Some Problems of Citizens’ Assemblies

Academia.edu have recently launched Academia Letters, a peer-reviewed journal consisting of short articles that are distributed to a wide audience, and Alex Kovner and I were invited to contribute to the first edition. The Academia Letters article is here (along with the reviewers’ comments). It was edited down rather severely, the advantage being that, according to the analytics, most people who received the notification actually read it, the intention being to introduce new work to a broader audience than the usual recipients. A fuller version is available on Alex’s blog: Part 1 and Part 2. We’re currently working on a new Superminority article to directly address the problem at the heart of the US and other deeply polarized political systems — where half the electorate are effectively disenfranchised — that led to the attack on Capitol Hill.

11 Responses

  1. Keith and Alex, I read the Academia version (will prob read longer version later). I strongly agree with the main idea, as you know: limiting elected politicians to the the role of proposing laws, with the the role of disposing/deciding being done by legislative juries. Also, I like the concise way you express some of the key points, including, as you know, the term “superminorities.”

    I won’t rehash all the things I don’t agree with here, which as indicated are on points other than the main idea.

    With regard to your mentioning prosecutors in the criminal justice system, their aim should be to serve justice not to win as many cases as possible.

    Keith and Alex:> Elected representatives will now be judged mostly on whether their viewpoint wins with the jury, just as prosecutors are (or should be) judged by success with traditional juries.

    No law professor and no bar association would agree with this statement about prosecutors. Prosecutors should be seeking a just result rather than seeking to win. This might mean for example ensuring that relevant facts tending to discredit their witnesses are disclosed to the defense, not bringing certain cases, not presenting evidence they know to be false, misleading or lacking a basis in fact, reviewing past cases for wrongful convictions and for the withholding of relevant information and for new information that may have come to light and could have led the jury to decide differently, not asking for the maximum sentence, withdrawing a case including after the trial has started. Here’s the first good article I found on this topic in a search: https://time.com/5863783/prosecutors-criminal-justice-reform/

    Here’s a standard article put out by a law firm: https://esfandilawfirm.com/prosecutor-role-criminal-case/

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  2. I would also like to comment on the same point:
    Keith and Alex:> Elected representatives will now be judged mostly on whether their viewpoint wins with the jury, just as prosecutors are (or should be) judged by success with traditional juries.
    As a response to Simon, I think Keith and Alex are asserting that since the prosecutor decides which cases to prosecute and bring to a jury in the first place, their success with juries (not the raw number of guilty verdicts) could indicate their success at seeking justice.

    So, after defending Keith and Alex on their analogy, I think the point about voters judging political parties on THEIR success with juries is nonsense. First I have to acknowledge that in this drastically reformed party system, we don’t REALLY know how voters will decide which parties to support, but there is certainly no evidence from the world that would suggest they would judge parties by their success with juries. nearly all research shows that party loyalty is an emotional identity thing. Just as people don’t switch religions readily, there is no reason to expect voters would respond to (or even KNOW) which parties had more success with juries. Would a third generation supporter of the Socialists switch to supporting the Christian Democrats because they got more bills passed? Would a Libertarian switch to supporting a communist party, because of that party’s recent successes?

    As i have argued in the past, maintaining an election process (which will inevitably foster parties, can only undercut and sabotage the jury process. For the members of the jury to exercise independent reasoning, they must be free of partisan deference, which can’t happen if they recently picked a party to vote for in the last election.

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  3. > the problem at the heart of the US and other deeply polarized political systems — where half the electorate are effectively disenfranchised

    Absurdly, this buys into the electoralist mythology. If you really believe this is what is going on, why would you be proposing any reform of the system – sortition or otherwise?

    If indeed half the electorate were represented in the sense that policy represented that half’s values and interests, then the system would be working exactly as advertised. In such a situation, those who are in the minority that is unhappy with policy can’t really complain about the how the system works. You can’t expect to have policy that goes against the wishes of the majority.

    But all of that is simply a lie. In fact, “problem at the heart” of the electoralist system is that in that system government represents the values and interests of a tiny minority (“the 1%”) and that the vast majority (“the 99%”) is effectively disenfranchised.

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  4. Terry: I think voter behaviour is a lot more strategic/instrumental than you acknowledge (voters may be ignorant but that doesn’t mean they are not rational). Single member plurality systems under-privilege minority candidates as they have little chance of winning, whereas in PR systems voters are more likely to select the party that aligns more closely with their own policy preferences. The Superminority Principle hypothesises that the number of political parties will reflect the proposal decision threshold in the assembly. And, over time, voters are unlikely to support parties that rarely achieve their legislative goals as they are just wasting their vote. And a low proposal threshold will put an end to tribalism. I agree with you that we won’t know in advance the effect of our proposed reforms on partisan allegiance, but I think the parties we are proposing will be very different from the current incarnation — they will not be “socialist” or “libertarian”, as they will offer a range of ad hoc policy proposals based on pragmatic criteria (they will want to win the vote of the allotted jury). And if there was a particular topic of overriding salience (say healthcare) then a new party could easily arise to fill any policy gap. If the party succeeded on healthcare then they would try their luck in other policy areas.

    Yoram:> You can’t expect to have policy that goes against the wishes of the majority.

    That presupposes a high level of homogeneity within the two camps, whereas two-party systems are in fact a loose coalition of differing preferences on fiscal, cultural, foreign policy and other matters — so the preferences of the “winners” will often be better represented by the losing side. The Superminority Principle permits a wider range of proposals that better match voter preferences on individual policy areas but still respects majoritarianism in the final decision.

    >[electoralist] government represents the values and interests of a tiny minority (“the 1%”) and the vast majority (“the 99%”) is effectively disenfranchised.

    I’ve never had any time for this trope (coined by the anti-capitalist anarchist writer and activist David Graeber [who also thought it had become a trite slogan]) as it doesn’t fit with the demographics of complex modern societies. There are many elites — economic, cultural, political etc — and their interests don’t generally align. Regular posters on this forum are members of a cognitive elite, so does that make us part of the 1%? If you insist on using this slogan then you need to operationalise it — and that will require more than a reference to the 2014 Gilens and Page article which has already been defenestrated on this forum.

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  5. >they will offer a range of ad hoc policy proposals based on pragmatic criteria (they will want to win the vote of the allotted jury).

    And of course this will be on the public record. So even if voters are ignorant regarding which policies were passed, they will know that a certain number passed muster after consideration by their allotted peers. I guess this is the elusive “trust” factor that has been lionised by Oliver, Simon and other commentators. It’s a bit like the aggregated review score on TripAdvisor, Ebay, Amazon Marketplace and the likes. I’m more inclined to buy from an online vendor if they have a high rating. This is why our new-style political party will be very different from the current incarnation — voters are customers rather than true believers. And they can switch their allegiance as often as they like — following a trend that is already widespread in mature electoral democracies. Boris Johnson won the last UK election by gaining the support of voters in the former Red Wall constituencies by following Trump-style policies, including hostility to immigration, pride in Britain, cultural conservatism and economic interventionism. It’s hard for a monolithic governing party to maintain this sort of combination but it lends itself to the ad hoc model that Alex and I are proposing.

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  6. Keith, “the 1%” means the economic 1%.

    That the term apparently comes from David Graeber is not an argument against it.

    That public policy does not reflect public opinion is very clear in the U.S. case. The divergence between public opinion and public policy in the U.S. is not a secret, and is not a fact that has been refuted. Gilens and Page and others do not so far as I know agree that their findings have been refuted, and in fact we constantly see exactly what they were talking about in the US.

    It would be surprising if popular election did not favour the views and interests of the rich, or the 1% if we use that term, including because of the considerable amount of money effective election campaigns cost.

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  7. Simon:> It would be surprising if popular election did not favour the views and interests of the rich, or the 1% if we use that term, including because of the considerable amount of money effective election campaigns cost.

    The ultimate currency of elections is votes, not dollars. Trump won in 2016 despite spending around half as much as Clinton. Some might argue that Clinton stole the nomination from Sanders on account of her Wall Street backing, but other analysts would retort that Americans would never elect a socialist to the presidency. Although Biden outspent Trump this time, he lost on account of the pandemic, not a lack of campaign funding.

    As to the nature of elites, as far back as Gramsci and certainly since the New Left movement in the 1960s, the focus has been on the long march to dominate the institutions — family, culture, religion, education, media, and law — and this has been through the forging of elite opinion. Have you never heard of the culture wars?

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  8. P.S. although we spent around two months fruitlessly debating Gilens and Page, you might like to take a look at this article: https://www.vox.com/2016/5/9/11502464/gilens-page-oligarchy-study

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  9. Keith, dollars matter a great deal in popular elections, and usually the better funded candidate wins. The fact that sometimes the candidate with less funding wins of course does not refute this.

    Also, it is not just a matter of who wins. In 2016 both Hillary and Trump were heavily funded by the corporations and billionaires. Same re Biden and Trump in 2020. Whether Biden, Trump or Hillary wins, the result is a corporate backed candidate, a preferred candidate of the economic elite.

    The gap between majority public opinion and public policy in the US is real and not that hard to demonstrate. Nor is it hard to demonstrate that public policy leans towards corporate profits. Medicare for all, high drug prices, the flooding of elections with corporate money, tax reductions for the very rich under Trump, no increase in the federal minimum wage in 12 years, show that public policy is plutocratic (favours the rich) and public opinion more economically equal (you can look up the opinion polling if you’ve not). The huge increase in economic inequality since the 1970s, with a larger and larger share of wealth concentrated at the top is a long term example of this.

    This poll indicates 69% support medicare for all, which has been opposed by every US president, including Biden, for decades, also prob opposed by most in Congress: https://thehill.com/hilltv/what-americas-thinking/494602-poll-69-percent-of-voters-support-medicare-for-all.

    Not that I think public policy should be based on uninformed public opinion. I don’t. I think public policy should be based on informed public opinion, something that can be provided through juries, and in general only through juries. Poorly informed rule by the people is not democracy, or if it is insisted it is, it is not a desirable form of democracy. Popular election is an example of poorly informed rule by the people. Shifting the deciding of laws to juries would change this, even if politicians continue to be popularly elected (as long as majorities and even large minorities cannot block legislative proposals from being considered and decided by legislative juries, ergo superminorities are the way to go if politicians are to propose laws to juries).

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  10. Simon:> Shifting the deciding of laws to juries would change this, even if politicians continue to be popularly elected (as long as majorities and even large minorities cannot block legislative proposals from being considered and decided by legislative juries, ergo superminorities are the way to go if politicians are to propose laws to juries).

    Agreed. The Superminority Principle would suggest a lower funding threshold for political parties and that proposals from a party that tracked public preferences — rather than those of elites (economic, cultural or whatever — would be likely to win the approval of the legislative jury. In Harrington’s 1656 proposal the elected Senate was obliged to introduce proposals that met the approval of the disposers, just as when two children divide a cake, the one who gets to pick their preferred slice has the whip hand over the one who makes the division. And the Superminority Principle means they also get to pick from a broader range of dividers. Given the constraints of large multicultural states it’s hard to imagine a more democratic solution.

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  11. There’s a discussion on this paper just started on Academia.edu which may be of interest: https://www.academia.edu/s/50e6bc0edb

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