The Dispersion of Power: Samuel Bagg’s Urgent Call to Redefine Democracy

Authored By 
Rick Harrison
March 27, 2024

Samuel Bagg speaks in a classroom

Samuel Bagg’s publisher, Oxford University Press, bills his new book, “The Dispersion of Power” as “an urgent call to rethink centuries of conventional wisdom about what democracy is, why it matters, and how to make it better.”

But it wasn’t always so urgent.

The book began more than a decade ago as his Ph.D. thesis, which was a largely theoretical exploration of democracy.  And after the domestic and global political “upheavals” of the late 2010s, he felt he needed to grapple more directly with the demands of democracy in practice.

“It quickly became clear to me that my issues with common ways of thinking about democracy weren’t just abstract — they had real consequences,” Bagg said. “I wanted to highlight those consequences and show how thinking differently about democracy could help us get out of some of the problems that we’re now facing.”

The Institution for Social and Policy Studies’ Democratic Innovations Program invited Bagg, an assistant professor of political science at South Carolina University, for a two-week residency at Yale, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in Ethics, Politics, and Economics in 2009. Democratic Innovations seeks to identify and test new ideas for improving the quality of democratic representation and governance.

“We could not be happier to have Sam here for what has been a wonderfully productive and thought-provoking visit,” said Alan Gerber, director of ISPS and Sterling Professor of Political Science. “Sam’s sharp, compelling work deploys political science, history, psychology, and critical theory to challenge common views of democracy. He is asking big questions, pointing toward new and hopefully more effective ways of dealing with the problem of special interest capture of policymaking so we can build a more functional and equitable society.”

During his stay, we spoke with him about his new book and how he envisions democracy’s purpose not primarily as the expression of a population’s collective self-rule but as the need to prevent the capture of state power by private interests.

ISPS: You note in your book’s conclusion that you intentionally de-emphasized current specific challenges to democracy, such as polarization and disinformation, which are now roiling politics in the United States, Brazil, India, Hungary, Turkey and elsewhere. Why make that choice?

Sammuel Bagg: The first reason is just that many other people have been writing about those issues. So, they are important, and we need to address them directly, but I didn’t know how much I had to add to what’s already been said. The place where I saw a gap is that when people discuss those problems, they are not always getting at the underlying issues causing them. They are often looking at the symptoms, which are important to consider. But it’s also important to see where those symptoms come from and address those causes as well.

ISPS: And in the case of challenges to democracy, you argue the underlying causes relate primarily to power dynamics.

SB: Exactly. The electoral institutions we have, the rights that are protected, the way people access trustworthy information — all these things are crucial, and they are all under threat right now. So, we need to protect them.  But unless we address underlying imbalances of economic and social power, similar threats are going to keep emerging.

ISPS: You write about how the power imbalance itself has not been the primary focus of most democratic theorists and reformers. Why do you think that is?

SB: Most of us associate the idea of democracy with processes of collective decision-making on equal terms, or in other words, collective self-rule. For some people, that ideal is realized by the way we elect representatives. Plenty of others see that our current systems do not reflect everyone’s views equally, and they look for other methods of incorporating people’s views, preferences, and ideas on a more equal basis more directly into decision-making. Maybe that means people need to have a more direct say in politics through referendums. Or maybe we need smaller-scale deliberative bodies to define people’s preferences and then incorporate them into decisions.

ISPS: But, as you write, this doesn’t address the power imbalance. Is it maybe easier or even more comforting to rework voting procedures and policymaking methodologies than confront the wealthy and powerful groups who wield outsized influence on government? A Critical Realist Theory of Democracy" by Samuel Ely Bagg, illustration of Liliputians tying down Gulliver from "Gulliver's Travels"

SB: I think many people recognize that improving democracy is going to require confronting the wealthy and powerful groups who currently dominate our political and economic systems. The issue that I have is not with the diagnosis of the problem, which a lot of people share. The problem comes when they suggest that the way to fix the problem is to fix the decision-making procedures. I agree that it could help on the margins. Some ways of making decisions are certainly fairer and better than others. But I believe that focusing exclusively on it will just lead us into a kind of never-ending cycle of reform and disappointment. Because whatever set of procedures we settle on will never be enough. Whatever institutions we use will still be influenced by these underlying imbalances of power.

ISPS: You said earlier that most people mistakenly define democracy as collective self-rule. Are you saying that collective self-rule is not necessary to a functioning society so long as state institutions operate for the public good?

SB: I would say the problem I have with collective self-rule has to do primarily with the way it structures our aspirations for reform. Because it focuses our attention on these particular decision-making procedures. We can still uphold self-rule as an abstract ideal and just reinterpret what it requires in practice in terms of resisting the capture of state power.

ISPS: So it can be an important ideal, just not the only one.

SB: Some people are very committed to this idea of collective self-rule, believing that’s just what democracy means. I say, great. The best way to achieve the outcome you want is to focus less on decision-making procedures and more on the underlying distribution of power.

ISPS: You devote a chapter to providing a realistic defense of elections without inflating the legitimacy or authority of their results. Why should we support such a flawed system?

SB: It’s true that I don’t think that elections and universal suffrage help achieve collective self-rule, which, as discussed, many people treat as a valuable ideal. There are too many problems identifying electoral procedures as a means for reflecting the unique individual will of each person and allowing them to make decisions on equal terms. That is simply not what elections do.

ISPS: Don’t elections at least provide some accountability for elected officials?

SB: The accountability offered by elections is extremely attenuated. You often have only a couple of choices, and trying to evaluate someone on thousands of policy decisions — all at once — it’s just way too much.

ISPS: And yet you still think elections are valuable. Why?

SB: For any response to any political problem, elections with universal suffrage are absolutely necessary. The reason is simply that any other way of selecting the leaders in a gigantic modern state enables those leaders or those affiliated with them to accrue too much power and corrupt the power of the state for their own private interests. Of course, they can still do that to some extent under an electoral system, which is why they are not perfect. But compared to all the other ways that people compete for power, democratic elections are more transparent, more open, and relatively peaceful. They give at least some incentive to the people competing to gain the respect of and perhaps promote the interests of other groups. And elections incentivize candidates to frame their polices in terms of a broad public interest.

ISPS: Your book posits a negative goal of resisting state capture that you call “a deliberately imprecise term” … “designed to encompass an ever-shifting variety of concrete threats.” That sounds exhausting. How might reformers with this mindset rally public support to assume and indefinitely maintain this posture?

SB: Part of the reason people feel so despairing and disappointed is their expectations are set by this fantasy of collective self-rule, which is never going to be achieved. People have an idea that public policy should reflect their individual views. They feel they should be co-authors and co-owners of the law. And that if they don’t feel that way, then it’s not really a democracy.

ISPS: Are you proposing that American citizens reject the idea of collective self-rule? Even if it’s a fantasy, it’s a potent one that we learn in grade school.

SB: Sure. I don’t think it is necessarily a problem for the public to embrace collective self-rule as an abstract ideal. My argument is more about how we should best make use of limited resources. If our goal is to advance democracy, what is worth prioritizing in terms of time and money?

ISPS: And for the typical voter?

SB: I think they should reorient how they view their task as voters and citizens more broadly.

ISPS: Meaning?

SB: One of the reasons people hate voting for what they perceive as the lesser of two evils is they see democracy as this thing where they get to choose their favorite candidate. Someone who serves as an expression of their values and political ideals. But elections rarely if ever promise such a choice. If they do anything consistently, it’s that they prevent the worst kinds of outcomes, such as tyranny. If you want more than that, you need to do more than vote.

ISPS: Your remedies include what you call “the dramatic expansion of radical practices that redistribute private power.” What are some examples of these types of reforms?

SB: One helpful question to ask at the outset is what kind of structure of society we should look toward as a utopian horizon. What does it look like in this best possible world? For me, a lynchpin of that is something I call unconditional wealth transfers. This builds on the idea of a universal basic income (UBI). But UBI is only a floor, a minimum people need to survive. The idea of unconditional wealth transfer is the constant rebalancing of power.

ISPS: OK, that does sound radical. And utopian.

SB: Right. It’s an ideal. Something to work toward. Not to make sure everyone has a minimum of sufficiency but to make sure that nobody gets too wealthy compared to others.

ISPS: Importantly, you are not calling for pure socialism. Your reforms embrace economic competition.

SB: I certainly believe there’s a lot more room for public ownership and control of certain industries, such as health care. And at least some public participation in housing. At the same time, we definitely need to keep markets alive.

ISPS: Why?

SB: There is a real danger in eliminating all private ownership and competition and placing it in public hands. Even in communist countries, someone always has outsized power. In the U.S.S.R., for example, nobody had any wealth, but power was distributed unequally through access to political officials, status within the ruling party, and so on. Who was going to live in the nicest apartments? It was not determined by the amount of money you had to spend but who was in with the right people. Markets throw some degree of unpredictability into the mix that shakes up hierarchies. We need private ownership and markets to sustain a dynamic society.

ISPS: OK, but setting aside the idealized utopian horizon, what are some reforms we might implement now to oppose state capture by private interests?

SB: I think there are three basic categories of reform. One is substantive policies to help transfer power. For example, Federal Trade Commission Chair Lina Kahn is trying to enforce anti-trust policy more effectively. That’s an important way to reduce the kinds of concentrations of power that make capture more likely.

ISPS: What’s the second category of reform?

SB: Then there is procedural reform — changing not which policies are made, but rather how they are made. One example I discuss in the book is oversight by ordinary citizens, which is really important but also really difficult to get right. When you invite citizens into a process, there is a big power imbalance between them and the special interest groups that work in politics. These groups have much more experience, power, organization, and information. Nevertheless, it’s valuable to incorporate citizens precisely because they are not part of these networks of influence and capture. We need to find ways to make use of their unique ordinariness in ways that are not susceptible to the same types of influences.

ISPS: And the third type?

SB: The third category is the most important, and it exists outside the state entirely. To achieve policies that are going to genuinely threaten the influence of wealthy elites — the people too often making the rules — you first need to change the terrain, the balance of power. In order to do that, you have to make use of the power of numbers rather than wealth. You need to get people to build their collective ability to contest the power of these wealthy and entrenched elites.

ISPS: This is what you mean by “countervailing power” and “organizing for power.”

SB: That’s correct. If we are to overcome the influence of wealthy and entrenched interests on our government, we must cultivate robust and durable organizations that genuinely represent the interests of ordinary people and which are powerful enough to counterbalance those special interests.

ISPS: What might that look like?

SB: I realize that much of my book and our conversation might sound pessimistic. But we’ve seen similar efforts succeed before. History has shown us how something like the Montgomery bus boycott can threaten the material interests of people in power and force them to make concessions. Unions can go on strike. Teachers can demand changes to educational policy. As I write in the book, cracks always appear in the political order. There may be disagreements among elite factions or external shocks that offer openings to disrupt and redirect the way policy is made and carried out. Building organizations that can take advantage of those opportunities when they arise must be our first priority.

ISPS: Is your book cynical or realist? Is it both? Is cynicism a realistic way to view democratic governments in capitalistic societies?

SB: Well, I subtitled the book “A Critical Realist Theory of Democracy,” so I definitely consider myself a realist. And if a cynical point of view would be to expect the worst of everyone or everything, I guess a certain kind of cynicism can be useful.

ISPS: How so?

SB: The book makes a baseline assumption that most things we do are going to fail. Most forms of participation are going to be coopted by elites. Most forms of organization are not going to be effective at countering elite power. You have to be incredibly skeptical and disciplined when thinking about how to use the limited resources we have. And you have to be skeptical, perhaps to the extent of cynicism, about proposals for making things better.

ISPS: Does that make you a pessimist?

SB: I’ll be the first to admit that the things that I think are most promising are not even that promising. They are just less likely to fail when compared to everything else. And maybe that is a kind of pessimism. But I prefer to think of it as realism. Because the point is not that progress is impossible. The point is that progress is really difficult and rare, and in order to get it, you have to be really clear-eyed about what the obstacles are. So, whatever we call it, I firmly believe that this kind of perspective is necessary to at least have a chance of making things better.