Galland and Schnapper: Citizen conventions and representative democracy, Part 1

Olivier Galland, sociologist at the CNRS, and Dominique Schnapper, researcher at the EHESS and an honorary member of the Constitutional Council, write in Telos.

Parliamentary institutions are the only legitimate institutions for enacting legislation and for government oversight. Under what conditions could those institutions be complemented by the involvement in the public space of groups of citizens which would work for a period of time in order to come to know in an informed and open-minded way the dimensions of a political problem and which would publish the results of their deliberations?

This question is part of a general ambition for some form of democratization to which the institutions of the Republic are responding poorly at the moment. Dominique Rousseau advocates a “continuous democracy” while Rosanvallon advocates for a “counter-democracy”. But neither of them poses the problem in a way that appears to us just or practicable.

It may be accepted that low turnout rates are an indicator of the weakening of the legitimacy of the parliament and of government, or, put differently, that we are experiencing a crisis of representation. It is thus not out of the question to reflect on forms of citizen consultation which would inform the public discussion between elections. These would share the space that is now left solely to the media, to social networks and to unaccountable citizens who are not particularly informed and who make their opinion known, for example, wherever information is transmitted or even through the device of opinion polls.

But the experience of the Citizen Climate Convention shows that it is important to strictly circumscribe the function and the direction of such a project because “citizen conventions”, in contrast to other means of public debate, adopt the forms of representative assemblies. Even the term “convention” connotes the great American or French conventions which were charged in the past with writing the constitutions of democratic modernity. All of that may lead to dangerous consequences, namely it may contribute to the replacement of the legitimate institutions of the representative republic.

Some strict conditions must be specified regarding:

1. the composition and the selection of those in charge of organizing the “convention” and the method of selection of the participant, starting with a random drawing (150 people from an electoral body of 40 million). Regarding the first point, the political authority which selects the organizers bears a great responsibility. In fact, the work of the convention may be directed in a partisan way if the choice of those who define its framework is partisan. Activists must be avoided and a certain balance between points of view must be respected.

Regarding the selection of allotted convention members: this choice is inevitably biased by the simple fact that the members are volunteers, and are therefore more interested, more motivated and have more well-formed ideas on the issue than normal people. In order to limit this bias, it is necessary first to assess it and therefore to collect the available information about the characteristics of those who refuse participate and, if possible, their reasons. It is possible at a minimum to have those initially selected answer a short questionnaire regarding the issues at hand. That would allow to assess the selection bias associated, not with socio-demographic characteristics, but with opinions and to subsequently try to correct for those biases by modifying the composition of the sample according to those results.

But it is unlikely that such bias will be completely eliminated because no one can be forced to participate. It is in any case indispensable to understand the magnitude of the bias which may limit the range of the conclusions which convention may reach. In addition, even if the sample is statistically representative, it must not be forgotten that it does not enjoy the representative status granted by free elections, which rests on a conscious choice of the citizens requires a program and political will. The nature of statistical representation is different from that of political representation.

15 Responses

  1. This article is a good example of foolishness and sophistries in regard to democracy through allotted bodies.

    From the article: “Parliamentary institutions are the only legitimate institutions for enacting legislation and for government oversight.”

    Presumably the author has not heard of the ballot initiative and veto referendum, which the public regard as legitimate institutions for respectively enacting and vetoing legislation in every jurisdiction that has them.

    Presumably the author has also not heard of the judiciary, which is generally seen as legitimate by the public, and which plays a significant role in government oversight, and in effect in creating legislation based on how they interpret the constitution and other laws.

    From the article: “if the sample is statistically representative, it must not be forgotten that it does not enjoy the representative status granted by free elections, which rests on a conscious choice of the citizens requires a program and political will. The nature of statistical representation is different from that of political representation.”

    What kind of “representative status” do “free elections” provide, if any? The majority views of Americans are quite different from the public policies Americans get and do not get from elected politicians. If by “representative” we mean representative of the views of Americans then US legislatures are unrepresentative, not representative. As the title of Lawrence Lessig’s book from last year has it, “they don’t represent us.”

    Statistical representation is representative of the views and concerns of the public that it statistically represents. Unlike Donald Trump, Joe Biden and Congress, statistically representative juries of the public actually would represent the public with regard to representing our views and concerns.

    However, merely representing uninformed, poorly informed and misinformed public opinion is not enough, because informed views are a far better basis for decisions, good public policy and good governance. It is only through juries/minipublics/allotted-bodies that public policy can be based on the informed views of the public.

    Electoral democracy, as it is called, is not suited for representing the views of the public, nor for representing the informed views of the public. There are all kinds of fairly obvious reasons why this is so.

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  2. “All of that may lead to dangerous consequences, namely it may contribute to the replacement of the legitimate institutions of the representative republic” – we can but hope!

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  3. The authors’ concerns strike me as eminently reasonable, particularly their anxiety about voluntarism. And the distinction that they end with (between statistical and political representation) is straight from Pitkin. Have you read it yet Oliver?

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  4. Not yet! I have the German Basic Law and a few books on civil-military relations to get through first. It’s on my bookshelf though!

    As for the article, Galland’s concerns about the assembly form are legitimate when it is put up against a better-thought-through superminority system. His point of contrast, though, is the elected assembly, which is subject to equivalent or worse problems. And of course I don’t share your overriding concern with representation being the only source of normative governmental legitimacy. If an assembly-based system can gain and deserve the public’s trust then it’s legitimate – it doesn’t seem like the best possible system for that, but I wouldn’t rule out that an assembly-based system could be an improvement on existing electoral democracies.

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  5. Given the law of unintended consequences (unknown unknowns as Rumsfeld put it) we just don’t know how it’s going to work out in practice, so it’s unwise to rely on “might” or “could be”. The authors (rightly) claim that citizens’ conventions don’t even work in terms of democratic theory, but you do need to read Pitkin’s book to see why.

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  6. The idea of getting input from those who decline to participate seems very justified. But instead of attempting to use this input in some sort of a scheme for de-biasing the convention’s proposals, the useful way to go would be to use it to understand why people turn down the offered slots. The answers could be very helpful in improving the system and pushing acceptance rates toward 100%.

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  7. I agree with Keith that the authors’ anxiety about voluntarism is valid.

    I also agree with Yoram re finding out why people decline to serve in order to increase the portion of those sampled who will voluntarily serve.

    Fishkin’s deliberative polls try to deal with the voluntarism issue by stratified sampling re characteristics such as age and education, and also opinions, so that deliberative polls will be a representative cross-section even if many decline to serve. (That is not so say that deliberative polls never have a high portion of those who are sampled volunteering to serve, as was the case with the deliberative poll on the Mongolian constitution.)

    The voluntarism issue can also of course be addressed by making service on such things as legislative juries quasi-mandatory.

    Supporters of electoral oligarchy are often unaware that some of their criticisms of sortition apply more to electoral oligarchy than to sortition.

    Electoral oligarchy (referred to in the article as “the only legitimate institutions for enacting legislation and for government oversight”) has very serious voluntarism problems, far more serious than those of a well-designed system of sortition, in my view.

    Those who vote in general elections are in most countries volunteers, and are very unrepresentative of the public. The lower the voter turn-out the less representative they tend to be.

    Those who volunteer to vote in America’s primary elections are even more unrepresentative of the public. As are those who vote in party processes for nominating candidates in Canada, and elsewhere. Although casting ballots in general elections in Australia is quasi-mandatory, that is not so with regard to choosing the candidates who run as party nominees in such elections (thus Australia’s general elections are not at all free from distorting effect of voluntarism).

    Those who choose to run for public office are also volunteers, and are very unrepresentative of the public. Also, as Terry, who has spent two decades as an elected official, keeps trying to educate us about, they are for the most a highly undesirable portion of people for deciding public policy and legislation.

    A further voluntarism problem is who contributes money to election campaigns. They are always a very unrepresentative portion of the public.

    Voluntarism problems are endemic to electoral oligarchy, and are I think one of the good reasons why elected politicians should not decide laws, and why they should not be chosen by popular election.

    A further interesting fact is that Athenian representative democracy was very much characterized by voluntarism. The allotted bodies were chosen by lottery from those who volunteered to serve, and the fraction of citizens who attended each session of the Assembly were also volunteers. Yet, despite this pervasive voluntarism the allotted bodies and the Assembly were considered to represent the demos. The decisions of the Assembly were even said to be the decisions of the demos (even though the Assembly was never attended by more than about 6,000 of the 20,000 to 50,000 or so Athenian citizens).

    The Athenians addressed the voluntarism problem by paying citizens to serve on allotted bodies and for attending the Assembly, something which helped make it more possible for everyone who wished to serve to do so.

    Recently, when I observed that those who vote in popular elections are unrepresentative of the public, a friend replied that they had chosen not to vote. I think the idea is that if people freely choose not to vote none of their rights are being violated, and they have simply chosen to leave political decisions to those who wish to participate. She did not seem to think “the oligarchy of the enthusiastic” or the “oligarchy of those who opt to participate” was a problem. (I don’t agree that it is not a problem, but it looks like the Athenians might have agreed with her.)

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  8. Yes – obviously, any “anxiety” expressed by electoralists regarding the potential unrepresentativity of the allotted is no more than an excuse for their own elitist prejudices.

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  9. Simon:> Electoral oligarchy . . . has very serious voluntarism problems.

    Electoral turnouts of 30-60% are an order of magnitude more representative than the 3-4% average for sortition projects.

    >I think the idea is that if people freely choose not to vote none of their rights are being violated.

    In the electoral example the representation principle is choice, whereas in the sortition example the principle is resemblance. This requires the sample to be an accurate portrait in miniature of the target population and we both agree that voluntarism generates a skewed sample. This was less of a problem to the Athenians as the ratio between the voluntary jury pool and the whole citizen body was several orders of magnitude lower than in the modern example and their culture was more homogeneous.

    Yoram:> obviously, any “anxiety” expressed by electoralists regarding the potential unrepresentativity of the allotted is no more than an excuse for their own elitist prejudices.

    Why so? Their assumption is that voluntarism is a statistically significant population parameter, in the same way as age, gender, income etc. You have suggested that if the allotted assembly has genuine powers and participants are well rewarded then this will ensure a very high acceptance rate. It’s plausible that if the bribe is big enough, most people will take it but that would not necessarily lead to proactive participation in the sort of full-mandate assembly you are advocating. The alternative to your structural perspective is that most people are not particularly interested in political participation as, to paraphrase Wilde, it takes too many evenings.

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  10. A further way in which voluntarism plagues popular election is that becoming informed about those who are running for public office is a voluntary spare time activity. As a result the public are in general poorly informed about the candidates and their platform. As Keith mentions citing Wilde “it takes too many evenings.”

    Keith:> Electoral turnouts of 30-60% are an order of magnitude more representative than the 3-4% average for sortition projects.

    We agree that 3-4% is too low (at least for things like a legislative jury) and steps are needed to make it much higher. However, sortition allows options that popular election does not such as stratification so that even though younger citizens, those without university degrees and the less affluent may be much less likely to volunteer, the minipublic will still be an accurate portrait regarding those characteristics.

    In addition, those who participate in choosing party nominees are of course typically much less than 30% of the public, and the same is true of those who donate money to campaigns.

    Keith:> In the electoral example the representation principle is choice

    Well, supposedly, but are poorly informed choices really democratic, or a desirable version of democracy and a good basis for public policy and good governance? Also, the choices are often very constrained, Biden or Trump in the US, Corbyn or Johnson in the UK along with whoever the local candidate or nincompoop is. Also, who is really doing the choosing, the voters or the donor class and the corporate media, and in the case of Corbyn, Blairite politicians and lackeys who apparently wanted him to lose? Also, who chose the party nominees, and what role do donors, party establishments and media play in who gets chosen? Also, candidates may not do what they said and may even be out and out liars and con artists making the notion of choice rather illusory. Also, voters have to choose a package deal, some of which they may like and some of which they do not (for example in regard to Biden or Johnson’s track record and policy platform). Also, sometimes voters do not so much choose a candidate as they choose to vote against a candidate (for example many who voted Biden did so holding their nose in order to get rid of Trump, and many who voted from Trump in 2016 did so because they could not stand Hillary). Also, as already discussed, is a choice by 30-60% of the public the same as a choice by the public?

    In short, the notion that electoral oligarchy is based on the “principle of choice” (meaning a choice by the public) is largely illusory and does not especially correspond to the reality.

    Also, the principle of resemblance is of course not absent from electoral oligarchy, as for example the extent to which the general election voters, and those who vote to choose the party nominees, resemble the public as a whole matters.

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  11. Simon:> sortition allows options that popular election does not such as stratification so that even though younger citizens, those without university degrees and the less affluent may be much less likely to volunteer, the minipublic will still be an accurate portrait regarding those characteristics.

    Yes that’s true. My concern is that interest in political matters (which operationalises as voluntarism) is an important population parameter that would have a significant influence on policy preferences — this may well be at the root of Terry’s claim that sortition is likely to lead to substantively different policy outcomes from electoralism. My hunch, broadly speaking, is that there is a correlation between lack of interest in politics and conservatism (small c) — at least that is what Michael Oakeshott believed. If this is the case then voluntary sortition is an excuse to introduce radical policies that would be rejected by a majority of ordinary voters, behind the smokescreen that these were “the people’s” choice.

    >the choices are often very constrained, Biden or Trump in the US, Corbyn or Johnson in the UK along with whoever the local candidate or nincompoop is.

    As you know Alex and I are not trying to defend electoralism in its current incarnation. Our view is that changing the proposal threshold (the superminority principle) and leaving the disposing function to large quasi-mandatory allotted juries would bring about a democratic revival. This would address most of the objections of the authors of this article.

    I would still like to know why Yoram thinks their concern with voluntarism is an excuse for their elitist prejudices.

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  12. Voluntarism is a concern primarily because it seems likely to be associated with other characteristics that would influence policy choices (decliners are presumably more likely to be those who have to work two jobs to get by, those suffering oppression that lowers self-esteem, entrepreneurs launching a new business, or new mothers with small babies, etc.). Ideally a democratic lottery system would remove all possible barriers to serving, combined with adequate inducements, so that it was only those who were “simply uninterested” who would decline. I favor quasi-mandatory service for final, short duration policy juries because we are along way from removing all barriers, while allowing an element of voluntarism to exist in preparatory review mini-publics with no final authority, as a way of benefitting from the diversity and sanitizing impartiality of random selection.

    However, if there were exhaustive barrier removal and healthy inducements, it is not clear to me there is a fundamental democratic problem with voluntarism (as Simon points out, the original coining of the word democracy in Greece was based on a system that combined random selection with voluntarism.) Some religious sects reject participation in even voting as too “worldly.” When to compulsory service become an infringement on freedom? Perhaps democracy always has and always will embrace rule by those people “willing to participate” (assuming all barriers are removed).

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  13. Terry,

    > I favor quasi-mandatory service for final, short duration policy juries because we are along way from removing all barriers

    Apart from the fact that forcing someone to show up is very different from getting them to participate in any meaningful way, the notion that mandatory service could be used as a temporary stop-gap measure misses the fact that mandatory service could easily become an obstacle, a fake substitute, for removing barriers for real, voluntary participation.

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  14. Terry:> Perhaps democracy always has and always will embrace rule by those people “willing to participate”

    But sortition, by definition, excludes the overwhelming majority of citizens, whether or not they want to participate. This means that the representative fidelity of the sample is absolutely crucial and Simon, you and I agree that voluntarism will lead to a skewed sample. Yoram and yourself claim that this will be on account of structural barriers, whereas I would retort that most people are simply not interested in politics, they would rather go down the pub (were it not in lockdown).

    >the original coining of the word democracy in Greece was based on a system that combined random selection with voluntarism.

    Ancient poleis were unlike large modern states for the following reasons:

    1. Size: The ratio between the jury pool and the total citizen body was lower by one or even two orders of magnitude.

    2. Diversity: Modern states are pluralistic and multicultural and are characterised by deep divides between the views and preferences of their citizens. The Greeks prized homonoia (same-mindedness) and were united by a single set of religious beliefs and cultural practices.

    3. Ancient/modern liberty: Public service, in the military and political institutions, was the default position. Anyone who didn’t participate was an “idiot”.

    4. Statistical sampling: The Greeks had no notion of mathematical probability, so the modern principle of descriptive representation would not have made sense to them.

    5. Athens was a direct democracy, in which the general assembly was the sovereign body.

    6. Sortition: If Mirko Canevaro is right then the Greeks did not use sortition in their law-making bodies (other than appointing the assembly secretariat by lot).

    What we are suggesting is a modern project, so we should stop banging on about Ancient Greece.

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  15. […] The second part of an article in Telos by Olivier Galland, sociologist at the CNRS, and Dominique Schnapper, researcher at the EHESS and an honorary member of the Constitutional Council. The first part is here. […]

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