Landemore: Open Democracy, part 9

Chapter 7 of Open Democracy presents Hélène Landemore’s assessment of the constitution-writing process in Iceland that took place following the 2008 financial crisis. Landemore describes this process as “the first domino of the classic electoral democracy model to fall toward a more open democracy model at a national level”. This seems to me to be a highly over-optimistic assessment of the significance of the process. First, this process was a dud, its outcomes being eventually dismissed by the Icelandic parliament. But more importantly, this was conceived from the outset as a one-off process, not a fundamental change for how things are done. Furthermore, this one-off process dealt in very abstract subjects – phrasing articles of a constitution. By construction it was clear that would not be able to serve as template for the workings of anything like a sortition-based policy making body. The idea of radical democratization (by abolishing elections or at least creating a sortition-based co-equal chamber) was never on the agenda. Thus, the entire discussion in the chapter – and below in this post – should be understood in this light. This was not a momentous occasion whose outcomes did or could have affected how politics is done. The analysis is therefore mostly a theoretical exercise. (A detailed analysis of the workings of the French CCC – which dealt with setting practical policy – could be much more instructive in this sense.)

With this diminished significance, even a radically democratic process would hardly justify the notion that it would serve as a “first domino”. However, as the analysis below indicates, the process itself is far from living up to an aspiration as serving, if not as a template or a model of a democratic process, then at least as an inspiration. Landemore’s celebratory tone is wholly unwaranted.

As Landemore describes the Icelandic process, it had three innovative “open” aspects: the National Forum – an allotted body that met for one day and “established the main viewpoints and points of emphasis of the public concerning the organization of the country’s government and its constitution”, the assembly of amateurs – a body elected from among candidates that were not incumbent professional politicians and which was to draft a proposal for the constitution, and the crowdsourcing phase – an online platform on which the assembly of amateurs would post drafts of the constitution to which the public could post feedback comments on the platform itself or on social media platforms.
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Rebooting Democracy candidate is running for Cambridge city council

Keith Garrett, co-founder of the Rebooting Democracy party (named after Manuel Arriaga’s book), is running for Cambridge city council. He was interviewed by Alya Zayed.

[Rebooting Democracy] puts forward a system whereby decisions are made by randomly selected members of the public, who discuss and deliberate the issues before coming to a decision, like a jury – a process known as ‘sortition’.

[Garrett] said: “I’ve stood before for the Green Party and nothing has changed. One of the key things in my life is climate change – although it’s not the focus of my party. I did everything I could and it makes no difference because you’re essentially trying to appeal to people in charge who have a set of vested interests. They’re career politicians. They’re interested in keeping their jobs and staying in that party machine.

“But actually, if you directly devolve decisions to a group of people, you give them true power, and it would solve most of our big world ills, like social inequality or climate change.”

He added: “You have deliberation, you talk, and you listen to each other. It’s ‘optimise’ not ‘compromise’. It’s about trying to find the best decision, not just the one that keeps everyone happy.”

If elected as councillor, he plans to use this kind of thinking to change the council’s decision making process.

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Not a one-off threat

The Morning Star is a UK newspaper which describes itself as “a reader-owned co-operative and unique as a lone socialist voice in a sea of corporate media”.

In a recent editorial it writes:

Groups like Extinction Rebellion (XR) have raised the profile of the climate emergency, forcing politicians to acknowledge it. [But the] link between environmental action and anti-capitalism is one movements like XR have been reluctant to concede.

This probably stems from a desire to appeal to the broadest possible coalition willing to take action, but it is self-defeating.

Green parties that have reached the mainstream through accommodation with the capitalist system in Germany and Ireland have become pillars of the centrist, liberal and environmentally catastrophic status quo.

One approach to circumventing this promoted by XR especially is the Citizen’s Assembly, a representative body chosen by sortition (as a jury is, rather than by election) that stands outside the political system and would be tasked with decreeing solutions to the environmental crisis.

The suggestion has one key merit, in drawing attention to the inability of our current political structures to meet the biggest global challenge of our time.

But it falls into the trap of viewing climate change as a one-off threat that can be seen off independently of our political and economic system, rather than a process driven by the economic system itself.
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Non-Partisan Sortition Activism: Real Or Imagined?

I’ve recently been urging legislators in my home state of California to write a bill to implement the CIR (Citizens’ Initiative Review) process to make our ballot proposition system more democratic. We have two parties in our state, and generally, one (the majority) has been more receptive to such a bill than the other. This reflects the national situation where one major political party seems at least overtly supportive of democratic reform, whereas the other, not so much. This state of affairs contrasts with polls that show the idea of democratic lotteries to be popular with both conservatives and progressives. Of course we need to be building a cross-ideological grassroots coalition to give democratic lotteries a place in government. But what about the existing political parties holding power? Currently they make the laws. Do we try to work with them or do we ignore them?

Suppose I continue to have no luck with minority party legislators and we get a CIR bill in my state, and suppose it’s entirely supported by the majority party and not the minority party. This is not a hypothetical. There is a real possibility that such a bill could pass the legislature and become law. But is it worth it? Or will a CIR law supported by only one party, even if the majority party, paint the sortition movement as partisan? Is a one-party supported CIR worse than no CIR? Should we not be working with the legislature at all, but rather using the initiative process in our attempts to make change?

Landemore: Open Democracy, part 8

Chapter 6 of Open Democracy presents “institutional principles” of “open democracy” – Landemore’s ideal system. These are aimed to be compared and contrasted with the principles of “assembly democracy” – the Athenian system, and with the principles of “representative democracy” – the present day electoralist system.

“Assembly democracy” and “representative democracy”

The initial section describing the principles of the Athenian system and of the electoralist system presents a rather conventional view of both those systems. The names used for as labels for those systems are themselves more easily attributable to convention than to their descriptive power. The Athenian system is labeled “assembly democracy”, putting the emphasis in that system, following convention, on the assembly. Landemore does mention the “less often remarked upon” equality of “opportunity to participate in the agenda-setting Council of 500”, but this remains a detail rather than a focal point. The electoralist system is labeled “representative democracy” and is presented as having a commitment to “equality” despite the fact that equality not only is far from the reality of this system but was also explicitly denied as a design goal at the outset.

The conventional approach persists throughout the description of those systems. There is the supposed contrast between “constitutionally entrenched” modern individual rights and the lack of those in Athens. It is far from clear that this conventional contrast is more than apologia for the modern system. In terms of either “institutional principles” or ideology it would in fact be hard to show that such a contrast exists. The Spartan sympathizers in Athens, for example, enjoyed freedom of expression and action that are almost unimaginable in modern “democratic” societies.

Another conventional contrast that Landemore adopts is in the attitudes toward the majority principle. Landemore says that majoritarianism was wholly embraced by the Athenians but is embraced with reservations in the modern system, where it is supposedly feared for potential of “tyranny of the majority”. It is true that “representative democracy” is historically ideologically anti-democratic and thus anti-majoritarian. However, this is a vestigial feature of the modern system and in its contemporary form “representative democracy” is ideologically democratic – and thus committed to majority rule – even if it is substantively oligarchical.
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The True Representation Pledge

This is the final chapter from my book published last year entitled “True Representation: How Citizens’ Assemblies and Sortition Will Save Democracy.”

What if we were to demand that every candidate for President, Senate and House of Representatives sign a True Representation Pledge? The pledge strategy can be used in any election, in any country, at the national, state, provincial or local level, wherever people want to demonstrate the potential of sortition and citizens’ assemblies, by targeting an important issue that politicians cannot resolve.

In signing the pledge, each candidate would promise, upon being elected to office, that:

  • They would quickly enact legislation to authorize and fund a national (or state, provincial or local) citizens’ assembly to decide an important issue, identified for the pledge.
  • The citizens’ assembly would be conducted with a briefing book prepared to fairly represent the pros and cons of a wide range of views on the chosen issue.
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Austria’s Climate Jury – A Mixed Effort

Austria has now joined the circle of democratically-minded countries planning a government-sponsored Climate Citizen Jury (“Klima-Bürger*innenrat”) to tackle climate change. This follows a national popular initiative signed by 380.000 citizens of election age. At this stage, the envisaged process and timing is still quite unclear, what little has transpired is a mixed bag of some good and regrettably also some bad.

What is clear is that this mini-public shall consist of 100 random citizens and be “representative” for the general electorate of 6.4 million. Two issues here: the target number is underpowered, for comparison, Austria’s parliament consists of 183 representatives. And seeking “representativeness” in these numbers is a turnoff for those who know about statistical sampling requirements needed for this highly elusive adjective. An unnecessary weakness, the use of the word “representative” is entirely unnecessary when a simply “stratified” jury will serve the democratic purpose perfectly fine.

Clear is that the jury shall be tasked – similar to France – “to discuss and elaborate specific proposals for political measures to reach climate neutrality by 2040”. As I have noted in this forum so often, this fashionable brief is doomed to fail, just as it failed in France. An institution composed of random citizen juries is simply out of its depth with such a broad task and of such complexity. Like in France, well-meant but half-baked proposals will not impress those knowledgeable of consequences or charged to implement them. The elaboration of political proposals should be part of an open innovation competition in which any citizen or organisation is entitled to compete. Only then it is the turn of citizen juries to hear two-sided expert testimony, to judge and select between these, a task to which they are perfectly suited.

For the recruiting plan there is some encouraging information. The ministry’s intention is to recruit these random citizens proactively instead of the problematic oversampling of activists. Proof in point: a hundred of the usual suspects have already knocked at the ministry’s door but were sent away with the promise of some parallel participation process.

Recruiting will be put into the hands of a professional social research institute after a public tender – although rumours have it that SORA Institut will get the contract, anyway. There seems to be awareness of the distortions resulting from low invitation vs. acceptance rates in France.

Whether the future selected institute knows how to ensure the correct stratification for a jury is up in the air. An indicator for methodic accuracy will be that the final jury should seat 6 signatories of the public initiative (380k / 6.4m) and 43 members which see an immediate need to act on climate protection, corresponding to the ex-ante percentage of the general public which do so, according to pollsters.

Nothing is known as of yet about deliberative process design, organisation and moderation.

Finally, the Citizen Jury’s “proposals” will be sent to a committee of national and regional government representatives. There is no information about any commitment or obligation to proceed with the proposals. Sadly, and in light of the unrealistic mission definition, this may be a lesser issue due to the likelihood of failure.

Here is to an article from an Austrian daily newspaper (in German language):

Democratic power, outcomes and ideology

This post continues the inquiry carried out in a few previous posts regarding how democracy can be measured. Thanks to various commenters for the discussions that encouraged further thought on this matter.

Dimensions of democracy

In a democracy, political power is distributed equally among all members. This should probably be considered the definition of democracy. However, there are two additional democratic dimensions: democratic outcomes and democratic ideology. Outcomes are democratic when power is used to serve everybody equally. Democratic ideology states that political power should be distributed equally. This normative statement could be justified either directly or consequentially. The direct justification is that equally distributed political power is the only just political arrangement. The consequential argument is that democratic outcomes are the only just outcomes and that democratic power is the only political arrangement that can deliver democratic outcomes. Presumably often those with democratic commitments believe in both the direct and the consequential arguments. The position that political power must be distributed equally even if this leads to undemocratic outcomes seems questionable. For those who adopt consequential democratic ideology, democratic results are a necessary and sufficient condition for democracy (i.e., for democratic power).

A-priori, there are 8 possible situations regarding the presence or absence of democracy along each of the dimensions of democracy. A wholly undemocratic society lacks all three dimensions: the dominant ideology is not democratic, power is distributed unequally and the outcomes favor some at the expense of others. A fully democratic society has all three dimensions present: the dominant ideology is democratic, power is equally distributed and outcomes serve everybody equally. Partially democratic societies could have some combination of situations along the axes.

As pointed out above, however, to believe that democratic outcomes can exist in a non-democratic society, or that non-democratic outcomes can exist in a democratic society we – as observers – need to adopt a non-democratic stance. Accepting that democratic power is uniquely suited for attaining democratic outcomes implies believing that the settings along those two axes must be aligned.
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