A blog about hybrid politics

Start with the State

Most democratic discussions start with the people, and attempt to build structures from them on the principle of representation. This has resulted in some real gains for democracy, most notably the creation of the U.S. Constitution and the democratization of Europe, with changes such as the reform bill of 1832 in Great Britain. Nevertheless, it’s hard to point to any meaningful improvement in democratic structures since the 19th century. All the improvement has been directly tied to representation through the franchise, namely including women and minorities.

Instead, why don’t we start with the state, and ask what it needs to properly perform its broad social role of service to the people? This will certainly be an unpopular approach; the state as an institution is not popular, and considering its needs sounds like blasphemy to political theorists used to thinking of representation as the foundation of all things democratic.

But that doesn’t mean that the approach is misguided. In fact, the first thing that I noticed when taking this approach is that it actually results in stronger requirements for democratic participation, not weaker. For example, in order to properly serve the people, the state needs everyone to vote as a matter of duty, a fact that the principle of representation obscures by making non-participation a valid choice. The problem here is that, since the state must serve all people, non-participation is really not a valid option; non-participation makes the state less able to carry out a truly democratic mandate.

Another clear requirement of the “state first” approach is that the state needs many more touch points with ordinary citizens, and in ways that have a decisive influence on public policy. Holding an election every four years satisfies the theoretical requirements of representation, but it is laughably inadequate for guiding the organs of state to perform the people’s business. Under any political system, democratic or otherwise, the state is a massive enterprise. In fact there are numerous attempts (of dubious quality) to include citizens in this way: something as simple as comment periods for new regulations have been widely used for decades.

Sadly, mechanisms like comment periods rarely have any meaningful influence, as they do nothing to alter who actually makes final decisions. Mechanisms like citizen initiatives have a slightly better record, but still do not offer anywhere near the frequency or opportunity for consideration needed to guide the state well. Indeed, theorists of representation are at this point hindering the development of democracy by assuming that the enlightenment-era assembly is the perfect decision making structure; they are merely trying to swap out allotted members for elected ones.

Decision making is the most import principle of the state first approach. Government officials at every level need clarity on public policy, and the traditional assembly just does not provide it. The institutions of the state (again, under any system) need some consistency; policy that whipsaws from one extreme to the other and back again undercuts the mission of government. The 50% + 1 rule virtually guarantees such wild swings, and they occur at precisely the times when politics is the most competitive, which is when the principle of representation suggests that democracy should work the best.

Policy should change, of course, but it should do so under the idea of convergence; that is, policy should orbit around a kind of central average of what the population believes. Along with that, policy should be separable to some degree; casting a single vote on all aspects of policy makes a mockery of both feedback and accountability in politics.

What these considerations require is a systematic method of obtaining the honest, considered views of the general public on a regular basis, and on a wide range of issues. Convergence requires frequency, large sample sizes, and regularity in the operations of those contacts. It should be clear that a traditional assembly cannot achieve any of these objectives, no matter how it is populated. Only a system of citizen juries, called regularly on a single use basis, can achieve these goals.

Theories of representation cover none of these considerations. The only thing representation says is that decision makers should have some sort of mandate from citizens. Theories like ‘consent of the governed’ had a useful role in the 18th and 19th century move toward electoral republics, but they do nothing to make governments more democratic now.

The problem with current versions of democracy can be seen as a ‘state’ problem more than anything. So-called democracies during the 19th and 20th centuries always functioned as oligarchies. We put up with it because the state didn’t have to do as much, and because corrupt political actors didn’t have access to information age tools. The insurrection in the U.S. Capitol, planned on Facebook, should convince us that, in the information age, the state apparatus cannot be left accountability-free for two years (or more) at a time. Focusing on ‘the people’ doesn’t diminish the importance of the state, it allows the state to metastasize. Instead, find anywhere in government that significant public policy decisions are being made, and insert a citizen jury to make that decision from a short list of diverse options. Start with the state.