Democracy has failure built into its DNA. The ideals of which it is composed are almost all aspirational, meaning that they cannot be met fully, partly because their full pursuit would conflict with other ideals in the package we mean when we ask what ought to be entailed when the people rule. The obligation involved in pursuing these ideals is therefore not to meet them, but to strive toward them, recognizing the impossibility of their full attainment and making the best accommodations one can to the conflicts with other ideals that arise in the process of that striving. In this process, pursuing the most direct path to the ideal may allow one to capture less of what is important about its meaning than letting the ideal inform democratic practices indirectly. Representation, for example, is on its face antithetical to the democratic ideal of giving a law to oneself. Yet without adopting direct democracy it is possible to capture the shards, threads, and intimations of the ideal of autonomy in certain practices of representation in the elected, administrative, and societal realms. Those practices include “recursive representation,” or mutually responsive, communication between constituent and representative, itself an aspirational ideal.
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