To a certain extent the downsides of power-over are recognized by social theoreticians and many powerholders.  That’s why many of the rules of society – including the majoritarian principle itself – seek to establish some order to the embattled, controlling dynamic that underlies so much of political, economic, and social activity, and to reduce the amount of force, abuse, violence and alienation so often associated with the use of power-over.  The dominant solution is “democracy” and we find the desire to moderate power-over – in one form or another – in probably 90% of the conversations about democracy.

When political scientists talk about democratic forms of power, they tend to talk about

  • how to distribute power broadly – such as the “one person, one vote” principle – or to structure it efficiently – such as electing representatives to whom citizens delegate their democratic power;
  • how to make power answerable – ultimately to those over whom it is exercised;
  • how to protect the rights and freedoms of those subject to power (including their freedom to generate their own individual and collective power); and/or
  • how to balance numerous power centers against each other so that no one power can dominate.

These design strategies are intended to prevent the battles and natural concentrations of power from getting out of hand and degrading or destroying the whole arrangement. We can view this as a systemic rationale underlying the human rights and rule-of-law logic of democracy.  The system is sustained because it supports popular rule – or at least the narrative of popular rule – while providing ample room for manipulation by power elites.

The reaction to efforts by power elites to evade or manipulate democratic controls tends to be more radical democracy, more radical applications of the four design principles noted above, as well as greater public participation in general. The many ways this healthy impulse can manifest unfortunately include some approaches that can reduce the likelihood of wise outcomes, such as online systems for everyone to vote on everything, with little if any truly deliberative activity.  Thus the wise democracy approach attends not just to democratizing and transforming power, but to facilitating the kind of participation that can lead to wise outcomes.