Vandamme: low expectations idealism

Pierre Etienne Vandamme of the Catholic University of Louvain writes [original in French, my translation]:

Why do we feel poorly represented? It is partly as you said. The politicians, the elected tend to resemble each other. Certainly, they come from a certain social class, etc. and because of that sortition is useful for diversification of our political representatives. But I find that we must also be suspicious of the tendency of the advocates of sortition to condemn elections and parties completely. I think that there may be a complementarity between elections and sortition which remains to be thought out. But I am very suspicious of the arguments that attribute all the problems of democracy to the faults of our representatives which do not care at all about our wishes. This is only true to a certain extent…

Most of those who are eventually disenchanted, believed in it [the electoral system, presumably. -YG]. They believed in a party, in a candidate and then they were disappointed. To me what seems useful is to defend an ideal of society that is totally different, wanting to change things, change society, change the world, and at the same time have a certain realism in the short term. To realize that the change is not going to happen today or tomorrow, that would be too much to expect and therefore not to have our hopes to high with each election. To say, we are going to try this party, or this candidate… We are going to see what they can do. Yes, they can make some small improvements or prevent things from getting worse. I believe that it is the only way to keep believing. But in parallel to this short term realism, it is necessary to be idealistic and tell ourselves that a different world is possible. Because otherwise, if we lose our faith in change, we are trapped by cynicism and unwillingly even become obstacles to change.

13 Responses

  1. I think Vandamme is right that the problems of democracy do not all stem from the fact of representatives not respecting the wishes of “the people” — but that does not mean elections are not still the cause of many of democracy’s problems.

    For example, Jason Brennan talks about the tribalism of electoral politics– it turns people into hooligans rooting for a team and makes citizens into enemies of eachother.

    If I recall, Aristotle in the politics says that in a Democracy there are only two factions– the poor and the rich. While I don’t think the truth is that simplistic, there is some merit to the idea that without elections, there would be no candidates, and without candidates, no empowered parties, and without parties, elites wouldn’t have such a strong interest in creating factions and divisions among the citizenry. Winning elections seems to be all about creating the most favorable divisions within the electorate.

    This is all to say that one possible benefit of sortition would be less factionalism– which has nothing to do with representatives respecting the wishes of the people. ( I also suspect that the inclusion of ignorant, apathetic, or ambivalent citizens into the decision-making process will have a similarly salutary effect of allowing honest deliberation without preconceived notions about positions due to factional Identity). I’d be curious to inspect the research of what factions may look like in a sortition system that has much less powerful parties– and what factions existed in Athenian democracy.

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  2. >> For example, Jason Brennan talks about the tribalism of electoral politics– it turns people into hooligans rooting for a team and makes citizens into enemies of eachother.

    What is there to prevent a sortitionally selected group NOT to revert to the ‘tribalism’ of the society from which they are selected?

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  3. >What is there to prevent a sortitionally selected group NOT to revert to the ‘tribalism’ of the society from which they are selected?

    Good point Robert, it’s one of the reasons that I argue that an allotted jury should deliberate in silence (deliberation within) before voting in secret. Whilst allotted jurors will bring their (tribal) prejudices with them, they are likely to be challenged by the deliberative and information exchange between the advocates. I believe there is research that indicates people find it easier to change their minds if they have not made a verbal commitment to a particular position.

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  4. I agree that the final yes/no vote should be based on internal deliberation, there is a completely separate benefit to society of having active deliberation among a diverse microcosm in shaping the final form of that policy (by a separate mini-public).

    As to the issue of factionalism, it seems likely it would be LESS prevalent in a sortition democracy simply because MUCH of our current factionalism is manufactured by politicians who need to mobilize voters against an enemy. There is a lot of research confirming that partisans adopt “preferences” based on group solidarity and talking points advanced by partisan politicians, rather than independent thought (the preferences do not exist prior to the faction). Without elections and these manufactured factions, we would be left only with the actual (natural) factions… and we do not know how significant that would be until it plays out in the real world.

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  5. France is a center of serious sortition consideration. Helene Landemore, a French academic currently teaching at Yale University (and the author of articles and books about the benefits of diversity and sortition) recently spoke to members of the French National Assembly about sortition. She also took a “realist” perspective — doubted that a straight replacement of an elected chamber by a sortition chamber made sense, but advocated use of sortition for individual topics. Here is an article about her talk in the Yale News:
    https://news.yale.edu/2018/07/24/yale-political-theorist-advises-french-lawmakers-inclusive-democracy

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  6. >>>What is there to prevent a sortitionally selected group NOT to revert to the ‘tribalism’ of the society from which they are selected?

    First off, I would argue, as Terry does, that there would be less overall factionalism in the population. See his response below:

    >>As to the issue of factionalism, it seems likely it would be LESS prevalent in a sortition democracy simply because MUCH of our current factionalism is manufactured by politicians who need to mobilize voters against an enemy.

    Terry puts it well– a sortitionally selected group may reflect the tribalism of the society from which they are selected, but there will likely be less factionalism in the overall population due to the reduced influence of parties.

    The strength of party positions on voters’ preferences (the so-called “manufactured will”) can be seen with the precipitous uptick of unfavorable opinions among Republicans on the NFL. check out this graph: https://bit.ly/2LOMEDj.

    Furthermore, the utility of partisan media will likely be reduced as there would be no voters to mobilize, and the “return on investment” of media campaigns to produce a partisan will is an unpredictable short-term sortitioned legislator ineligible for reeelction, rather than a predictable, quid pro quo, reelectable professional politician.

    However I also think that there may be additional benefits to sortition beyond the reversion to simply “natural” factionalism, even if it would be reduced without manufactured partisan preferences– specifically, the inclusion of undecided, apathetic, or completely informed people into the decisionmaking process might have a few other salutary benefits.

    First off, it’s obvious but factional partisans have preconceived notions and stances on issues, whereas undecided individuals obviously do not. Right off the bat, sortition already expands the decisionmaking process to include nonpartisan, undecided or apathetic individuals who may not otherwise be involved in the political process, reducing the factionalism of a sortitioned group visavis the overall POLITICALLY ACTIVE population (i.e. voters).

    Second, I’m admittedly not 100% up on deliberation research, but it seems that the inclusion of undecideds may foster an atmosphere of “let us figure out a solution to this problem” instead of “let me prove that my team is right”. The more undecided people are involved in a deliberation, the more it can be approached honestly by a group with the superordinate goal of finding the overall best solution.

    Finally, as Landemore notes, in a sortition system, policy issues can also be deliberated upon individually, instead of the common alternative of essentially voting for a faction, as we often do (who else has just voted R or D down the line at some point?). Many people don’t have opinions on each issue, but only a few salient ones, and must choose their faction based on this. Policy preferences may be fluid– being pro-life does not necessarily correspond with a preference for low-taxes outside of the Republican party platform. Individuals may have no opinion on corporate tax rate, but may still cast their vote for republicans, thereby implying such a preference. So in the absence of bundled party platforms, the number of undecideds may be higher than we would assume on many issues, compounding the potential benefits of my second point above.

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  7. Amplifying fissures is an electoral tactic. It is destructive to society but may be useful for some candidates in certain situations. Thus amplifying fissures (“tribalism”) is just another facet of the fact that the electoral mechanism is useful for promoting the interests of elites at the expense of the interests of the average citizen.

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  8. It is worth emphasizing, however, that often elites are unified around some ideas and are busy reducing contention around those points. Thus, “tribalism” is not a primary phenomenon of electoralism – it is just a side effect of the fact that elections are an oligarchical mechanism.

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  9. Terry:> MUCH of our current factionalism is manufactured by politicians who need to mobilize voters against an enemy.

    There is a danger of overlooking the origins of voting in the transition from war-war to jaw-jaw (it was more cost-effective to count the strong right arms, rather than letting the majority faction put the enemy to the sword). From a historical perspective electoral politics has been a civilising influence. The truth is we don’t know what would be the result of depriving the vast majority of citizens of any involvement in the political process, but past experience of utopian projects to radically reshape society would suggest a degree of caution is in order.

    Charlie:> unfavorable opinions among Republicans . . . preference for low-taxes outside of the Republican party platform

    It might be better to provide examples in an even-handed way, in order to avoid the impression that one is favouring one faction over another.

    PS most recent polsci research would suggest that the current divide between liberals and populists reflects a genuine conflict of beliefs, preferences and interests, rather than being a cleavage manufactured by politicians for electoral gain (or a quibble between different elite factions).

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  10. Keith,
    you wrote:
    >”most recent polsci research would suggest that the current divide between liberals and populists reflects a genuine conflict of beliefs, preferences and interests, rather than being a cleavage manufactured by politicians for electoral gain”

    Actually political science does not study that matter at all. Political science picks up AFTER the preferences have been assimilated, and doesn’t examine how those preferences are derived. (yes, my degree is in political science).That is the realm of social psychology. Social psychology research in the past few decades has shown just the opposite of what you assert. People adopt the policy preferences of the members of their “tribe.” Partisan politics encourages tribal divisions and self-identification on partisan grounds. Those without strong partisan preferences generally have much fewer and weaker policy preferences, and the conformity of partisans on a range of issues that have no inherent link is astonishing. In the USA, there is no logical reason why a person who opposes abortion should also be a climate change skeptic and favor low taxes… yet those preferences are very highly correlated… and research indicates these policy preferences (and the opposite preferences on the “other side” are all about group solidarity generated by partisan imperatives.

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  11. Terry,

    Good point. I am as opposed as you to the bundling of policy preferences for partisan reasons, but this is a consequence of the (effective) unitary system of governance that characterises both parliamentary and presidential systems. In the approach that we both favour policy proposals are judged on an individual basis by ad hoc allotted juries. But this doesn’t mean that political parties should not play an advocacy role and it is hard to see in what other way a representative democracy could ensure that the demos has control of the agenda setting process.

    >People adopt the policy preferences of the members of their “tribe”.

    I’m sure this is not your intention, but you are effectively liking electors to a herd of sheep, rather than rational agents. I doubt whether citizens are that easily manipulated into acting against their interests.

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  12. Keith,

    Two responses.

    1. Political parties do NOT “ensure that the demos has control of the agenda setting process.” Quite the opposite. Parties select agenda items (not just the particular policy, but the topic as a whole) that they believe they can reduce to a sound bite that will enable them to vilify opponents and mobilize their base. I recommend Murray Edelman’s book “Constructing the Political Spectacle,” He points out that party agenda setting is NOT about needs or interests of constituents, but about positioning for gaining or maintaining power… so that complex (though vital) issues will often be ignored, while petty issues that are easily portrayed in exciting visual ways come to the fore. With elections, the Demos is simply not an active participant in agenda setting. Politicians seek to dominate the public agenda and the media follows their lead…He points out that
    “Perhaps the most powerful influence of news, talk, and writing about problems is the immunity from notice and criticism they grant to damaging conditions that are not on the list.”

    2. As to your “sheep” reference that you “doubt whether citizens are that easily manipulated…” It is not just “manipulation” (though that is part of it)…. Many issues are embraced because of a deep desire for belonging to an identified “tribe” and signaling virtue to other members. Also, due to rational ignorance, in mass situations we ARE frequently manipulated. The best hope for citizens deeply understanding an issue and overcoming elite manipulation is if they are selected to serve on a mini-public where they have incentive and motivation to give attention so that they can overcome rational ignorance.

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  13. Terry,

    The Edelman book describes partisan politics as it currently exists, where the principal goal is (as you rightly point out) positioning for gaining and maintaining power. In my proposal politicians only have limited advocacy rights, rather than executive or legislative power. Partisan bundling of issues will be less likely as each legislative act is judged by ad hoc allotted juries, and my proposal also includes the citizen initiative option. Although political parties may not be the optimal solution it is hard to imagine an alternative mechanism for representative isegoria in large multicultural polities.

    >The best hope for citizens deeply understanding an issue and overcoming elite manipulation is if they are selected to serve on a mini-public where they have incentive and motivation to give attention so that they can overcome rational ignorance.

    Agreed. But my principal concern is securing the consent of the vast majority of citizens who will be disenfranchised by the aleocratic turn. Epistemic justifications are unlikely to lead on their own to perceived legitimacy, which will require invariant outcomes between different samples of the same population and that would suggest severe constraints on the allotment remit (in both its isegoria and isonomia aspects). That’s why (with Hubertus) I’m opposed to “pure” sortition.

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