Escoubès and Proriol: Democracy, differently; The art of governing with the citizens

Frank Escoubès and Gilles Proriol are the authors of the book “La démocratie, autrement – L’art de gouverner avec le citoyen” (Democracy, differently: The art of governing with the citizens). In an article in L’ADN they describe the thesis of their book.

There is no doubt that our representative democracy is in trouble. Humiliated, attacked, sometimes rejected: what is going to be its fate in the period between now and the presidential elections of 2022?

The citizens do not feel represented anymore

This is hardly news – our democracy is flawed. The elected are supposed to create the most faithful, the most accurate representation of the citizens, that which a technocracy cannot achieve. The coronavirus crisis has sunk the nail, in silencing the citizens like never before. In the face of that, populism and demagoguery are rising, claiming that they will provide ways for the people to decide everything, all the time, by themselves. Denial the complexity of reality, political irrealism, ideological naivety. In this context, the risk of “democratic retreat” is real. This could be due to an absence of consultation with the citizens (plowing through) or due to a simplistic consultation without a follow-up (an unkept promise). There is therefore an urgent need to “repair the links of trust”.

Overhanging this tension there is an even more insidious crisis, a cognitive crisis. This is the crisis of “political reasoning” by the citizens, which manifests itself through the polarization of the debate, the culture of conflict, the growth of conspiracy theories and of disinformation. In the past it was expressed with an insult, but today it is increasingly expressed through an attack and the desire to take revenge for an affront. This cognitive collapse is much deeper because it combines the characteristics of the human cognition (reduction of complexity, cognitive biases, ideological legacies that are no longer being questioned) with the structural dysfunction of our systems of information (the media, the social networks, the internet).

And so, what can be done to change the democratic situation?

In our book we defend three positions which lay out a new ambitious direction which we call “Inclusive Democracy”.

The first position is rejecting a demagogic principle which is often made in the name of participative democracy that all citizens must be consulted on all subjects. We claim that instead two key criteria must be taken into account for effective mobilization: concern (those who are directly affected by a decision must have priority in participation) and competence, which refers to the notion of “layperson experts”, those of us who have developed an expertise in a subject be it because we are passionate about it or because our profession makes gives us a more informed viewpoint.

To do that, inclusive democracy is not uniformly mobilizing. If we want to know what public opinion is on a given problem, then clearly it is necessary to ask as many people as possible. This would include those that democracy excludes: the invisibles, the young. Conversely, it is not necessarily useful or effective to construct the political bodies of the future by trying to create “France in miniature” (for example, by sortition). It is much more effective to create those bodies from those who want to innovate, who have already considered a subject which is of particular concern to them. Bruce Ackerman, one of the pioneers of participation, made the following observation: “before a deliberative poll, the makeup is almost systematically identical: 10% of the people know a lot of things, 30-40% know absolutely nothing, and the rest are somewhere between those two situations”. An inclusive democracy would not rely on a handful of experts, nor on 150 allotted citizens, nor on 67 million Frenchpeople, but rather, topic-by-topic, on a some dozens or hundreds of thousands of people who are directly affected and/or have undertaken to develop a point of view.

The second position: public debate is not inevitably polarized. The Grand National Debate showed that there exists a consensus on a large number of themes, indicating the program supported by the Frenchpeople. Let us select a candidate who take us down this road and not one who will pursue a “pure” program corresponding to ancient ideological lines and political parties. Almost no real Frenchperson is committed to the all the “coherent” principles of the Rassemblement National, of the Républicains, of the Europe Écologie Les Verts, of the PS or of the France Insoumise. France is authentically trans-partisan: each one of us is alternatingly progressive, liberal, sovereignist, environmentalist and conservative, depending on the issue and the geographic scale (local, regional, national, European). It is time to emphasize these common grounds rather than those issues which divide us.

Finally, the third position is to reject outright democratic tools which are sustained through tradition, and which lead to unreflective politics. Opinion polls continue to turn reality into opposing camps. Referenda require a yes-or-no answer to questions which should be discussed systematically and openly (on Brexit: which Leave or which Remain do you support?). Sortition is perceived as the alpha and the omega of participation where it creates an illusory representativity. The analysis of the expressions of citizens remains rudimentary although technologies exist for reflecting the richness of free expression.

It is high time to use the tools of the 21st century: massive semantic analysis of citizen expressions, exhaustive and nuanced cartography of public opinion. Above all, the web and the social networks have an architecture which is unsuitable to the agora and to public debate (anarchical, oligarchical, and communitarian spaces), which it is necessary to create. This is a titanic project, which cannot be left to private technology and should be the goal of a national project, at the same scale as the AI project or the hydrogen project.

Let us, then, develop a new democracy, more inclusive, more demanding, more mature. There is an urgent need to so, a year before the end of the presidential term, as we face the risk of sliding down a populist and illiberal slope.

4 Responses

  1. Lots of nice noises and very little substance here, other than the rejection of sortition. The two discernible positive principles seem to be a) mass decision-making by affected parties and b) use of sophisticated digital opinion mapping. The first comes with no suggestion as to how those groups are to be represented or organised to engage in decision-making, a problem which becomes more difficult the more vulnerable the groups in question are, nor how the differential capacities of the wealthy and powerful versus the comfortably-off versus the vulnerable are to be rectified; the second leaves wide open the question ‘by whom?’ and, relatedly, ‘with what incentives?’ The implicit answer their final recommendation suggests is ‘the government’, presumably under the auspices of some nice, sensible people who will act in the public good because of how nice and sensible they are. Colour me unconvinced.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I would not even grant that there are “positive principles” in these proposals. The elitist mindset is hardly masked. “Let those who know something decide.” Presumably it will be those in the know who will decide who is affected. Obviously, it will also be some group of experts who will control the opaque systems that will serve as an oracle for the vox populi. The bottom line is that this is a proposal for a thoroughly elite-controlled, anti-democratic system. If anything, this has an unpleasant whiff of fascist ideas: the elites as channeling the will of the people, a system that emphasizes unity and consensus, futuristic technology that saves us from the outmoded mechanisms and conflicts of the past.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I disagree with everything they say here. While I confess that I have in the past also argued that those who are most affected by a decision should have say, I now believe this is simplistic demagoguery. Justice often demands that those most affected are NOT in the driver’s seat (think of a trial, and whether the friends and family of the parties who are most affected should form the jury). In many cases distance is crucial to achieve just decisions.

    But more importantly, how and who would decide which citizens have “developed an expertise” on an issue? It is the very definition of oligarchy. A couple of related observations: The Dunning-Kruger Effect reveals that those who think they are most competent are often, in fact, the least competent. Secondly, plenty of studies have proven that those who “keep up” with the news, and are traditionally “well-informed” are least able to absorb new information, especially if it contradicts their prior beliefs. Real deliberation requires having an open mind and ability to change opinions, and their formula simply gathers those least able to deliberate to make decisions. Democratic lotteries are the best tool for gathering a genuinely competent deliberative body.

    Liked by 3 people

  4. BTW, log-rolling (vote-trading) is the natural way in which people decision-makers concentrate on issues which they care about. A vote on an issue which a decision-maker does not care much about can be swapped for a vote about which that decision-maker does care. This is a natural and efficient way to allow decision-makers to reveal what they really care about and to reach cross-issue compromises that benefit everybody.

    Liked by 1 person

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