Level of Polarization This Method Can Handle


Practical Democracy

March 23, 2019 Scott Fletcher Bowlsby
March 21, 2019 Scott Fletcher Bowlsby
March 21, 2019 fredgohlke.29
March 17, 2019 Scott Fletcher Bowlsby
March 12, 2019 Scott Fletcher Bowlsby
June 18, 2018 Lucy J Parry, Participedia Team
October 18, 2014 Koikaze
February 21, 2010 Koikaze
Level of Polarization This Method Can Handle

Practical Democracy lets candidates for public office deliberate on matters of public interest before they are chosen as representatives. It allows the entire electorate to participate to the extent of their ability and desire.

Problems and Purpose

Practical democracy is a theoretical alternative to the current system of American representative democracy. PD involves dividing the electorate into very small groups. The groups would agree which member is the best advocate of the group's concerns. Those so chosen would be arranged in similar groups to continue sifting through the electorate to identify the individuals most motivated and best qualified to address and resolve the people's concerns. The method creates a political infrastructure built on the concerns the people hold in common and on the individuals they agree are best qualified to address and resolve those concerns.[1]

Origins and Development

Democracy is a contested term. In the United States, ‘democracy’ has come to refer to a process of voting for a candidate nominated by a political party. This is not, according to Fred Gohlke, the true meaning of democracy. In “A New Proposal for a Practical Democracy Built On Public Agreement”, Gohlke argues that, in a truly democratic political process, the entire electorate would participate in defining the issues the government must address and agreeing on the individuals best equipped to resolve those issues. The challenge of democracy is not to divide the people into parties that compete for the power to rule. The challenge is to find the best advocates of the common interest and raise them to positions of leadership. Practical Democracy was developed as a way to meet this challenge when, according to Gohlke’s observations, the realities of life, particularly economic needs, tend to distract the electorate from serious thought about public concerns.[2] 

The method was designed in reaction to a failing of American democracy. Writing in 2018, Gohlke states that politicians have been incredibly successful in dividing the nation against itself and manipulating a political system in which voting for a party candidate simply confirms the right of a small group of people to control and run the country. A new mechanism of electoral democracy is needed to achieve government by the people; one which can sift through the diversity of people to find those individuals with the qualities needed to address and resolve contemporary public concerns. Practical Democracy is Gohlke’s answer.[3]

In developing the method, Gohlke drew inspiration from the scholarship of Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page who found evidence for “the nearly total failure of 'median voter' and other Majoritarian Electoral Democracy theories. When the preferences of economic elites and the stands of organized interest groups are controlled for, the preferences of the average American appear to have only a minuscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy.”[4] Practical Democracy was conceived in response to this perceived deterioration of the American political infrastructure which has, in the estimation of Gilens and Page, threatened the country’s reputation as a democratic society[5] - a situation which Golhke asserts was foreshadowed by Justice Louis Brandeis statement "we may have democracy, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can't have both.”[6] 

Gohlke also cites the following quote by John Dewey as an inspiration for Practical Democracy’s conception and design:

“The old saying that the cure for the ills of democracy is more democracy is not apt if it means that the evils may be remedied by introducing more machinery of the same kind as that which already exists, or by refining and perfecting that machinery.”[7]

It was Gohlke’s hope that Practical Democracy could be a viable alternative to the current democratic system: a political process that gives the people - all the people - an opportunity to participate in the practice of politics and to deliberate among themselves and agree on the issues they want resolved and the individuals they think best able to resolve them.[8]

As Gohlke sees it, organized political power and concentrated wealth feed off each other: a relationship epitomized by the current political situation of the United States. A new electoral process was necessary, one which, given the range of public issues and the way each individual's interest in political matters varies over time, examines the entire electorate during each election cycle, seeking the people's best advocates. PD was therefore designed to let every voter influence the outcome of each election to the best of each individual's desire and ability.[9]

Practical Democracy was developed to responds to the eight ‘faults’ which Gohlke sees as characteristic of America’s political infrastructure: 

  1. Democracy is treated like a team sport, dividing the people into confrontational parties provides a base for power-seekers but does not find constructive solutions to common problems
  2. Party politics divides the electorate rather than uniting it, disenfranchising non-partisans: the very people who may have the most balanced view of the community's needs
  3. Partisan politics can result in government by a small fraction of the people who victimize the public by the most basic and effective strategy of domination - Divide and Conquer
  4. Partisanship - when it helps give voice to differing views - can also be of value. While people seek out and align themselves with others who share their views, they hone their views in the process, forming a consensus and giving breadth, depth and volume to their voice. Through partisanship, the common interest is advanced by examining conceivable options. 
  5. Political party operations are expensive, and thus heavily influenced by money. Political parties ‘sell’ the laws their candidates will enact when elected, allowing the people who finance party operations to draft the laws the people endure – at a cost. 
  6. Decisions are made through passion rather than intelligent discourse because there is no space for the electorate to examine candidates or discuss matters of public concern. 
  7. Incumbency has led to the inability for the electorate to select new representatives equipped to resolve contemporary issues. Such a political system – which allows organized groups, and not the people, to decide who can be a candidate for public office – is undemocratic.[10] 

Practical Democracy offers a theoretical alternative to modern American democracy, one which supports a democratic political process which:

  1. Uses a bottom-up arrangement that lets every member of the community influence political decisions to the full extent of each individual's desire and ability;
  2. Enables and encourages the people to deliberate on political issues;
  3. Lets the people agree among themselves the issues they want resolved and the people they want to resolve them;
  4. Incorporates partisanship without letting partisans control the political process;
  5. Eliminates the influence of money on the political process; and
  6. Lets the people change their representatives as they deem appropriate.[11]

Practical Democracy “springs from the knowledge that some people are better advocates of the public interest than others” – a conclusion Gohlke drew from Jane Mansbridge’s Beyond Adversary Democracy.[12] In reference to a small community in Vermont, Mansbridge states that, "[w]hen interests are similar, citizens do not need equal power to protect their individual interests; they only need to persuade their wisest, cleverest, most virtuous, and most experienced citizens to spend their time solving town problems in the best interests of everyone."[13]

According to Mansbridge, the fundamental challenge of democracy, is to find those "wisest, cleverest, most virtuous, and most experienced citizens" and empower them as our representatives.[14] Gohlke designed PD to accomplish this by giving every member of the electorate the right to be a candidate and the ability to influence the selection process, while ensuring that no individual or group has an advantage over others.[15]

Participant Recruitment and Selection

The theoretical construction of Practical Democracy uses a bottom-up arrangement that lets every member of the community influence political decisions to the full extent of each individual's desire and ability. It thus requires people to be actively invited to participate in the political process. According to Gohlke, this can be accomplished if, before an election, the Mayor of a town writes to each voter and the media will help mobilize the electorate by reporting on the process.[16] 

In the process of Practical Democracy, the electorate would be divided into groups of three, or ‘triads.’ How the triads select a member to advance to the next ‘level’ in the process depends on many variables, including the makeup of the group. Random selection of triad members will produce innumerable arrangements of gender, religion, race, and political persuasion. In addition, the participants may be people of unequal financial resources, unequal intellectual capacity, unequal dress habits, and a multitude of other human differences, any or all of which may affect the way members of the group relate to each other.[17]

When designing the process, Gohlke concluded that, if a triad advances one of its members, the members would have agreed on the issues that most concern them and the person best able to address and resolve those issues. Citing Mansbridge, Gohlke states that, given the abundance and diversity of public issues and the difficulty of achieving perfect agreement, it is likely the triads will advance people whose ‘internal gyroscopes’ are in line with their peers'.[18]

When those chosen meet at the next level, they would discuss their concerns as well as those brought up by their new triad-mates. In the course of the discussions, some issues would be judged to have greater effect on the community than others. According to Gohlke, the important thing throughout the process is not what issues the triads discuss, it is that individuals advance because their peers agree with them. The result would be a political system built on agreement rather than confrontation.[19]

How it Works: Process, Interaction, and Decision-Making

The process of Practical Democracy provides a theoretical model with which to accomplish the sorting and selecting mechanism required to implement Jane Mansbridge's "Selection Model" of Political Representation. The process is designed to yield self-motivated representatives whose gyroscopes are aligned with the objectives of the people who select them, and letting the people advance the individuals they agree have the qualities necessary to resolve public issues into ever-more deliberative groups to work out solutions from broadly differing perspectives.[20]

PD focuses on selecting representatives who will resolve adversarial encounters to the advantage of the commonweal. During the process, participants would consider both common and conflicting interests, and, because PD is bidirectional, it gives advocates of conflicting interests a continuing voice. At the same time, it encourages the absorption of diverse interests, reducing them to their essential element: their effect on the participants in the electoral process. There are no platforms, there is no ideology. The only question is, which participants are the most attuned to the needs of their peers and have the qualities required to advocate the common good.[21]

Practical Democracy, as proposed and designed by Gohlke, involves the following steps:

Step 1

Divide the entire electorate into groups of three randomly chosen people.

a) The random grouping mechanism must insure that no two people are assigned to a triad if they served together in a triad in any of the five most recent elections. At the initial level, it must ensure that no two people are assigned to a triad if they are members of the same family.

b) At any time up to one week before the process begins, people may declare themselves members of any interest group, faction, party, or enclave, and may create a new one, simply by declaring membership in it. People that do not declare group membership are automatically assigned to a set of people with no affiliation. Triads will be created from members of the same interest group, as long as more than two members of the group exist. When a group has less than three members, the group's remaining candidates are merged with the largest set extant.

c) For the convenience of the electorate, triad assignments shall be based on geographic proximity to the maximum extent practical, subject to the foregoing conditions.

Step 2

Assign a date and time by which each triad must agree that one of the three members is the best advocate of the group's interests.

a) Selections will be made by consensus.

b) If a triad is unable to agree on a representative in the specified time, all three participants shall be deemed disinclined to participate in the process.

Step 3

Divide the participants so selected into new triads.

Step 4

Repeat from step 2 until a target number of selections is reached.

For convenience, each iteration is referred to as a 'Level', such that Level 1 is the initial grouping of the entire electorate, Level 2 is the grouping of the selections made at Level 1, and so forth. The entire electorate participates at level 1 giving everyone an equal opportunity to advance to succeeding levels.

Elective and Appointive Offices

The final phase of the Practical Democracy (PD) process, electing candidates to specific public offices, is omitted from this outline because that task is implementation-dependent. Whatever method is used, it is recommended that participants who reach the highest levels but do not achieve public office become a pool of validated candidates from which appointive offices must be filled.

Simplified Illustration

This table illustrates the process for a community of 25,000 voters. For simplicity, it omits interest group considerations and assumes each triad selects a candidate. The process is shown through 7 levels. Those who implement the process will determine the number of levels necessary for their specific application.

Radical New Election System

1) If the number of candidates does not divide equally into triads, any candidates remaining are overflow. Level 1 is a special case. When there is overflow at Level 1, the extra person(s) automatically become candidates at Level 2. Thereafter, when there is overflow at any level, the number of people needed to create a full triad are selected at random from the people who were not selected at the previous level.

2) To avoid patronage, appointive offices, including cabinet positions, must be filled using candidates that reached the final levels but were not selected to fill elective offices.

Time Lapse Example

To give a very rough idea of the time lapse required for such an election, we will hypothesize triad lives of 5 days for each level. To illustrate, triads begin on a Wednesday and report their selection on a Monday. In a 7-level election (like the one shown above), the process would complete in 49 days:

Radical New Election System

Cost And Time Consumption

In Gohlke’s estimation, the cost of conducting an election using the PD method would be free to the participants, except for the value of their time, and minimal to the government.[22] The length of time taken to complete an election is much shorter than the time required by campaign-based partisan systems. Even in California, with a voting-eligible population of about 22,000,000, the process would complete in about 12 levels, 145 calendar days.

Gohlke designed the process to be shorter than the current campaign-based electoral system and, therefore, potentially more appealing to “those not motivated to seek public office.” As each level completes, two-thirds of the participants can resume their daily lives without further electoral obligation while retaining the ability to guide or instruct their representatives to the extent and in the manner provided by those who implement the process.[23] 

Influence, Outcomes, and Effects

Practical Democracy is a theoretical process and has never been implemented. However, its developer, Fred Gohlke, outlines the following in respect to the method’s potential to effect change and allow current political systems to achieve a more democratic ideal:

Practical Democracy offers an electoral process through which the people could actively participate in the conduct of, and impress their moral sense on, their government. If adopted, it would create a unique merger of self-interest and the public interest. It would also complete more quickly and with less public distraction than existing systems, however large the electorate. PD is both a bottom-up process – giving every member of the community the opportunity to participate to the full extent of each individual's desire and ability – and one which ensures that the people who advance to positions of political leadership are examined, carefully and repeatedly, before their peers agree to advance them.[24]

The PD process as outlined offers an alternative way to find the individuals with the qualities needed to address and resolve contemporary public concerns. It would give participants time for deliberation, an opportunity to understand the rationale for the positions of others, and a platform on which to discuss substantive matters – with a purpose.[25] 

In theory, Practical Democracy would correct the flaws Gohlke observed in the present American system of governance by:

  • Eliminating money from politics;
  • Incorporating partisanship without letting partisans control the process;
  • Completing more quickly than our present system;
  • Functioning without political campaigns or the marketing of candidates;
  • Enabling and encouraging dialogue and deliberation on political issues among the electorate;
  • Letting the people change their representatives as they see fit;
  • Using a bottom-up arrangement that lets every member of the community influence political decisions to the full extent of each individual's desire and ability;
  • Ensuring that candidates for public office are examined carefully before they are elected; and
  • Building on agreement by the members of the electorate rather than on confrontation.[26]

Analysis and Lessons Learned

Practical Democracy has never been implemented in reality, but Fred Gohlke asserts that the concept is more democratic than many political systems in the Western world. In theory, it would let the people, themselves, agree on the issues they want addressed and the individuals best suited to address them. It replaces divisive politics with political leadership based on agreement.[27]

PD in practice would not alter the structure of government, but simply change the way representatives are selected. While the current American political system does contain venues for resolving adversarial issues in the legislatures and councils, the solutions that flow from those assemblies cannot be better than the people who craft them. PD lets the electorate agree on the individuals they believe will resolve those adversarial issues in the public interest.[28]

Peoples' interests change over time so should be given voice and reflected in the results of each election. The PD process would allow particular interests to attract supporters to their cause and elevate their most effective advocates during each electoral cycle. Advocates of those interests could proclaim their ideas and encourage discussion of their concepts. Some would be accepted, in whole or in part, as they are shown to be in the common interest of the community. [29]

In theory, PD responds to one of modern democracy’s most pressing dilemmas: finding those individuals whose self-interest encourages them to seek advancement and whose commitment to the public interest makes them acceptable to their peers. Such persons cannot be identified by partisan groups seeking to advance their own interests. They can only be identified by agreement among the people themselves.[30]

Possible Implementation or Adoption

According to Gohlke, the best chance for something like the Practical Democracy concept to develop will be if it is adopted in a small community where the people want to improve their government. There are considerable efforts, particularly in Europe, to eliminate the evils of party politics. In May of 2015, the people of Frome in the U.K. rejected all party candidates and elected an independent city government.[31] In Gohlke’s estimation, this rejection showed that the party system is vulnerable. The weakness is that candidates for public office are selected by a group of Independents rather than by the people themselves. Practical Democracy would correct that flaw by letting the people participate in the selection process to the full extent of each individual's desire and ability.[32]

Practical Democracy’s adoption is stymied by the fact that, according to Gohlke, true democracy has no champions, offers no rewards for individuals or vested interests, and gives no individual or group an advantage over others. Hence, it offers no incentive for power-seeking individuals or groups to advocate its adoption.[33]

See Also


Liquid Democracy



[1] Fred Gohlke, “A New Proposal for a Practical Democracy Built On Public Agreement,” Democracy Chronicles, September 26, 2018,

[2] Gohlke, “A New Proposal for a Practical Democracy.”

[3] Gohlke, “A New Proposal for a Practical Democracy.”

[4] Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page, “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens,” Perspectives on Politics 12, No. 3 (September 2014), 575. Available at

[5] Gilens and Page, “Testing Theories of American Politics,” 577. 

[6] “Justice Louis D. Brandeis,” Brandeis University, accessed March 17, 2019,

[7] John Dewey, The Public and its Problems (Chicago: Gateway Books, 1946), 144. Retrieved from

[8] Gohlke, “A New Proposal for a Practical Democracy.”

[9] Gohlke, “A New Proposal for a Practical Democracy.”

[10] Fred Gohlke, “The Flaws In Our Existing Voting Machinery,” Democracy Chronicles, September 29, 2018,

[11] Fred Gohlke, “Creating a More Democratic Process by Correcting Existing Flaws,” Democracy Chronicles, October 5, 2018,

[12] Fred Gohlke, “Practical Democracy: The Next Step in the Evolution of Democracy,” Democracy Chronicles, October 19, 2018,

[13] Jane J. Mansbridge , Beyond Adversary Democracy (Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1980), 88. 

[14] Mansbridge, Beyond Adversary Democracy, 88. 

[15] Gohlke, “Practical Democracy: The Next Step in the Evolution of Democracy.”

[16] Gohlke, “Practical Democracy: The Next Step in the Evolution of Democracy.”

[17] Fred Gohlke, “A New Way to Encourage Political Participation By Design,” Democracy Chronicles, October 14, 2018,

[18] Jane Mansbridge, “A ‘Selection Model’ of Political Representation,” The Journal of Political Philosophy 17, no. 4 (2009), 369-398. Available at

[19] Gohlke, “A New Way to Encourage Political Participation By Design.”

[20] Jane Mansbridge, A "Selection Model" of Political Representation

[21] Gohlke, “Practical Democracy: The Next Step in the Evolution of Democracy.”

[22] Fred Gohlke, “The Mechanics Behind a New Election System,” Democracy Chronicles, October 10, 2018,

[23] Gohlke, “The Mechanics Behind a New Election System.”

[24] Gohlke, “Practical Democracy: The Next Step in the Evolution of Democracy.”

[25] Gohlke, “Creating a More Democratic Process by Correcting Existing Flaws.”

[26] Gohlke, “Practical Democracy: The Next Step in the Evolution of Democracy.”

[27] Gohlke, “Practical Democracy: The Next Step in the Evolution of Democracy.”

[28] Gohlke, “Practical Democracy: The Next Step in the Evolution of Democracy.”

[29] Gohlke, “Practical Democracy: The Next Step in the Evolution of Democracy.”

[30] Gohlke, “Practical Democracy: The Next Step in the Evolution of Democracy.”

[31] How Flatpack Democracy beat the old parties in the People's Republic of Frome 

[32] Gohlke, “Practical Democracy: The Next Step in the Evolution of Democracy.”

[33] Gohlke, “Practical Democracy: The Next Step in the Evolution of Democracy.”

External Links

"Practical Democracy" (ed. 2019) PDF | MS Word 

Practical Democracy Blog:

Fred Gohlke author profile in Democracy Chronicles: 

Fred Gohlke author profile in Big Think:


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