Is Participatory Democracy Possible?

When I was in City Hall, a very long time ago, I had a discussion with John Sweezy that made an indelible impression on me. John  was then the Republican County Chair (and a man who regularly reminded his “troops” that “good government is good politics” Times were different then, and so was the GOP.). I was complaining that a local political gadfly didn’t have a clue how government worked or was supposed to work.

John said he’d long thought that citizens should be required to work for government for at least two years–and prohibited from working in government for more than four. Long enough to understand the challenges and realities, but not long enough to become part of the problem.

I might quibble with the time limits or the implicit lack of appreciation for expertise, but I thought then–and think now–that John was on to something.

That long-ago conversation came to mind when I read a recent article in Aeon, arguing that democracies fail when they ask too little of their citizens.

Modern states are plagued by the problem of ‘rational ignorance’. The chance that any individual’s vote will make a difference is so vanishingly small that it would be irrational for anyone to bother taking a serious interest in the issues and candidates. And so, many people don’t – and then fall for implausible rhetoric. In this way, democracy has come to mean little more than electing politicians on the basis of their promises, then watching them fail to keep them.

This was not the case in the Athens of two and a half thousand years ago. Then, democracy – rule by the people – meant active participation in the running of the state, if not continually, then at least periodically throughout one’s life. As Aristotle put it: ‘to rule and be ruled in turn.’ This participation was a right but also a responsibility. It was intended not only to create a better state, but to create better citizens: engagement in the political process was an education in the soberingly complex realities of decision-making.

The author noted that (male) citizens were expected to serve not only in the army and on juries, as is the case with some modern states, but also to attend the main decision-making assembly in person.  Some public offices were elected, but many others were selected by lottery. He acknowledged the vast differences between ancient Athens and today’s governments, but argued that we should nevertheless seek ways to make our government “radically participatory.”

For example: legislative bodies could be wholly or partially selected by lottery. Even better might be separate assemblies summoned to review each proposed new law or area of government. This would hugely increase the number of people involved in the legislative system. The ancient Athenians managed exactly this; today, digital technology would make it even easier.

I’m dubious. But on the other hand, the way we choose our Representatives and Senators clearly isn’t working. (Ted Cruz’s old college roommate was recently quoted saying that picking a president at random out of the phone book would be preferable to a Cruz presidency, and everything I’ve ever heard about Cruz suggests he’s right.)

Even a cursory look at the House of Representatives suggests we could hardly do worse than we’re doing now….

Lottery, anyone?


  1. My father, a STAUNCH Republican and decades long union member, suggested before his death 18 years ago, entering all qualifications and detrimental information into computers and allow the computer to come up with “the winner”. He made the same suggestion regarding criminal and civil trials. Sounds good but it puts us in the position Alan Watts warned of in the 1970’s; “Man is going to computerize himself out of existence.” We would be between the computer and a hard place. Using a lottery system would replace computers with humans who already participate in – or ignore – the current lottery of elections. We are currently between the GOP and a hard place.

    Alas and alack; IS there a feasible answer to our current quandary? Trump and Carson may unwittingly bring about an unusual resolution by forming that threatened third political party (if they can agree on who to name it after) and split the current GOP…or shatter it, throwing this country into mass confusion.

  2. Registering and VOTING is a base level. I have had many conversations with folks who SEEM engaged. When it comes to voting, they said they don’t bother.
    WTF? Really?

  3. At the state level voting in Indiana seems to be a complete waste of time if you are not a conservative Republican. Gerrymandering has destroyed the political election process. I completely understand why some people don’t bother to vote.

    Even though I vote, sometimes it is just to vote for someone that doesn’t have a chance at getting elected just to add one more vote against the Republican that will get the job. Indiana is not run as a democracy.

    A republican friend and I recently talked about term limits for Congress and I asked him how we could possibly make that happen when the fox has been given control of the hen house. He really didn’t have an answer.

    Do any of you know if there is a way that citizens could demand term limits? To me, it seems impossible because we would need Congress to basically vote themselves out of office. Is there a way to make this happen?

  4. I’m reminded of reading Sheila’s book, “Distrust American Style,” and the idea that our government is somehow made up of “them” and not all of us.

  5. Sadly, there is growing sentiment that the only way any real change is going to come about is for the entire system to crash and burn. To this end, some folks hope Trump will win the presidential election. For example, “I’m hoping Donald Trump wins this year’s election. For the reason that it will fuck up that country so much faster then if a less bad President wins.”.
    – – Motherboard Interview with Peter Sunde.
    I’m unsure which scare me more: 1. The status quo. 2. Allowing the system to crash and burn. 3. My own sense of defeat and growing nihilism.
    At this point, I will give “change within the system” one last chance and vote for Bernie. If that doesn’t work I will join the ranks of Peter Sunde.

  6. Democracy, like musculature, withers with disuse. The process of self-rule includes giving up some freedoms as well as gaining some in going along with the “dictatorship of the majority.” Athenian democracy and what we call democracy as practiced today by an indifferent and sullen electorate are far from congruent. Much was demanded of those ancient Greek politicians AND the polity in fleshing out democratic processes; today one brags about how he/she has done his/her democratic duty by voting (and many don’t even bother to do that)!

    Nature abhors a vacuum, and so it is with the political. When and if democracy goes south (as it appears to be heading now under assault by the rich and corporate class), another version of the way to conduct state-citizen interaction will surface, as we see today as anti-democratic libertarian and tea party elements vie for power. I have blogged many times that democracy is our most valuable asset held in common, and that if democracy goes away there is no more reason to have a country as we descend into a mere agora-like marketplace of greed and avarice to a Piketty-predicted implosion of capitalism (“unless attended to”).

    We are neither “attending to it” nor zealously practicing our Athenian legacy of government by self-rule and the “consent of the governed,” with the result that we are headed for Third World status economically and some form of market dictatorship politically. I think there is still time to reconnect the citizen to an active role in self-rule, but time is fleeting and such evidence as the Texas School Board’s removal of Civics as a required course in the state’s high schools is not encouraging. So far as I am concerned, when our democracy goes, so do we. Orwell, move over!

  7. Jerry,

    That was a terrific summary of the state of democracy in America. Since I grew-up both on the ocean and the river, in nautical terms I would call it: DEAD IN THE WATER.

  8. There are two things we could try that may help:

    1) Mandatory service for everyone starting at age 18. This would last for two years and fields of service could be as varied as military, forestry, nurses aide, teaching assistant in inner city schools. At the end of the two years, government would pay for further education for young people who had more of an idea of what they want from life.

    2) Mandatory voting for every citizen over 18. Particpatory democracy only works if people actually participate, whether it be the town hall style democracy of old or the democratic republic of today.

  9. Harry Reasoner suggested this 30 years ago. He used the emerging computer technology as the basis for his idea of creating a lottery for drafting individuals to public offices at all levels, reminiscent of the draft that was in effect when I “joined” the Army. Random selection would have positive and negative consequences, but it would diminish the entrenchment of special interest that currently operates government at all levels.

    After I completed my 2 year hitch, I said wouldn’t trade the experience for a a million dollars and they would never get me again. I learned something, I contributed and I left it where someone else picked it up and served.

    It doesn’t sound like a bad idea and we wouldn’t have to endure the campaigns that usually lead to nowhere.

  10. re: Term limits.
    I’ve always been against them being written into law, because we already have an efficient way of turning officeholders out of power with what is called an “election”. If people do not choose to avail themselves of participating in that part of citizenship, what makes us think they would participate in choosing a ‘better’ successor?
    Did the people of Indiana who traditionally voted in large numbers in the Republican primary really think the state and nation would be better off with Richard Mourdock as Senator rather than Richard Lugar? Evidently, and they got their chance to have that — the only thing preventing it being a careless line that Mourdock made about God’s will in regard to raped women.
    Perhaps what would work best for Indiana is the cessation of voting by just the party label?
    Na-a-a-a-w, I guess not. Good gracious — what would my great-great-great Grandpa think if I accidentally didn’t vote for his party?????

  11. When I was growing up in a committed Republican household it was made clear to me that America was “our” country. Democracy was not abstract but a specific responsibility for each of us to use in maintaining our country just like the tools one uses to maintain their property.

    I would call that collaborative as compared to participatory democracy.

    When I moved on to my 40 year career at Kodak the same environment persisted. It was our company with our products satisfying our customers who to one degree or another rewarded us for superior performance.

    The first indication otherwise for the company was the then prevalent MBA idea that it wasn’t our company. It was the shareholders company. We were merely their employees. Paid slaves.

    Then came Ronald Reagan’s defining moment. Government is the problem.

    Then came the tea party. Something about wolves and sheep and dinner.

    That’s when I had to give up on my long term thought that mankind is not smart enough to conspire and recognize that a conspiracy by a few malicious idiots had spiraled out of even their control and was consuming much that mattered both to me and mankind in general.

    A liberal was born.

    It is not our job, nor is it anything but dysfunctional, to beat fellow humans. There are no ribbons and prizes or trophies. We are in the universe together and in charge of ration. We use it or lose it. All of us. Together. Fight or flight ruled our ancestors world but will ruin ours and all future world’s.

    Life could still be a failing experiment. Ration may be necessary but insufficient and we could end it all forever. The suicide of life and ration.

    Not on my watch.

  12. Pete,

    Our only chance to save ourselves from ruin, is doing what you just did: Attempt to communicate what has gone wrong.

    It’s like diagnosing a disease, but different, in that you can’t see the progression thru an MRI.

    It has to be a narrative, but a very deep one from the beginning, accompanied by diagrams.

    Cancers run deep. So do political viruses.

  13. Pete,

    If the political virus has been successfully tracked and properly diagnosed, then it can be treated.

    Our problem, in the past, has been the reluctance to diagnose, because of the fear of retaliation.

    Maybe, now that we can see the final outcome, we can mount the “civic courage” to do what is necessary.

  14. I like the term “civic courage”. No more running from the bogieman. Not ISIS, not Ebola nor NRA, not GOP, not our neighbors north or south or across the street, not science nor history, knowledge or ignorance.

    We pursue problems, not them us.

  15. People here know that even though I have never met her, I admire Sheila. I admire her knowledge and education, her professionalism, her writing skills, her thoughtful approach to problem solving, her civic mindedness, her time management (are there more hours in the day out there?), and, with thanks to Marv for the term, her civic courage.

    It’s risky to stand up and stand out. You have to be prepared to be challenged. You have be confident that your positions are carefully thought out and defensible – that they hold up to all perspectives not just yours.

    Civic courage. The foundation of democracy.

  16. At least 2 and no more than 4 is appealing at the top decision and policy levels. Beyond that political and bureaucratic memory have an important role to play. Having labored at a lower level under several Indiana Governors I witnessed numerous disasters and long term inefficiency and institutional depression result from appointees destroying the good, rewarding the guilty, and ignoring the best resources available. The price is paid by those in the greatest need and by all of us paying for such boondoggles as the I69 extension.

    I agree whole heartedly with the idea of mandatory service (Not necessarily military) and mandatory voting. I would go so far as to say 2 years mandatory federal service and 2 years mandatory state service to the state of residence at age 18 as well as mandatory voting.

  17. Democracy is in a sad shape when it is described using the grammatical redundancy, participatory democracy.

    My earliest preschool memories include my mother’s tapping the back of my hand whenever I said ‘wet water’ or ‘two twins’. I was three years old, needed the superfluous descriptors to bring association to the meanings of some terms, and I understand Ms Kennedy’s linking participatory with democracy simply as a basic reminder that democracy without participation is no longer a democracy.

  18. OMG Sheila, Rawls & Aeon all within two days; next time I’m in the midwest I have to take you and your husband out to dinner, the waitstaff will be like why don’t these people stop talking & leave?

  19. As Paul noted above, a 2-year mandatory stint of public service, whether in federal or state government or in the military that protects our nation’s democracy, gives the participants some skin in the game, provides the participants with a stakeholder point of view.

  20. I can’t imagine that political and bureaucratic memory don’t have a larger role at the top. I would no more let a 2nd or 4th year do my surgery as my business taxes, let alone run the executive branch. It’s bad enough in congress where it takes at least a term or two to drop the angry pose. Knowing you’re leaving might help – might not, depends where you expected to go from the post but pretending Togo back where you came from is rapidly disappearing as a possibility.

    Participatory does demand rather than only grant though. I continue to see national service as an option of merit and frankly after that I suppose as a qualifier for student loans or subsidized education a portion of civics could be required.

    It could be required in a few other places too along the educational path. Taught as experiential participatory theatre perhaps.

    It’s clear as can be that we’ve lost the educational priorities battles to commerce which is simply insufficient as a capturing of larger values. We are driven by profit but some ongoing exoeriential civics exercises culled from both historical and current events might disabuse some of such small thinking.

    We need to not only be cogs in an economic engine but thoughtful and engaged citizens if we are to find a way. It’s as fundamental as keeping a bank account or a health record. I’d put it just below reading and maths.

  21. Kricket seizes the transgender moment by moving from South Carolina to New York where Medicaid now covers the minimum $25,000 cost of “bottom surgery” for a male to female transition. I read this New York Times story earlier today, mulled it over in my mind for hours, and still am unable to come to grips with Medicaid’s paying for a Gender Reassignment Surgery for a 40+ year old who presents as gender dysmorphic, HIV positive, arrives in New York from SC shortly after being released from prison, and subsequently fails to follow through with post-surgery instructions following the, at minimum, $25K surgery.

    I’m no prude, just pragmatic with our Medicaid dollars. Consider this NYT feature story as a ‘participatory democracy’ discussion starting point. Don’t respond until you’ve read the entire feature story.

  22. The transgender thing is food for thought.

    My wife has had two knee replacements at, I believe, $80K ea. Could she have lived without? Definitely. Has her quality of life increased? Just as definitely. Is that quality of life increase more or less than gender reassignment surgery? I’ll never know.

    I believe that we are at the limit of what we can afford for health care. The first correction of the many required was Obamacare health insurance subsidies and the marketplace for insurance. A small but essential step. At some time there will be no option but Medicare for all but the problem is that us old folks have been paying for our over 65 yo benefit for 40+ years. What would pay as you go cost? Over my career I and my employer together paid for over 65 and my employer alone paid for my under 65 pay as you go. Of course that was all part of the compensation that we agreed to when I was hired. Believe me under 65 health care costs for most are a small fraction of over 65.

    The only option that will be affordable is if there are limits to care. Tough decisions? Absolutely!

    But first we have to stop shoveling unlimited money into our current big medicine debacle.

  23. Pete, it continues to boggle my mind that Medicaid cannot find the funds for those living at the poverty level who might require hearing aids, eyeglasses, and/or dental care; yet, Medicaid can find funds for Gender Reassignment Surgery, at least in New York.

    Maybe our priorities are screwed, maybe it’s now more important to remove a penis and fashion a faux vagina for a 40+-year-old who feels out of place in his body than to provide rudimentary health care for folks who cannot hear, cannot see, and cannot chew their food without discomfort.

    I read several of the comments on the NYT’s article, and it’s apparent that Medicaid decisions such as Kricket’s are serving as free advertisements for Trump.

  24. In general it seems to me that tying health care to wealth is a bag of snakes. Just as tying other basic rights to wealth are.

    Who benefits from compromised health for any individuals? I would propose that it’s an across the board loss. Everybody loses.

    Our goal should be affordable health care for everyone. Stop communicable diseases in their tracks. Reduce work time lost for everyone. Let everyone see and hear and get around to the limits of their ability. Share life’s risks.

    Are there criminals who will try to scam the system? Sure. That’s what we have cops and social workers to protect us from. And, in the grand scheme of things, the cost of health care for everyone is a very minor risk to our tax dollars compared to so many other things.

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