Democracy is a disputed term. Many totalitarian regimes have claimed it in the name of the true destiny or real interests of the people, assuming that in all major decisions all those who are committed to that destiny or those interests must agree. Whether they know it or not, deviants are working against the people and must be discredited. These regimes devote great efforts to constructing a facade of unanimity among almost all of their citizens.
This demand for unanimity is not limited to dogmatic Communists and Fascist movements. It also characterises populist movements that appeal to segments of a population who feel that their way of life is threatened by the dominant elites within their society or by infiltration by sinister enemies. These enemies are identifiable by their lack of enthusiasm for the right values.
In opposition to these disastrous regimes, liberal democrats insist on freedom of opinion and on political practices that ensure there is a real choice between rival occupants of positions of political authority. This view assumes that the competition between aspirants to power takes place against a background consensus about the limits of legitimate power and the sort of considerations that are relevant to choosing between opposing policies. People who prefer one set of candidates to others can accept their opponents as legitimate occupants of public office, at least for their term of office.
Such a society depends on a strong public opinion being understood not as fixed agreement about everything of importance to public life, but on a confidence that the process of public discussion will deliver practical conclusions that are certainly fallible, and by no means universally agreed, but open to correction in the normal course of events. What is largely agreed is what sort of considerations are to be taken into account in particular kind s of decisions, even though people will differ about the relative weight to be attached to different considerations.
So, for example, it is generally agreed that it is desirable that an educational program should both offer maximum equality of opportunity and encourage the pursuit of excellence. But spelling out what that means in a given situation is very complex. There are no simple solutions. Obviously, people will differ about the relative weight to be attached to conflicting considerations. Any practical decision is necessarily a compromise between those considerations. A healthy public opinion will acknowledge this and resist any dogmatic attempt to give absolute priority to either consideration.
Where the opposing political forces see each other, and are seen by the electorate, as systematically opposed to each other on ideological principles or political ambitions, the role of public discussion of particular practical problems is marginalised. Debate degenerates into mutual denigration. Elections become a crude struggle for power. No legal or procedural safeguards can produce responsive and responsible government in such a situation.
It may seem that such a decline is inevitable. Thinking is hard work. People like to believe there are simple solutions to their problems. They are attracted to politicians who seem confident and decisive. Even very sophisticated people fall for simplistic slogans, images and metaphors. The electoral process strongly encourages such abdication of serious discussion. The electors are reduced to giving all power to one or other of the dominant parties.
It is the great merit of sortition that it gives power to a group of people who are not as a group committed to any particular ideology or organisation, but represent the whole range of interests in the community. If the members of this body are to assure the general public that it is doing its job its deliberations need to be public and to welcome public discussion in deciding what to do in any particular situation. The group will then have the problem of adjudicating rival claims and finding acceptable compromises between conflicting considerations on a great variety of problems.
In our very complex societies the range of different problems is so great that nobody can hope to be adequately informed about all of them, much less to have the time to enter into practical negotiations with others who have different priorities. The distinctive feature of the approach I call Demarchy is that it proposes that what is to be done in any particular matter be determined as far as possible by a small group that is statistically representative of those most substantially affected, favourably or unfavourably, by the decisions they have to make. Public discussion will be invited at every stage and discussions within the committees broadcast and recorded online in real time. Policy will be developed from practical specifics. The general public can be assured that all relevant consideration have been taken into account. As the process develops over time it will be continually monitored and revised. Before the development of the internet, this complete openness and discussion was impossible.
Introducing such changes of procedures and powers can only become possible when public opinion is convinced that it is worth trying. That, in turn is only likely to come about if there is experience of how it works in practice. In my book The Demarchy Manifesto for better public policy (2016) I have suggested how this experience might be achieved without legislative change.