A government that resembles us?

A piece by Hervé Gardette in France Culture.

A gay man as the secretary of transportation, a Native American single mother as the secretary of the interior, a Black woman as vice president, a transgender person as assistant secretary of health, a Black general at the Pentagon, a person in her forties as secretary of commerce, and at the lead, a White man nearing 80 at the White House. Thus will look Joe Biden’s cabinet, if confirmed by the American Senate. A diversity in the executive that is supposed to best represent the population of the United States.

This is not the first time that an American government presents such diversity. In 2015 Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau used similar criteria to select his team, having for example a First Nations member holding the post of minister of justice and a member of the Sikh community being the minister of defense. A message addressed to the Canadians: this government is yours, it understands you because it resembles you.

The idea that political institutions should be representative of the population is not new, and it is not unique to North America (even if communitarianism is more developed there than here). The concern regarding the best representativity of power claims to be a response to the crisis of confidence in democracy: if the voters do not show up at the polls, it is because they don’t see themselves reflected in the people who represent them. So the near absence of workers in political decision-making positions has the consequence of demobilizing the electorate. The same goes for French people who are descended from immigrants and those (sometimes the same ones) who are from “diverse” backgrounds.

We may be in agreement with this idea, or may reject it in the name of universalism, but this is not the issue which I wish to discuss here. The question which I pose is this: what should the French government resemble if it is to be the most representative of the French society? If it is to resemble us? How many should be residents of Auvergnat? How many plumbers? How many should hold a community college degree?

How many women? That quite simple. Knowing that their number is similar to that of men, the government should gender balanced. But how can we assure a similar balance in ages, in education, in profession and in geography, that is, balance along criteria which are measured by polling institutes? (In France, ethnic origin is not recorded.)

It is in the context of polling that the method of quotas is used to create a sample which closely resembles the population. Most often this sample is on the order of a thousand people in order to be representative. Imagine a government with a million ministers: that would complicate matters, starting with the taking of the group photo in front of the Elysée.

In order to help me find a solution to these questions, I called Martial Foucault, the director of Cevipof (Centre de recherches politiques de Sciences Po), a polling expert. “How can I create a truly representative government?” The best way, he answered me, would be to use sortition. It is the method that assures, without a doubt, the best representativity. It is inevitable. More over, in all major democracies, opinion surveys have abandoned the method of quotas in favor of sampling.

If so, why not allot the members of government? The problem is that this would clash with our conception of representative democracy. Recall that the process that was used to create the Citizen Climate Convention relied on allotment. The most representative government, an allotted one, would therefore be likely to be considered as illegitimate, reinforcing the very mistrust toward the institutions that it is supposed to address.

Here it is, tells me Martial Foucault, a perfect democratic dilemma. The moral is: by pursuing too much representativity, we risk aggravating the crisis of representation.

3 Responses

  1. PItkin (1967) outlines a variety of different forms of political representation, including formalistic, symbolic, descriptive and active. This article conflates them all:

    a First Nations member holding the post of minister of justice and a member of the Sikh community being the minister of defense. A message addressed to the Canadians: this government is yours, it understands you because it resembles you.

    This is symbolic representation — a PR exercise (the same can be said for Biden’s new cabinet). The token criterion is ethnicity and the person(s) selected are even less likely to represent the target population on other criteria (on account of the principle of distinction). As the Cevipof director points out a sample that accurately “describes” the population would need to be selected by sortition. And it would need to be in the order of 1,000 — there is no way that a working cabinet could be subject to the principle of descriptive representation, so we should resolutely oppose attempts by the Sortition Foundation (and other bodies) to create small committees by lot (assuming that resemblance is the end goal). It gives sortition a bad name.

    PS the research director at Sciences Po, Gil Delannoi, organised a series of sortition seminars at Cevipof and has written extensively on the topic.

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  2. *** In the Atlantic contemporary societies, the most important dimensions, which generate the main elitary phenomena, are the money/property dimension, and the culture/degrees dimension.
    *** The political sensitivities are mainly linked to these dimensions, and likewise to partially independent ideological propensities (from historical legacies and personal life).
    *** Following the Trudeau/Biden formula, the power circles appearing on TV screens may be like the country along many parameters except the above-mentioned; especially parameters which can be seen on TV, or generating attention.
    *** A smart idea, but likewise a dangerous one. If you say “our power is more legitimate because it resembles the community along many parameters”, it may induce more and more people to think “the power will be truly legitimate only when it will perfectly mirror the community”. The Trudeau/Biden formula may put the common mind on the slippery slope towards the mini-populus formula.

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  3. The money and culture dimensions are the most important. It’s ironic that at the same time that claims are being made that race is an invented construct (to the extent of casting coloured actors as aristocrats in eighteenth century England in the Netflix drama Bridgerton), governments are worried about the racial profile of their cabinet.

    >The Trudeau/Biden formula may put the common mind on the slippery slope towards the mini-populus formula.

    If the Washington state minipopulus is anything to go by, it may include a reasonable degree of cognitive diversity, but won’t be democratically representative. A group that “looks like America” (as Bill Clinton put it) will not necessarily act like America.

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