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Two Fallacies of Democratic Design


Samuel Bagg (@samuel_e_bagg) is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of South Carolina.

Democracy is perhaps the central normative ideal embraced by the contemporary left. In its dominant critical mode, for instance, LPE scholarship documents the countless ways that standard legal practices entrench power hierarchies. Yet the practical bite of these critiques depends on the existence of viable alternative practices, and in articulating such constructive alternatives, we often turn to the language of democracy. What we want, it is said, is a more democratic organization of power.

But what exactly does this mean? As I’ve argued on this blog before, a precise definition of democracy is hardly necessary for making democratic progress: in practice, we can expose and contest the many hierarchies that clearly obstruct democracy on any reasonable understanding of that idea. Our concepts do start to matter, though, when we turn to the constructive task of articulating alternatives. And unfortunately, well-intentioned reformers are all too often misled by certain widespread but mistaken assumptions about what it means to deepen democracy.

Drawing on some of my recent research (presented most fully in my forthcoming book), this post discusses two such fallacies of democratic design: first, that more participation is presumptively better; and second, that lower-level democracy presumptively enhances higher-level democracy. Like any good fallacy, each contains a grain of truth. Yet both are ultimately grounded in an overly simplistic account of democracy, and thus distort the priorities of would-be democratizers.

Participatory Innovation: A Cautious Approach

First: is more participation always (or at least presumptively) more democratic?

We must start by affirming that greater widespread participation by ordinary people, in some form, is absolutely necessary for any project of deepening democracy. There is no technocratic or vanguardist solution to the myriad challenges of governing vast, pluralistic societies in an egalitarian way. To ensure their interests are better protected, large numbers of ordinary people simply must take a more active role in shaping political power.

It is tempting, though, to infer too much from this truism. No one would seriously claim that all practices involving widespread participation necessarily advance genuine democratic ends. LPE readers will be well acquainted with the pitfalls of referendums and other plebiscitary forms of “direct democracy”—think of Proposition 22, depriving gig workers of labor rights, which California voters approved after tech giants poured $205 million into the campaign. Still, many on the democratic left appear to grant smaller-scale, face-to-face participatory practices a degree of presumptive value. Indeed, those who adopt a more skeptical stance towards such arrangements may be accused of having insufficient faith in the capacities of ordinary people.

It is a mistake, however, to give participatory practices the benefit of the doubt. While they may look and even feel more democratic than representative institutions or expert-led processes, participatory practices are no less susceptible to capture by elite interests. On the contrary: this sheen of democratic legitimacy can make them especially effective vehicles of capture, allowing wealthy and powerful actors to conceal their involvement behind a participatory veneer, while co-opting or distracting potential opponents.

An egregious illustration of this dynamic is found in Jaskiran Dhillon’s account of how the Canadian government uses practices of participatory inclusion to co-opt indigenous youth, inducing them to identify with the settler state and support its projects. Alternatively, think of Emmanuel Macron’s repeated use of highly visible yet ultimately toothless participatory initiatives to divert popular energy away from unruly protest movements. Or perhaps more familiarly, consider the extensive requirements for community participation that were mandated by the National Environmental Policy Act in 1970—which were hailed at the time as a major advance for participatory democracy, and have since been widely imitated around the globe, but are now largely employed by agencies and their corporate allies to ensure compliance from community members and protect themselves from litigation.

As should be clear from these examples, suspicion of participatory practices does not entail a lack of faith in the ability of ordinary people to understand complex issues, debate them intelligently, and make decent judgments, when placed in the right context. Rather, it follows from distrust in the elites who will inevitably shape the structure and outcomes of participatory institutions in practice—by setting their scope and agenda, for instance, and providing the necessary expertise.

Despite these challenges, we can deepen democracy by facilitating certain forms of popular participation. However, it is not just a matter of getting ordinary people in the room: in fact, that is often the easy part. The more difficult task is to ensure those rooms are not manipulated by the powerful. In a world characterized by vast inequalities, elite capture is the rule, not the exception—and participatory practices are just as susceptible to it as any other political institution. If we hope to beat the odds and design practices that reliably serve democratic ends, we must explicitly orient them around avoiding that outcome. Our primary aim should not be facilitating participation as such, in other words, but resisting capture.

Inevitably, some readers will find this focus strange or even suspicious, given that the specter of capture is most frequently invoked today as an excuse to insulate experts from popular accountability, or even to get rid of public capacities altogether. Yet these conclusions reflect implausibly narrow accounts of what counts as capture. As earlier generations of progressives recognized, in fact, a more comprehensive confrontation with capture in all of its forms actually requires an increase in certain kinds of public capacity and popular accountability. When Louis Brandeis and other antimonopoly crusaders railed against the “curse of bigness,” for instance, they were talking about the tendency of big business to capture government policy. And as I show in recent work, the lens of resisting capture can clarify and vindicate their insight that aggressive antitrust enforcement is a key democratic demand.

In “Fighting Power with Power,” meanwhile, I apply that lens to administrative and regulatory institutions more broadly. In certain cases, I concede, limiting the discretion of state actors may be the best way to minimize capture. Often, however, this goal is best served by expanding public capacity—either through muscular regulation, as with antitrust policy, or even direct public control. Consider that a public health care system, in which the quality of service provision by state actors can be straightforwardly observed by everyone, will be much less vulnerable to capture by private interests than a hybrid system, like that of the US, in which the state’s critical structuring role is obscured behind a thicket of arcane rules and regulations.

Meanwhile, bureaucrats are right to fear that close supervision by elected officials would limit their ability to pursue important public aims, and that some insulation from the pressures of mass politics is warranted. Yet this is hardly the only way to enhance popular accountability. One emerging paradigm emphasizes the sanitizing properties of open contestation, for instance, proposing that agencies designate contrarians or invite third-party challengers. Another turns to direct participation in rulemaking by ordinary citizens. And though I am wary of many proposals in the latter camp, certain participatory reforms can reliably mitigate capture—just so long as they are carefully and explicitly designed to minimize opportunities for elite manipulation.

One promising proposal that draws from both paradigms, for instance, is the idea of randomly selected “citizen oversight juries” that would scrutinize certain kinds of administrative decisions within an adversarial, trial-like structure. As I explore at greater length in “Sortition as Anti-Corruption,” random selection prevents elites from getting their way by influencing who participates, while the narrow oversight role and contestatory structure limit their ability to influence the agenda or present biased information. When the likelihood of capture is minimized in these ways, I conclude, genuine democratic gains might begin to emerge.

Of course, the citizen jury is not the only promising model of participatory innovation within state institutions: there are surely others worth trying as well. Deepening democracy is harder than it looks, however—and in general, breathless calls to “let the people speak” should be treated with the same caution as any other tool of the elite.

Organizational Democracy: A Systemic View

Second: does democratizing decision-making within firms, political parties, and other mid-level institutions enhance the quality of democracy in society at large?

For those on the democratic left, it is tempting to answer in the affirmative. In addition to the direct benefits of giving ordinary people more control over key aspects of their lives, in other words, it makes sense to suppose that this participatory engagement might be good practice for democratic citizenship more broadly. In this case as well, however, our intuitions about what looks or feels democratic are unreliable. While some forms of organizational democracy may promote higher-level democratic goals, many others actually threaten to undermine them.

Workplace democracy, for instance, does not eliminate the pressures of doing business in a broadly capitalist economy. Meanwhile, constant collective decision-making can be time-consuming, inefficient, and frustrating—and may even turn workers against one another. Indeed, participating in top-level business decisions could further conscript workers into the individualistic, profit-driven logic of capitalism. More concretely, certain forms of workplace democracy threaten to crowd out the activity of labor unions—whose goals of worker empowerment are superficially similar, but whose structure differs in important ways.

Like most participatory innovations, schemes of workplace democracy typically engage workers as individuals, aiming to integrate their input within a firm’s existing decision-making structure. By contrast, unions aim to build a standing reserve of collective power outside that structure—and in explicit opposition to it—which can then be used to extract concessions from powerful actors within and beyond a given firm. In light of these differences, unions are far better suited to the task of deepening democracy.

For one, procedures that are ostensibly collaborative and internal to a firm will be more prone to manipulation by bosses and other elites. Even if certain schemes of workplace democracy avoid these pitfalls, their individualized form of engagement will tend to separate and disorganize workers, rather than encouraging broad solidarity or durable forms of collective organization. In a world pervasively structured by elite capture, however, those are precisely the tools needed to deepen democracy. It is only by building organized collective power of their own, in other words, that ordinary people can hope to contest and undermine the organized power of wealth.

A similar logic applies to the organization of political parties. It is easy to hate party bosses and the rigid structures that entrench their position atop hierarchically organized parties. In particular, non-democratic methods of policy and leadership selection are easy scapegoats for the left’s marginalization by neoliberal elites within many center-left parties. As I discuss in work with Udit Bhatia, however, increasing the degree of intra-party democracy is not a reliable solution.

One reason for this is that participants in intra-party procedures like primaries tend not to look like average party supporters, much less average members of society. These procedures also limit the flexibility of party leaders in their efforts to compete for the allegiance of the entire population. Perhaps most importantly, primaries encourage a direct, plebiscitary relationship between celebrity politicians and unorganized masses, cutting out the mid-level elites who might otherwise hold leaders accountable. Although the Republican Party was hardly a bastion of democratic values before 2016, for instance, Trump’s hostile takeover certainly accelerated its abandonment of them—and it was possible only because of our plebiscitary primary system.

None of this is to say that intra-party democracy is always bad. Against those who see it as entirely noxious, in fact, we insist that the capture of party leaders by oligarchic interests is very real, and that some form of mass participatory engagement is necessary to mitigate it. As always, though, the devil is in the details. And in most cases, inviting members to participate as individuals—whether through mass primaries or deliberative town halls—will pose little real threat to entrenched interests. Once again, we conclude that ordinary people must act collectively through organized groups of their own. Whether or not their role is formalized within party decision-making, that is, the inevitable influence of wealthy elites must be countered by powerful unions, social movements, and other mass-membership organizations.

Given the pervasiveness of capture, even these classic organs of countervailing power will not be entirely immune to it. They are relatively more resistant to elite co-optation, however, due to their narrow aims—often defined in opposition to certain elite forces—as well as a multi-level structure grounded in small-scale face-to-face networks. In addition, certain forms of internal democracy are still necessary to keep leaders accountable to their organizational mission of building countervailing power. Yet the type of engagement required for this specific task is quite distinct from the open-ended input solicited by most participatory innovations.

Here again, the point is not to maximize participation but to minimize capture. And while many dilemmas remain in deciding how best to pursue this goal—for instance, what is the right balance between hierarchical coordination and rank-and-file initiative in unions and other mass-membership organizations?—those are at least the right questions to ask.