The Possibility of Democratic Participation

Remarks on Cristina Lafont’s Democracy without Shortcuts


Cristina Lafont has written a searching and thought-provoking philosophical work on the nature of deliberation in modern democracy. Much of the book is a critique of recent efforts to ground the activity of deliberation in democracy in the light of two sobering and challenging obstacles to the implementation of deliberative democracy in modern society. One challenge arises from the observation of the pluralism of opinion and value in modern democracy. Good faith disagreement on principles and values is wide ranging in modern societies and seems to undermine most kinds of consensus aside from the most abstract agreement. A second challenge arises from the division of labor in society and stems from the observation that citizens are often quite ignorant of politics in modern society. They often seem to base their decisions on slim grounds. In what follows, I cannot pretend to do justice to this rich and engrossing book. I will discuss the central concepts of self-government and blind deference first and point to a difficulty that I think lies at the heart of Lafont’s approach. I will then discuss her arguments against deep pluralism and suggest how I think they miss the target and how I think one ought to reply fully to pluralism. I will also take up her arguments against lottocracy, which I think are good ones. But I will argue that they are not sufficient to demonstrate why we should not be lottocrats. I will then conclude with some remarks about what is necessary to respond to the problems lottocracy is meant to respond to.

Cristina Lafont has written a searching and thought-provoking philosophical work on the nature of deliberation in modern democracy.Footnote 1 Much of the book is a critique of recent efforts to ground the activity of deliberation in democracy in the light of two sobering and challenging obstacles to the implementation of deliberative democracy in modern society. One challenge arises from the observation of the pluralism of opinion and value in modern democracy. Good faith disagreement on principles and values is wide ranging in modern societies and seems to undermine most kinds of consensus aside from the most abstract agreement. A second challenge arises from the division of labor in society and stems from the observation that citizens are often quite ignorant of politics in modern society. They often seem to base their decisions on slim grounds. More recently we see the rise of populist politics, which seem to permit all forms of disinformation among the populace.

These two challenges have inspired two distinct approaches to democracy as follows: one is the pluralist approach, which takes irremediable disagreement as basic and advocates for a strong majority rule while rejecting institutions that constrain democratic decision-making such as constitutions with judicial review. The other approach is broadly epistemic, and it has a number of different branches. First there are epistocrats who think that the society ought to be ruled by experts or at least that experts ought to have a much greater say in the running of society than other ordinary citizens. Second, some theorists defend what is called lottocracy, which recommends selecting people randomly within the population so that there is an assembly of persons that are statistically representative of the population having them take on a ruling position in the society. The assembly would then be given the best information and the most sophisticated interpretations of social science as well as recommendations for policy. They would make policy on these bases. They would hold office for a few years and then be replaced by another cohort of randomly chosen persons.

Lafont describes the majoritarian, epistocratic, and lottocratic approaches to democracy as shortcuts because they attempt to deal with the two sobering facts without taking the long road of ensuring a deliberatively democratic society which enables all persons to participate fully and equally in the democratic processes of society. Lafont gives faithful and compelling accounts of these different “shortcuts” before subjecting them to serious criticism. The most fundamental criticisms she offers of these approaches is that they require citizens “to blindly defer” to experts, the majority, or the randomly selected assembly. She thinks this blind deference is, in each case, inconsistent with the fundamental ideas behind democracy. But she only gives a small piece of an account of what the long road to democratic deliberation looks like. The piece she offers is quite interesting and novel, but it is only a part of the story.

In what follows, I cannot pretend to do justice to this rich and engrossing book. I will discuss the central concepts of self-government and blind deference first and point to a difficulty that I think lies at the heart of Lafont’s approach. I will then discuss her arguments against deep pluralism and suggest how I think they miss the target and how I think one ought to reply fully to pluralism. I will also take up her arguments against lottocracy, which I think are good ones. But I will argue that they are not sufficient to demonstrate why we should not be lottocrats. I will then conclude with some remarks about what is necessary to respond to the problems lottocracy is meant to respond to.

The central concern of Lafont’s book is to vindicate the ideal of self-government and to root out proposed conceptions of political decision-making that seem to violate that ideal by requiring people to defer or obey blindly the directives of the political system to which they are subject. We need to have a clear idea of what these expressions “self-government” and “blind deference” mean. They are contraries, so we can start with the ideal of self-government, which is formally defined in the book. Self-government, is the “ideal that one should not be subject to laws that one cannot see oneself as an author of.” (18). It obtains when the policies and laws to which citizens are subject “conform to their judgments about justice” (22) or are such that citizens can reflectively endorse them as reasonable (21).

Lafont describes self-government as an ideal and sometimes as an aim, though I am not sure exactly how to understand these terms. In one place she says that the ideal is one that we must try to approximate as closely as possible (23). This introduces a concern with what is feasible. Elsewhere she suggests that there is some sense in which there is a threshold by which one minimally satisfies the ideal (17). This idea is important because the conceptions she criticizes fall below that threshold. Lafont speaks of approximating this very demanding ideal in two different and interesting ways. The first seems to me to be a roughly procedural way. “The ideal can be both feasible and action guiding if it is understood to require democratic institutions … to provide citizens with as many (effective) opportunities as possible in order to prevent a permanent disconnect between the policies to which citizens are subject and their considered opinions and will” (23). This puts the emphasis on the opportunities institutions provide to citizens and not on the success of prevention of disconnect. Lafont accepts that a perfect alignment of policy and political opinion is not possible but that the provision of effective opportunities is an adequate approximation, though it does require some success. The other has a procedural character as well but focuses in on a particular set of principles. Here the idea is that there is special importance to ensuring that citizens have opportunities to contest law and policy that they think violates their fundamental rights and liberties (22). The development of this idea is in the last two chapters of the book, in which Lafont argues that the abilities of citizens to contest law and policy before a Supreme Court on the grounds that the law violates their fundamental rights is an essential part of the process of deliberation in democracy. Here too, success is not guaranteed, so a significant part of the approximation to the ideal of self-government is a procedural one. “Blind deference” also exhibits this oscillation between the procedural and the substantive. At some points it is given a primarily substantive reading that is simply the contrary of self-government; one defers blindly when “one is coerced into obeying laws that one cannot endorse as at least reasonable.” (18). At other times, it takes on a more procedural character as “to the extent that citizens maintain some control over [their representatives] they are not [deferring] blindly.” (8).

Here I already want to register a dissent, which I will develop throughout this essay. It should be noted that Lafont foreswears any attempt in this book to ground democratic principles. But I fear that her conception of the ideal of self-government may not be an entirely democratic idea, though it has some kinship with it. The basic idea is that democracy involves giving citizens the conditions actively to pursue their aims in collective decision-making. It essentially contains a strong procedural element. It gives people power with which to advance the aims they think the collective ought to be advancing and it attempts to distribute that power equally. The reason why it has this procedural dimension is that there is substantial disagreement about the best aims, and people have fundamental interests in being able to advance their controversial aims.

I agree with Lafont that this is not all there is to democratic ideals. There are also basic individual and civil rights that serve as constraints on the democratic process. But many of these rights also have a deeply procedural dimension; they give people power to pursue their more particular aims in a way that is supposed to be compatible with others pursuing their aims. Why do I think Lafont’s view is different? I will give two connected reasons. First, the ideal of self-government announced above does not always give place to agency. The ideal is often stated as persons being able reflectively to endorse the laws and policies under which they live or having the laws and policies conform to their conceptions of justice. The contrast is alienation: One cannot make sense of the laws and policies and they seem to express hostility. Notice that provisions for agency only arise when Lafont discusses feasible approximations to the ideal of perfect conformity of law with judgment. When that cannot be achieved, a good approximation is to give opportunities or capacities for control, thus making room for agency in the creation of the social world one lives in, and even here there is no mention of equality. At best, democracy comes in as a second-best approximation. Second, strictly speaking, the ideal of self-government is compatible with quite undemocratic forms of government. Admittedly, this is far-fetched in the world we live in, but the ideal that law should conform to one’s reflective judgments is quite compatible with living in an authoritarian society which everyone reflectively endorses. This is part of the idea that animates Rawls’ defense of Decent Peoples in the Law of Peoples and some of Michael Walzer’s work.Footnote 2 I do not mean to suggest that it is remotely likely that there could be societies in which there is unanimous agreement on authoritarian rule but the very possibility of this shows that Lafont’s basic principle is still far from democracy.

I want to explore briefly how these ideas are applied to the cases of deep pluralism and to lottocracy. I will not discuss epistocracy. I am not sure why one should. People who advocate for this idea seem to think it is a new one. In fact, it was one of the reigning ideas in Western society between the fall of the Roman Republic and the English Civil War and still held sway with most elites until the early twentieth century. It has proved a failure everywhere in the West and nearly everywhere with perhaps a very partial exception in Singapore. We are still wondering about China. The inclusion of workers, women, and minorities has improved their conditions everywhere it has happened despite the fact that these people were not initially as well educated as the wealthy, white men who claimed to know better than anyone else how to organize society for the common good.

Lafont criticizes majoritarian democracy, which is premised on the idea that there is pervasive and deep disagreement about all matters concerning justice. She argues that it violates the standard of self-government. The basic reason why is that it requires citizens blindly to defer to the majority. The deference is blind because citizens in the minority must obey laws that they do not reflectively endorse. Of course, this follows from the logic of the theory.

There are two main criticisms addressed to majoritarian democracy. The first is that the view has an inadequate account of legitimacy and so cannot really account for political disagreement, and the second is that the view fails to leave a place for special protections of fundamental rights. The first problem is that the deep pluralist approach is committed to saying that there is no basis of legitimacy aside from majority rule. The idea here then is that when citizens disagree, the minority no longer has any further reason for discussion or dissent after the majority has made its decision (41). Disagreements would only make sense if the legitimacy of the decision were at stake.

This would be a severe embarrassment for the theory, were it required, but it does not seem to be a necessary result of deep pluralism. Deep pluralism can invoke the distinction between justification and legitimacy here. It can be argued that citizens disagree about the justice of proposals but accept that the resolution of the disagreement requires a majoritarian solution. Each citizen, in fulfilling her duty of justice, is required to make use of her political power to advance social justice in the society. They do not have to give up their views when they are outvoted. What majority rule is, is an egalitarian answer to the question “who decides?” when there is substantial disagreement. The majoritarian decision is legitimate though it may not be just. All members of the minority can perfectly consistently hold on to their views about the injustice of the chosen policy and can consistently try to change the policy after it has been chosen. What they may not do is act as if the policy has not been chosen or disobey the policy when it is in force. Admittedly, the pluralist approach does not usually give us a way to make out this distinction clearly, but it is available. One can argue that there is a kind of higher justice in deciding disputed matters by majority rule, which is grounded on the fundamental principle that people must treat each other as equals in the context of severe disagreement and conflict of interest that marks modern societies.

Lafont suggests that the dissenting citizens blindly defer to the majority in the case in which they accept the majority decision despite the fact that they think the decision unjust (45). I do not see why this must be so. And here is my major counter thesis regarding the book. The normative value of democracy itself is excessively discounted in the book. The situation of the dissenting citizens does require that they go along with the decision of the majority even when they disagree. But this does not require blind deference because the citizen recognizes that under conditions of disagreement and conflict, the right way to make decisions is by majority rule. This is the way to treat her fellow citizens as equals under these conditions. So, she acts out of a sense of allegiance to democratic principles when there is deep disagreement. There is alienation, but the alienation is significantly overridden by the deeper commitment to democracy. It cannot be the case that not getting what one thinks right in the context of serious disagreement is necessarily blindly deferring. If that were the case, then the distance between self-government as opportunity to prevent alienation and self-government as success at preventing alienation would be lost. It would also undermine Lafont’s own powerful proposal in Chapter 8, which requires that people be able to contest what they take to be violations of their rights before an impartial tribunal. She knows that they will not always succeed (237).

Lafont’s second criticism of the deep pluralist approach is more compelling. She argues in favor of granting special status to fundamental individual rights in a democratic society. She does not give us a list or definition but the examples she uses suggest basic civil rights and liberties. The main point is people agree that there are certain basic rights that demand special protection. They may not always agree on the exact list of rights and when people do agree on the rights they agree on some broad core and on the idea that those rights ought to be accorded special status. This permits argument and disagreement about the full specification of the rights but ensures that the core be protected. She argues that this agreement on the existence of many basic rights and on some of the cores of those rights is sufficient to justify a limitation on majority rule (60).

But there is a puzzle here. The thesis of the controlling importance of agreement is shared with the deep pluralist. Such a theorist could respond that if there is genuine agreement on some basic rights, then that should not come into conflict with majority rule. But Lafont’s answer, I think, to this response is that we need to set up special institutions that are devoted to the protection of fundamental rights. The idea is that such institutions would enshrine the special importance of the basic rights and give citizens the ability to stand up and contest majority decisions in order to defend their rights. This might, in the longer run, bring about agreement on the rights because they focus societal attention and reasoning on the rights themselves (232). In the last part of the book, she argues that judicial review of legislation by a Supreme Court that is triggered by an appeal by citizens, who think their rights have been violated, can serve this function. But this particular institutional recommendation is not necessary to the answer to the deep pluralists.

This is an insightful and interesting idea, but I am not convinced that it goes as far as Lafont wants it to go. It does not necessarily imply strong protections of civil, political, and liberal rights. It sets up an extra stage of evaluation in the hope that some reasoned agreement may arise on the protection of rights. It is not possible to go farther within the self-government approach that Lafont is advocating because it still rests very strongly on the possibility of reasoned consensus. When that consensus does not arise, there may be little protection to be had but, in addition, there is little ground from which to argue for it. I think we want to say something stronger, namely, that civil, political, and liberal rights are violated even when the majority cannot be made to see that fact.

But a deeper response is possible to the idea of unconstrained majoritarianism as a matter of principle. And this extends the counter thesis that I asserted above. The underlying idea is that democratic decision-making in large societies has a fundamental justification and this justification also grounds basic liberal and civil rights. Here I give some of the argument behind this. The idea of democracy is founded on the idea that the well-being of each and every person matters equally and that society ought to be organized so as to realize that equal importance. But what is crucial is that people disagree on how to pursue that well-being and how to ensure that everyone has a fair share of resources and opportunities with which to do so. Furthermore, each person has only a limited understanding of herself and the people around her. Under these circumstances, the way to advance people’s interests is by giving them power to advance their well-being in the context of individual pursuits. But each person also has a duty of justice to advance the interests of each equally. The main expression of this duty of justice is to create institutions that advance the common good and justice. And each person has fundamental interests in being able to advance their own conception of justice and the common good through the creation of those institutions. Here too there is substantial disagreement and conflict. The only way to treat people as equals in this context is to give equal power to advance their aims regarding the common good and justice in society. This is the purpose of democratic collective decision-making. This is the context in which persons can resolve their disagreements about justice in such a way that they treat each other as equals in the process. This must be constrained by limits such as the basic liberal and civil rights just mentioned as well as the defense of democracy itself. The reason for this is that the civil and liberal rights are grounded in the very same need to give people power to pursue their own ways when there is much disagreement and conflict. Democracy, along with liberal and civil rights, uniquely and publicly realize equality among persons within society. The thought is that the same fundamental principle of equality grounds equally the political rights and the civil and liberal rights.

The flaw in the deep pluralist view is that it is perfectly permissible within this view for a majority to choose to do away with democracy. But on the view that I have just very briefly articulated, the majority would fail in a fundamental way to treat fellow members as equals were it to suspend the political rights of the minority and thus would violate the most basic principle of justice for a political society. And since the very same principle undergirds liberal and civil rights, the majority is constrained against violating them as well. As long as these constraints are respected, the democratic assembly has legitimate authority to make decisions. It will likely make unjust decisions because there is substantial disagreement in society, but since democracy realizes equality in a publicly clear way, it has authority. To be sure, these arguments do not determine which institutions are best suited to protect democracy and the basic liberal and civil rights.Footnote 3 That is going to be an empirical question of great magnitude and may well give different answers in different societies. And I do think that Lafont’s insightful conception of the role of judicial review should play an important role in the discussion.

These observations are meant to show that there are limits to what Lafont can argue against the pluralist view if she does not adopt a more full-strength principle of democracy.

Lafont’s criticism of the lottocratic approach to democracy is quite strong but I am not sure it can answer the worry that the lottocratic approach is stimulated by. The basic problem to which the lottocratic approach is a response is that in modern democracies, ordinary citizens are often thought to have little role to play in the deliberations of the democratic assemblies that are elected by citizens. There are a number of kinds of data that suggest this. There is the work of Larry Bartels and Martin Gilens, which argues that the middle third of the income bracket in the USA has much less influence on the choices of their legislators than does the top third of the income bracket and the bottom third has little to no influence.Footnote 4 There is also substantial evidence of the ignorance of large parts of the population in the USA about politics and the legislative system.Footnote 5 Many attribute these patterns to the contemporary system of competitive elections in which candidates need to raise a lot of money to win. Politicians must choose to represent the interests of the better off or lose to those who will. Then, it is thought a kind of secondary effect sets in, which is that politicians make emotional and populist appeals to ignorant and easily manipulated citizens in order to get them on board. Hence, the system is heavily biased towards the well off and the quality of public deliberation in elections and at other times falls off dramatically.

Lottocracy is supposed to be a kind of democratic answer to this situation. There are a number of proposals, but I will focus on a very simple one. Some group of people of approximately 500 to a 1000 are selected by lot across the whole population to form a legislative body with decision-making power. The group then assembles and is exposed to a significant amount of information and arguments for policies and laws from opposing political experts. They are then encouraged to deliberate in the assembly in hope of making decisions about what kinds of laws and policies to choose.Footnote 6 This method cuts against the two serious problems in contemporary democracies in that it brings people in from all walks of life and all ethnic groups and does not require them to compete to stay in office by running for election. And this does not require that they raise money to run for office. There is a broader descriptive representation of the society and there is less bias towards the wealthy. Furthermore, it cuts against the problem of ignorance and the consequent susceptibility to manipulation and emotional appeals by educating people in the assembly itself. The experience of people in minipublics does suggest that randomly selected persons can be made to make quite sophisticated and nuanced decisions after having been exposed to large amounts of information and opposing arguments.Footnote 7

Lafont does not question these claims. She says: “conferring decisional status on [minipublics] seems to uniquely improve the epistemic and the democratic quality of political outcomes.” (111). But she argues that lottocracy is another shortcut to deliberative democracy and she argues that it is a shortcut that requires ordinary people to defer blindly to the decisions of the assembly, which is not accountable to them. The argument is simple and compelling. The problem is that the more the epistemic quality of the deliberations of the minipublic improve without improving the abilities of people in the society at large, the less the genuinely representative and democratic the minipublic becomes. There is, she argues, an inalterable tension between the epistemic character and the democratic character. And in fact, this inalterable tension is what justifies the thesis that empowering the minipublic implies a requirement that ordinary citizens blindly defer to others. Blindly deferring here means that citizens are subjected to law and policy that they do not have any particular reason to assume they would have endorsed if they had been informed and given it serious thought (126). She worries that over time the decisions of randomly deliberative assemblies could become more and more disconnected from ordinary citizens thus undermining their self-government.

I do think that this is a strong argument against the idea that lottocratic assemblies can fully realize democratic ideals. But Lafont’s discussion does not adequately take into account the difficulties that the lottocratic ideal is supposed to solve. A natural question here is, does the use of lottocratic assemblies provide a better approximation of democratic ideals than any feasible attempt at large-scale democratic deliberation? That question is not settled by showing that the lottocratic ideal is not fully democratic. Lafont says that we ought not to take the lottocratic shortcut because we ought to follow the long road of creating an informed citizenry (136).

But what if that long road is too long? If it is simply not feasible or only feasible at very great cost? Let me suggest an analogy. Suppose we believe that some goods ought to be distributed equally among a group of persons, say to achieve equal well-being. And further suppose that we cannot distribute the goods equally because they are lumpy goods. It is inevitable that some will have more than others unless we simply give a lot less to everyone. We might solve this problem by giving less to everyone or we can solve the problem by making an unequal allocation of the good. Furthermore, we can mitigate the problem of the unequal distribution by having people draw lots for the greater than equal shares. In this case, for many goods at least, I am sure we would go for the unequal division over the significantly inferior equal division.

What if the best option is some kind of lottocratic assembly, because creating an informed citizenry is not feasible? Lafont only briefly entertains this question only to dismiss it with the remark that it will not help us achieve the ultimate goal or that it is incompatible with the ultimate goal (137). But these are not good arguments against the idea of lottocracy as the best feasible option. If contemporary democracies cannot be made into democracies with informed citizens, then the fact that lottocracy is incompatible with it is not a conclusive consideration. I have the same intuition as Lafont concerning the distance between the lottocratic arrangements and the ideally democratic arrangements and I, like her, hold out the hope that we can figure out how to make our democracies more deliberative and more democratic.

In order to answer this question, we need to figure out what we mean by a properly informed citizenry. Then we can ask what kinds of institutional conditions are necessary to creating an informed citizenry in this sense, which is capable of engaging in reasonably sophisticated deliberations with others.

The first question we must ask is, what is the proper role of the citizen in the complex division of labor of the modern state? The idea of the proper role is to be understood in terms of what we can properly expect citizens to do as well as what role is sufficient for citizens to satisfy the demands of democratic principles. How can ordinary citizens be equal participants in the governing element in the democratic society while they also perform their other roles in the division of labor and live satisfying lives? Lafont is aware of the problem of citizenship, which she flags by asking the question whether deliberative democracy demands that people spend too many evenings in the process of deliberation. Here the idea is that we do not want to develop a conception of citizenship that demands some inappropriate amount of time and energy from citizens (27). This seems to pose the central question, which is: does the role of citizens as the governing element in the modern state require something of them that it is not reasonable to demand? She discusses some aspects of this problem but in the end focuses on the institutional mechanisms by which citizens can defend their basic rights.

I have tried to carry out parts of this project elsewhere and I will not rehearse the ideas here.Footnote 8 What is essential though is that we need to carry out a project on the foundations of democratic participation if we are to have a clear answer to the sources of worry that give rise to lottocratic thinking. The point I want to emphasize here is a collaborative conception of citizenship, and a rejection of an individualistic approach to democratic citizenship. By this I mean we need to move away from the idea that each citizen must contain in himself all the information and knowledge needed to advance the common good. The contemporary political psychology literature on heuristics and shortcuts, inspired by Anthony Downs, shows how we can think of citizens as acting on good information without actually being in possession of that information.Footnote 9

In the modern world, most of the purposeful activity we engage in is substantially based on information that we do not possess. When I drive my car, I presuppose that it will continue to work well, mostly on the advice of mechanics. I act on the basis of good information about my health, which I do not possess, because I do what my doctor tells me is ok to do. Normally these actions are successful, and based on good information, but I do not possess that information. And it is essential that people not need to possess this information, because if they did need to have it, they would not be able to do their jobs or take care of friends and families. Of course, this will not happen if the networks of persons I find myself in are corrupt. This is why we pay a lot of attention to how these networks, and the institutions on which they are based, are set up. The idea is that if institutions are properly set up, cognition can be distributed across many individuals while being the basis of each person’s effective action. That is how we get people to act well without requiring that they possess all the information necessary to that action.

The very same processes are at work in politics, where we rely heavily on friends, co-workers, political parties, interest groups, and opinion leaders to formulate how we should vote and participate. Citizens can distribute among themselves the knowledge and ideas necessary to make arguments in the public sphere. For this, we need to have an account of citizenship that places it in the context of competitive elections, political parties, interest groups, and the media and that shows us how citizens can govern a society as equals, and learn from each other in the process, without ignoring the immense plurality of views and interests in modern societies or failing to play their other parts in the division of labor. We already know that some of the mechanisms we actually have are pretty successful in distributing knowledge effectively among citizens because we can see that minimally fair democracies are much more effective in producing goods for their citizens than other forms of government. That tells us that something is working minimally well. What we want to understand is how to organize institutions so that we can make it work better. This is how a fully democratic participation is possible.


  1. 1.

    Cristina Lafont (2020). All references to the page numbers are in parentheses.

  2. 2.

    John Rawls (2001) and Michael Walzer (1983).

  3. 3.

    See Thomas Christiano (2008).

  4. 4.

    See Larry Bartels (2010) and Martin Gilens (2014).

  5. 5.

    See Ilya Somin (2014).

  6. 6.

    Alex Guerrero (2014).

  7. 7.

    See James Fishkin (2019).

  8. 8.

    Thomas Christiano (1996, 2012, 2019).

  9. 9.

    See Anthony Downs (1957) and more recently Arthur Lupia (2016) for recent discussion.


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  • Democracy
  • Self-government
  • Deliberation
  • Pluralism
  • Participation
  • Equality