Democracy Means Asking the Right Questions

Whenever I talk to students about democracy, I like to emphasize that the original term for democratic rule was isonomy. Consider the account Otanes gives in Herodotus’ History:

“[T]he rule of the multitude [plêthos de archon] has… the loveliest name of all, equality [isonomiên]…. It determines offices by lot, and holds power accountable, and conducts all deliberating publicly. Therefore I give my opinion that we make an end of monarchy and exalt the multitude, for all things are possible for the majority.” (Herodotus 1982, 3.80)

Here Otanes identifies democracy with the strict equality accomplished through lots, rather than election by popular balloting. Though this might seem too random when compared to the collective choice of representatives, the appeal of this vision of isonomy is that the lottery supplies an equal opportunity for rulership to each citizen, guaranteeing equality well in excess of the American ideal of equality ‘before the law.’ But note that this equality is only possible when combined with two forms of accountability: that accounting by which an officer must give an accurate tally of expenditures during the administration or be held liable, and the figurative accountability by which the officer owes his fellow citizens his reasons for the decisions made in the public deliberations before, during, and after the decision is taken. Obviously, the use of lots only functioned insofar as citizenship was radically restricted, and Otanes justifications for the ‘rule of the multitude’ fell flat against Darius’ account of the tendency of all regimes to fall into monarchy insofar as both oligarchies and democracies produce agonistic tensions from which one man eventually emerges the victor and is designated the most excellent and the wisest of the contenders. (Herodotus 1982, 3.82)

The three norms of isonomy are mutually reinforcing: equal participation requires that the office-holder act with the understanding that she might be replaced by any other member of the community. She cannot abuse her office without being held to account at the end of her term. For the same reason she must regularly give reciprocally recognizable justifications for her actions, without which her decisions might be reversed by the next office-holder, or even punished when her office no longer protects her from prosecution. The ideal result of such a regime is a strong preference for deliberation, consensus, and mutual respect, alongside a cautious honesty and transparency with regard to potentially controversial decisions.

The reverse of isonomy is bureaucracy. Bureaucracies are more efficient, and are supposed to be more procedurally rational, but insofar as they are predicated on expert knowledge, they’re not intended to involve every citizen or to answer to them directly. According to Joseph Schumpter’s popular formulation of the relationship, too much democratic control makes it difficult for the administrative state to efficiently pursue the public goods citizens ultimately want. But there are still ways to hold bureaucracies accountable.

During the Tufts Civic Studies Institute, we met with Luz Santana and Dan Rothstein of The Right Question Institute. Santana and Rothstein have a simple model for teaching people to generate, improve, and strategically deploy interrogatives. They mobilize a few easy heuristics, like the difference between open-ended and “closed” questions (which can be answered with a single word or short phrase,) but they also emphasize the role of questioning in holding others accountable. Underwriting the whole project is the empowering assumption that those with power can nonetheless be required to answer questions about the reasons that went into a decision, the process by which it was reached, and the role for individuals affected. These are subversive demands, as they undermine unreasonable, unfair, and exclusive decisions.

One of the ways that people experience power and weakness is through a tacit recognition of who has the right to ask questions, and who does not. By giving those who normally feel disempowered a little practice and confidence with questioning, Santana and Rothstein suggest that they can reverse some of those tacit assumptions in a democratic manner. It takes about twenty minutes to teach their method, but look at the results:

Dominique’s landlady wanted to sell the property Dominique was renting to a buyer that didn’t want to have a tenant. Without much introduction, the landlady knocked on Dominique’s door one evening and asked her to sign a paper. Unbeknownst to Dominique, the paper was an agreement that she would have to move out of her apartment within 30 days. [Dominique] had just participated in a short educational workshop at the adult literacy program she attends. At the workshop, Dominique had learned that she had the right to ask questions and more importantly, she had learned how to ask good questions about the decisions that affect her life. Dominique politely asked her landlady to leave the paper with her so that she could look it over before she decided if she was going to sign it. Dominique plowed through the language and realized that she would need help in deciphering the paper. Thinking about the RQI process, Dominique started coming up with her own questions. Then, she began calling the few people she knew in Philadelphia to try to get some answers. One of her friends gave  the number of a lawyer that worked for a renter’s assistance program. Dominique followed up and found out that her landlady didn’t actually have a renter’s license and therefore couldn’t take a legal route to evict her. The new owner would have to honor Dominique’s leasing agreement until the following year.

Santana and Rothstein describe this as an exercise in microdemocracy. Most people’s understanding and civic capacities are at their weakest in the formal voting and lobbying of representatives that political theorists tend to emphasize as the heart of political life. This is doubly true for youth, immigrants, and the unemployed. Yet these are are the people that have the most interactions with the state’s coercive power, and a good strategic question can help to democratize the millions of interactions individuals have with the employees of state agencies. 

Though Santana and Rothstein emphasize questioning as a practical skill and the source of all other rights-claims, I think there’s something deeper at work here: not just questioning, but interrogation. We generally reserve “interrogation” for custodial questioning by the police, where state officials set out to elicit a non-voluntary confession from an unwilling speaker, forcing them to divulge something that they did not want to reveal. Indeed, the Latin quaestio is also the word for torture, and a quaesitor or inquisitor would ‘put one to the question’ with implements whose primary purpose was to cause the excruciating pain that was once the only surety in the world of jurisprudence.

In the policing model, the interrogative relationship is a curious reversal of the norms of elite domination: the questioner’s ignorance is her strength, while the respondent’s knowledge is the basis for subjecting her to the question. I think this is what the RQI taps into: because the interrogative relationship prises apart expertise and power, it is especially useful for reworking the sources of bureaucratic governance that most people experience as their primary mode of interaction with the state. By demanding reasons, ordinary citizens help to police the reasonableness of the administrative state; by demanding a fair process, they remind officials that a fair process is expected; by demanding to know what their role in any decision affecting their lives will be, they build the assumption that there will be a role for them into every discussion of the decision, and this assumption can be self-fulfilling.

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