Practical Democracy: Understanding The Process

The Concept

Practical Democracy springs from the knowledge that some people are better advocates of the public interest than others. In Beyond Adversary Democracy, Jane Mansbridge, speaking of a small community in Vermont, says 1:

When interests are similar, citizens do not need equal power to protect their individual interests; they only need to persuade their wisest, cleverest, most virtuous, and most experienced citizens to spend their time solving town problems in the best interests of everyone.

The fundamental challenge of democracy is to find those "wisest, cleverest, most virtuous, and most experienced citizens" and empower them as our representatives. PD does that by giving every member of the electorate the right to be a candidate and the ability to influence the selection process, while ensuring that no individual or group has an advantage over others.

PD makes no attempt to alter the structure of government. It simply changes the way we select our representatives. We have the venues for resolving adversarial issues in our legislatures and councils. However, since the solutions that flow from those assemblies cannot be better than the people who craft them, PD lets the electorate agree on the individuals they believe will resolve adversarial issues in the public interest.

Peoples' interests change over time. To achieve satisfaction, these changing attitudes must be given voice and reflected in the results of each election. The PD process lets particular interests attract supporters to their cause and elevate their most effective advocates during each electoral cycle. Advocates of those interests can proclaim their ideas and encourage discussion of their concepts. Some will be accepted, in whole or in part, as they are shown to be in the common interest of the community.

Democracy's dilemma is to find those individuals whose self-interest encourages them to seek advancement and whose commitment to the public interest makes them acceptable to their peers. Such persons cannot be identified by partisan groups seeking to advance their own interests. They can only be identified by agreement among the people themselves.

Why Practical Democracy Works

Practical Democracy gives the people a way to select Mansbridge's "wisest, cleverest, most virtuous, and most experienced citizens". At each level, voters deliberate in small groups, where "... face-to-face contact increases the perception of likeness, encourages decision making by consensus, and perhaps even enhances equality of status." 2

Academic studies have shown the value of deliberation in small groups. The PD process builds on these phenomena. It lets people with differing views deliberate and seek consensus on political issues. When triad members are selected to advance, those selected are the individuals the group believes best represent its perspectives. This necessarily adds a bias toward the common interest.

PD works because it atomizes the electorate into thousands, or, in larger communities, millions of very small groups. Each provides a slight bias toward the common interest. As the levels advance, the cumulative effect of this small bias overwhelms special interests seeking their private gain. It leads, inexorably, to the selection of representatives who advocate the will of the community.


The described process provides the sorting and selecting mechanism required to implement Jane Mansbridge's "Selection Model" of Political Representation.3 It yields self-motivated representatives whose gyroscopes are aligned with the objectives of the people who select them. It lets the people advance the individuals they agree have the qualities necessary to resolve public issues into ever-more deliberative groups to work out solutions from broadly differing perspectives.

PD focuses on selecting representatives who will resolve adversarial encounters to the advantage of the commonweal. During the process, participants necessarily consider both common and conflicting interests, and, because PD is intrinsically bidirectional, it gives advocates of conflicting interests a continuing voice. At the same time, it encourages the absorption of diverse interests, reducing them to their essential element: their effect on the participants in the electoral process. There are no platforms, there is no ideology. The only question is, which participants are the most attuned to the needs of the community and have the qualities required to advocate the common good.


It is hard to achieve democracy because true democracy has no champions. It offers no rewards for individuals or vested interests; it gives no individual or group an advantage over others. Hence, it offers no incentive for power-seeking individuals or groups to advocate its adoption.

The best chance for something like the Practical Democracy concept to develop will be if it is adopted in a small community where the people want to improve their government. There are considerable efforts, particularly in Europe, to eliminate the evils of party politics. In May of 2015, the people of Frome in the U.K. rejected all party candidates and elected an independent city government.4

In the United States, the dissatisfaction with the existing electoral system is widespread. Several communities have tried different electoral methods in recent years in an attempt to correct the evils of the two-party system. The methods they tried were all party-based processes, hence, top-down, and they were all rejected by the people.

The Practical Democracy concept should be more appealing. It lets the people, themselves, agree on the issues they want addressed and the individuals best suited to address them. It replaces the destructiveness of divisive politics with the incredible power of political leadership based on agreement.