Luebwick: How democratic is democratic innovation?

Patrick Luebwick, Professor of Political Philosophy at the University of Antwerp and Visiting Professor at the University of Ghent, critiques sortition in general and more specifically what may be called “the citizen assembly process”, i.e., the way allotted bodies are being employed nowadays within the existing power structure. Some excerpts are below. [The text seems to be an automatic translation of an original text in French(?) and contains some dubious phrases, which I tried to correct.]

Betting on direct civil democracy is not an innocent game

Belgium jumps on the bandwagon of democratic renewal. The elected representatives of the people increasingly seem to desire direct assistance through the insights and advice of ordinary citizens. There is a project under way in the German-speaking community where commissions drawn up by lot can provide input to Parliament. The federal government has just completed an online citizen survey inviting us to share ideas about the future of Belgium. The Vivaldi government itself also has a bill ready to allow bodies in which citizens selected by lot can engage in dialogue with each other, politicians, experts and civil society to formulate policy recommendations for state reform.

Various arguments are used to support these types of initiatives. Politicians present it as a good sign to increase political participation and citizen participation. Civic democracy as a means of bridging the gap with citizens and promoting democracy. Proponents often assume that citizen paintings drawn by lottery can speed up and improve political decision-making.

[However, the use of sortition relies on the idea that i]f we inform citizens adequately and allow them to reasonably discuss with each other, we can track down the will of the people. This assumption is problematic. First, the outcomes of the allotted body may reflect what citizens see after deliberation about a particular political topic. But the rest of the population may not be convinced. The use of citizens’ committees thus runs counter to the idea that democracy is a form of self-government. After all, the well-thought-out judgments made by allotted citizens do not match what the what the population thinks or wants. Democracy as autonomy is not served by a participatory shortcut that is taken over the heads of the majority of citizens. Rather, the strength of deliberative democracy lies in the attempt to involve the whole of society in political opinion and decision-making, particularly through open debate in the public sphere and through diverse civil society and civil society.

Second, it is a populist delusion to believe in the existence of a homogeneous popular will. It is best to assume that fundamental differences of opinion will persist on all kinds of political issues even after informed and reasonable deliberation. This is precisely the reason for the introduction of democracy and we must continue to cherish it. Democracy provides the space in which political and ideological struggle can be waged and in which we can continually disagree with one another in a nonviolent manner. […] Politicians who think their work to reform the state will be easier after a round of civil democracy are gravely wrong.

Much, if not all, of course also depends on the way the engagement is organized. The latest public opinion poll did not leave a good impression. Too complicated, too expensive, too little. This poll appears to have highlighted the gap between politicians and citizens, rather than helping to bridge it. It will also be of great importance that the citizen boards that the government wants to present are used in a reliable manner. They would not, rightly, have legislative power. To prevent citizens from feeling like they are being taken for a ride afterwards, it is necessary to agree well and express the status of the commissions and what will happen with their proposals. After all, quite a few participatory processes end in failure and leave citizens feeling disappointed, as has happened in the case of the Convention Citoyenne pour le Climat (CCC) set up by French President Emmanuel Macron in response to the Yellow Vests protests.

There is a danger that participatory expectations will exceed what is politically possible. This quickly creates a perception of false participation: politicians who engage citizens to give them the impression that they are being listened to. If this impression is given, it will only increase distrust of politics. So betting on direct civil democracy is not an innocent game. Attempting to promote democracy can also turn against democracy. Let’s hope to avoid this harmful side effect.

One Response

  1. Some of his criticisms have merit (e.g. Citizens’ Assembly members being upset that politicians do not take up their recommendations, and essentially being “used”), while others are misplaced. An interesting point is where he writes:

    >”First, the outcomes of the allotted body may reflect what citizens see after deliberation about a particular political topic. But the rest of the population may not be convinced. The use of citizens’ committees thus runs counter to the idea that democracy is a form of self-government. After all, the well-thought-out judgments made by allotted citizens do not match what the what the population thinks or wants.”

    Interesting that he acknowledges no similar concern that ELECTED representatives, after “well-thought-out judgments” (or corrupt biased decisions), also generally “do not match” what the un-informed population thinks.

    Liked by 2 people

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: