Van Reybrouck’s Against Elections, in English

An English translation of David Van Reybrouck’s book Against Elections was recently published. The book is blurbed by, among others, J. M. Coetzee, the South African novelist who was the recipient of the 2003 Nobel Prize in Literature:

Choosing our rulers by popular vote has failed to deliver true democratic government: that seems to be the verdict of history unfolding before our eyes. Cogently and persuasively, David Van Reybrouck pleads for a return to selection by lot, and outlines a range of well thought out plans for how sortitive democracy might be implemented. With the popular media and the political parties fiercely opposed to it, sortitive democracy will not find it easy to win acceptance. Nonetheless, it may well be an idea whose time has come.

With attention from such a luminary it is not surprising that the book was reviewed in several elite media outlets. As Coetzee predicts, the reception is quite cold. The warmest one is Andrew Anthony’s lukewarm response in The Guardian. Anthony concludes:

[W]hen, say, a sortition of the public recommends an expensive transport system that doesn’t work out or cuts a defence system that is later needed, […] where and how is that frustration registered? You can’t vote out the public. One job that elected politicians fulfil is as democratic punchbags. It’s not edifying or necessarily productive, but it may be essential.

Perhaps sortition or partial sortition could be applied in very specific cases. But we also need to look at reviving elections and renewing our belief in them. They remain a vital part of the democratic process. Not its only part, to be sure, but they are an all too rare example of mass engagement. Let’s not vote them out just yet.

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Sweeney: Imagine an America truly led by the people

George Sweeny, a freelance writer based in Wilmington, writes a rather eloquent piece of sortition advocacy at Delaware Online. Interesting paragraph from the piece:

And one of the best arguments for sortition is simply to look at what our current system has produced. According to Las Vegas oddsmakers, Hillary Clinton has a 3-out-of-4 chance to win the presidency and Donald Trump has a 1-out-of-4 chance. But if we used sortition instead, they would both only have about a 1-in-164,000,000 chance, based on Census estimates of the number of Americans over the age of 35. The numbers speak for themselves and give us the most convincing reason why sortition is clearly the superior system.

More citizen juries in Australia

The newDemocracy foundation has recently been managing the citizen jury process in regards to the South Australia nuclear waste dump proposal. Now it has been hired to manage another citizen jury process – this time in Victoria:

Jay Weatherill has issued an “I told you so” over his oft-criticised Citizens’ Jury model, after it was adopted by the Victorian Government as it seeks to mop up in the wake of its dramatic sacking of the Geelong Council.

Sacked Geelong Mayor Darryn Lyons outside the Victorian Parliament.

The Government in April moved to dismiss the entire council – including colourful mayor and notorious former paparazzo Darryn Lyons and his deputy Bruce Harwood, the father-in-law of former Adelaide star Patrick Dangerfield – after an inquiry found it had become so dysfunctional and riven with internal conflict and a bullying culture that it could no longer govern properly.

Fresh elections won’t take place till October next year, with an administrator overseeing the region in the interim.

But Premier Daniel Andrews has announced the formation of a Citizens’ Jury to help set the parameters of an overhaul of the next council’s governance structure – to be overseen by Sydney-based newDemocracy Foundation, which selected the 50 jurors involved in this month’s Adelaide forum on the merits of a high-level nuclear waste dump.
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Power to the People? BBC World Radio


I was invited to speak on News Hour Extra on BBC World Radio last week, along with Baroness Helena Kennedy, William Galston of the Brookings Institution, and Kenyan journalist John Githongo. The show also interviewed Pia Mancini of DemocracyOS. Highlights include me calling the entire Anglo-American establishment a collection of oligarchs, and a brief foray into sortition in the end. There has been a huge backlash against ‘democracy’ in the wake of Brexit, which I personally find highly concerning (although simultaneously completely predictable), so I was very happy to be able to participate in this conversation.

If anyone wants to listen, the podcast is here:

La trahison des choix

La trahison des choix

6 decades of decreasing favorability

Gallup has been tracking U.S. presidential candidate favorability ratings for 60 years. It turns out that this year’s candidates have the lowest net favorability (i.e., % favorable minus % unfavorable) ratings observed over those six decades, with, for the first time, both candidates having negative net ratings. Even more interesting, there is a steady trend of decline in favorability over the years.

Van Reybrouck: Why elections are bad for democracy

In the wake of the Brexit referendum David Van Reybrouck takes his “tired democracy” message to the readers of the Guardian:

Brexit is a turning point in the history of western democracy. Never before has such a drastic decision been taken through so primitive a procedure – a one-round referendum based on a simple majority. Never before has the fate of a country – of an entire continent, in fact – been changed by the single swing of such a blunt axe, wielded by disenchanted and poorly informed citizens.

Van Reybrouk now recounts the statistics showing low and falling citizen trust in elected institutions and offers a diagnosis of the problem. Avoiding the mention of any substantive complaints about the policies implemented by those institutions, for Van Reybrouk it is purely a matter of procedure. There is considerable vagueness whether the procedural problem was always there or is a new phenomenon. The risk, if things are not repaired, is that voters will continue to make transparently foolish choices.

In a referendum, we ask people directly what they think when they have not been obliged to think – although they have certainly been bombarded by every conceivable form of manipulation in the months leading up to the vote. But the problem is not confined to referendums: in an election, you may cast your vote, but you are also casting it away for the next few years. […]

Referendums and elections are both arcane instruments of public deliberation. If we refuse to update our democratic technology, we may find the system is beyond repair; 2016 already risks becoming the worst year for democracy since 1933. We may find, even after the folly of Brexit, that Donald Trump wins the American presidency later this year. But this may have less to do with Trump himself, or the oddities of the American political system, than with a dangerous road that all western democracies have taken: reducing democracy to voting.
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