Essay by Hélène Landemore: “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 actually 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 don’t hold power in these systems. Elites do. Consider that in the United States, according to a 2014 study by the political scientists 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 is 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….(More)”