My review of ‘Our very own Brexit’

In good bookstores everywhere – at a very reasonable price

Here’s a review of a book recently published in Australia on the ‘hollowing out’ of democracy.  Cross-posted from the Lowy Institute Blog.

Instead of munching popcorn at the political theatre, citizens’ assemblies would give the community a chance to reflect.

In what we now see in retrospect as something of a political “golden age” – say from the early 20th century through to the 1980s or so – political parties were the institution through which the political aspirations of different sections of the community were articulated and conveyed to the commanding heights of government. Millions of members joined those parties, which were embedded in the community alongside churches, unions, and business associations.

Yet as Sam Roggeveen has described in Our Very Own Brexit, “hollowing out” has now inverted that process. Senior officers of the parties now comprise a political caste, the majority of whom secured their parliamentary position within their party’s career structure with scant achievements elsewhere.

Each party manages their “brand”, and politics has become a Punch and Judy show. We barrack for our side if we have one – or our point of view in innumerable improvised or staged culture-war skirmishes. We cheer and boo, tweet and retweet.

The governance that emerges from this is an uncanny mix of stasis and instability. Stasis because, at least when seeking their votes, each party hews to a small target strategy on policy while probing for ways to misrepresent and catastrophise their opponents’ policies and purposes. Instability because “we the people” so hate it all.

We tell ourselves that the pollies are only in it for themselves. There’s truth in that. But also evasion. They’re victims too. The lead players in the show could be living much more prosperous, happy lives out of the madhouse. We fancy we deserve better than this as we sit in the stalls munching our popcorn. Indeed we do. Yet our clicks and our tweets – above all our votes – drive the whole system. Ultimately we decide who represents us and the terms on which they do.

The most significant achievement of Australian voters’ emphatic decision at the 2013 election was the abolition of carbon pricing, which had taken a decade of political struggle to be absorbed into the apparent political security of bipartisan consensus.

Whenever a political party offers a skerrick of leadership – whenever they depart, however cautiously, from their traditional “small target” or “comms” strategies of relentless manipulation and tendentious evasion, they’re easy meat for the scare campaigns and outrage machines of their party political and ideological opponents.

Roggeveen’s definition of what constitutes “a Brexit” for his purposes is situated within his own, and the Lowy Institute’s focus on Australia’s external relations. I would characterise the UK’s Brexit moment and the US’s Trump moment more generally as the point at which the electorate perpetrated some action that the overwhelming bulk of the political class regarded in their heart of hearts as crazy.

If that’s your definition, then just as Australia led the world in various aspects of economic policy – such as income-contingent loans, community strategies on AIDS, and the strengthening and targeting of welfare – our rendezvous with political crazy predates its moment elsewhere in the Anglosphere by three years.

For the most significant achievement of Australian voters’ emphatic decision at the 2013 election was the abolition of carbon pricing, which had taken a decade of political struggle to be absorbed into the apparent political security of bipartisan consensus. It’s demise has plunged our energy sector into crisis and dysfunction. And it’s rarely noted by the commentariat (why am I not surprised?), but it’s also costing our budget more than $10 billion annually and rising. 

Of course simply painting the picture Roggeveen does is useful. Yet if he has any ideas about how we might fight our way out of this frightening situation, he’s not telling. Perhaps like so many others, he wants more “leadership”. Perhaps we need a hero – someone with immense political talents who, having clambered up the greasy pole, still wants to achieve something and retains the authority over their party, the parliament, and the community to achieve it.

But how likely is that in a political culture that almost never lets an act of leadership go unpunished?

The one thing that gives me some hope is the existence of another democratic tradition which lies dormant in our political culture for centuries but remains healthy as a pillar of our legal system. Those empanelled on a jury represent us, not by flattering us to win our vote, but more simply by being chosen from among us.

The makeup of a jury is more substantively representative than parliament, with far more of the young, the old, and the less well-healed. Selection by lot was a central mechanism through which the ancient Athenians secured the great political principle they called “isegoria” or equality of speech. It has been driven to extinction in the great political hollowing out.

We’ve learned to distrust those competing for our votes, and those with different ideologies. But when we meet together in citizens’ juries, our trust in each other comes flooding back. For instance, when around 250 Texan citizens chosen at random deliberated in 1996 on various questions including whether they should pay between $2 and $5 more for electricity to increase renewables’ market share. With 52% agreeing before deliberation, 84% agreed afterwards, with such exercises making a material contribution to Texas – under Governor George W. Bush – leading many other states and installing 1,000 megawatts of renewable energy generation.

The evidence suggests that similar methods would have demonstrated a contrast between the opinion of the people, and their considered opinion on Brexit. In late 2017, 50 Britons randomly selected to exemplify the referendum’s 52:48 Brexit vote swung to 40:60 against after deliberation, with not one of them swinging the other way. Something similar happened in a deliberative poll in 2010.

And yes, what evidence we have suggests that this mechanism offers a useful means of tackling Roggeveen’s specific concerns. Just three months ago America in One Room brought together a “state-of-the-art scientific sample” of 523 Americans for a weekend’s deliberation in small groups on five critical policy areas. As the organisers reported:

There were dramatic changes of opinion. The most polarizing proposals, whether from the left or the right, generally lost support, and a number of more centrist proposals moved to the foreground.

And for those seeking to avoid our very own Brexit, there’s good reason to take heart. The deliberations elicited a more welcoming position on both legal and illegal immigration, mostly due to a softening from the right. Deliberation reduced support for cutting refugee intake from 37% to 22% with Republicans’ support dropping from 66% to 34%. Republican support for increasing skilled immigration rose from 50% to 71% (and overall support from 60% to 80%). Republicans also shifted from 31% supporting low-skilled immigration for industries that need it to 66%, with overall support for this policy rising from 53% to 77%.

My conclusion from all this is that if we’re to avoid our next Brexit, according to my definition, we need to bring citizens’ assemblies into our existing constitution as a check and balance. But existing politicians who’ve worked hard won’t let go of any power they’ve acquired lightly. The beauty of this agenda is that huge strides can be made from outside the system.

A privately funded but independently governed standing citizens’ assembly could surface the considered opinion of the people alongside all those polls that currently measure their unconsidered opinion. And the evidence suggests that swings taking place in such a body would affect voters and, in consequence, their elected representatives. I doubt the abolition of carbon pricing would have made it through the Senate once a citizens’ assembly had twigged to the unseriousness of what was to replace it.

Given that and the fact that the Lowy Institute is one of Australia’s best-funded think tanks, I’d like to see it take the lead. It could do so with a citizens’ assembly such as America in One Room focused on immigration.

Though we have a decade’s experience of advisory citizens’ juries which is very promising, we’ve barely begun to fill out the repertoire of political institutions according to this alternative way of representing the people. But it’s possible to reimagine virtually every political institution to which electoral representation has given rise according to the alternative logic of isegoria or equality of speech.

The Lowy Institute could fund a standing citizens’ assembly on immigration. It could announce its intention to fund a citizens’ assembly whenever any Australian government was considering any combat deployment of Australian troops abroad. It could fund a joint citizen’s assembly of (say) 25 Australians and 25 East Timorese to deliberate together on the relations between our two countries. Despite the tiny size of Timor-Leste, such an exercise could have a powerful demonstration effect.

Some enterprising philanthropists might replicate the experiment somewhere where it really could change the course of global history. They might convene a citizens’ assembly of Chinese and American citizens to deliberate in the first instance, on the impasse the two countries find themselves at on trade. But that could be a precedent for numerous similar exercises on subjects about which Roggeveen is anxious. And he’s far from alone.

It’s not hard to identify problems we’d have to take into account in pursuing some of these courses. I’d rather have seen a citizens’ assembly on Timor-Leste a decade ago. And the Chinese Communist Party might be able to exercise a stronger influence on the Chinese representatives than America’s government could exercise on its own. But such obstacles are always encountered where we explore new territory. They almost never render us powerless. This one could be ameliorated, though not completely solved, by secret balloting.

Personally, I can’t see a happy future for any of us if we don’t set our minds and our hearts on evolving institutions that are a little more hospitable to what Abraham Lincoln so sublimely summoned up just by naming them: the better angels of our nature.

12 Responses

  1. Selection by lot was a central mechanism through which the ancient Athenians secured the great political principle they called “isegoria” or equality of speech.

    Not so. In classical-era direct democracy anyone was free to propose new laws and to address the general assembly, not just those selected by lot. Other than the appointment mechanism for the assembly secretariat (the council), sortition had no role to play in Athenian isegoria, hence the work Alex and I are doing on the kind of representation needed to institute isegoria in large modern states.

    It’s not clear how you feel sortition could enable equality of speech as, by definition, the vast majority of citizens are excluded from exercising their voice. At least with voting under universal suffrage all citizens get to choose the person who they believe, rightly or wrongly, speaks for them (and anyone is free to make a representative claim in order to secure their votes). We all know the reasons why this doesn’t work brilliantly in practice, but that’s no reason to make erroneous appeals to ancient practice, especially in the light of George Tridimas’s observations on the huge gulf between ancient and modern poleis.


  2. Thanks Keith,

    I’m contrasting, two ways of constituting a representative mini-public – election and sortition. The former can be expected to generate a style of speech reflective of those who win positions as representatives. As we know they are demographically speaking very unrepresentative of the public. The latter will generate a mini-public which corrects this demographic malapportionment. This is why I say that sortition would help introduce greater equality of speech into our representative institutions.

    That was the sense I was seeking to convey with my words.


  3. Nick,

    While the style of speech might be more colloquial, there is no reason to believe that the contents (in terms of beliefs and preferences) would mirror those of the target population, as the law of large numbers does not apply to the speech acts of individuals in small groups, especially if they are (in effect) self-selecting. Such groups fail to be representative in any meaningful sense of the word. Sortition is of no relevance to isegoria, whereas the votes of a large, randomly-selected jury (with quasi-mandatory participation) would constitute a form of representative isonomia. The Athenians clearly believed that to be the case as the 4th century reform of the lawmaking process (establishing randomly-selected legislative juries) passed without much comment. Note that advocates for these panels were elected by the assembly, the jurors just got to listen to the arguments and determine the outcome, so isegoria was not established by sortition.

    PS It’s ironic that you choose a Texas power utiltity DP as your prime example, as the three Texas DPs returned widely divergent verdicts.


  4. Thanks Keith – can you give me more detail on the divergences of the Texas power utility deliberative polls please?


  5. Nick,

    My source is Bob Goodin:

    In his report on deliberative polls done for three different local public utilities in Texas, Fishkin is pleased to report that in all three cases the shift in public opinion, pre- to post-deliberation, was in the same direction (Fishkin, 1997, p. 220). But the absolute numbers nonetheless diverged wildly. In one case, half the respondents thought post-deliberation that ‘investing in conservation’ was the ‘option to pursue first’, whereas in another case less than a sixth thought so. In one case, over a third still thought post-deliberation that ‘renewable energy’ should be the top option, whereas in another case less than a sixth thought so. Clearly, these deliberating groups ought not to be regarded as interchangeable. Neither, in consequence, does this evidence inspire confidence in the general theory of ‘ersatz deliberation’, treating smaller deliberative groups as microcosms capable of literally ‘substituting’ for deliberation across the whole community. (Goodin, 2003, p. 74)

    Assuming the information and advocacy stages of the DP were identical, the obvious source of variance is random (in the pejorative sense) fluctuations introduced by small group deliberation:

    On the face of it, [ongoing descriptive representativity of the minipopulus] seems unlikely. From everyday life we know that different conversations with different participants (or with the same participants interjecting at different points) proceed in radically different directions. Given the path dependency of conversational dynamics, and the sheer creativity of conversing agents, it beggars belief that any one group would come to exactly the same conclusions by exactly the same route as any other. Yet that is what strong advocates of ersatz deliberation must be claiming to be at least approximately true, in insisting that deliberation within a representative subset will genuinely mirror, and can therefore substitute for, deliberations across the whole community. (ibid., pp. 58-59)

    Fishkin (private communication) insists that small group deliberation is an essential part of the preference transformation process, but it strikes me that he is over-beholden to Habermasian discourse theory. It may well be that silent deliberation within does not live up to Habermasian norms, but if that is the price that has to be paid for consistent representative fidelity, then so be it. If three different samples return three different verdicts, then which is the representative one?


    Fishkin, J. (1997). The Voice of the People: Public opinion and democracy. Yale, New Haven: Yale University Press.

    Goodin, R. E. (2003). Democratic deliberation within. In J. Fishkin & P. Laslett (Eds.), Debating Deliberative Democracy (pp. 54-79). Oxford: Blackwell Publishers.


  6. Thanks Keith – I appreciate the references.

    Our minds clearly work differently Keith. You’ve got a lot more faith in human beings’ capacity to design democratic government according to principles that are agreed on according to a certain logic. I’m just trying to address the terrible state of electoral politics I see and think sortition can make a big contribution.

    I did run into some of that material that different groups prioritised things a little differently. Not knowing more than that it’s far from clear if that’s to be seen as some travesty of good governance. Different groups decide difficult things differently – that’s the case with Parliaments as much as juries. Fishkin and others appear to be uncovering fairly reasonable evidence that sortition produces certain kinds of changes – and in the case you’re citing the claim is that they all swung in a consistent direction though in different ways and with different magnitudes.

    I’ve never based any of my advocacy for sortition around the idea that it’s the One True Way but rather on the notion that it would be very worthwhile to introduce it as a check and balance on the existing system.


  7. Nick:> Different groups decide difficult things differently – that’s the case with Parliaments as much as juries.

    Of course, but the parliamentarians have been chosen by those on whose behalf they are deciding. If we’re seeking to either replace or supplement this by a sampling system then we need to ensure that the decision output of the samples reflects the informed beliefs and preferences of the plurality of citizens. If different samples return decisions that “diverge wildly” then this is of no value from a democratic perspective. This would be the case irrespective of whether sortition were replacing or supplementing electoral representation.

    I would characterise the UK’s Brexit moment and the US’s Trump moment more generally as the point at which the electorate perpetrated some action that the overwhelming bulk of the political class regarded in their heart of hearts as crazy.

    This would suggest that your motive for advocating sortition is to re-establish the rule of the political class over the basket of deplorables. This sort of partisanship can only discredit the sortition movement. Bear in mind that I was pretty much alone in advocating a sortition-based alternative before the Brexit referendum, but I did not in any way seek to prejudge the outcome.


  8. Keith,
    It seems that when it is pointed out that a random sample, even with less than ideal uptake (lots of decliners), will still be far more representative (in terms of ideas and interests… not just descriptive) than any existing elected chamber (made up of self-selected partisans using sophisticated public relations manipulation skills)… you resort to asserting that ” but the parliamentarians have been chosen by those on whose behalf they are deciding.” You know this is only a mythology. Representation requires more than a nominal “choice.” (“The victim freely CHOSE to be shot to death rather than poisoned to death.”) A random selection is inherently more democratic than an election if done remotely well.


  9. Then we need to refine the choice method to better reflect the beliefs and preferences of the public. This is what Alex is working on, see his new blog post:


  10. Pleased to hear black ops is working on it :)


  11. Are you a gamer Alex?


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