An unpublished column on sortition and Brexit

From around January this year I’ve tried to get the column below published – in the Guardian UK where my previous column was published. Unfortunately, and even after endless cajoling via the Guardian at this end, I couldn’t get a reply which is piss poor but there you go. Martin Wolf tried for me at the FT. At least they responded – but with a ‘no’, which is fair enough given the oversupply of articles on Brexit. Anyway as it fades into irrelevance and the Brexit Brouhaha Burbles on I thought I’d pop it up here.

The result of the 2016 Brexit referendum looms over the career politicians assembled in the Palace of Westminster as the black monolith loomed over the apes in the movie 2001.

It’s taken over thirty months of thrashing through actual options – as opposed to the wild partisan imaginings in the campaign – for a ghastly, if entirely foreseeable realisation to dawn. Despite the people’s clear instruction to Leave, any specific way of doing so would command far less than the 48 percent vote for Remain.

In the teeth of the greatest crisis of British statecraft since World War II, the institutional imperatives of political combat ensure the politicians perform rather than deliberate. Not only Corbyn, but extraordinarily enough, May has clung to fantasies about getting a better deal, though the end game will presumably see her change her tune.

How did it come to this? Continue reading

When is a conversation not a conversation? When it’s a political conversation.

Violence in Bahrain as Democracy Protesters Take to Streets

This essay is cross posted from Quillette

I

It looks like liberal democracy is falling apart. But we can put it back together if we take democracy seriously enough—as seriously as the ancient Greeks.

The chaos of Donald Trump was unimaginable just a decade ago. Brexit was a similar humiliation for Britain’s political class, leading to its bewildered paralysis ever since. How do such things happen? Perhaps because I admire economists’ deployment of very simple ideas to powerful effect, I’ve come to an approach to these problems that I think is simple and compelling.

First, democracy is government by conversation. A political conversation should often be competitive—to sharpen ideas and measure their support. Yet, to remain a conversation rather than a parody of one, it must also be a co-operative search, if not for agreement, then at least for mutual understanding of where positions differ. However, this co-operative foundation for our politics has been largely extinguished by the weaponisation of political communication by professionals operating on the mass media, and, more recently by “trolling” on social media.

Second, where elections bake competition into the operating system of representation, there’s another, even more time honoured way to represent the people. The ancient Greeks built their democracy around it and it hides in plain sight today whenever a jury is empanelled in a court of law. And, whether it concerns legal or political matters, deliberation within such bodies nurtures the collaborative aspects of conversation. Giving citizens’ juries and assemblies chosen by lot a role within our beleaguered democracy could see it renewed.

II

To become a politician you compete for election. You then join party colleagues competing against their opponents. Yet democracy implies limits to competition. We remain safe for now that no substantial political grouping perpetuates extra-legal violence. Yet something more fundamental is afoot.

Though it apes the form of conversation, political communication has become as professionalised, as optimised to the competition to win votes as McDonald’s use of salt, fat, sugar and advertising is to win customers. Meanwhile, responding to similar competitive imperatives, the informational foundations of our democracy were being shorn away by mass media news values long before the internet arrived. Between 1968 and 1988, the length of presidential sound bites on US network news went from 43 to 9 seconds.1
Continue reading

Democracy For Young People: a provocative podcast

Democracy For Young People is, in my opinion a very compelling analysis of the ills of our democracy. It’s a very simple idea – which is that electoral democracy massively underrepresents three classes of people whose influence on democracy the great anti-democrats of the ancient world (i.e. all the thinkers whose work has come down to us in any substantial form) were most hostile to. The young, the poorly educated and the poor.

I thought the ‘solutions’ section would end up at selection by lot, but it moved right along from that to lowering the voting age (dramatically!). But then the conclusion on what to do was an afterthought, and not really the focus of the podcast. The analysis was compelling. It’s good points are that the ideas are very simple, clearly important. They’re also clearly right to some extent, though of course there could be very wide reasonable disagreement on that extent.

So I recommend it.

Citizens’ chambers: towards an activism of selection by lot

In a paper, previously linked to on this blog, James Fishkin identifies some potential shortcomings of citizen’s chambers which justify his own preference for ad hoc, and temporary citizens’ panels. I think he makes some good points. I think his arguments need further exploration which I do in the first half of this post before articulating a more general unease at where Fishkin and many protagonists of sortition are coming from.

His central concerns with a citizen’s chamber are that it might:

  • have insufficient technical expertise
  • be susceptible to corruption and
  • not maintain the high quality “conditions for deliberation” that have been achieved in more ad hoc citizens’ juries.

These are legitimate concerns. But they have a ‘theoretical’ ring to me. Firstly Fishkin doesn’t provide much evidence that these problems would arise or if they did how bad they’d be. Secondly, he also fails to compare the likely problems with existing similar problems in the existing chambers. I’ll go through these arguments regarding each of the claims in a little more detail below before proceeding to my more general concern.

Technical expertise

If someone can suggest a means by which one or two hundred people can represent the polity and not lack expertise in all the functions of government, I’ll be interested to hear it. Perhaps a random selection from the great unwashed will be less technically expert than elected representatives. For instance, in wealthy countries today, over 90 percent of elected political representatives are university educated compared with around half the population. But that greater level of education comes with its own blind spots as we’re discovering. Moreover, a university graduate in law or psychology won’t be much help in steering fiscal policy and in that regard, the people’s elected representatives often rely in such matters on delegation to independent experts and being advised by experts. But this comes with the territory.
Continue reading

Gordon Brown embraces citizens’ assemblies

In a thoughtful contribution to considering the governance of Britain in the context of the still running Brexit fiasco, Gordon Brown offers this suggestion:

We must renounce the unsatisfactory, inward-looking, partisan and inevitably piecemeal decision-making process of the past 30 months.

In the old days, political parties saw their role as aggregating and then articulating grassroots views. But to the British people the parties seem – like social media – to be dominated by those with the loudest voice.

[…]

I envisage bringing together in each region a representative panel of a few hundred citizens, engaging them in a day’s dialogue to deliberate on arguments presented by informed opinion leaders and advocates from both sides — and testing whether pro and anti-Brexit voters can find any common ground.

Thought Cages: a Parliament by lottery

Readers of this blog may be interested in this brief documentary radio program that recently went to air on BBC Radio 4.

A Parliament by Lottery

Could we fix the disconnect between the public and its politicians – by selecting our MPs by lottery?

In today’s episode, ad guru and expert on human behaviour Rory Sutherland explores how a “House Of The People”, comprised of a random cross-section of the British public – might be better at truly reflecting the considered will of the British people.

Rory is joined by the Australian political economist and expert on innovation Nicholas Gruen – who explains how the idea dates back to the Ancient Greeks – and the MP for Birmingham Yardley, Jess Philips, an elected parliamentarian who’s keener on the idea than you might expect…

Global Trends in Democracy: Background, U.S. Policy, and Issues for Congress: A worthwhile reference

Readers of this blog may be interested in this recent exploration (pdf) of global trends in democracy for the US Congress.