Webinar: Revitalizing Democracy10-15-2020
Webinar: Revitalizing Democracy
We in the United States are preparing to vote—some have already voted—in what many call the most important Presidential election of our lifetimes. Voting in a democracy is a sacred right. It is through voting that we elect representatives. And it is by elections we can hold those representatives responsible. Perhaps most importantly, it is in voting that we signal our involvement and engagement in the act of self-government, thus announcing that in the end it is us, and not our elected representatives, who are answerable to ourselves.
But voting is not the only way for citizens to govern themselves in democracies. Hannah Arendt understood that democracy is, at its core, about giving power to the people. Power in the early United States was disseminated in state and county legislatures, city and town halls, citizen committees, non-profit associations, and single-issue advocacy groups. These groups mobilize citizens and wield power, which is understood as the force of collective action. The point of this heterodox theory of constitutionalism is that the best way to limit the tyrannical concentration of power is to expand and disperse power.
In Arendt’s view, power itself is not always corrupting; it is an essential force of the freedom to build a world with others, one that allows human beings to pursue collective aims. Power, as Montesquieu theorized in The Spirit of the Laws, is the capacity of a people to act together to govern itself. Hannah Arendt, in On Revolution, adds that power is not the same as violence but is the "human ability not just to act but to act in concert.” Power for Montesquieu and Arendt is at the root not of tyranny but of popular self-government.
It was the American experience of power —in Arendt's words “power springs up between men when they act together and vanishes the moment they disperse”—that spurred the American Founders to create a balance of powers not just amongst Congress, the president, and the judiciary, but amongst the manifest popular sources of power dispersed throughout the land. The local councils would retain powers; the new national powers of the United States would be given much more power than under the Articles of Confederation. Arendt emphasizes the Founders’ fundamental determination to multiply powers rather than constrain them, and their conviction that only multiple sources of power can prevent one power center from overawing all the others. It is the principle of decentralizing power and the consequent abolition of sovereignty that she argues was the greatest American innovation in politics.
The crisis we are facing now in the United States and in the other democracies of the world is a crisis of power. It is also an opportunity for deep reflection on questions and assumptions concerning liberal representative democracy. Instead of assuming a defensive posture and taking up arms to defend the status quo, we need to seek new ways to reinvigorate our tradition of constitutional power. We need to ask how we might discover new institutions to re-imagine the American concept of power.
Democracy is weakened when citizens are encouraged to hand over the time-consuming work of self-government to professional politicians. Arendt was continuously critical of representative models of democracy that rely upon experts in place of participation, which is why she rooted the crisis of democracy in the dissipation of public power.
One answer that is growing in popularity is the ancient practice of sortition—the choice of representatives by lottery. The idea seems crazy at first, so accustomed are we to the rule by political elites. But choosing representatives by lottery was the backbone of democratic governments from ancient Athens through Republican Rome and Renaissance Venice. The vast majority of Athenian politicians were chosen by lot. Political thinkers from Aristotle to Rousseau argue that while aristocracies choose leaders by election, democracies select leaders by lot. The reasoning is simple: voting will favor wealthier and more established candidates. Short of electing a demagogue, the only way to expand the political discourse to include non-elite members is to include a random sample of citizens in the representative organs of government.
This is a time to explore new ideas, especially when they are old and proven. At the Arendt Center we recently launched the Bard Institute for the Revival of Democracy through Sortition (BIRDS), a critical platform for diverse research and resources that are emerging around deliberative democracy and sortition.
Now, we have organized a Webinar with some of the leading practitioners and thinkers who work to use lottery to choose citizens and bring them into the governing and lawmaking processes. Keynote talks are by David Van Reybrouck and Hélène Landemore. Read about the speakers here.
Our Webinar is tomorrow, Friday, Oct. 16 and runs from 10 am EDT to 3 pm EDT. There are also breakout sessions with the speakers to interact and share ideas. You can learn more, register, and watch for free. Information is here.