Voting is neither necessary nor sufficient for meaningful engagement in governance


Voting is neither necessary nor sufficient for meaningful engagement in governance.
To crystalize the idea as a challenge, what would it look like to build an engaging, meaningful, flat, collectively run DAO that doesn’t implement voting anywhere? Is that an oxymoron? Is it possible anyway?

Core Research Question

A lot of interest in DAOs is that they give everyone a ownership and a vote, and that makes them inherently participatory. The biggest lesson I hear from people who have gotten their hands dirty in DAO organization is that DAOs with these affordances are just as vulnerable to authority and politics, while also being vulnerable to mob rule and lack of engagement. It all comes out of an assumption that democracy iff voting. I think that’s flawed. There is so much to engagement and participation that has nothing to do with voting, and there is so much about voting that is meaningless to people. it is often participation in deliberation that gives people sense of ownership. That participation is time costly, but it may be precisely the time sunk into deliberation that makes it change people. Put another way, it may be that there are no mechanistic shortcuts to the feeling of participation and ownership. Mechanisms for participation and ownership can create room for these feelings, but are not enough alone.

Political scientists in the deliberative democracy community are the ones who hit these themes strongest, but they also tend to be the most averse to mechanism, rational choice, quantitative research, and technology. The best recent deviation from this may be
Hélène Landemore’s Open Democracy: Reinventing Popular Rule for the Twenty-First Century
though it’s ultimately too qualitative and ideological for my taste: it’s more beacon than argument, but will give a sense of what the most theoretically driven political scientists actually think about what meaningful engagement in self-governing systems really looks like, and really requires.


So much this evokes!

On Landemore, I think it’s hard to imagine political theory without normativity, since politics is in its essence a normative question (how should we live, etc.), and any quantitative work is necessary downstream from that normativity (are we living that way yet, etc.). But as a squishy beacon-maker, I’m grateful for the work of people like you who bring detail and clarity to the things we gesture toward:)

On non-voting democracy, I’m glad you raise this. In the anarchist tradition, for instance, there has been in recent decades a pretty series opposition to voting as a democratic practice; while consensus process may often look like voting, it often comes with a philosophy opposed to voting—in the sense of a mechanism that enables some people to hold power over others.

My perception is there is a growing backlash against voting-on-everything in DAO spaces. Projects like Orca Protocol and Hats attempt to create on-chain versions of what organizations generally do off-chain: entrust people to carry out decisions and work within appropriate domains. There is also a class of projects in crypto (e.g., Backfeed, Colony) that are designed around reputation economies, in which decisions flow through people with reputation—which can look something like voting, depending on the system, but the aspiration is ultimately to create more permissionless organizations, in which trusted people are able to carry out actions without need for a group decision.

So there is much to explore here, on- and off-chain.

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