Loïc Blondiaux: “Nobody believes anymore that the system can reform itself”

An interview with Loïc Blondiaux, professor of political science at the Sorbonne in Paris and a researcher at the European Center for Sociology and Political Science (CESSP) and the Center for Policy Research (CRPS) of the Sorbonne, in International Politics and Society journal:

New instruments of participatory democracy, such as citizen meetings with participants drawn by lot, are sometimes presented as the solution to the crisis of representative democracy. What does that reveal about the current state of French society?

It’s striking about the current democratic crisis in France, but also in the entire Western world, that instruments such as the sortition-based community meetings, where participants are selected at random, are spreading so successfully, and that such democratic innovations are generating high hopes. Who would have thought that political actors would advocate the idea of a third parliamentary chamber, determined wholly or partly by lot, or even the idea of replacing the Senate with a similar process? This interest in sortition attests to the great disrepute that traditional institutions of representative politics have fallen into. The same also applies to the “RIC” (référendum d’initiative citoyenne) promoted by the gilets jaunes, which aims to enable both citizens’ initiatives in constitutional and legal matters and the repeal of laws and the dismissal of elected representatives.

How do you explain the high expectations people have of these participatory instruments?

Nowadays, the usual representatives are considered incapable of faithfully representing the people in their diversity and their interests. This applies to the parliamentary assembly, which is considered to be costly and unnecessary (ultimately, the executive branch decide on laws anyways), to political parties, the media and other intermediary bodies.

The sortition process and citizens’ initiatives appear as possible solutions in many respects, if not even as panaceas. They can succeed in at last allowing the people to be actually represented again or to be able to express themselves directly. Believing that democracy can do without any form of representation amounts to an illusion. But the crisis and mistrust are so great that only solutions like these seem plausible.

Nobody believes anymore that the system can reform itself. Among the gilets jaunes is a conspicuous intransigence and radicalism in the matter of democracy. They demand a “true democracy” modelled after the “indignant” protest movement in Spain, the Occupy movement of 2011, and the somewhat smaller “Nuit debout” movement of 2016. More and more people believe that we are not living in a democracy. They’re trying to develop a different political model.

Do you recommend a mix of representative and participative elements?

In my opinion, it would be highly complicated to break completely with the institutions of representative democracy in order to change our society, while at the same time maintaining the solidarity systems that support them. I therefore endorse various strategies, similar to those of Erik Olin Wright in his important work Real Utopias: wherever possible, one should try out initiatives in which citizens, in the free spaces which are not regulated by capitalist and state systems, can experiment with new forms of democratic life or cooperation. Also, “symbiotic” approaches that attempt to change existing economic and political institutions and organisations should be supported.

If we want to change things and make our democracies more democratic, we also have to make use of political parties and elections. This is precisely because today, national and European politics are dominated by forces that in no way want things to change or the system to be transformed; consequently our democracies are heading toward the abyss. Citizens must be able to exert real influence with their votes so that things really change.

One Response

  1. I have proposed a system I call “fetura” and written a constitution tat uses it at http://constitution.org/reform/us/constitution-us-model.html Random selection alternates with merit screening. Hopefully resulting in a deliberative body most can feel is “representative” of the people, with being infected by “public choice” distortions.

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