Public support for allotted citizens’ assemblies in Western Europe

A new paper in the European Journal of Political Research (full text) provides data about popular support for allotted citizens’ assemblies in Western Europe. The countries surveyed were: Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Ireland, Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, and the UK.

Public Support for Deliberative Citizens’ Assemblies Selected through Sortition: Evidence from 15 Countries

Jean-Benoit Pilet*, Damien Bol**, Davide Vittori*, and Emilien Paulis*

*Université libre de Bruxelles, Belgium
** King’s College London, United Kingdom

Abstract

As representative democracy is increasingly criticized, a new institution is becoming popular among academics and practitioners: deliberative citizens’ assemblies. To evaluate whether these assemblies can deliver their promise of re-engaging the dissatisfied of representative politics, we explore who supports them and why. We build on a unique survey conducted with representative samples of 15 Western European countries and find, first, that the most supportive respondents are those who are less educated, have a low sense of political competence and an anti-elite sentiment. Thus, support does come from the dissatisfied. Second, we find that this support is for a part ‘outcome contingent’, in the sense that it changes with people’s expectations regarding the policy outcome from deliberative citizens’ assemblies. This second finding nuances the first one and suggests that while deliberative citizens’ assemblies convey some hope to re-engaged disengaged citizens, this is conditioned to the hope of a favourable outcome.

Despite emphasizing the “deliberative” label in the title of the paper, the question measuring support for allotted assemblies makes no mention of this obfuscatory term and instead focuses directly on decision-making power:

Overall, do you think it is a good idea to let a group of randomly-selected citizens make decisions instead of politicians on a scale going from 0 (very bad idea) to 10 (very good idea)?

The median response was 4.32, which is pretty impressive for such a radical idea. The chart below shows the distribution of responses. It is interesting to note that (if I read the chart correctly) the two countries with the lowest median support for the idea (3/10) are Denmark and Norway – the two Scandinavian countries in the survey. Those countries are among those with the highest level in the Western world of satisfaction with current government.

13 Responses

  1. *** Overall in Western Europe the study shows a minority of citizens strongly against the mini-populus idea, a lesser minority strongly for it and, between, a majority with medium feelings, centered about a value of 0.5.
    The paper concludes that “support for deliberative citizens’ assemblies is not particularly high” and consider that around the 0.5 value citizens “seem to be indifferent”. It seems a very contestable interpretation of the data.
    *** The mini-populus idea is such a radical shift in political thinking, a idea which was until recently outside the mind of most people included the more politically interested, thus many people may be hesitating, which does not mean indifference.
    *** They may hesitate by lack of practical experiments, by doubts on the representativity of the mini-populus (the question does not mention the subject of conscription), by fear that there may be tricks, by lack of trust into the elites from which this proposal seems to come.
    *** People leaning to the more general “direct democracy” idea may think the question exclude the referendum device, whereas they would better mix referenda and mini-publics.
    *** The median choices may have different meanings, but they imply anyway that the mini-populus idea is not seen by most citizens as aberrant, wacky, zany, insane etc …
    *** Dêmokratia in the last centuries was actually impossible given first the size of most societies, preventing intense political communication needed in a democracy, and second the mental rejection of lot, one of the pillars of dêmokratia. The material obstacle has vanished given the telecommunications, the mental obstacle is clearly vanishing at least in Western Europa – and in USA, see “Of By For* Polling Results From SurveyUSA’ s Research Study #25078” (2020); we cannot say for Continental China, but parallel factors may give analogous effects some day.
    *** The dêmokratia (ortho-democracy) is becoming a realistic model in 21st century, as for instance the totalitarian model became realistic in 20th century. The transition towards this model from the polyarchic one or the autocratic one (China) is another question, depending of the conflicting forces in different countries and of historical contingencies.

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  2. Andre,

    > Dêmokratia in the last centuries was actually impossible given first the size of most societies, preventing intense political communication needed in a democracy, and second the mental rejection of lot, one of the pillars of dêmokratia

    I don’t think there is compelling evidence that either of those served as a real obstacle for implementing sortition-based government. The use of allotted juries, for example, indicates that “the mental rejection of the lot” was not as far-reaching as Manin would have us believe.

    The main obstacle in the past is the same one we face today: the ruling elites have nothing to gain and a lot to lose by promoting sortition.

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  3. At the moment sortition is promoted by academics, politicians and private companies. The public is at the moment indifferent. Sortition might be a good “democratic tool” if executed properly, but is no democracy; As I mentioned in “Psychology of direct democracy” sortition doesn’t add any social capital.

    Dimitri Courant ( june 29 2020 ): En effet il y a une différence énorme entre “pouvoir de proposer” et “pouvoir de décider”. Comme je le dis dans l’article, la question pour déterminer la nature d’un régime, peu importe l’échelle, c’est : ” à la fin qui décide? Qui détient le pouvoir souverain ?”
    Si c’est une personne c’est une monarchie, si c’est petit groupe c’est une oligarchie (avec ses différents types : ploutocratie, phallocratie, géontocratie, klérocratie..) ; si c’est le peuple c’est une démocratie.
    Une assemblée tirée au sort imposant ses vues au peuple sans ce dernier ne puisse avoir le dernier mot est une klérocratie, donc un type particulier d’oligarchie.
    (autom Dimitri Courant ( june 29 2020 ): Indeed there is a huge difference between “power to propose” and “power to decide”. As I say in the article, the question to determine the nature of a regime, no matter the scale, is: “in the end who decides? Who holds the sovereign power?”
    If it’s one person it’s a monarchy, if it’s a small group it’s an oligarchy (with its different types: plutocracy, phallocracy, geontocracy, klerocracy..); if it’s the people it’s a democracy.
    An assembly drawn by lot imposing its views on the people without the latter having the last word is a klerocracy, thus a particular type of oligarchy

    Translated with http://www.DeepL.com/Translator (free version)
    By declaring a klérocracy as “democracy” you are doing the same thing as the politicians who are declaring that the “electoral aristocratic” system is a democracy.

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  4. Paul,

    > in the end who decides?

    This is a rather superficial view of power. Having a final up-or-down vote on various proposals really means very little. If, for example, a robber gives me the choice “the money or your life” – does this make me “a sovereign”? If I can choose between two options which both written in a language I do not understand, does this make me “a sovereign”?

    Obviously, not.

    Power means that decisions are made according to my interests and my values – how those decisions are arrived at is a technical detail. The question is therefore whether a sortiton-based system is likely to promote the interests and values of the majority of the people.

    > By declaring a klérocracy as “democracy” you are doing the same thing as the politicians who are declaring that the “electoral aristocratic” system is a democracy.

    No. I am not “declaring” that sortition is a democratic mechanism. I am making an argument that it is. This argument needs to be evaluated rationally based on theoretical and empirical considerations. If you find the argument unconvincing, I would be happy to hear your counter-argument.

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  5. for me Dimitri Courant wrote the “fundamentals” of sortition

    “quote”: Democratic principles

    I will distinguish four democratic principles, or values, of sortition: equality, impartiality, representativeness and legitimacy, each being subdivided in three elements (Courant 2014). Thanks to those principles, sortition can produce a better type of representation, deliberation and participation. But sortition does not have a single nature, and its formal principles can be enhanced or diminished depending on the institutional architecture it is embedded in. Those principles are potentialities, there are not all or always present each time sortition is used, nor with the same intensity. However, those potentialities are to be compared to those produced by the other modes of selection ceteris paribus, in a similar deliberative framework, those four democratic principles would be stronger if using sortition Democratic values are more diverse and those four principles are a part of it but do not exhaust all of them, like liberty or justice. “unquote”

    2019 “Sortition and Democratic Principles”

    https://www.researchgate.net/publication/334260418_Sortition_and_Democratic_Principles_A_Comparative_Analysis

    Furthermore he knows the Swiss system where the citizens are sovereign (in the end who decides). But my main argument against sortition as a replacement for democracy (definition Dimitri Courant) is that is doesnt add to social capital. The keywords for that research are “totalitarianism” (Hanna Arendt) and “social capital”. (R.D. Putnam). As far as I know at this moment this is a new approach (the evaluation of political and technological systems in politics by their potential to form or destruct “social capital”).

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  6. > But sortition does not have a single nature, and its formal principles can be enhanced or diminished depending on the institutional architecture it is embedded in

    That’s certainly true (if somewhat obvious). The arguments around the ability of sortition to produce representation of interests and values need to elucidate what are the conditions (or context) which allow sortition to achieve this objective. The question “In the end who decides? Who holds the sovereign power?” does not serve this purpose and therefore it is more of an empty formality than a useful criterion.

    > sortition […] doesnt add to social capital

    I don’t know what this means. What is “social capital” and what does it have to do with democracy?

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  7. Why then not admit that you are in favor of a klerocracy instead of hiding behind “democracy”.
    I posted the “philosophy of direct democracy and his relation with “social capital” in another posting but here is the link. https://www.academia.edu/77916556/The_Psychology_of_Direct_Democracy The more I read about “social capital” (and totalitarianism) the more I see the necessity of the formation of “social capital”. I am far from a specialist in “social capital”. As far as I see now it is a vast subject. You can start with wikipedia ;-) Social capital – Wikipedia
    https://en.wikipedia.org › wiki › Social_capital
    Social capital is “the networks of relationships among people who live and work in a particular society, enabling that society to function effectively”.

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  8. > Why then not admit that you are in favor of a klerocracy instead of hiding behind “democracy”.

    I am in favor of “klerocracy” because it is a tool of democracy – representation of interests and values in policy making. “Klerocracy” is a tool, not a goal. If I was aware of a better way to achieve a democratic system, I’d support that instead.

    > Social capital is “the networks of relationships among people who live and work in a particular society, enabling that society to function effectively”.

    “Function effectively” seems too vague to be a useful criterion. And why would you claim that sortition does not help society to “function effectively”?

    A useful meaning for “function effectively” could be “functions in a way that is approved by the members of society”. If that is what you mean by “function effectively” then it seems to me that sortition is certainly a central institution forming “social capital”.

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  9. I only said that the wikipedia definition might be a good start to the subject of “social capital” ;-)

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  10. So-called “direct democracy” is a symbolic gesture, rather than a democratic principle or even a possible democratic system. In a country the size of Switzerland, let alone the United States, there are literally thousands of public decisions that must be made every week when considering the national, regional and local level; drafting and amending bills, procedural decisions, administrative decisions, interpretations, etc. etc. Having a few high-visibility topics selected for referendum is window dressing. The bulk of the population can only be directly involved in a miniscule fraction of decisions, and the division of labor (so that people have time to do their jobs and live their lives) means that smaller subsets of people must make the vast majority of all policy decisions. The question is whether a political class of elite politicians make those decisions as “agents” of the people, or representative samples of ordinary people selected by lot taking turns make those decisions. The rotation inherent in frequent lotteries prevents the domination of an oligarchic political class, and allows democracy to function.

    The only way to have actual direct democracy is to allow anyone who wishes vote (by phone or online) on any issue they wish, whenever they want. But this inevitably results in either ridiculously un-informed decision making (since few people can or will take the time to become even minimally informed), or terrible self-selection bias in terms of who participates in which decisions, allowing special interest capture. Designating a representative sample of people by lottery to tackle each question is the only way to have INFORMED, REPRESENTATIVE, and NON-OLIGARCHICAL decision making — in other words DEMOCRACY.

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  11. I am convinced that sortition in politics can play a very useful roll in addition to direct democracy, when it is executed properly in all his details, and that is why I support it. But nevertheless I think that “social capital” is a major factor in politics and has to be studied carefully as well.

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  12. > I think that “social capital” is a major factor in politics and has to be studied carefully as well.

    And this is despite the fact that you cannot describe in a meaningful way what “social capital” is.

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  13. I just started the “social capital” study and wrote down my first thoughts. I am expecting a review soon. The amount of literature about “social capital” is vast but I hope to narrow it down to the political area. I found “social capital” in the early books about “direct democracy” but underestimated his importance. Or maybe at that time the deteriorating of society also due to the representative electoral system wasn’t so clear to me as it is now.
    At this moment the definition I use is

    – Social capital.

    We define social capital as “the situation in which free people unite and decide together”. There is also a connection between “social capital” and trust between people and trust between citizens and the government and its institutions .
    It is clear that for the formation of “social capital” freedom of association together with freedom of expression is an absolute and necessary condition. This is in contrast to dictatorships, authoritarian systems and totalitarianism, which allow only a dogmatic rigid ideology.

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