Lafont: Democracy without shortcuts

Cristina Lafont is a professor of philosophy at Northwestern University whose research is about normative questions in political philosophy concerning democracy and citizen participation, global governance, human rights, religion and politics.

Lafont is the author a new book, Democracy without shortcuts, devoting a fair amount of attention to allotted citizen juries.

This book articulates a participatory conception of deliberative democracy that takes the democratic ideal of self-government seriously. It aims to improve citizens’ democratic control and vindicate the value of citizens’ participation against conceptions that threaten to undermine it. The book critically analyzes deep pluralist, epistocratic, and lottocratic conceptions of democracy. Their defenders propose various institutional “shortcuts” to help solve problems of democratic governance such as overcoming disagreements, citizens’ political ignorance, or poor-quality deliberation. However, it turns out that these shortcut proposals all require citizens to blindly defer to actors over whose decisions they cannot exercise control. Implementing such proposals would therefore undermine democracy. Moreover, it seems naïve to assume that a community can reach better outcomes “faster” if it bypasses the beliefs and attitudes of its citizens. Unfortunately, there are no “shortcuts” to making a community better than its members. The only road to better outcomes is the long, participatory road that is taken when citizens forge a collective will by changing one another’s hearts and minds. However difficult the process of justifying political decisions to one another may be, skipping it cannot get us any closer to the democratic ideal. Starting from this conviction, the author defends a conception of democracy “without shortcuts.” This conception sheds new light on long-standing debates about the proper scope of public reason, the role of religion in politics, and the democratic legitimacy of judicial review. It also proposes new ways to unleash the democratic potential of institutional innovations such as deliberative minipublics.


The book seems to pursue the line of argument presented in Lafont’s previously published papers such as her 2015 paper “Deliberation, Participation and Democratic Legitimacy: Should Deliberative Minipublics Shape Public Policy?”

In this article I defend the view that only a participatory conception of democracy is compatible with the criterion of democratic legitimacy that deliberative democrats endorse. I do so by analyzing proposals to use mini-publics for shaping public policy and showing that their generalized use would diminish rather than increase the legitimacy of the deliberative system as a whole. These proposals face a normative dilemma. Their implementation would be a superfluous shortcut if the shaping relies on the uptake of the mini-publics’ recommendations for deliberation in the public sphere. Alternatively, if the mini-publics’ recommendations were to directly feed into a decision-making process bypassing deliberation in the public sphere, its implementation would be incompatible with the criterion of legitimacy endorsed by deliberative democrats.

18 Responses

  1. Having read parts of the paper, I find it pretty interesting (while unconvincing substantively). It basically argues that in order for the people to be able to accept any particular decision of an allotted body, rather than “blindly trust it”, they must themselves experience the same process of deliberation that took place in the body.

    [H]ow can non-participants reach a warranted judgment on whether to trust a specific recommendation if they forgo any examination of the deliberations on the issue? (p. 17)

    The answer IMO is that it is the decision-making process that needs to be trusted (not blindly of course but based on a familiarity with how it works and on a theoretical analysis of the process) and on being satisfied with the policy outcomes.

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  2. Yoram:> The answer IMO is that it is the decision-making process that needs to be trusted (not blindly of course but based on a familiarity with how it works and on a theoretical analysis of the process) and on being satisfied with the policy outcomes.

    That may or may not be true, but that has nothing to do with democracy per se (unlike Lafont’s participatory criterion). The answer IMO is that people would trust the process if it could be demonstrated (both in theory and by experiment) that the outcome would be the same, irrespective of which citizens were randomly selected. That way everyone gets to participate vicariously — a genuinely democratic outcome. Unfortunately that is likely to require some serious constraints on the deliberative mandate.

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  3. I’ve not read her stuff (at least I don’t think I have). But based on what is posted above, it looks to me like yet another perhaps entertaining argument from a supporter of “electoral democracy,” against legislative juries. that is fairly obviously more reasonably seen as an argument against laws being decided by popularly elected politicians and political parties.

    From the blurb about the book:
    “it turns out that these shortcut proposals [meaning or including legislative juries I take it] all require citizens to blindly defer to actors over whose decisions they cannot exercise control. Implementing such proposals would therefore undermine democracy.”

    That describes rule by popularly elected politicians and political parties. They are free to do what they want once elected, and the public have no control over them, but are instead completely excluded and disenfranchised from deciding laws. Although it may be possible to elect a new set of politicians and parties in the next election, by then (as Lysander Spooner eloquently pointed out 120 year ago) it is too late as the damage has already been done, and the new set will be just as irresponsible (free to do what they like and beyond the public’s control) as the previous, and may well be as bad or worse.

    There are three choices for deciding laws. 1. Defer to elected politicians who have self-interests at odds with the interests of the people, and are chosen by an undemocratic and very problematic method (popular election). (Among the undemocratic and bad public policy aspects of popular election are that almost all those elected to legislatures are from the top few percent in terms of income and wealth {which is plutocratic}, are mostly men {which is patriarchal}, are almost all partisans of a political party, are disproportionately over 40, and {as is the case in the US} may primarily represent the corporations and the rich {because popular election favours the preferred candidates of corporations and the rich}, who may have been voted for for reasons other than support for their stated legislative agenda {for example they seemed a lesser evil compared to the alternative}, who may well not do what they said they said they would in the campaign, and may do things they said they would not and that they did not mention}.) 2. Defer to a highly representative microcosm of the people chosen by lottery. 3. Decide all laws by a referendum vote.

    Given that referendum-ocracy is a very bad idea, we can either defer to legislative juries or to popularly elected politicians for the deciding of laws. The former approach is democratic, the latter is not.

    Cristina implies, so it seems, that deferring to popularly elected politicians to decide laws is not deferring “to actors over whose decisions [we] cannot exercise control.” This claim is false, and rather obviously false. It also happens that deferring to elected politicians is highly unsuitable for ensuring laws that the public support, or would support, were we to become well-informed about the relevant facts and arguments.

    There is no good reason I know of why we should prefer laws based on the poorly and uninformed views of the public, or laws based on the preferences of politicians, parties and their donors (Cristina’s apparent preference), to those based on the informed views of representative minipublics.

    We don’t have control over either elected politicians or minipublics. But with the latter, unlike the former, we can count on them to strongly tend to pass the laws we all would were to become well informed about the relevant facts and arguments, and we have a highly effective firewall against laws being determined by the self-interest of political and economic elites.

    Neither do we have control over how our fellow citizens vote in elections – and it is a good thing we don’t as that would be obviously undemocratic. It would also be obviously undemocratic for us to have control over how the members of a trial jury vote, and the same is true of us having control over how legislative juries vote.

    Juries offer something far better than control – they offer rule by highly representative portions of the public serving in turns.

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  4. *** Lafont 2015 criticizes in her article the use of decisional minipublics as shortcuts which prevents wide citizenry deliberations, which could lead to referenda with results different from the minipublics.
    *** She does not consider that many policy and legislative issues are not-salient ones, which anyway will not lead to wide citizenry deliberations ; even very important ones as the details of trade treaties. The devil is in the details, and specially the polyarchic devil.
    *** Lafont 2015 does not consider the increasingly powerful institutions where anyway there is neither citizen ratification no citizen control, as the constitutional courts (including human rights courts).Here her criticism has no room.
    *** But we can find (academia-edu) another article by Cristina Lafont « Can Democracy be Deliberative and Participatory? The Democratic Case for Political Uses of Minipublics » (2017)
    *** Lafont 2017 considers the constitutional courts. In the end of her article, she says she does « not rule out the possibility of legitimate uses of empowered minipublics that may not be directly tied to referenda or some other form of citizen ratification. [..] Empowered minipublics could be inserted in the political process to share power with other political institutions that, for good reasons, are not themselves tied to direct forms of citizen ratification (e.g. the judiciary). In such a case, although the inclusion of empowered minipublics may not increase the democratic quality of the political system as a whole, it may not decrease it either. »
    *** Remarkable sentence. If the constitutional issues are decided not by appointed Nine Judges, but by a big jury of 500 allotted citizens (who might have heard these nine persons, but as constitutional experts), the change along Cristina Lafont would not « increase the democratic quality of the political system ». That would have appeared very strange to an Athenian democrat, or likewise to the very undemocrat Aristotle who wrote (Constitution of Athens, 9-1) « indeed when the dêmos is master of the pebble (= the token for judiciary votes), he is master (or “sovereign”, Greek kyrios) of the political system ».

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  5. Andre, What size minipublics is Lafont advocating in her 2017 paper? That would seem to be a crucial factor in deciding whether they would increase the democratic quality of the political system. Very few modern proposals make the case for 500-strong juries.

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  6. *** Lafont 2017 does not consider details for constitutional juries. Anyway I am not sure she likes really the idea. Maybe she considers it only to be more convincing in her reasoning against legislative empowered minipublics. It would be interesting to read her new book.
    *** The size of the constitutional jury is an issue linked to the degree of pure randomness we accept. We could imagine a moderate-size jury, going to a big-size jury only if there is a too narrow majority.
    *** Must the procedure include, or not, a step of face to face debate in small groups ? it is the same issue that for legislative juries.
    *** The constitutional jury issue is the soft belly of the « modern democracy » because the system is sold as « a representative democracy through election», whereas powerful institutions are not elected by citizens.

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  7. André,
    In many U.S. states judges *are* elected (but not federal judges who rule on constitutional issues), and in those situations the corruption of campaign contributions, etc., and the fact that almost no voters know anything about any judge candidates, makes the elected judges even more of a mockery of democracy than elected legislators or appointed federal judges.

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  8. Terry, in Switserland there is a citizens initiated initiative in order to appoint the judges of the federal court by sortition. https://www.justiz-initiative.ch/fr/startseite.html (not available in English) May be the referendum system (at citizens initiative, plebiscites are not allowed in Switserland) can help us out there.

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  9. *** Paul Nollen mentioned a citizen initiative in Switzerland in order to appoint the judges of the federal court by sortition. https://www.justiz-initiative.ch/fr/startseite.html
    *** But the lot would be among people selected by a Committee as people with law abilities, professional lawyers. The aim is to lessen the influence of the political elite, but it is aristocratic lot, picking by lot judges among a legal elite.
    *** Maybe in a dêmokratia it could be a good device to appoint first degree judges, but the last word must belong to a jury allotted from the entire citizenry.

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  10. I agree with André that the Swiss proposal is partly aristocratic but I think that his has the advantage that it is not to revolutionary and in that way it has a greater chance to be accepted in a referendum if they pass the signature threshold. And if they succeed it would be a world first in recent history, as far as I know, and of very great importance for all of us in favor of (more) democracy.

    We also have to consider the power of the constitutional court in the Swiss direct democracy model. Invoking a ‘higher justice’ can always lead to a very persistend dictatorship.

    Click to access direct_democracy_in_a_comparative_perspective.pdf


    Any abuse of direct democracy might be banned by a constitutional court. In Switzerland, the Federal Court is able to decide whether the matter of a referendum conforms to the principles of the constitution (pp.97-103). Dominique Rousseau holds similar views when he
    promotes a form of “continuous democracy,”5 in which the constitutional judge controls direct democracy procedures.

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  11. *** The judicial review may have two founding reasons.
    *** First reason : laws must be superior to executive decisions and constitution/principles are paramount. For instance Demosthenes asked a jury to crush Leiptenes’ Law about fiscal immunities as « contrary to basic principles » ; the judicial jury must concentrate on this point, maybe considering all points (as the State’s need for money) but concentrating on this constitutional point as the legislators, in need of money, maybe were too much concerned by practical points.
    This is pure democracy.
    *** Second reason : the ordinary citizens have too low an intellectual level and/or maturity level and /or ethical level ; the policy must consider their yearnings but over them must stand an elite of wiser persons. This is what Pasquino calls (approvingly) « aristodemocracy ».
    *** The second reason was not totally absent from the Second Athenian Democracy model, as the jurors were to be over thirty and to take the heliastic oath. But the first reason was paramount.
    *** A third reason for judicial review is the complexity of law, which needs professionals. I am not sure that it is really strong for basic constitutional issues ; rather it covers the idea of « wisest persons ».
    *** That said, an aristocratical lot for constitutional courts would be something good from a democratic point of view, because it would accustom people to the use of lot as a rational device .

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  12. More analysis of sortition by a French academic:

    Les enjeux du tirage au sort de citoyens
    Vincent de Coorebyter

    […]

    Si nous faisons le choix du tirage au sort, il faudra remplacer cette expertise par une autre, c’est-à-dire donner aux citoyens désignés par le hasard des moyens d’information et de discussion équivalents à ceux du monde politique sur chaque sujet, ce qui ne va pas de soi. C’est une question d’organisation (recruter des experts, assurer l’équité des débats…), mais aussi de disponibilité de la part des citoyens, auxquels il faudra accorder des congés et des défraiements.

    Si l’on estime que c’est praticable, il faudra encore s’assurer que le tirage au sort permet d’installer des assemblées vraiment représentatives, et c’est le défi le plus difficile à relever. Il faut en effet une assemblée de grande taille pour que chaque catégorie sociale, chaque sensibilité, y soit représentée en juste proportion. Or on connaît la difficulté à trouver des volontaires en nombre suffisant, surtout dans les catégories socio-professionnelles moins favorisées. Si l’on ne franchit pas cet obstacle, le tirage au sort conduira à une nouvelle forme d’élitisme.

    Le défi est donc écrasant, et l’on comprend que les partis proposent des avancées plus modestes, des enceintes temporaires et de taille réduite ne rendant que des avis non contraignants. C’est plus pragmatique, mais sans doute insuffisant pour réenchanter la démocratie.

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  13. Sorry to be posting to this thread so late. I wrote about those two essays, which I would guess are the core argument of the book, in an E b L post on October 8, 2019.
    The heart of the argument is that we should not use allotted minipublics to “bypass” or “short cut” what is ultimately the goal of democratic politics, to persuade the public that the course charted by the citizens’ assembly (or any other method) is the right thing to do.

    There are at least two ways to do this. First, both the process by which the proposal is arrived at and its content can be further adjudicated by the public, with the help presumably of the process organizers AND the participants. The participants themselves will have become sort of experts on the issue having weighed the facts and the arguments. They themselves will be advocates for their own decision.

    Second, the process itself will have become so trusted or so transparent that its result will be publicly trusted. One way to do this, is suggested by Sutherland (and perhaps Kovner elsewhere), which is to have SIMULTANEOUS processes to show that they “converge” on some answer. Many of the Planning Cells in Germany were run like this. Where 10 groups of 25 members each would all deliberate separately and independently the same questions over the course of several days using the exact same evidence and experts. The other way, would be to make the process and its input so transparent and on record that the public at large can scrutinize the whole process. But this possibility might mean recording the deliberation, which might make participants too guarded to genuinely deliberate or engage one another.

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  14. Ahmed,

    > the process itself will have become so trusted or so transparent that its result will be publicly trusted

    Yes, that is certainly what any democratic decision making procedure must be, and there is no process that is obviously so. Establishing such a process is hard work – both in theory and broad outlines and in details. (If Lafont believes that mass participation is inherently trusted or transparent then she is of course mistaken.)

    > SIMULTANEOUS processes to show that they “converge” on some answer […] using the exact same evidence and experts

    To make “convergence” a meaningful concept there would have to be a limited set of options from which the bodies can choose. Thus we are left with the question of who sets those options, and this is in addition to the question of who determines the evidence and selects the experts. In other words, by the time your concurrent bodies get to deliberate, much of the decision making process has already occurred outside of any democratic framework.

    > The other way, …

    The other way is to have the process itself designed (and improved over time) by representative bodies so that it comes to reflect how people perceive a well-functioning representative process, and so that over time it proves itself – in terms of the policy results it generates – as trustworthy.

    That last point is important and seems to be generally ignored (or denied) by democratic theorists: “democratic is as democratic does”. What ultimately determines whether a system is democratic is the fact that it is perceived by people as consistently serving their interests. The rest is implementation details.

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  15. Yoram:> we are left with the question of who sets those options, and this is in addition to the question of who determines the evidence and selects the experts. In other words, by the time your concurrent bodies get to deliberate, much of the decision making process has already occurred outside of any democratic framework.

    Of course that’s true, but Alex and myself claim that changing the decision rule in the elected assembly is the only way of ensuring democratic decision-making in large-scale poleis.

    >What ultimately determines whether a system is democratic is the fact that it is perceived by people as consistently serving their interests.

    As you rightly say, no democratic theorist would accept this definition as it would mean that China and Russia are democracies. For a political system to be democratic means that the demos has kratos, so I guess a better word to describe your system would be demophilia (and this would operationalise as governance by public opinion poll).

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  16. The limited set of options sometimes is actually the case. For example, with the CIR processes in Oregon–now in pilot in Switzerland–the (binary) options have already been set by a citizens initiative. But for large questions such as response to climate change, your point is well taken. Did French citizens really have all creative options on the table? Most certainly not. But, stepping back, their somewhat bold recommendations could put pressure on the government to take more impressive steps on the issue.

    Which brings me to your second point, the SUBSTANTIVE issue, if I understood that correctly. Your point is that the substantive outcome itself will be judged by the public as serving or not serving their interests. I agree in theory, but the question is circular. It is not clear that the public has a well-formed or well-in-formed preferences on the issue. Beyond the disinformation and propaganda, there are reified ideas of the dominant interests, especially regarding who the economy “really works,” or myths about money, scarcity, property, or growth.

    And this is why opinion polls are often worse than useless, because they can reproduce a propagandized narratives. For example, an opinion poll on “whether Russian interfered with the election in the US,” itself produces the thing it is supposed to measure, never mind that this is not an issue to be determined by an opinion poll to begin with. I think this speaks to Keith’s concern too?

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  17. > The limited set of options sometimes is actually the case

    But in such cases, where the options are set by a non democratic process (such as the ballot qualification process), does it really matter if the selection between the elite-determined choices is not democratic? Pepsi or Coke – does the logo on your sugar water really matter?

    > It is not clear that the public has a well-formed or well-in-formed preferences on the issue.

    I agree. The public does not have informed and considered opinions on most specific issues (including which issues need to be put on the agenda) – that is the reason why decision making bodies are needed in the first place.

    The sense that government serves the general interest (and thus the sense of trust) is not created or destroyed based on approval or disapproval of any specific decision but rather on the long-term cumulative effects of policy making on people’s lives. People judge whether their lives are improving or deteriorating, whether the decision-makers seem to be doing as well as everybody else or are doing better at the expense of the average citizen. It is based on these broad questions that the system is judged. Citizens are not only qualified to make such judgements, they are the only ones qualified to make them.

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  18. Ahmed:> I think this speaks to Keith’s concern too?

    To a degree, but my principal concern is to protect the way that words are used. Yoram is referring to demophilia, not democracy — in the former there is no reason for the people to have power, they just have to approve of what’s being done in their name. This would make Germany during the late 1930s an example of ur-democracy and that’s just plain silly. Life under national socialism may have been better (for most people) than under the chaos of 1920s liberal democracy, but there is nothing democratic about the rule of the Nazi party. Similar arguments could be made about communist China and Russia under Putin (to Yoram, both are examples of democracy in practice). If we want to open this forum to a wider audience, then we need to respect the existing shared meaning of words. And it’s no coincidence that the CCP spends oodles of Renminbi on public opinion consultation, but democracy means the demos has kratos.

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