Thursday, January 23, 2014

"Is Democracy Desirable?" A forthcoming symposium

Sandy Levinson

The University of Texas Law School and Department of Government will be co-sponsoring a symposium, "Is Democracy Desirable," on Friday, January 31.  It is free and open to the public. 
For me, at least, the question is not at all a rhetorical one, for I have become convinced, in part because of the reaction to my earlier book Our Undemocratic Constitution that most Americans are not particularly enamored of what might be termed robust notions of majoritarian democracy.  (And perhaps they are right to hold such beliefs, which is why the question is not rhetorical.)  The format of the symposium will be to focus on three recent books on the plausibility of what might be termed “the democratic project.”  The first, by Yale professor Helene Landemore, Democratic Reason, (Princeton, 2013) offers a quite vigorous defense of mass democracy, based on the Condorcet jury theorem (and the associated argument about the “wisdom of crowds”).  Greater skepticism is expressed by Jamie Kelley, of Vassar, who in Framing Democracy (Princeton, 2013) brings contemporary “frame analysis” (associated, say, with the work of Noble Prize-winner Daniel Kahneman), to bear to argue that “framing effects” work to make the idea of intelligent choice by ordinary voters highly implausible.  The most vigorous critic of democracy is George Mason professor of law Ilya Somin, who has just published Democracy and Political Ignorance:  Why Smaller Government is Smarter (Stanford University Press, 2013).  Each of the first three panels will focus on one of these books, with their central ideas presented and critiqued by two scholars, with the opportunity for a short response by the author.  There will be ample time for discussion.  The specific schedule is as follows:

9:00 Opening Remarks
 9:15-10:45 Panel One: Helene Landemore, DEMOCRATIC REASON:  to be discussed by Dennis Thompson and Paul Woodruff
 11-12:30 Panel Two:  Jamie Kelly, FRAMING DEMOCRACY:  A BEHAVIORAL APPROACH TO DEMOCRATIC THEORY:  Joseph Fishkin and Jeffrey Friedman
2-3:30 Panel Three: Ilya Somin, DEMOCRACY AND POLITICAL IGNORANCE:  Heather Gerken and Sandy Levinson
 3:45-5:15 Panel Four:  General discussion on the current state of democratic theory and practice, led off by remarks by Dennis Thompson, Jeffrey Abramson, and Jim Fishkin.
I anticipate that the panels and discussions will be available on a web site, though I will supply more information about that next week.
Yale Law Professor Heather Gerken will, incidentally, also be presenting an endowed lecture also co-sponsored by the Law School and Department of Government on Thursday, January 30, at 5:30.  The title of her lecture is "The Loyal Opposition," which discusses federalism as a way of assuring the presence of at least some oppositionist government to any national government.