Participatory Representation: A New Model of Elections


Most of us in the United States by now realize that the government does not work for us.  In a previous article, I discussed this, the most significant problem in American society.  Besides the many undemocratic features of government in the Unites States, the failure is partially a matter of the mechanism for electoral representation.  As readers may remember from that previous article, I identified the failure as being the “mediating factors” that distort the relationship of the elected representative to the represented citizens.  These mediating factors include campaign contributions, political party oligarchies, and special-interest organizations whose influence outweighs that of the voting constituency.  My solution to this problem is to replace these mediating factors with a public mechanism for electoral representation that organizes citizens’ power over their representative.  I call this mechanism “participatory representation.”  Participatory representation empowers citizens in their control over their representatives by creating a public process of democratic mediation between the represented and the representative. 

What Do We Want to Accomplish?

We want our representative institutions to realize at least the following four features in their design.  Clearly, the first thing we want to realize is the actual representation of the public by their representatives.  There are many ways that we may understand the concept of “representation.”  My meaning simply is that the representative should advocate what his or her electorate wants the representative to advocate, acting as they would collectively act.  But the only way for the representative to have the incentive and information to act in such a manner is through a popular and participatory mechanism.  The representative needs to know the real common will of his or her constituency, and have the incentive to do what that constituency wants.

Next, we also want the electoral process to be participatory.  Through the mechanisms of participatory representation, the citizenry exercises its political power and actively forms a common will and holds the representative accountable to that common will.  Under the current electoral representative process, those organizations that have their will represented in Congress are those who are organized, noisy, and wealthy (though mostly wealthy). 

Third, a common popular will can be actively generated only through people reasoning together, and thus we need participatory representation to be deliberative.  In recent decades, political philosophers and scientists have pointed out that democracy involves not simply rule by the will of the majority, but also the formation of a common will through deliberation among participants.  Deliberation is a form of public discussion in which common beliefs are established by reference to common values, or, in the case of the democratic state, reference to the public values that guide state action.  To deliberation we can contrast other sorts of rationality, such as strategic negotiation, in which participants trade favors and services with the aim that their own personal good is maximized, rather than the public good sought in deliberative rationality.  As previously established, our current representative institutions operate according to principles of strategic negotiation among representatives that maximize their chances of reelection and campaign contributions.  Our model of participatory representation, however, seeks to not only force representatives to engage in genuine deliberation, but to foster deliberation among citizens by providing the institutional space for them to do so.
Finally, we want participatory representation to be viable and efficient.  For the institution to be viable would mean that its procedures and outcomes do not prevent it from continuing to work in the future.  For example, if participatory representation produces powerful demagogues who then wrench power away from the people, then the institution would not be viable.  For participatory representation to be efficient would mean that we derive the most benefits from it with the least burdens.  By such efficiency I do not merely mean monetary benefits and burdens.  In fact, participatory representation may be more expensive than current electoral representation (though with upcoming presidential campaigns costing over $1 billion, that would seem hard to believe).  “Benefits” could include not only monetary costs but also freedom and equality, sociality and conviviality, and rationality and deliberation, all values which I believe would be realized through participatory representation.  “Burdens,” meanwhile, might include bureaucracy, opportunities for elite formation and capture, demagoguery, and hierarchy, all of which I intend participatory representation to at least minimize.

The Tools for Participatory Representation

Recall that the principal problem with current electoral representation is that the public does not have a pre-existing common voice that can effectively speak to its representative.  The gulf between the representative and the represented is filled by what I termed “mediating factors,” because they get between the public and their representative.  These factors include political parties, private campaign funds, lobbyists, and other organized interests usually not representative of what people want and expect.  Existing mediating factors distort the information to representatives regarding what the public believes to be in its interests, as well as pervert the incentives that are supposed to lead representatives to represent.  The solution is to institutionalize a popular, participatory mechanism that mediates between the representative and the represented. 

Participatory representation relies on the organization of local communities.  We have seen such an institutional design in the primary assemblies of the Girondin Constitution, the Venezuelan communal councils, or participatory budgeting.  Such local assemblies become the forums for popular deliberation and the selection of candidates to stand for election.  While formal communal councils would be most convenient, their formation also requires a state that is committed to participatory democracy and many years of public investment in coaxing people to create and become accustomed to managing their own affairs in communal councils.

Because organized communities do not already exist in the United States for the most part, a good deal of community organization would have to be accomplished.  In the absence of communal councils, each electoral district would be divided into its ‘natural’ communities, neighborhoods to which people feel some sort of pre-existing membership.  In these communities, assemblies open to everyone are held.  Further open assemblies for the entire district would also be held to discuss particular issues. 

Each such open assembly would elect short-term delegates to a council or commission for the entire district.  Note that “delegates” are different than “representatives,” at least as used in some political literature.  While a representative is more or less free to act in what he or she believes to be in the best interest of his or her constituents, a delegate speaks as they are told to speak and votes as they are told to vote.  Delegation relies upon the delegate being able to communicate with and receive instructions from the body of persons sending the delegate.  Delegation is another democratic ideal, like a great people’s assembly, is impossible to achieve in a modern nation-state.  But it is achievable on the small scale that we are dealing with here, with one or two delegates representing local assemblies at an “electoral council.”  If each local assembly or communal council is composed of six hundred people, then a congressional district of 600,000 would generate an electoral council of one thousand delegates.  This is crowded, but manageable – for its business, the council can form committees to perform its tasks.

Electoral councils would possess a number of advisory and administrative tasks during the participatory election cycle.  First, its committees would subject candidates to scrutiny and questioning and distribute the results to the district.  Second, the council’s committees would manage the actual election process.  These first two duties are described below, in the process of participatory representation.  Finally, its committees would monitor, collate, and distribute the voting record of the sitting representative.  While voting records are currently available, there is little the individual citizen could do to keep track of their representative’s pattern of voting and compare that record with the representative’s stated positions and promises.  The electoral council is in a position to do that.

The Process of Participatory Representation

The process of participatory representation is modeled on the process of participatory budgeting.  Participatory representation occurs over the course of a year in the following steps:

1.       The local assemblies or communal councils begin by identifying the issues they find most pressing, and nominating candidates from among their number.  After several meetings, the assembly compiles a list of electoral candidates in the community.  Each candidate would have to have some minimum of support from the assembly – let’s say any five percent.  A delegate is then chosen to deliver this list to the first meeting of the electoral council.

2.       The electoral council meets and compiles a total list of candidates for election.  The council forms its committees and begins screening and scrutinizing each candidate.  The first candidates to be struck from the list are the unwilling and the ineligible.  Just as in the local assemblies, the candidates that make the final cut will have some minimum support from the council.  Let’s say any fifteen percent of the council, so that the list of candidates.  Between meetings of the council, delegates should be returning to meetings of the local assemblies to deliver information and receive instructions.  By the middle of the year, the electoral council should have pared the list down to a smaller but still substantial number of candidates.

3.       The initial list of candidates is returned to the assemblies for consideration.  The candidates make the rounds and argue their case.  Voters will then hit the ballot box in a district wide vote.  In this vote, the constituency is selecting the final five candidates to stand for election at the end of the election year.  Some sort of proportional method of election would be appropriate, with each voter selecting first, second, etc. choices, and then allotting votes to each candidate by this method.  The sitting representative (congressional or state assembly) is also on the ballot, and he or she may not be permitted to stand for election again if he or she does not receive sufficient votes for nomination.

4.       The electoral council publishes information on the final five candidates, organizes debates, and disburses public campaign money in an equal fashion.  For the democratic health of the electoral council, let us suppose that new delegates are chosen for the council around this point in the election cycle.

5.       The people vote on election day for one candidate, who must have an absolute majority (over fifty percent) to be elected.  If no candidate receives an absolute majority, there can be a run-off. 

6.       The process begins again a year before election day.
This electoral procedure creates an information system between the representatives and the represented by creating a participatory oversight body (the electoral council) and a continuous deliberative process.  This information system is paramount.  Our current representatives get away with murder because they know we can’t keep track of what they’re doing.  Even though there are voting records, there is no one who organizes and interprets those voting records.  We can’t see how the voting record matches up with the promises of the representative.  The media does this only for political parties as a whole, and for the president, but this does not help us to hold our own individual representatives accountable.  For them to behave themselves, they have to know that we know what they’re doing, and that we know that they know.

The public will is also constructed through this process.  Public, face-to-face deliberations drive each citizen towards a common will, reducing the multitude of varying unconsidered opinions and interests towards positions that a majority will come to hold.  Candidates for election in this process show their worth by their understanding of the general trajectory or tenor of the public discussion.  By being forced to participate in public deliberation and reasoning, and being held continuously accountable, electoral candidates lose their ability to manage and balance the array of special interests.  Public deliberation causes the existing special interests to erode into a more general interest for the public good.  And representatives will have to bow to it.

But is This Process Viable?
Why, you might and should ask, would this system prevent the reappearance of devices of elite capture?  Why wouldn’t people form political parties to advance their particular interests?  Can it last?

I think I am correct to assume that people are not actually divided up into preexisting simplistic political outlooks.  Granted, Americans are today, but this is more of an effect of the social and political system than the cause.  The perception we have of each other as political actors are created by the contest of political and economic elites in their contest for electoral and bureaucratic power.  The “liberal versus conservative” cultures and frames that we see in each other are manufactured by political party elites.  They need these frames for the discipline of the respective partisans, and those partisans become those stereotypes in loyalty to the political party.  Participatory representation makes political parties redundant by removing their purpose – to nominate and fund and discipline representatives in the service of the party.  Without the political party to manufacture political distinctions, I would wager that people will generally be able to grasp what is in their genuine interest, and, through deliberation, be able to determine what is in the public interest.

None of this is to say that people really don’t have all the same interests (the pathetic, plaintive cry of the liberal, “rich and poor alike, we’re all Americans!”).  Particular sections of society have distinct and conflicting interests on the basis of the roles played in and across institutions.  Let’s be honest: it’s the owners of finance and industry and what-have-you versus everybody else.  But “everybody else” does not see it in such easy terms, because “everybody else” consists of distinct and conflicting interests as well.  So why can’t these interests form a multitude of mediating organizations that makes the participatory representation into a sham? 

Deliberation is the key to eroding the distinctness and conflict among the various interests of society.  Participatory representation brings people together to achieve a real, concrete purpose that they can only achieve together.  Collective, public deliberation is necessary to achieve this real purpose – to send a representative to the state or federal capital to get public goods and services.  The very process of deliberation, of meeting and talking with other persons living in different social positions and institutional roles transforms the perspective of each [slider title = deliberator]Such observations are confirmed by the experiments in deliberation conducted by James Fishkin, a professor at Stanford University[/slider].  Such a process of real face-to-face mutual justification of needs and values informs and erodes our unconsidered political, social, and economic perspectives.  Not only a particular policy prescription, but a whole direction for policy, emerges from such discussions.

The problem with any system of electoral representation is the lack of means of forming and delivering the public will, and motivating the representative to obey such will when seated in the representative assembly.  In the absence of such means, the organized interests of society interpose themselves and organize the public to their own ends and not those ends of the public.  The political party, ostensibly the means by which people organize political platforms and control representatives, are really the instruments of elite organized interests.  The solution is to build the means of representation directly into the electoral system.  “Participatory representation” is a proposed institutional design that provides the means of the public will being created by the people themselves, and directly communicating this will to their representative.  Beyond the mere election of the representative offered by elite organized interests, the people themselves inform and motivate their representative by nominating their own candidates and forcing those candidates, as well as the subsequent representative, to engage in a broad, bottom-up process of deliberation.

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