When is a democratic innovation not a democratic innovation? The populist challenge in Australia

An interesting article by Lucy Parry about the Australia mini-publics in participedia:

Outside the room: the populist challenge

Remember those NIMBYs and SIFs that mini-publics aim to exclude through random selection? Their exclusion rests on the assumption that the quality and outcome of deliberation is better without those insistent voices. The aim is that through a process of deliberation, people will become ‘more public-spirited, more tolerant, more knowledgeable, more attentive to the interests of others, and more probing of their own interests’ (Warren 1992, p8). Producing deliberated public opinion involves weeding out weak and poorly informed arguments. Again, this is all very well if you are inside the room. If you’re outside the room, you may very well object.

And let’s face it, those objectionable voices are not going away. As Ben Moffit points out, ‘Populism, once seen as a fringe phenomenon relegated to another era or only certain parts of the world, is now a mainstay of contemporary politics across the globe’. The voices that a Citizens’ Jury wants to keep out of the room now have the room surrounded. If we continue down the mini-publics road, the very thing that allegedly legitimises mini-publics will also be its downfall. The assumptions underpinning random selection are that it is representative of the wider community; and that it facilitates better quality deliberation by bringing together everyday citizens rather than insistent voices. Whether these things are accurate or not is a moot point – what actually matters is how they are perceived by broader publics. It is sad but possibly true that for those outside the room, what goes on inside the room doesn’t matter. And I suspect that the argument that a Jury is representative and very well informed is simply not going to cut it.

Mini-publics rely on information presented by experts; populism rejects the knowledge of experts. With all the will and most independently-recruited-and-facilitated process in the world – people may just not trust it.

This is in line with the criteria for the use of sortition in politics I proposed a while ago and especially with our Two Chamber proposal (page 9):

The presentations of the experts and groups of interests have to be public in case of legislative juries, in order to provide both public information and control. This also has to ensure that ‘informed citizens’ share the same view as the citizens’ jury. That way, we avoid that decisions taken by the citizens’ jury differ from what the people think, in case they had the chance to express their view in a referendum.)

16 Responses

  1. This is an interesting article which shows why deliberative “democrats” are generally apprehensive about sortition as their principal value is the arguments per se as opposed to whether they accurately reflect the beliefs and preferences of the target population (warts and all). This is why Surowiecki dismisses the DP programme as “quixotic” and claims that the wisdom of crowds does not apply to democratic politics.

    I entirely agree with Paul’s last paragraph — if the debate in the minipublic is to truly reflect what everyone would think under good conditions then it needs to be public and adversarial. The rhetorical style should be forensic/agonistic (contentio) rather than conversational (sermo) as justice needs to be seen to be done (in the eyes of the vast majority who do not participating). In the case of SA Nuclear Waste jury, if Friends of the Earth and the government “exchanged reasons” (i.e. slugged it out) in public, with the verdict determined by the randomly-selected minipublic it would be much harder to criticise the decision outcome. That’s how it was in 4th century Athens and the verdict of the nomothetai was taken to represent the informed preferences of the whole polis. It’s time for the sortition community to give up on all the Habermasian flim-flam about deliberative participants being “more public-spirited, more tolerant, more knowledgeable, more attentive to the interests of others, and more probing of their own interests”. That’s all very motherhood and apple pie but politics has always been an inherently agonistic process.

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  2. I found the article quite strange and left this comment

    Thanks for the thoughts Lucy. They certainly surprise me. You may be of the view that “the justification of random selection explicitly rejects populist public opinion – and vice versa”. The way I see it, there are two ways of building a cognitive division of labour into politics – elections and selection by lot. The former produces chambers that are deeply unrepresentative of the public – much more educated, wealthier, focused on prime working age and biased in all kinds of ways regarding gender temperament, socio-economic status etc. This means that even if the representatives do represent the interests of their constituents – though as we know there’s always slippage – the texture of the discussion will almost necessarily be very different to the way these issues are discussed by many constituents. For instance there’s much speech policing, which people find very alienating which, along with the tortured, robotic sound bites and talking points sends people to vote for those who seem more like them – which is people like Pauline Hanson and other populists.

    So I see citizens’ juries as tackling populism NOT by setting their face against the populace or populist instincts, but by embracing them and working with them in deliberation. The beauty of these mechanisms is that ORDINARY PEOPLE come to see things differently. And they report back from their experiences of how exciting they found them. It’s quite incredible how well people react to these things almost always. They also notice that they’re not pitched into a chamber with the self-righteous where the only effective ‘media strategy’ if you disagree with those views is to be self-righteous in your own cause.

    So I see lots of hope for these mechanisms in dealing with precisely the conditions which give you the anxieties you’ve expressed. Far more hope than any other ways of taking populism seriously – and RESPECTING it rather than considering it or where it’s coming from as the enemy.

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  3. Keith favors the adversarial presentation before a minipublic and dismisses the deliberative democrats’ problem-solving aspect of minipublic deliberation. I agree that these two roles are incompatible within one minipublic (and this is the biggest shortcoming I see in sortition implementations around the world)… but BOTH are desirable and improve public decision-making. That is why I have proposed separate minipublics… with one actively deliberating in hopes of finding common ground, or alternatively revealing the fundamental disagreements, and a subsequent minipublic sitting as judge to hear the final pro and con presentations (agonistic) on a final proposal. The problem is that when these two distinct functions are melded in a single group the deliberation at the first stage damages the ability of those members to then impartially judge the product of their earlier work.

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  4. All these concerns have been addressed and synthesized in depth, with new ideas as to best implement them in The Future of Tele-democracy (2000)–which is pretty cheap online. Why argue about horseless carriages when the issue today is robotic cars. Ted Becker

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  5. I found the problem definition of Lucy quite correct. I watched Pauline Hanson during a trip to Australia once on public television show. It was quite shocking to see how her foul-mouth style got quite a bit of (purely emotional) agreement from the audience.

    Her style may be just an extreme but is nonetheless typical of any party system. If we Sortitionists do not offer citizens an opportunity to engage when they want and in what topic they want, if we overly restrict quantitative participation to just those random samples, then we cannot compete with such enormous engagement power of populists.

    Therefore I agree with Lucy’s diagnosis: “Randomly selected mini-publics are not a cure-all. At best, they are an important piece embedded in a broader democratic process.”

    In my talks, I found a surprising tendency with many otherwise brilliant people engaging or promoting deliberative democracy to ignore those out-of-the-room, it seems to be a real blind spot.

    Austrian Sortition Party “Meine Stimme GILT” (“My Voice COUNTS”) innovated further than just juries and runs a three-stage process to facilitate the broadest possible participation. A Citizen Jury (“Bürgerparlament”) is only the third and last element which ultimately makes the binding decisions, just as expressed by Lucy’s gut sense.

    The three stages are 1. Open Ideation (creative), 2. Open Survey (participative), and 3. Citizen Jury (prescriptive). The first two stages are completely open to all, they are computerised and do not need to be selective or exclusive only to those in-the-room. They give everybody a chance to voice ideas and opinions. Every voice in an earlier stage can make it to the subsequent stage depending on a rating mechanism which consistently uses representative samples at each stage.

    Here is a chart which depicts the process graphically: https://drive.google.com/file/d/1boe_sgwFKTzj-iZ1P0VFHHV6X2qOVDav/view?usp=sharing

    Hubertus

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  6. Nick:> The beauty of these mechanisms is that ORDINARY PEOPLE come to see things differently. And they report back from their experiences of how exciting they found them. It’s quite incredible how well people react to these things almost always.

    This misses the point — Lucy’s concern is not with the internal functioning of the minipublic but that ” it is sad but possibly true that for those outside the room, what goes on inside the room doesn’t matter.” I think this is correct, hence the need for an entirely public and agonistic debate (which would most likely tilt in a populist direction). Her complaint is that deliberative norms do not correspond to the real world, as per this quote from the original article:

    I’m not a politician, I’m not an accountant, I’m not anybody who knows anything but I see stuff and think ‘that doesn’t look right to me’, the average Joe Blow feels things more than they actually understand or know, they feel things, they know stuff.

    contrast this with the aspirations of the deliberative democrats:

    The aim is that through a process of deliberation, people will become ‘more public-spirited, more tolerant, more knowledgeable, more attentive to the interests of others, and more probing of their own interests

    While this may or may not work for those in the room, Lucy’s concern is with all the Joe Blows outside.

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  7. > Whether these things are accurate or not is a moot point – what actually matters is how they are perceived by broader publics. It is sad but possibly true that for those outside the room, what goes on inside the room doesn’t matter.

    In other words, the public is a bunch of easily-swayed idiots who do not care about the facts. It seems the elite is ready to give up on its democratic pretenses.

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  8. Yoram: “In other words, the public is a bunch of easily-swayed idiots who do not care about the facts.”

    I am not sure that’s what Lucy said? I read it to mean that she thinks that the party-media machine could drown out the voice of reason originating from the mini-public with their usual manipulative shenanigans.

    Interestingly, from afar it looked like inside-the-room matters quite a bit in some cases. The SA Nuclear Dump jury’s decision did get heavy weight in the subsequent outside-the-room public debate, resulting in the rejection of an additional referendum. The Australians in this group can correct me, but it seems the concern is not applicable at least for that one case.

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  9. > I read it to mean that she thinks that the party-media machine could drown out the voice of reason originating from the mini-public with their usual manipulative shenanigans.

    But that is the same thing as saying that “the public is a bunch of easily-swayed idiots who do not care about the facts”.

    It is one thing to say that distrust could be the result of an improperly designed process and a very different thing to say that the facts do not matter since the public perception is independent of the facts. The former is constructive criticism that can be translated into an improved design. The latter is the Socratic blanket anti-democratic position.

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  10. Yoram:> In other words, the public is a bunch of easily-swayed idiots who do not care about the facts.

    This is a misrepresentation of rational ignorance. The Wikipedia definition is:

    Rational ignorance is refraining from acquiring knowledge when the cost of educating oneself on an issue exceeds the potential benefit that the knowledge would provide.

    This would be just as much a problem in a jury democracy as there is no reason for anyone not selected by sortition to inform themselves on the deliberations of the minipublic (just as there’s no reason for a voter to read an election manifesto). The topic of this article is Joe Blow — i.e. the average guy who is not included in the jury. The jury proceedings will just be a black box to him and the parallel with elections or referenda is an exact one.

    But of course you won’t agree as you don’t accept rational ignorance, seeing the disconnect purely in terms of the incompatible interests of the elite and the masses. Presumably if all the jury members wore cloth caps rather than top hats then the masses would accept the decision outcome.

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  11. *** About the risk of divergence between juries and the global society, it is interesting to consider the case of criminal juries for politically-loaded causes. In France criminal courts (Cours d’Assises) are made from professional magistrates and allotted jurors, but with majority rules which require for guilt sentences a majority of jurors (not unanimity).
    *** In France some sentences were strongly criticized by the feminist lobbies, asking and getting a new trial or a presidential pardon : either acquittal of men accused of rape, or sentencing of a woman who killed his brutal spouse. A thorough study of the reactions would be interesting, I could not do it, but I will give my feeling from random reading.
    *** The media elite and the political elite followed the lobbying.
    *** But, whereas the responsibility of the jurors for these sentences should have been considered, I did not see explicit attacks against them or against the jury idea. Either there were criticisms against the professional magistrates (but without any proposal of reducing their power), or the attacks were fuzzy ones against « the judiciary system ».
    *** Actually the sovereignty side was forgotten from all the elite reactions I saw. Whereas, after Brexit, the referendum device was criticized, and even the universal suffrage implicitly criticized, the judiciary jury – a more or less « direct democracy » device in the political system – seems, for now, protected from explicit attacks from the lobbies, the media or the political elite. It is interesting.
    *** A specific factor may have its effect : as the Cour d’Assises is the higher layer of criminal justice, to assign sexual crimes to magistrates-only courts could appear to feminists as symbolically downgrading the seriousness of these crimes, something utterly displeasing. But I don’t think it is the one factor.

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  12. *** Following Lucy Parry « Mini-publics rely on information presented by experts; populism rejects the knowledge of experts. With all the will and most independently-recruited-and-facilitated process in the world – people may just not trust it. »
    *** I think that populist sensitivities are most hostile to oligarchizing elites. They may distrust experts for not so stupid reasons :
    a) because the experts in a specific field constitute themselves an elite, with their own material and moral interests, and their group-thinking
    b) because the experts belong to a wider elite
    c) because the experts are intimidated by lobbies or by some kind of ideological conformism – and note that usually expert advices are not anonymous
    d) because the common citizens know expert advices mainly through the filter of the media elite.
    *** The problem of getting an expertise the sovereign may trust is a difficult one – not specific to democracy ; an absolute king will have the same problems. Clearly democracy will not be trusted if the citizens are not convinced of the quality of expertise. Minipublics may be not trusted if they are seen as coached and surreptitiously directed through expertise, sure.
    *** Will it be difficult to establish an expertise system able to convince most of the citizens and give them trust towards the democracy-through-minipublics ? Maybe. But note that anyway there is no so much trust towards representative democracy.

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  13. Andre:> Mini-publics rely on information presented by experts; populism rejects the knowledge of experts. With all the will and most independently-recruited-and-facilitated process in the world – people may just not trust it.

    Yet in your example of the Cours d’Assises the jury system was largely unchallenged (apart from the feminist lobby), so if trust is the important factor surely we should model our designs more closely on the trial system, rather than the pursuit of deliberative rationality. Court advocates and expert witnesses are accepted so long as they are robustly cross-examined by the other side, so I don’t think public mistrust is of expertise per se, it is the fear of an establishment conspiracy disguised as “information”. In the SA example Friends of the Earth could not have complained about the outcome if they had been responsible for the anti-nuclear advocacy.

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  14. Andre,

    If the allotted body is responsible for selecting the expert witnesses that appear before it, and in general for running the entire decision making process, rather than treated as spectators in a show arranged by professionals, this should diffuse the quite justified suspicion against elite manipulation.

    The allotted body itself would be as skeptical toward expert advice as the public at large would be, and would be able to credibly explain why the advice of some experts was heeded to while that of others was rejected.

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  15. Thanks for your comment Hubertus,

    I certainly agree that there needs to be means by which anyone who wants to can get involved in politics. I think your party’s approach has a lot of merit whether or not it’s the right formula.

    That said, I felt the way Lucy juxtaposed sortition and populism was tendentious and not true to the spirit in which sortition is being put forward by most who support it, and more importantly greatly over-estimating the extent to which populism and sortition are in tension, though I accept that her point can’t be dismissed entirely.

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  16. Nick:> the spirit in which sortition is being put forward by most who support it

    The problem is not those who support it but the likely attitude of citizens who are not included in the draw. There is no reason to believe they would be any less rationally ignorant than citizens involved in elections or referenda. It’s not a problem of populism per se but an intrinsic issue with democracy in large states (including representation by lot).

    Yoram:> The allotted body . . . would be able to credibly explain

    But why would anybody listen?

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