Lawrence Lessig on deliberative polls

In this interesting and entertaining August 2017 TED Talk, Lawrence Lessig, the Harvard law professor, shows an appreciation for some of what is wrong with decision-making by popular vote in contemporary societies, and for some of the political significance of deliberative polls.

… the answer is not to reject democracy. The answer is to find a way for democracy to represent us better. To give up the idea that when we talk about “we” as in “we the people” we’re talking about what we happen to think now, and replace that idea with a conception of “we” where what we mean is what we think when we are informed and [have] deliberated.

He then indicates deliberative polls provide a “we the people” of the kind he describes, and discusses, in glowing terms, the 800 member deliberative poll in Mongolia on the constitution (at which he was an observer).  He does not (in this video) suggest any actual democratic reforms for the U.S.

Rising Up With Sonali: David Van Reybrouck and Against Elections

David Van Reybrouck was recently interviewed by Sonali Kolhatkar on her show “Rising Up With Sonali” which is broadcast on a couple of public radio stations on the West Coast of the US. The Segment with Van Reybrouck starts about 35 minutes into the recording.

In the course of the interview Van Reybrouck gently points out to the interviewer that her proposals for reforming the electoral system, which are part of the standard reformist list of proposals (from which Ari Berman draws his proposals as well, for example), show no promise in fundamentally fixing the system, since they have been tried over and over worldwide without success.

Bleg for research or contacts on sortition and egalitarianism

Hello to the Equality by Lot community and thanks to Yoram for inviting me to post here.

I’d be really grateful if anyone in the community could help me with something I’m trying to research. A critical question in many people’s minds in assessing the merit or otherwise of sortition based political deliberation is the way in which the conclusions deliberative groups chosen by sortition would differ from the conclusions arrived at after ‘deliberation’ as it occurs in the current system – via the mutual assured misrepresentation we see at the heart of most political campaigns.

Websites such as this one have extensive information on changes of view in individual deliberations in deliberative polling, but I’m interested in what writing has been done to try to characterise the kinds of changes that take place. The only stylised fact I have been able to glean from the literature and from researchers I’ve contacted is that sortition based deliberation tends to produce ‘swings’ towards more socially minded and cooperative conclusions – for instance people show themselves more prepared to pay for collective goods like environmental protection.

The question I’m particularly interested in, is whether deliberation amongst ordinary people tends to make them more supportive of egalitarian policies. To be specific, whether it would support policies to generate a more equal distribution of income and wealth than electoral democracy. It seems to me that it should, and that to some extent that is implied in more ‘social mindedness’ and preparedness to pay for collective goods but I’d be interested in any research or authorities anyone could point me to on the subject.

Cammack: Deliberation in Ancient Greek Assemblies

A paper by Daniela Cammack, Yale University:

When an ancient Greek dêmos (“people,” “assembly”) deliberated, what did it do? On one view, it engaged in a form of public conversation along the lines theorized by contemporary deliberative democrats; on another, a small number of “active” citizens debated before a much larger, more “passive” audience. On either account, deliberation is represented as an external, speech-centered activity rather than an internal, thought-centered one. The democratic ideal, it is argued, was at least occasional participation in public speech.

This article questions that interpretation. A study of βουλεύομαι, “deliberate,” from Homer to Aristotle reveals three models of deliberation: internal, dialogical, and a partial combination that I shall call “guided,” in which speaking and deliberating were performed by advisers and decision-makers respectively. Assembly deliberation was almost always represented as guided deliberation. The dêmos—which is to say the audience—deliberated (ἐβουλεύετο), while those who spoke before it advised (συνεβούλευσε). Citizens thus did not fall short of a democratic ideal when they did not speak publicly. To the contrary, internal reflection, culminating in a vote, was precisely how the dêmos was expected to exercise its authority. The implications for our conceptualization of ancient Greek democracy are significant.

Full text

Lille en comme’un

Could an anarchist organization run a city? The words seem to contradict each other: “anarchist”, “organization” and “run”. The anarchist movement generally presupposes a total absence of authority. But by anarchy I mean a much softer idea: the impermanence of a drawn authority. Municipalism and participatory lists partly implement this idea at the level of the city, and at the commune of Saillans a participatory list uses the drawing of lots on a regular basis. Along that same line of thought, I created this week a group whose name is “Lille en comme’un 2020” aiming to present a list in the next municipal elections of Lille. This name derives from “Barcelona en comu” and also comes from a discussion we had in a meeting of the Listes Participatives Paris. My objective: to participate in the genesis and success of such a list in Lille.


An image illustrating Lille en comme’un 2020. The shape of Lille and inside an enso.

Our meetings will have one thing in common, we will designate with a die the people who will moderate our meetings. One moderates by giving the floor to people who raise their hands, by controlling speaking time, but also by asking the quiet ones for their opinion. Before the appointment, we all agree on a maximum term of office – which can be as short as 20 minutes. Someone then casts a die and the n-th person to their left will moderate – n being the number on the die. At the end of his or her term or if the moderator resigns earlier, he or she rolls the die again to appoint a new moderator. So the power turns.

We have already tried this three times in the meetings of the Paris participative lists. And at our first meeting for Lille en Comme’un that took place last Friday. It worked well (we talked for 4 hours using this method) and this modus operandi makes it possible to avoid long speeches and capture of power in the meeting. This method is not perfect and I was able to observe that one problem at our last meeting in Paris was the absence of a secretary to write a report.

One possible solution that we could test in Lille is for the person who moderates to appoint a secretary at the beginning of his mandate. It is optional to change the person for this function after each moderator’s mandate so that stability and professionalism are brought to the meeting.

Thank you for reading! And I look forward to meeting you in person at Lille en comme’un 2020.

P.S: This post comes from my blog on sortition. Don’t hesitate to pay a visit!

Reybrouck explains to the New York Times that Against Elections is not really against elections

The crisis of electoralism (more commonly misleadingly referred to as “the crisis of democracy”) has been producing a stream of books warning about its dangers and proposing solutions. Ari Berman, a senior reporter at Mother Jones, a fellow at the Nation Institute and the author of “Give Us the Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America”, reviews in the New York Times 4 of the books in the genre, with one of those books being David van Reybrouck’s Against Elections.

While the other three books, which according to the review offer no useful actionable remedies, are evaluated in generally appreciative terms (“comprehensive, enlightening and terrifyingly timely new book”, “hard to argue with [the] analysis”, “[the] book provides important insights into the present political moment”), van Reybrouck’s book is rather rudely dismissed:

Democracy is experiencing a “crisis of legitimacy,” writes Van Reybrouck, a Belgian cultural historian, who cites declining voter turnout, higher volatility in voter support and fewer people identifying with political parties. This is the fault not of politicians or the structure of the electoral system, but of elections themselves, Van Reybrouck says. “We have all become electoral fundamentalists, despising those elected but venerating elections.”

Van Reybrouck is a skilled polemicist, but his solutions to remedy “democratic fatigue syndrome” are naïve and unfeasible. Echoing the ancient Greek practice of drawing lots, he suggests replacing the American House of Representatives with a random sample of citizens, like a jury pool. That seems like an utterly impractical way to govern nowadays and reflects the same demonization of political experience that led the country to favor a reality television star over a former secretary of state in 2016.

Van Reybrouck fetishizes direct democracy, like citizens’ councils, but ignores the way existing electoral institutions could be made more responsive to the popular will through reforms like proportional representation or nonpartisan redistricting. The solution to democratic fatigue syndrome is to make elections more democratic, not to get rid of them altogether.

In response, van Reybrouck protests in a letter to the editor that he has been misunderstood:
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Stephen Boucher proposes “an EU Collective Intelligence Forum”

Stephen Boucher, managing director of Fondation EURACTIV, writes on Carnegie Europe, the website of Carnegie Endowment for International Peace:

Whatever the analytical debates over Europe’s democratic deficiencies, citizens certainly feel that EU decisionmaking is remote and often impenetrable. Unless some tangible and high-profile initiatives are forthcoming, the EU will remain more remote and complex for the average citizen than public authorities closer to home. Busy citizens will not engage with broader European politics unless they feel that their voices have a good chance of being heard.

The endless aim to “communicate Europe better” is one facet of this predicament. Despite the EU’s focus on glitzy communication gimmicks, dedicated television channels, enticing Facebook pages, and the promise of Citizens’ Dialogues in which EU commissioners meet with citizens around the member states, many Europeans frequently feel that they have little to no influence over this particular level of international governance.

To address this problem, Boucher offers some ideas, one of which is what he calls “an EU Collective Intelligence Forum”.

A yearly Deliberative Poll could be run on a matter of significance, ahead of key EU summits and possibly around the president of the commission’s State of the Union address. On the model of the first EU-wide Deliberative Poll, Tomorrow’s Europe, this event would bring together in Brussels a random sample of citizens from all twenty-seven EU member states, and enable them to discuss various social, economic, and foreign policy issues affecting the EU and its member states. This concept would have a number of advantages in terms of promoting democratic participation in EU affairs. By inviting a truly representative sample of citizens to deliberate on complex EU matters over a weekend, within the premises of the European Parliament, the European Parliament would be the focus of a high-profile event that would draw media attention.

But no need for the elites to be apprehensive. The idea is not to force popular decisions upon them, but rather the other way around – to make citizens see sense.
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