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The Power of the Multitude: Answering Epistemic Challenges to Democracy

  • SAMUEL BAGG (a1)

Recent years have witnessed growing controversy over the “wisdom of the multitude.” As epistemic critics drawing on vast empirical evidence have cast doubt on the political competence of ordinary citizens, epistemic democrats have offered a defense of democracy grounded largely in analogies and formal results. So far, I argue, the critics have been more convincing. Nevertheless, democracy can be defended on instrumental grounds, and this article demonstrates an alternative approach. Instead of implausibly upholding the epistemic reliability of average voters, I observe that competitive elections, universal suffrage, and discretionary state power disable certain potent mechanisms of elite entrenchment. By reserving particular forms of power for the multitude of ordinary citizens, they make democratic states more resistant to dangerous forms of capture than non-democratic alternatives. My approach thus offers a robust defense of electoral democracy, yet cautions against expecting too much from it—motivating a thicker conception of democracy, writ large.

Corresponding author
Samuel Bagg is a Postdoctoral Fellow with the Research Group on Constitutional Studies and the Department of Political Science at McGill University, 855 Sherbrooke St. West, Montréal, QC, Canada, H3A 2T7 (
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For valuable feedback and discussion on the themes of this article, I am very grateful to Arash Abizadeh, Aaron Ancell, Pablo Beramendi, Kevin Elliot, Michael Gillespie, Kelly Gordon, Ruth Grant, Jeffrey Green, Ewan Kingston, Jack Knight, Elizabeth Landesberg, Catherine Lu, Victor Muñiz-Fraticelli, Wayne Norman, Will Roberts, Amit Ron, Christa Scholtz, Melissa Schwartzberg, Lucas Swaine, Daniel Weinstock, and Yves Winter, as well as Leigh Jenco and several anonymous reviewers at the APSR.

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