Democracia y PolíticaGente y Sociedad

Politics Without Politicians

The political scientist Hélène Landemore asks, If government is for the people, why can’t the people do the governing?

Imagine being a citizen of a diverse, wealthy, democratic nation filled with eager leaders. At least once a year—in autumn, say—it is your right and civic duty to go to the polls and vote. Imagine that, in your country, this act is held to be not just an important task but an essential one; the government was designed at every level on the premise of democratic choice. If nobody were to show up to vote on Election Day, the superstructure of the country would fall apart.

So you try to be responsible. You do your best to stay informed. When Election Day arrives, you make the choices that, as far as you can discern, are wisest for your nation. Then the results come with the morning news, and your heart sinks. In one race, the candidate you were most excited about, a reformer who promised to clean up a dysfunctional system, lost to the incumbent, who had an understanding with powerful organizations and ultra-wealthy donors. Another politician, whom you voted into office last time, has failed to deliver on her promises, instead making decisions in lockstep with her party and against the polls. She was reëlected, apparently with her party’s help. There is a notion, in your country, that the democratic structure guarantees a government by the people. And yet, when the votes are tallied, you feel that the process is set up to favor interests other than the people’s own.

What corrective routes are open? One might wish for pure direct democracy—no body of elected representatives, each citizen voting on every significant decision about policies, laws, and acts abroad. But this seems like a nightmare of majoritarian tyranny and procedural madness: How is anyone supposed to haggle about specifics and go through the dialogue that shapes constrained, durable laws? Another option is to focus on influencing the organizations and business interests that seem to shape political outcomes. But that approach, with its lobbyists making backroom deals, goes against the promise of democracy. Campaign-finance reform might clean up abuses. But it would do nothing to insure that a politician who ostensibly represents you will be receptive to hearing and acting on your thoughts.

The scholar Hélène Landemore, a professor of political science at Yale, has spent much of her career trying to understand the value and meaning of democracy. In recent years, she has been part of a group of academics, many of them young, trying to solve the problem of elected democratic representation—addressing flaws in a system that is widely believed to be no problem at all. In her book Democratic Reason: Politics, Collective Intelligence, and the Rule of the Many (Princeton, 2012), she challenged the idea that leadership by the few was superior to leadership by the masses. Her forthcoming book, due out next year and currently titled “Open Democracy: Reinventing Popular Rule for the 21st Century,” envisions what true government by mass leadership could look like. Her model is based on the simple idea that, if government by the people is a goal, the people ought to do the governing.

“Open democracy,” Landemore’s coinage, does not center on elections of professional politicians into representative roles. Leadership is instead determined by a method roughly akin to jury duty (not jury selection): every now and then, your number comes up, and you’re obliged to do your civic duty—in this case, to take a seat on a legislative body. For a fixed period, it is your job to work with the other people in the unit to solve problems and direct the nation. When your term is up, you leave office and go back to your normal life and work. “It’s the idea of putting randomly selected citizens into political power, or giving them some sort of political role on a consultative body or a citizens’ assembly,” said Alexander Guerrero, a professor of philosophy at Rutgers who, in 2014, published an influential paper arguing for random selection in place of elections—a system with some precedents in ancient Athens and Renaissance Italy which he dubbed “lottocracy.” (It’s the basis for his own forthcoming book.) In open democracy, Landemore imagines lottocratic rule combined with crowdsourced feedback channels and other measures; the goal is to shift power from the few back to the many.

To many Americans, such a system will seem viscerally alarming—the political equivalent of lending your fragile vintage convertible to the red-eyed, rager-throwing seventeen-year-old down the block. Yet many immediate objections fall away on reflection. Training and qualification: Well, what about them? Backgrounds among American legislators are varied, and members seem to learn well enough on the job. The belief that elections are a skills-proving format? This, too, cancels out, since none of the skills tested in campaigning (fund-raising, glad-handing, ground-gaming, speechmaking) are necessary in a government that fills its ranks by lottery.

Some people might worry about commitment and continuity—the idea that we are best served by a motivated group of political professionals who bring experience and relationships to bear. Historically, such concerns haven’t weighed too heavily on the electorate, which seems to have few major reservations about choosing outsiders and weirdos for important roles. If anti-institutionalism has become a poison taken as a salve, then maybe it’s the institutions that require adjustment. Landemore’s open-democratic model purports to work with the people as they are, with no reacculturation or special education required—and its admirers describe the idea as being durable, sophisticated, and able to channel populist sentiment for good.

“Democratic governments are losing perceived legitimacy all over the world,” Jane Mansbridge, a professor of political leadership and democratic values at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, told me. “The beauty of open democracy is that it has a firm understanding not just of the complexity of democratic principles but of how to make those principles cohere in a way that meets people’s deepest intuitions.” She sees it as an apt response to population-sized problems, such as climate change, that seem to require solutions more pervasive and willful than professionalized leadership can muster. “Landemore is very much on the side of all the young people in the world who are saying, ‘How the heck are we going to manage this?’ ” Mansbridge said.

Landemore herself would point to the last U.S. Presidential election—a contest between two candidates so unpopular with the people as to have the lowest approval ratings in the history of American Presidential races. Roughly four in ten eligible voters did not bother to show up at the polls, and Donald Trump was elected against the will of the majority of citizens who did. Such an outcome seems to strain the premise of democracy. Could picking leaders randomly, and getting everyone involved, be worse?

Iwent to visit Landemore one freezing day this winter; newly hardened ice sparkled on branches stretching out over the road. “I think I lost five years of life expectancy renovating this place,” she told me, as I stepped inside the Cape Cod-style house in New Haven where she lives with her husband, Darko Jelaca, an engineer, and their two young daughters. “I don’t know whether I’d do it again.” We sat at a long dining table in a bright nook. At forty-three, Landemore is tall, with long blond hair swept back into a ponytail; she wore a checked flannel button-down, jeans, and Ugg boots. She grew up in a village in France’s flinty Normandy region, and came to Paris at eighteen, with stars in her eyes, to take a spot at the élite Henri IV prep school. She ended up at the École Normale Supérieure, which channels brilliant young people toward a distinctly Gallic strait of glamorized intellectualism. Landemore’s passion then was for philosophy, her interest having grown from a question that had haunted her teen-age years: Why do the right thing? Her parents were atheists; she’d been reared without a faith. In the absence of a god and mediating clerics, she wondered how we were compelled to make good choices.

Philosophy offered her the first semblance of an answer. In school, she fell in love with the work of David Hume, whose theory of the human passions touched on decision-making, but this path took her only so far. She found herself studying rational-choice theory and taking classes at France’s top political academy, Sciences Po. Until then, Landemore had held no real interest in politics. (Her earliest ambition was to be a novelist.) But the intersection of the field with social science and decision-making behavior fascinated her, and she arranged a yearlong exchange at Harvard, where she could study rational-choice and game theories in more depth.

She packed up her life in Paris, landed at Boston’s Logan airport, got in a cab, and told the driver to take her to the Harvard campus, expecting him to be impressed by the fancy address. “I was trained at institutions in France where they tell you, you know, ‘You’re the élite of the country, and it’s a big responsibility,’ and I bought that,” she said. “But he was not impressed at all!”

Instead, they talked about his job. He announced his yearly earnings, which flabbergasted Landemore. (He was doing really well!) She loved the way that American society seemed to be full of egalitarian surprises of this kind, not deferential to old status markers, as French society is. “It really struck me—that you can be a Harvard student on a level playing field with a taxi-driver, in the same way that you can be a millionaire on a level field with a nurse,” she said. “Of course, it’s not true: the money distortions in this country are very problematic, politically and economically. But, on a social level, people behave as if they think it doesn’t matter, and that’s quite remarkable.” It puzzled her that this openness wasn’t better reflected in American institutions.

By that point, Landemore had reached the conclusion that individuals did the right thing basically out of self-interest: to get what they needed, to win respect, and to avoid negative cycles of retribution—incentives that, presumably, carried into their work as leaders. Why groups did the right thing, though, was a trickier, more interesting question. In complex societies, the interests of self-preserving individuals and the interests of big, varied groups aren’t always aligned. It’s obviously a bad idea—for me—to kidnap my next-door neighbor’s golden retriever and put him on a giant hamster wheel to generate electricity for my house. But what if many of us could get a cut in electricity fees by voting for a power plant that kidnaps dogs owned by people we don’t know? Could we, as a group, be relied upon to make the right decision?

That year, in a course at M.I.T., Landemore learned about a probability principle known as Condorcet’s jury theorem, named for the Marquis de Condorcet, who set it down in 1785, not long before being imprisoned by revolutionaries. The theorem says: imagine that there’s a vote between two options, A and B. And imagine that we, the observers, know with godlike certainty that Option A is the better choice. If the odds for each individual voter choosing Option A are more than fifty per cent—that is, if each voter is even slightly better than a flipped coin at choosing correctly—then the chances of the group doing the right thing increase as more people are added.

One might argue, as many political scientists do, that there is no such thing as a “correct” choice in politics. One might also suggest, dismally, that voters are worse than chance at making good choices. But it is possible to take the opposite view. When Condorcet’s theorem was rediscovered in the nineteen-sixties, it helped generate a new wave of interest in the wisdom of crowds. For Landemore, it carried a more specific imperative: “I thought, Why is that not more obviously used as an argument for democracy?”

Unless you believed that most citizens would make worse political choices than a flipped coin, didn’t the theorem argue for their direct empowerment? “It’s not original to say that Condorcet’s jury theorem was important for democracy, but it’s original to make so much of it,” Mansbridge told me. Instead of returning to Paris at the end of the year, Landemore applied to Harvard, where she completed her Ph.D. She was taken with the unorthodox idea that normal people, in a group, could be trusted with big, scary decisions.

Alot of our ideas about political leadership can be traced back to Plato’s Republic, which is still a foundational text of political philosophy. Plato—another person preoccupied with the question of why we do the right thing, separately and together—suggested that individuals have different aptitudes and should hold distinct roles. “We must infer that all things are produced more plentifully and easily and of a better quality when one man does one thing which is natural to him,” he said, quoting Socrates. Those suitable for leadership, Plato argued, are philosophers, trained to seek truth above other rewards, and reared and educated not to be swayed by flights of public opinion. When, Plato wrote,

the world sits down at an assembly, or in a court of law, or a theatre, or a camp, or in any other popular resort, and there is a great uproar, and they praise some things which are being said or done, and blame other things, equally exaggerating both, shouting and clapping their hands, and the echo of the rocks and the place in which they are assembled redoubles the sound of the praise or blame—at such a time will not a young man’s heart, as they say, leap within him? Will any private training enable him to stand firm against the overwhelming flood of popular opinion?

Plato’s division between well-educated, judicious leaders and the crazy and uproarious masses came to be so widely accepted that it’s easy to forget that he was writing as a contrarian in his time. Higher education in Greece then was often in the hands of the Sophists: private tutors, thinkers, and craft masters. Plato believed that engaging in higher thought for wages was corrupting and schlock-prone—the corporate lecture circuit of its day—and he rarely missed an opportunity to dump on those who did it. (His efforts succeeded: “sophistry” remains a sneer more than two thousand years later.) Yet the Sophists do seem to have believed that crowd wisdom was true wisdom. Aristotle, Plato’s student, ended up sharing this belief. In Book III of his Politics, he posited that, “although each individual separately will be a worse judge than the experts, the whole of them assembled together will be better or at least as good judges,” and advocated for the masses’ participation in government.

Our leadership model today, in everything from the Supreme Court to “The West Wing,” lives in Plato’s shadow—the ideal drilled into Landemore at the Parisian grandes écoles. In the government of the United States, founded by well-educated people terrified of mob rule, this emphasis was by design. As Landemore researched crowd wisdom, however, she started wondering whether Plato’s thinking on the matter had been more idiosyncratic than enlightened.

In “Democratic Reason,” Landemore poked at the long-standing knot of disdain for mass decision-making. Twentieth-century theorists such as Joseph Schumpeter and Seymour Martin Lipset saw democracy as a way for people to select leaders, not to take the wheel themselves. Many supposed democrats diagnose citizens as apathetic, irrational, and ignorant; voters are regarded not as agents but as consumers to whom something—a candidate, a platform—must be sold. Democracy, Landemore noted, had become a paradox: it was said to be guided by citizens voting according to their interests, and yet voting according to their interests was what they were thought to be incapable of doing.

Landemore thought that confusion arose in part because people were talking about two different kinds of democratic benefits without reconciling their causes. Some arguments for democracy have a “deliberative” basis—they flow from the idea that the coming together of the people as a group, as in a town hall, brings varied viewpoints and styles of thought into conversation, resulting in broader, finer problem-solving. Other arguments are majoritarian in nature, based on statistical principles of good mass decision-making. (Condorcet’s theorem is a fine example.) At first glance, these seem mutually exclusive: you can’t have the benefits of people debating issues in a room and the benefits of large numbers of people simultaneously going to the polls. In Enlightenment republics like France and the United States, the strategy for government traditionally has been to try to do both things, but in sequence. We go to the polls to vote for representatives, and then, afterward, they go into meetings to hash things out.

As Landemore continued her study, she began to think that real democracy—democracy that actually delivered on its principles—might emerge more fully if we could figure out how to bring the advantages of deliberation and crowd wisdom into true unity. There were hints about how this might be achieved. If a messy slate of options about greenhouse-gas reduction could be sharpened down to two through discussion, a complex decision could be primed for the wisdom of the majority. By the same token, the alarming spectre of majority tyranny would be less likely to emerge if substantive deliberation among many different kinds of people could be woven into the decision-making process. Because the goal of Landemore’s first book was simply to challenge distrust of mass decision-making, she stopped short of spelling out what such an overlapping system might look like. “I still had a relatively conservative idea of democracy,” she said.

Across the street from Landemore’s office complex, on the Yale campus, stands a building that she finds truly and deeply hideous. Recently constructed in the Gothic style, it is modelled on several older Gothic buildings nearby, which, in turn, were designed to resemble Gothic academic buildings in Britain. This mindless continuity is ludicrous, she thinks, and has resulted in an ugly building faced with what she described as “thin, stuck-on bricks,” all in the supposed service of tradition. “Aesthetically, it’s a disaster!” she told me. Yet the building’s most grievous offense arose from the design process itself: people like her, who worked among these buildings, hadn’t been consulted about them.

Landemore had business to conduct in her office when I visited, and on the way she stopped off for a bowl of fish noodles and a mango smoothie at Duc’s Place, a small Vietnamese spot that she likes downtown. She had put on a coat and, in the French style, had done something ambitious and elegant with her scarf. The owner, Duc, came up to greet her. “Duc was a postdoc researcher in biology at Yale, studying fruit flies,” she said, after he’d gone. “He got fed up and left to start a restaurant. Now he makes every dish with scientific rigor.” It seemed a quiet lesson about the arbitrariness of élite channels: we all have many capacities, and our ability to lead in government shouldn’t depend on whether we’ve decided to work with fancy people at Yale or run a bánh-mì shop nearby.

In 2017, writing in the general-audience journal Daedalus, Landemore took direct aim at modern democratic representation. Ask people to picture deliberation in action, and, these days, they might think of the Senate floor, filled with craggy, well-coiffed pros from Harvard and Yale, filibustering, hewing to their party programs, and doing everything they can to hold their seats. Deliberative democracy had grown inseparable from this vision, she argued, with unpleasant effects. To call such élite representation democratic was ridiculous, and thus bad for the brand; it was no accident that faith in democracy seemed to be on the decline.

Still, how could you have deliberative democracy without those people? You couldn’t bring an entire nation together in a room. You had to have a small group deliberating on behalf of the whole. Landemore came to think that the problem wasn’t representation but the way that representatives were chosen. A truly democratic approach would reflect the strengths of the masses and serve basic democratic ideals of inclusiveness and equality, as Landemore wrote in Daedalus:

Inclusiveness means both that every adult member of the demos is entitled to a share of power and that the definition of the demos itself is inclusive. Equality means that this share of power must be equal for all. . . . This principle of equality also means that each voice should be given the same ex ante chance of being heard where deliberation is needed. Finally, equality means that each individual has the same opportunity of being a representative where representation is needed.

“Open Democracy,” Landemore’s forthcoming book, returns to the question she left hanging in “Democratic Reason”: What might it look like if a governmental system wove together deliberative and majoritarian democratic power? Her model follows five requirements: equal and universal participatory rights; deliberation as a part of the process; majority rule; democratic representation (which, in her vocabulary, means that a group of elected intermediaries can still exist in subordinated roles); and transparency in the goings-on. Open democracy, she says, is about being represented and representing in turn. “There’s still room for experts—we’re not getting rid of all the time-saving and professionalization that the governmental system already has,” she told me. “It’s just that at the crucial junctures—the moments of decision-making and agenda-setting—we make sure that there’s an openness to citizens. The point is to let the system breathe.”

Landemore bases her model on what she calls “mini-publics”—little assemblies of anywhere from a hundred and fifty to a thousand people— which do the work of governing. Their members are selected lottocratically, or in jury-duty fashion. And, although they’re not representative in the personal sense—the accountant who lives next door isn’t representing me during his time in government—they reflect the range of public interest.

What distinguishes Landemore’s ideal from other lottocratic models, such as Guerrero’s, is the breadth of her funnel: the goal is to involve as much of the public organically in as many decisions as possible. Her open-democratic process also builds in crowdsourced feedback loops and occasional referendums (direct public votes on choices) so that people who aren’t currently governing don’t feel shut out. Citizens are well compensated for their time in service; they step away from their normal work, as in the model of parental leave. (Such a system, it must be said, is easier to imagine in countries with more evolved workplace policies than those of the United States.)

Beyond such basic design elements, Landemore’s schema is open-ended—less a recipe than a set of operating principles. It would be more equal than the current system, because everybody would have an equal chance at being in government and an equal voice once they got there. And it would be more inclusive, because everyone, regardless of whether they are currently in government, would have unmediated contact with the decision-making process. One result, Landemore believes, would be a healthier democratic learning curve on the part of the public. Not because everyone would suddenly be obliged to become a political junkie—on the contrary, they’d be free to tune out completely when not in government—but because, for some period of their lives, they’d be forced to learn the political process from the inside, compelled to think through influential political decisions in collaboration with random Americans who disagree.

More remarkably, such a system would clear away the politics of élitism—the question of whether leaders represent people like us. There is no stable “they” in open democracy, no political élite to resent; there is only a stable idea of “us.” The faceless, huddled masses with their varied colors, life styles, and wealth levels are the government. “Once you force people into a context where they have to get past the posturing and commitment to ideas, where they have to address real-life problems with people like them—even if they think differently—you solve a lot of issues,” Landemore explained.

Critics of open democracy tend to fall into three categories. Some are unconvinced by the premise that something is structurally at fault in electoral representative democracy as it’s currently performed. (Our troubles might lie elsewhere: in the educational system, or in rising inequality.) Some dispute the theory that there exists a “better” outcome in politics, and that we should judge democratic models by how well they help us get there. And some doubt the practice itself—it sounds great on paper, but can it work? “My own bet is that human self-deception and bloody-mindedness will always prove stronger than our desire to learn inconvenient truths,” Christopher Achen, a professor of politics at Princeton and one of Landemore’s collegial critics, said. “Human history is full of attractive ideals that turned out to be unworkable or profoundly dangerous when tried. But it is also full of ‘implausible ideals’ that came to be everyday common sense a century or two later.”

Landemore says that what she would classify as open democracy has already been tried in limited contexts. In Finland, from 2012 to 2013, aspects of the approach were used to reform snowmobile regulation—a problem that sounds incidental only if you’ve never spent a winter in Finland. The government involved the public in diagnosing the problem and finding solutions. Landemore, who was a consultant on the project, read comments from Finnish people and, she said, was blown away. “It’s not ignorant,” she told me. “It’s not angry or unconstructive the way we imagine ‘ordinary citizens’ to be.”

Around the same time as Finland’s experiment, Iceland used a Landemorean process to draw up a new constitution, starting with a deliberative forum of nine hundred and fifty randomly selected citizens. A smaller assembly of twenty-five elected but nonprofessional representatives drafted a document and released it for public scrutiny. (Landemore sees this step as an expression of what’s sometimes called “liquid” democracy—the people’s ability bestow their voting power onto ad-hoc representatives when they want to.) Icelanders offered thoughts in thousands of online comments; in response to their input, the constitution was revised eleven times. The final version was submitted to the whole country in referendum, and more than two-thirds of Icelanders signed off on it. For the past several years, the document has been in limbo, because the parliament—made up of Iceland’s full-time, elected politicians—never held its own approval vote. Yet Landemore still sees the process as a success. The constitution is not only a solid specimen, she says, it contains several enlightened, twenty-first-century ideas, such as a universal right to Internet connection, that probably wouldn’t have emerged from more élite discussions.

Finland and Iceland have something in common, of course, which is that they’re small nations set up to be culturally assimilating. Nearly everyone there goes through the same school system and, thanks to universal social programs, shares other life-style benchmarks; one Finnish person meeting another can be confident, regardless of either’s race or background, that they share an essential experience of Finnishness. That’s not true in the United States, which takes pride in allowing the Hasidic Jew, the new Korean immigrant, and the Appalachian artisan to live in culturally distinct communities and conduct life in their preferred ways. (This is why, as I’ve argued in the past, the Nordic model deserves admiration but isn’t translatable to the U.S.: doing so would require redefining American liberalism in a way that would alarm many on the left.)

As evidence that open democracy can work in larger, more culturally diverse societies, Landemore points to France’s Great National Debate—a vast undertaking involving a vibrant online forum, twenty-one citizens’ assemblies, and more than ten thousand public meetings, held in the wake of the gilets jaunes protests, in 2019—and, this year, to the country’s Citizens’ Convention on Climate Change. The climate convention, which asked a hundred and fifty randomly selected citizens to help draw up plans that would reduce French emissions, started last fall and continued into this year; Landemore is spending the late winter in Paris, studying how the discussions unfold for her book. “Seeing the deliberations in my language, sitting at those tables, hearing the conversations—it’s really moving,” she told me. “It’s going to sound corny, but there was love expressed in the interstices of these meetings.” She puts a lot of stock in the so-called deliberative polls conducted by James S. Fishkin, a professor of communication at Stanford, who brings hundreds of random citizens together to discuss an issue and compares their opinions before and after this process. The result is often a convergence of views rather than the polarization that one might expect.

Most of Landemore’s critics don’t share her optimism. “In my view, the few careful empirical evaluations of citizen deliberation and deliberation assemblies have generally been depressing, and the more closely one looks at their evidence, the more depressing they become,” Achen, the Princeton professor, said. Many of her allies, too, are wary of taking the public as it comes, when citizens may not be prepared. Guerrero, who honed the idea of lottocratic government, believes that government by the people has to happen alongside institutional development: education, expert consultation, and the like. “For me, a big part of using ordinary citizens to make political decisions is figuring out how to create the institutions that will make it possible,” he told me. “I worry about broad citizen input on topics where people haven’t learned very much.” Landemore considers herself a follower of John Dewey, one of America’s most comprehensive theorists of democratic culture, yet she puts a heavier, narrower emphasis on governmental structure than Dewey, who saw good democratic habits as emerging much more broadly from the mores of civil society: the way we’re taught, the way we work, the way we relate to one another. Landemore’s model channels leadership from the bottom up, but her idea of agency within a society-state remains, in an important sense, top-down.

Her view is that good democratic habits will cascade if the form of government is fixed. When I asked her about strongly reform-minded candidates in the current Presidential election, she dismissed their governmental ideals as “conventional.” “I don’t see it in Sanders or Warren or any of those guys—it’s still about them, their vision, and their leadership. Yes, they want small donors instead of big donors, but—” She gave an unimpressed shrug. She is hopeful about open-democratic models being incorporated, in the U.S., into state and local governments, but, for national reform, she looks to European nations, which have shown a taste for experimentation and, in some cases, a stronger public will.

“It’s striking that, with all the things that are going wrong in the United States, there’s no mass rebellion here,” Landemore said. “In France, there were strikes for a pension reform that’s needed. Here, there is such apathy—a sense in which people don’t even trust one another, or themselves, to do anything. So, creating a sense of empowerment, possibility, and self-confidence as citizens? It would be a good place to start.”

Landemore is raising her two daughters in what she calls the American manner—long-leashed, supportive, indulgent of individuation—rather than in the strict and feather-grooming manner of the French. It has surprised her how different from each other each of her girls has come to be. The older one, now eight, has always been literary, empathetic, and nuance-minded. The younger one, now five, has always been mathematical, expressive, certain of what she wanted. Landemore, in her writing, has championed mass rule in part because it draws on “cognitive diversity”: the idea that different minds naturally work in different ways, and that getting more variety into the mix increases problem-solving power. She has been moved to find that range emerging in her household.

When it got dark on the evening of my visit, Landemore left her office and went to pick up her daughters at after-school care—a protracted process of collecting the day’s art work, helping arms find jacket sleeves, zipping up, locating backpacks, trundling out into the ice, and strapping everybody into the car, a Honda CR-V.

Tu te sens mieux, ou t’as mal à la tête?” (“Do you feel better, or does your head hurt?”), Landemore asked her younger daughter, who had returned to school after a couple of sick days.

Oui, j’ai mal à la tête,” the girl said cheerily, as if the idea had just occurred to her.

Landemore and her husband are raising their daughters to be trilingual. With Mom, and sometimes with each other, they speak French; with Dad, who grew up in Serbia, they speak Serbian; all of them speak English with everyone else. At home, Jelaca was waiting with a pick-me-up snack before their family Tae Kwon Do lesson: a plate of delicate crêpes, his specialty. (That the Serbian, not the Frenchwoman, turns out to have the best crêpe skills in the house is the sort of surprise about human capacity on which her fluid system aims to draw.)

For half an hour, the family went around the table, as they do each evening, naming the best and worst parts of their days, talking over their individual progress over the past several hours. Then they finished their food, put on their coats, and headed out once more into the world and the dark night.


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