Hello. Welcome to “The Ezra Klein Show” I am Ezra Klein. [MUSIC PLAYING]
So before we begin today, a job announcement — we are looking for an associate producer. This job does require two years of audio experience. So if you have that, and you’d like to be part of the show, check it out. I’m going to put the link to the job listing in our show notes, in the description for this episode. But be quick on it. We’re only going to keep this open for about two weeks before we make a decision. [MUSIC PLAYING]
So the episode today, I’ve been thinking about how to introduce this. My colleague Ross Douthat — you may know him — he’s argued that we live in a decadent age. And decadence here is this pathology that comes from a mixture of affluence — so things are pretty good for a lot of people — and lack of purpose, a lack of grand ideological goals and ambitions. And when you put those together in a society, you stagnate. You’re not driving in any particular direction, and there’s a lot of force behind the status quo that shuts down anybody who wants to really change things. I’ve been thinking about this politically quite a bit. We are still running, here in this country, on the fumes of political ideas from the 18th century. We’re trying to perfect them, to live up to them, in a way they never did — sure. But for all that we’ve learned, all that we’ve seen, the form of government that we practice, and even that we aspire to, hasn’t really changed since the dawn of this country. Is that a function actually that working so well at this point? Or is that a function of our inability now to imagine alternatives, to believe as those who came before us believed, as we honor them for believing, that the future really can be radically different than the present? One thing I want to do on the show is give space to truly radical, challenging ideas, to expand the boundaries of our political and moral imagination. And Helene Landemore, a political scientist at Yale, she has one of those ideas. She calls it open democracy. And the premise is simple. What we call democracy, it isn’t very democratic. The role of the people is confined to elections, to choosing the elites who represent us. She puts it well, that we are privileging the idea of people’s consent to power over that of people’s exercise of power. We, the people, we don’t really, in an ongoing way, exercise power. We simply impose accountability, maybe, on those who do. So she is sketching this alternative, open democracy, that builds on the technologies of random sampling, builds on what we’ve learned about how diverse groups make better decisions, and even brilliant individuals. And she’s using all that to say, what if we actually let representative groups of citizens, randomly selected, deliberate and rule? What if we didn’t invest so much in elections, as some sort of ideal and partisan competition, as your disciplining mechanism? What if instead we trusted ourselves and others like us to deliberate together and to govern? This is a challenging idea. It is a provocative idea. It is very radical in its ultimate implications. And I’m not here to say that I know it would work. I don’t know that it would work. But it is, I think, a challenge worth wrestling with, particularly in this moment, when our ideas about democracy have so far outpaced the thin, corrupted ways in which we practice it. You’ve heard people say, we’re a republic, not a democracy. Maybe some of you are saying that in your heads right now. But what Landemore is saying is, that’s right. And look around. How is that working out at this late hour? What if, instead, we were a democracy, not just a republic? As always, my email is firstname.lastname@example.org. I’m always interested to know who you’d like to see on the show next. So submit your guest suggestions. I do get a bunch of emails from folks about advertisers on the show. I want you to know I don’t control that. There’s a very strong wall between the editorial and advertising sides at The New York Times. So if you have feedback on advertising, you should direct that to The Times more broadly. They make those policies in order to protect my ability to plan chose correctly and not think about who is our advertisers. That stuff is not checked by me, and I don’t have control over it. This how the paper works overall. So you don’t need to keep telling me what you think of the advertisers. All that said, here is Helene Landemore.
So I want to start in the practice of this before we get into the theory. Tell me about how Iceland designed its constitution.
So Iceland decided to rewrite its constitution in 2010. And they decided to use a very innovative, inclusive, participatory method. They started with a national forum of 950 randomly-selected citizens that were tasked with coming up with the main values and ideas that they wanted to see entrenched in the new document. And then they had an election to choose 25 constitution drafters, if you will, among a pool of non-professional politicians, because they had been convinced, after the 2008 crisis, that they were all corrupt. So by law, they were excluded from participating in this election. And those 25 decided to work with the larger public by publishing their drafts at regular intervals, putting them online and collecting some feedback through a crowdsourced sort of process. And then they put the resulting proposal to a nationwide referendum. Two-thirds of the voting population approved, and then parliament killed it and never turned it into a bill.
So I want to come back to parliament killing it. But I want to stay in the process by which this got drafted, for a minute. So this could be a bigger theme throughout our whole conversation, but the key in any citizen-based process is the process of education and deliberation. Who controls that, how the experts are called in, really shapes the outcome. So how did it work here? How did this group in Iceland learn about the issues they needed to explore, or how they convene expert testimony? And how did they come to decisions?
So they relied a lot on the work of those 950 citizens, who, over just the course of a day, really brainstormed about the main issues they thought were important to make salient in the text. One of them, for example, was the idea of collective ownership of natural resources that were not already owned, or officially owned. And then they had expert reports as well, that they could rely on, and they even had two drafts of a constitutional proposal, written by experts that were made available to them and that they could use us as examples. And they also felt free to consult with our colleagues, their friends, just appeal to other experts. But they didn’t have much of a budget, so this was really on a shoestring budget that they could do all of this.
But so there wasn’t a process where somebody said, I think we should have collective ownership of public resources, and then they called in people who had studied that and studied its outcomes, to try to see what the effects of it might be? This was what sounds good to the convention as it stands today made it in?
I think that that was a little bit more like that. You might say it was more amateurish than what just happened in France, for example, where the presence of experts was really central. In the Icelandic case, they were a lot more insulated from government officials, and they did their thing in their own little corner.
And how do you think the final text read differently for that process? What did the convened citizens prioritize or weigh, that maybe professional politicians would have left out or come to a different outcome on?
So I think what they did first is reverse the priorities of the previous text, which was written in 1944, for example, and with heavy centering the president and the judiciary. So in the new version, they placed the people and the representatives first. And in fact, the people’s rights first was a long list of rights at the beginning. There was a preamble, which emphasizes the environmental issues, the right to pristine nature and clean air, and things like that. So I think it’s truly more a people’s constitution. There were an emphasis, a greater emphasis, on children’s rights, transgender people’s rights, just a sense that inclusion was a real concern, which you didn’t sense in the 1944 Constitution. And you sensed a lot less in the expelled drafts.
So this goes to parliament. The parliament just says no?
Well, they are the ones who started this whole process. But somehow, by the time the proposal came back to them for approval, the government had changed, the majority had changed, and the people who opposed the whole process were in power. And in particular, they were people who vehemently opposed the idea of Article 34, this idea of collective ownership of natural resources. Because they had benefited, or they were the representatives of people who had enormously benefited from exploiting natural resources for free during the 1980s, particularly the rich fishing grounds of Iceland’s. And they made a killing, and they were not happy that this new constitution was going to force them to basically pay a rent to the Icelandic nation.
So did they suffer any political consequences for rejecting the citizens’ proposal?
Sadly, no, I think, in part, because Iceland is such a tiny nation, that it was fully rescued from the financial and economic collapse by the IMF. So again, by the time this constitution was finalized and put to parliament, the larger population had lost interest. They were back to a booming economy. Tourism was thriving. I think they thought that, wow, at that point, it makes no difference to our lives whether we have a new constitution or not. Whereas there was a moment, in 2010, when they thought, well, obviously, we need to change everything.
This example plays a big role in your book. But in some ways, it’s as much of a failure as a success. So what do you see in it that plant the seeds of a very different way of doing government, particularly given that last part? I understand why there was some inspiration in watching the constitution be drafted, but given the apathy and backlash that greeted it, why do you take this is as a successful process?
First of all, every bold new experiment is likely to fail. So it’s not that surprising that it didn’t wholly succeed. But I think it succeeded in creating a blueprint for a new kind of democracy. It made me believe that a new form of politics is possible. And then the question is, how do you transition from the current system within which these experiments are still happening and that are constrained by the existing structures, to this new kind of democracy? This question of from here to there, I don’t have a clear answer. What I do know, what the Icelandic lesson teaches us, is that if you want to go towards a more participatory, more inclusive, more authentically democratic system, you’ll have to work with the existing powers that be. I think they tried to be too purist, and they tried to circumvent the system. But in the end, they were dependent on elected officials, and they should have brought the goodwill in some ways. They should have worked with the system, not against it. I think that was a mistake. I think the French convention is somewhat more successful in that way, because they did work with the system.
So let’s hold the French convention to the side for a minute. I want to hold, also, political pragmatism to the side. You have a ferocious critique of what typically gets called democracy in most countries right now. And you say something at the start of your book that I thought was really profound, which is that all the talk we’re hearing now about the crisis of democracy is actually a sign of both the vitality and the betrayal of the democratic, the actual small d democratic idea. Tell me why.
Well, I think that democracy is a living ideal. And we started with a relatively minimalistic understanding of that ideal, actually, with people’s power. But in the 18th century, it just meant that we’d get to choose our rulers once in a while, and even so, not all of us, just the propertied white males amongst ourselves. And slowly, that ideal has expanded, and we wanted more people to have that power. And then now, I think we are realizing the limits of just being able to choose rulers, as opposed to actually being able to choose outcomes, and over and beyond that defining the agenda, and deliberating about the agenda, and shaping the whole discussion. My hope is that the frustrations we have with the current system is not just due to the fact that it has become more plutocratic and more oligarchic and has strayed from the minimalistic initial ideal, but that people have come to want more power, that they want a more authentic form of control over their lives, and that this choice of rulers every four years, it’s just not enough.
I think for people who understand elections to be the be-all and end-all of representation, the most sacred part of the small d democratic process, this is, in some ways, your most alien argument. So tell me more directly, what is wrong with elections? How have they misled us about what a democracy should be?
So I think the real problem is, that even under ideal circumstances — let’s say, a perfectly egalitarian society, a society in which money plays no role — elections rely on human choice, which is inherently discriminatory and biased towards certain traits, certain traits like charisma, eloquence, height, even bracketing money and distinctions. So at the level of the ideals, elections occurred as a principle of distinction between ordinary citizens and those fated to become a political elite of sorts. So as a result, in my mind, elections systematically close off access to power to people who are too shy, too ordinary, too weak-willed, too inarticulate to stand out in the eyes of other citizens. And there’s no amount of periodic renewal of the pool of elected representatives that can change that fundamental fact. And yet I don’t see why the shy, the inarticulate, the uneducated, the invisible, shouldn’t have a right to shape the laws that rule us all. So that’s why the yellow vest movement is so symbolic for me. They put on this neon jacket, because they were not seen. And they gathered on traffic circles and demonstrated loudly, because they were not heard. Those people had no chance in an electoral system. So I think that’s the problem I have — not saying we cannot keep elections. Now that we have them, they’ve served us somewhat well for the last 200 years. And I’m not saying this is not a huge accomplishment, compared to what came before. Definitely. But it’s just that I think we’ve reached the limits of what this system can do, especially when it’s overcome by money and partisanship. And so I think it’s time to enrich or augment or even rethink our electoral systems.
But there’s one question in that. When you have these deliberative processes of the citizens’ groups, wouldn’t some of those same dynamics reproduce themselves? I mean, the research, it shows people listen to taller people, more eloquent people, louder people, more male people. Those hold, not just in elections. Those hold in corporate boardrooms. They hold in classrooms. They hold in job interview processes. So couldn’t that just happen again just under this system, but without the elections?
Absolutely. And it happens every time again. But you need to design your citizens’ assemblies in such a way that you try to minimize the reproduction of these hegemonies. I’m not saying this is guaranteeing an ideal world. At least by putting people who normally wouldn’t even be there in the room, you give them a chance to voice their concerns, express a point of view. And it’s very touching to see people that — there was this older retired woman, who used to be a stutterer. And she didn’t say anything for a couple of weekends. And at one point, she was — everybody had to talk in turn anyway, so this was the rule. So she said something. She expressed herself. And there was this moving silence in the room. People were just moved. And someone said, Oh, X — I’m not going to say her name — you spoke, and it was just a beautiful moment. And so of course, you will have racism. You will have sexism. The tall, white guy will take over. But you can design and facilitate the spaces, because they are small enough to minimize these things. And just making people present in the room will empower them in ways that they’ve never been empowered before.
You have past work arguing that democracy is good. Deliberative democracy is good, because it is a good way of making decisions, that there is a cognitive benefit to the diversity of a truly random, broad, democratic process, that you don’t get in the kind of republics that we often see. So can you talk about the advantages that process has for decision-making and thinking?
Yes. So the basic idea is that many minds are better and smarter than fewer minds. That’s an old insight. You find it in the Sophists, Aristotle, the way to Condorcet modern thinkers, deliberative democrats. And the idea is, that when you include everyone, you don’t risk missing out on crucial arguments and information, even as you include more noise — you include more people with no education, no knowledge, no competence. The idea is, that in a deliberative democracy, deliberation among all will cancel the noise, filter out the bad arguments, and eventually leave you with better decisions for all. And if you cannot include everyone, then the suggestion in my previous book is that you should take a representative sample on the basis of random selection, to minimize the loss of diversity among the small group of deliberaters. And ideally, you would also keep the deliberation among that small group of the deliberaters porous to information coming from the larger group. The idea is not just to close off the access to the rest of the population. By contrast, if you take an elected group, you condemn yourself to homogenizing your pool of the deliberaters and decision-makers along some dimensions. And typically, it will be social-economic dimensions. But it could be psychological features. Elections tend to attract alpha men and women, charismatic types, slightly narcissistic types, you might say. And what happens when these people make decisions? They will have blind spots, because they will just not consider a certain perspective, because those perspectives are not there. So if you look at the American Congress right now, it’s really hard to imagine that they can fully understand what it is to live on a minimum wage in a peri-urban environment, barely making ends meet. It’s just not the same as having someone who represents that sort of life experience in there. I think, in France, I think this was beautifully demonstrated by the fuel tax that ignited the yellow vest movements in the fall of 2018. Basically, you have a bunch of parliamentarians and government members who are all extremely educated urban people, who live in city centers, hardly need a car. And then they’re shocked and surprised to find out that a fuel tax causes an uproar, a rebellion, among peri-urban lower middle-class people, who need their cars on a daily basis and can’t afford five euros more at the pump every month. So by contrast, you see the benefits of having more inclusive legislatures that reflect the diversity of interests, views, and perspectives of the whole country. So if you had some representatives of the yellow vest social demographic group in parliament, then these laws wouldn’t even get passed, to begin with. You would have some other forms of solution to the question of the ecological crisis. So now you might say, there’s a trade-off between group diversity and individual competence. And when you introduce a more diverse people, you may also include not so smart or so educated people. My work in my past book was building on recent results in social sciences that suggest that group intelligence is much more — I mean more a function of the group diversity than the individual competence of the members. So you’re better off with one more unit of group diversity than one more unit of individual competence. So that’s the work of Scott Page and Lu Hong that I rely on there. But I think it just formalizes a basic intuition. If you exclude perspectives, you will not be able to solve the problem the best way you could. So to me, that suggests that the whole conceit of the 18th century, this idea of a natural aristocracy who would filter and improve the judgment of ordinary people, was a mistake. We thought that if we put the best and brightest in one legislature, we’d have the best governance that we could dream of. It turns out that’s not the case. We would have been better off, in my mind, with a mini portrait of the people. [MUSIC PLAYING]
So there’s an old finding, going back to what you’ve said earlier about the democratic decision-making, that in firms, more diverse processes lead to better results, but also people don’t like them. So they’re better, but the more diversity you have in a system, the more upset people feel when they are engaged in it. They feel challenged. They feel pushed. It’s a trade-off that often, people don’t like making. And so that’s something you’ll hear whenever you begin bringing up governmental reforms that are working in Iceland and Switzerland, is that these are small countries. They’re relatively homogeneous. They have very, very different political cultures. They have solidarity coming out of their homogeneity. Are these really reasonable models to look at for something like America? Do we have issues stemming from our diversity, our partisanship, our simple size, that make this unworkable?
I think the size question is not the issue, because random selection, it works at any size. So I think you’re right that the issue is diversity. And in a large, multicultural country like the U.S., maybe you think that it’s really hard to bring people together. But it’s not like we have a non-acrimonious, perfectly harmonious way of solving our differences right now. So honestly, it depends to what you compare the alternatives to. And in the experience we have so far of citizens’ assemblies, what we observe is that people are actually very respectful of each other. They can talk to people from different sensibilities and ideological backgrounds in ways that don’t degenerate into shouting matches, in part because they come in those spaces not as representatives of an ideological or partisan camp. They come as citizen number eight or Gerard from Normandy, or something.
They are asked to be there as individuals, not as members of a tribe. So it has primed them for a different kind of engagement, I think. And in terms of examples in large-scale countries, I think now France is the example of a very large multicultural country, where this has been done somewhat successfully. We are 67 million people with all kinds of ethnic minorities. And it worked really well, as far as the logistics, the deliberation, and the production of quality proposals. What perhaps doesn’t work too well is the articulation to the existing system. But that’s a separate question. So I’m really not convinced at all by the argument that, well, you can’t do this in diverse settings. Actually, Jim Fishkin already proved that you could do all kinds of experiments like these among Protestants and Catholics, in Northern Ireland, in Lebanon. I mean, it just works. It’s about incentives. What kind of incentives are you giving to people? And if you incentivize them to act in respectful ways and to educate themselves, to listen to each other, then it works.
So I think this is a good place to bring in the French example. Because there’s one version of this where deliberative citizen process replaces legislatures, which is a very big step, and there’s one where legislatures elected politicians who, to some degree, have lost legitimacy in the eyes of the public, take controversial issues, and give them to a subsection of the public to try to solve, with some structure around them, with some goals, with some agenda-setting. So could you talk about the citizen climate work in France?
So the Citizens Convention for Climate, in France, is directly the results of the yellow vests movement rebellion. To calm things down, President Macron decided to launch a great national debate that lasted about two months, in January, February, March — February, March of 2019. And one of the conclusion that emerged from this large-scale brainstorming with the French nation was that people wanted a new form of governance on climate issues, or ecological issues. So by June of 2019, President Macron said, OK well, let’s try a Citizens Convention for Climate to basically offer a socially fair or socially acceptable solution to the problem of green gas emissions in France in a way that my fuel tax, obviously, couldn’t do. And that’s something that apparently, the French people want. That’s something that radical activists had been asking for some time. I think he had read Van Reybrouck’s book, “Against Elections.” That was where it advocated sortition-based bodies like that. So that’s how it happened. So the task was how to reduce French green gas emissions by 40 percent of the 1990s levels by 2030 in a spirit of social justice. And they had seven sessions to solve that. And by sessions, I mean weekends. They were paid around 80 euros a day. They were selected from all of over France, including the ultramarine territories, on the basis of gender, education levels, geographic area, settlement, et cetera. And they were asked to come up with solutions over those seven weekends, which they did. So in June 2020 this time, they delivered 149 proposals to President Macron, some of which have now gone through legislative debates, direct regulatory application. And this weekend, or next, actually, there’s going to be an eighth concluding session, where they are going to evaluate what the government has done with their proposals.
And what has the government done with them?
Well, depending on who you ask, I think that the 150 citizens are not very happy. They think that their proposal has been considerably diluted, watered down, rendered somewhat toothless, because — and it’s true. The process in Parliament was subject to the influence of very strong lobbies, from airline companies, the car industry. And they took out a bunch of things that the citizens really cared about.
So this is somewhere where you’ll get pushback from, I think, more traditional theorists of legislative and party-based representative systems, which is to say that it can sound, when we say there was pushback from these lobbies — like the airline industry or the retail industry or unions — that, Oh, special interests are coming in and influencing the process, which, of course, on some level they are. But on the other hand, they do have knowledge of how their industries work. Those industries can be important. There is a process by which a knowledge gets aggregated. Protecting a decision-making body, like that citizens’ council, from that kind of lobbying, on the one hand, purifies it somewhat, and on the other hand, creates a certain level of ignorance. People don’t always love what the experts tell people. And people often, particularly on the right, will think of the experts as a special interest of their own who are subject to certain cultural trends in their discipline and other things that make them not purely about expertise. So who do you think was representing the country here — the parliament that watered down the recommendations or the citizens who made them?
I am not going to say it was the citizens’ assembly, because it’s a first experiment of that kind. They are still in the process of building their legitimacy. And I’m not saying — and I don’t think anybody’s saying — that lobbying and interest groups have no place in this process. But the question is, how much of an influence do they have? And if you look at — and I don’t know the numbers for the French parliament, but for the American Congress, we know that 78 percent of people in America get 6 percent of the interest groups in Congress. So this is not equal representation. We want equal representation in a democracy. And I think that what’s happening in the French case is that these lobbies and these interest groups have a disproportionate influence on the outcome. And it’s not as if they hadn’t been heard during the convention, because the citizens consulted with over 130 experts. They knew of their arguments, and they’re good arguments sometimes. And they took them into account to some degree — perhaps not enough, but you have to realize they did this over, again, seven weekends. And there might be a better design process in which lobbies and interests would come in earlier, with more time to make their case. But still, I think that right now, I think it’s true of France and the US. I think our legislative process is taken over by interest groups and lobbies. And I don’t think that’s in a way that does well for people. And at the end of the day, a democracy should be somewhat responsive to majoritarian preferences. And I don’t think that’s what we have right now. We have an excessive responsiveness to interest groups.
Yeah, I think that’s certainly true. Something that very much interested me about the French example here is that I’ve been thinking and reporting on the question of, how might you fix the impeachment process in the U.S.? We have never had an example of a president impeached and convicted and removed from office, although you could argue Richard Nixon resigning was an example of the process working. But that happened at a very unusual low ebb of party polarization in this country. So typically, what happens is you have an impeachment process that was designed for a political system that was not going to have parties. Then we got parties. And so now you’re asking members of the president’s political party, whose own political fortunes are tied to the president’s political success, to convict their own party leader and probably lose the next election. And it fails. And so as I’ve been reporting on this, I’ve been thinking about, well, where might you put the conviction process other than the Senate, where people are very cross-pressured? Right? You would strike members of the Senate from a normal jury for being too biased. And so one old idea is the Supreme Court, but I’m not sure that’s so much better. And I don’t think the Supreme Court would want that power. And then another possibly is that, if you had an impeachment process start up, you would form something like a citizens’ assembly, where you would have a random sample of citizens drawn, and they would listen to the arguments from the two sides and then make a decision. I’m curious what you think of that and whether or not you think that a decision by a citizens’ assembly in a matter that is so weighty would be seen as legitimate.
You know, it’s a really interesting idea. It’s very reminiscent of what the Greeks, the ancient Greeks had, again, these large citizen juries, who decided on political trials. That’s how Socrates got killed, though. So the precedent is probably going to scare a lot of liberals, who usually trace the fear of the tyranny of the majority to that early trial, right? So I don’t know. But I do think that if you made the jury large enough, if you made the selection process quite transparent, I think that might actually be a good idea. But I’m not sure that we have enough impeachment cases in our future, hopefully, to justify creating that institution. I’d be more interested in creating these large citizens assemblies for much more daily urgent political questions. Like gun regulation, I would love to see that for gun regulation, for example.
Sure. And we’ve had some examples of that in the US. There’s one that is well-known, I think, in Texas around — I believe it’s energy policy. But is there a way, you think, in which open democracy of this sort could result in people feeling less empowered and not more? If I vote for a candidate, and they win, or they lose, at least I had some role in their selection. I voted for them, and that vote — theoretically, at least — was counted. But if a small body of 500 randomly-selected citizens — and most people don’t trust random selection in the way that political scientists and social scientists do. But if a small body of 500 randomly-selected citizens makes a decision after a deliberative process that I really don’t like, then I feel completely alienated from that decision. I didn’t vote for them. I didn’t have input in it. I have no control or power over it. So would this feel so small d democratic to the people living under its auspices?
Well, in my model of open democracy, I’m not saying the open-mini public should have the deciding power on everything. I actually think a lot of these proposals that would come out of an open-mini public should be put to a referendum. And so our practice of referendum should be a lot more frequent and ordinary and a lot closer to what’s being done in Switzerland, for example, so that people have a say, not over the choice of agenda setters and legislators, but over their choice of proposal that are put to them. And they can also initiate — the idea would be that they’d have the participatory rights of so-called citizen initiative. They could put a proposal to a real global referendum, or it could be something that their parliament would have to discuss. These are already things that exist, again, in Switzerland. There were proposals contained in the Icelandic constitutional proposal. This is how I envisage the open democracy. When it comes to deliberation, we can’t do it en masse, in the millions. So we delegate that task, to a degree, to a smaller subset of us, that’s as representative as possible of the diversity of the larger group. But then that group puts the decisions in the hands of the whole community. So it’s a form of direct democracy, when it comes to the decision phase.
So I don’t know that much about what is happening in Switzerland, to be honest. But I live in California. We have a pretty robust proposition process here. And I think the broad view is that it has been captured. Special interests get whatever they want on it whenever they want. There’s just an example of the ride share companies spending a ton of money, ton of money, to make sure the legislature couldn’t make it so, say, Uber drivers were classified as normal workers. And I think, in general, it’s seen as making governance in California worse, that those things end up on the books. People vote for things that sound good. Then those things end up tying up future governance in bad ways. So how do you see the example of California?
Yeah, the example of California is not great indeed. But I think you can’t take the referendum part outside of the question of the larger ecology of a functional democracy. I mean, in a democracy where money plays such a role, there’s nothing that will be immune to the power of corporations. So you’d have to fix a lot of things before you can make direct democracy desirable. But it is working quite well in Switzerland. It’s anchored in a long-established participatory practices. Any Swiss citizen by the age of 50 has probably participated in 25 or more constitutional referendum, basically. So it’s created a sense of civic engagement. It educates people. Also, I think the design is — you need to be careful about the design, because in California, as far as I know, citizens’ initiatives are sent directly to the ballots. There’s no intermediary step where the legislature can somewhat modify the formulation of the proposal. Or there’s no back and forth. Or there’s no space for some quality control, basically. I think, in Switzerland, there’s much more of that.
Yeah, there’s no deliberation as an intermediary step here.
There is no deliberation, exactly. It’s purely aggregative. And so it’s very problematic.
How much of the work here is being done by these being citizens, and how much is being done by these being a random and representative sample? And I mean that in this way. Here is a reform that will not happen. But you can imagine, conducting in America, the Senate, one of our key decision-making bodies, is designed to balance and make sure there is a very equal level of representation of just something very weird, which is states. So California gets two senators. Montana gets two senators. New York gets two. Vermont gets two. Wyoming gets two. Missouri gets two. You could certainly imagine a body that said, we are going to have 100 senators, but instead of balancing them, based on where we drew lines on a map, we’re going to say that there need to be a proportionate number from every income strata or from racial groups or from religious groups. And obviously, you going to get a question of how many of these are going to do? But this is a pretty straightforward math problem on some level. And then maybe people elect representatives from within these classes. But you have to be in one to qualify. Now, I think that sounds weird when you say it. But again, we do something much, much, much weirder by the way we balance and represent states. So how much of the benefit would you get here if you kept the — well, we’re trying to pick the most effective representatives of each group, but you are nevertheless trying to have representatives from each group in a way that we don’t now?
I think it would improve things. I’m not saying this is not a good idea. As long as they are dependent on elections, it means they’re dependent, in the U.S. especially, on money, on dollars, on party affiliations of all kinds. You’d still end up with a group that’s homogeneous along some dimensions, which are, again, going to be — if only charisma, education levels, et cetera. And also, they feel entitled to being here in a way that, when you’re randomly selected, you just don’t. You come in with a certain humility, I think, that is quite peculiar to these citizens’ assemblies. Honestly, it’s a very good question. I don’t have the answer. I think that, as you said at the beginning, we don’t know enough, and it’s probably necessary to have more of these experimentations and comparative experiments. [MUSIC PLAYING]
Is there a book or a movie that best imagines what a more openly democratic world might look like?
So I really thought hard about this, and I found it very hard to answer. Because all the science fiction books I’ve read are dystopian and pessimistic. And it seems to be much easier to envision a totalitarian, fascist nightmare than an authentically democratic world. And maybe there’s no good plot potential in a harmonious deliberative democracy. That’s what I suspect. There’s one book, though, that I cite in my book. It’s called “Liquid Reign.” It’s sort of weaving together ideals from cyber democrats, involving delegates, what’s called a liquid democracy, where you delegate your votes to other people. So it’s the more aggregated vision of democracy than I would like. There seems to be less deliberation involved. But it’s really an interesting book. So I would recommend that.
What’s your favorite French novel?
“The Three Musketeers,” by Alexandre Dumas. I find recent French novels very depressing. But the old classics are excellent. This is my favorite book. I just love the atmosphere, the friendship, the complicated plots. And you sense an author who really cares about his characters. And it’s heart-breaking to actually close the book at the end.
And what book has done the most to inspire your work?
I would have to say, that for this particular vision of open democracy, it’s probably Bernard Manin “The Principles of Representative Government,” which was published in 1997. It’s really the book that put on the map this question of, why did elections triumph in the 18th century? Why did that become the core principle of our representative democracies? And why did sortition disappear from the conversation sometimes in the 19th century?
And then finally, what is your favorite children’s book?
So I would say all the pigeon books, by Mo Willems. They’re wonderful. They’re so good. They’re so good. “The Pigeon Needs A Bath.” It’s hysterical. But if I were to recommend a French children’s book, my daughters and I right now, we really love a series called Mortelle Adele. It’s about a little orange-haired girl, who’s super cynical, hardcore feminist, really a tough cookie. And she has a best friend who’s an imaginary friend and a former decapitated French revolutionary. And she has a little cat that she tortures. It’s really funny, very funny, and adorable in some weird way.
Helene Landemore, thank you very much.
Thank you. [MUSIC PLAYING]
“The Ezra Klein Show” is a production of New York Times Opinion. It is produced by Roge Karma and Jeff Geld, fact checked by Michelle Harris, original music by Isaac Jones, and mixing by Jeff Geld. [MUSIC PLAYING]