In her latest book “Open democracy: reinventing popular rule for the 21st century” (1), Hélène Landemore, Associate Professor of Political Science at Yale University, envisions new non-electoral forms of democracy. For us, she looks back at the French Citizens’ Climate Convention and imagines a future in which all the principles of genuine democracy, which she describes in her book, would have been adopted. A mere utopia? 

Missions Publiques: In your book, you speak of the democratic crisis, even the “deficit” of democracy in our societies today. As a French woman living in the United States, would you say that this crisis is the same on both sides of the Atlantic?  Is it a global phenomenon?

Hélène Landemore: Yes, I think that the democratic crisis is a global phenomenon. There are two main causes for this: exogenous phenomena such as globalisation, which has destabilised democracies by amplifying economic inequalities within them; and the fact that our democracies are not so democratic after all. They are based on the principle of election and concentrate power in the hands of a socio-economic elite – somewhat renewed, admittedly, by the non-accumulation of mandates – which takes decisions on behalf of others. I think we need to have a much higher standard of the ideal of democracy. The diagnosis I make in my book is that there is not only an oligarchic but also a cognitive bias introduced by the principle of election that is not compensated for by other forms of citizen participation.

If this democratic crisis is global, it manifests itself in different ways in different countries. In the United States, it is very pronounced. For 30 years, the United States has chosen neoliberalism to the extreme: it has exposed itself to Chinese competition, in particular, and has relocated a large part of its companies. These are choices that they are paying very dearly: the American working class has been decimated. As a result, it is tempted by the populism of a Trump, who himself is tempted by authoritarianism. Added to this are enormous economic inequalities which are, despite everything, more limited in European countries. In the United States, 82% of the people in Congress belong to the richest 10% of the population. Of course they respond to the interests of the lobbies and the people who finance them; one would have to be naive to think otherwise. According to some politicians, there is exactly zero correlation between what American majorities want and public policy once you take into account the preferences of the richest 10% of the population! If this is true, it is simply hallucinating: it suggests that majorities today have no causal influence on public policy in the United States. How can we say that this is a democracy? It is at best a democracy “by coincidence”: majorities get what they want when their preferences match those of the dominant economic minority. In Europe, this is probably less serious, because there is less inequality and money does not play such a big role in elections (even though in France social mobility is even lower than in the United States). What strikes me is that the dominant ideology masks this. People gargle with the word democracy, but in fact, when you look at it in detail, the opinion of the people doesn’t count. You might as well admit it. We live in liberal and comfortable “electrocracies”, of course, but where the people do not govern, either directly or indirectly. The radicality of the concept of the idea of “power by the people” not just “of” or “for the people” has to be reconquered. »

(1) Hélène Landemore is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Yale University. Her research interests include democratic theory, political epistemology and theories of justice.
(2) In a recent article for Terra Nova, Hélène Landemore discusses the weariness of a system consumed by money and constitutionally locked.
(3) “Testing theories of American politics”, Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page in Perspectives On Politics, 2014.
"We live in liberal and comfortable 'electrocracies', but where the people do not govern, either directly or indirectly.

Photo: Stephanie Anestis

Hélène Landemore

Associate Professor of Political Science at Yale University

Missions Publiques: You analyse some of the mechanisms of the French Citizens’ Convention for Climate and refer in particular to the constitution of a 6th group of citizens, the squad, composed of “natural leaders”. Do these social processes disrupt or serve the deliberative processes?

Hélène Landemore: In every human group, there are leaders who reveal themselves. They are the ones who will dominate the group judgment and influence it, sometimes disproportionately. These people drive dynamics, often have good ideas, a vision, and are able to bring people out of their shell. Their role within the group is important, they should not be bullied. But you have to be careful that they are distributed throughout the group and never find themselves in a position of dominance. When you concentrate them in one group, as was inadvertently done in the “squad” of the Citizens’ Climate Convention, it is problematic. All these natural leaders that had been randomly distributed were concentrated in the squad, provoking critical reactions from some members of the Convention. To avoid any controversy, the governance committee, which had created it, therefore dismantled the squad after two sessions. Note that this semi-fiasco of the squad raises questions about the good governance of this type of assembly. The squad was created and dissolved without any real consultation with citizens or a vote on the relevance of each decision. This is no doubt understandable in the context of a first experiment of this type, on this scale, with the time and resource constraints of the moment.

However, if the conventions were to become permanent, the governance of this type of assembly would have to be rethought on the model of assemblies of elected representatives, with steering that is not external to their members and could perhaps once again be based on sortition. Otherwise it looks too much like paternalism. The virtue of drawing lots is that it avoids the encasement of the natural aristocracy. The drawing of lots is a natural “rebrassage” that somehow avoids social and cognitive consanguinity.


Missions Publiques: Emmanuel Macron took the initiative for this Citizens’ Convention. Would you say that he has shown political courage, foresight, opportunity? In pointing out the imperfections of this process, if you were Emmanuel Macron, what would you say to your colleagues in the next G7 about these processes? To go or not to go?

Hélène Landemore: All three, but I need to clarify. What is disappointing is that this type of process does not seem to be so central to the president’s philosophy. In a recent interview on his doctrine, Emmanuel Macron does not talk at all about participatory or deliberative democracy. He talks about the rupture of capitalism, which is what he envisages as a response to it. But he says nothing about the “we”. Nothing either about the limits of electoral democracy as such. He evokes May 68 without mentioning that it is also the beginnings of participatory democracy. He does not even mention his own successes on the subject, such as, to some extent, the Great Debate and especially the Citizens’ Convention. It is not in his overall geopolitical approach and yet we can all agree that Europe and the world would also need citizen deliberation and participation. There is a feeling that deliberative and participatory democracy remains for him of the tactical and reactive order, and not of the strategic and long-term order. I think this is a mistake. It has to become an integral part of the philosophy of the next term.

The danger is not to think about what comes after. In the case of the Great Debate and the Citizen’s Convention, there has been no real clear thinking about the aftermath. The extravagant promise of the unfiltered is now running up against all the existing filters. So if Emmanuel Macron were to give advice to his colleagues, I would say, yes, go for it, otherwise, in any case, the populist side will prevail. But go ahead with even more nerve and ambition by thinking well in advance about the expected impact and how to translate all this. Also think about institutionalizing these citizens’ assemblies in the long term. In concrete terms, this means not only putting real financial resources and skills at the service of the citizens’ conventions and making a concrete and realistic commitment on how to deal with the aftermath (what exactly can be done with the citizens’ recommendations), but also offering guarantees – such as an independent evaluation of the process (something that is largely absent from the Convention). It also means forging a new vocabulary: in my opinion, it would be better to speak of ‘citizen representation’ to characterise the drawn assemblies rather than maintaining the false dichotomy of representative democracy/participatory democracy. Confronting the question of the distribution of roles between elected representatives and representatives drawn by lot seems to me to be the conceptual and practical challenge for the years to come. On this last point, the Citizen’s Climate Convention might have benefited from involving parliamentarians in its work more upstream, in order to begin a process of mutual taming. The “complementarity” between the two groups can be invoked ad infinitum, but it is in practice that this will be determined. Finally, the president should advise his colleagues to be careful in their choice of words. The small sentence on “Amish” was clumsy with regard to the 150.

(1) Cf. chapter “The democratic legitimacy of self representation”.
(2) The 150 members of the French Citizens’ Climate Convention were divided into 5 thematic sub-working groups: housing, travel, food, work, production and consumption.
(3) “The Macron doctrine: conversation with the French President”, le Grand Continent, 16 Nov.2020.

Confronting the question of the distribution of roles between elected representatives and citizens drawn by lot seems to me to be the conceptual and practical challenge of the coming years.

Missions Publiques: In your opinion, democracy in the 21st century should be based on 5 principles: the right to participation, deliberation, the majority principle, democratic representation and transparency.  You imagine a scenario where electoral times would be shortened. Let’s start in 2040, when all your principles have been democratically adopted and have become common practice. Could you tell us about a political cycle, between 2040 and 2045, as seen by a citizen?

Hélène Landemore: The elections of representatives would be reduced in a way but not the voting times! In my vision, there would be many more participation rights that would allow to initiate a referendum, for example, not to choose representatives but to take decisions. One could envisage per year, say, 3 to 4 multiple-choice referendums (or, to be consistent with French law, 3 to 4 referendum days including multiple referendums on the same day). These referendums could be organised following citizens’ conventions, to validate or reject their proposals. One could envisage a house of the people with 150 to 300 lotocratic representatives, who would organise 3 conventions per year on particular themes. The function of these lotocratic representatives would be, among other things, to organise this agenda, as in East Belgium . Moreover, if they felt the need, the citizens would have the possibility to initiate referendums themselves on subjects of their choice, provided that the proposal reached a reasonable number of signatures.

As a result, between 2040 and 2045, there would be only one election of representatives but many more citizens’ acts. If we take just the referendums organised in a somewhat systematic way by a permanent People’s Assembly, we can imagine at least 3 to 4 multiple-choice referendums per year on 3 or 4 issues. Over 4 years, there would be 12 referendums on 36 important issues. If we take the high hypothesis, we would have 16 referendums on 64 questions. That completely changes the influence of majorities on decisions and it becomes impossible to ignore them. The themes envisaged could be those proposed by the Citizens’ Climate Convention, such as compulsory renovation, the crime of ecocide, the moratorium on the 5 Gs. But it could be other themes such as the decriminalisation of marijuana, the reintroduction of the FSI, immigration by quota, the pension system, the higher education reform project or simply this huge recovery plan on which the government will, in the end, have consulted citizens very little. So in 2040 we have all these votes and we go to the ballot boxes at national level 3 to 4 times a year. More obviously, citizens decide to initiate referendums from below themselves, so to speak, but I suspect they would have much less reason to do so in my system. These votes are preceded by campaigns, political debates in the media, in families and so on.

Giving power by chance to people from all social categories is also a way of rebuilding society.

I consider that this changes considerably the nature of the democracy in which we would live. People would feel more influential because they would be more influential. The principle of the right of participation and majority would be respected. With this incentive to be informed, citizens would become more informed: they would talk politics, the principle of deliberation would be better realised and respected. As they understand the system better, it is more transparent. At the same time, citizens attribute less responsibility for their dissatisfaction to elected officials… and it nips in the bud the tendencies towards conspiracy, the attitude of systematic opposition, there are fewer demonstrations, less violence. And we would have partly solved this crisis of democracy. Not all of course, I don’t deny the other factors such as globalisation, new technologies, terrorism and so on. But if we have 3 citizens’ conventions a year at national level, that makes a minimum of 450 people spread throughout the country who would pollinate, pass on information, educate… And we can hope that village mayors would also adopt these processes, with citizen juries of 25 people for example. Imagine the enormous leverage to recreate social ties, but also jobs! Giving power by chance to people from all social categories, giving voice also to young people, an entry point into the system to all those people who have no real power in the current system, is also a way of rebuilding the social fabric.