Elections are all about competition right? (They weren’t way back when)

Cross posted from Club Troppo.

As part of my recent fascination with competitive and ‘de-competitive’ merit selection, I’ve been looking at the origins of both parliamentary and presidential elections. Intriguingly though we now associate elections with competition between candidates, in both the British parliamentary system and the American presidency, elections were not competitive. Indeed, contemporaries regarded the idea of competition for such an office with alarm for its tendency to encourage ‘faction’.

But isn’t an ‘election’ competitive by definition? Isn’t that the meaning of the word? Well no! That’s what the word implies today, but its root in Latin simply means “to pick” or “to choose”. The word ‘elect’ retains this sense in Christian theology when speaking of ‘the elect’ — those chosen, not in competition with each other but by God. One can circle back from this reference to observe that the electorate is the sovereign body when it comes to its being represented, and in this sense an ‘election’ is the choosing by the sovereign body — if you’re dealing with God, I’m reliably informed that He’s sovereign and so he elects the elect. And if you’re dealing with the electorate, it chooses who is the elect.

Sixteenth century English parliamentary election.

In early modern England, political choice was subsumed within a wide system of social relations. Complex notions of honor, standing, and deference, shared but not always articulated, helped to regulate and absorb conflict between and within loosely defined status groups. The selection of members of Parliament, an intermittent event for county property holders and members of designated boroughs, was but one part of a continuing process of social distinction. Despite the uniqueness of Parliament in the political history of the nation, in the ongoing life of the communities that chose its members, parliamentary selection existed in a broader context. For peers of the realm, a summons to the House of Lords was a prescriptive right, another attribute of their nobility. For members of the small group of dominant gentry families within the county communities, it was both a responsibility of service and a privilege conferred on them by kin and neighbors. For rich merchants of large boroughs, it followed as part of the cursus honorum of civic office; while for gentlemen and lawyers, who obtained the majority of borough seats parceled out to patrons, it was an occasion to follow their own busi- nesses, advance their careers, or simply partake of the delights of the capital.

Selections differed according to social structure, population, and wealth. In counties the keynotes of parliamentary selection were honor and deference. Men were chosen members of Parliament or given the right to nominate members on the basis of criteria largely social in nature. This was especially true of the senior knight of the shire, which by the early seventeenth century had become a mark of social distinction that outweighed all other factors. Counties whose internal social elites were dominated by one or two families — like Herefordshire or Surrey — honored these men and their heirs regularly. Counties like Kent or Somerset, which had more variegated elites, developed patterns of rotation.

The principle of parliamentary selection — and, judging from the available evidence, the reality as well — was unified choice. “By and with the whole advice, assent and consent,” was how the town of Northampton put it when enrtheolling the selection of Christopher Sherland and Richard Spencer in 1626. Communities avoided division over parliamentary selections for all the obvious reasons – cost, trouble, fear of riot, challenge to magisterial authority — and for one other: The refusal to assent to the choice of an M.P. was an explicit statement of dishonor. Freely given by the will of the shire or the borough, a place in Parliament was a worthy distinction. Wrested away from competitors in a divisive contest, it diminished the worth of both victor and vanquished.

Source: Kishlansky Mark A, 1986. Parliamentary Selection Social and Political Choice in Early Modern England, Cambridge University Press.

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Small steps

Access to the chamber’s time for dealing with members’ bills is randomised.

Well this is a small step indeed, (perhaps intimated by the picture) but I thought readers might be interested in this little feature of New Zealand’s parliamentary arrangements.

It is usually the proviso of Christmas Day snacking or visits to your nan’s. But in New Zealand – a country with a penchant for on-the-fly problem-solving – the humble biscuit tin has become a mainstay of parliamentary democracy.

There, as in Britain, members’ bills are a chance for MPs to have laws that they have proposed debated in the house.

But unlike in Westminster, in Wellington those bills are represented by plastic bingo counters in a 30-year-old biscuit tin. A curled, yellowing paper label taped to the front helpfully proclaims: Members’ Bills.

New Zealand House Speaker Trevor Mallard bottle-feeds lawmaker Tamati Coffey’s baby while presiding over a debate in parliament

Each plastic counter represents a bill, and when there is space on parliament’s order paper for a fresh round of proposed laws, a member of the parliamentary service digs into the tin for a lucky dip.

“It was what was available at the time,” Trevor Mallard, the Speaker of New Zealand’s parliament said of the tin, adding that it had initially contained “a mixed selection of biscuits”.

The tin was introduced after parliamentary reforms in the 1980s that changed an earlier method for keeping track of members’ bills – a list – to a ballot draw.

Me talking about sortition on Joe Trippi’s program

I met Joe Trippi about a decade ago. I met him about a decade ago and was fascinated with his campaigning exploits — including taking Howard Dean from backmarker to presidential frontrunner in 2004. Many of the architects of the online campaigning that took Obama to the White House came from the Dean campaign that Joe engineered. You can hear him interviewed here as “the man who reinvented campaigning”.

Be that as it may, in this podcast, we talk a little about how, even back then, I had a more wary expectation of how social media would influence politics — though I didn’t predict the dystopia that it’s contributing to. I was also thinking about the way citizens’ juries could detox our politics. (Both of these things are expanded on in this essay.) Since Joe’s trying to save democracy from further degeneration, we talked about what citizens’ juries could contribute in our current dire times. The interview was recorded before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. If you prefer an audio to the video above, you can find it here.

An excellent episode from That Trippi Show’s back book is this frightening interview with David Pepper.

Ideas, hacks, representation by sampling and political theory

https://twitter.com/ockhamsbeard/status/1481137490920882178

In response to an exchange of tweets I wrote what seems like a long post on Twitter — lasting 7 tweets —which is a short post here. In any event it tries to crystalise something I think is important in the way I see things — and in how I see them differently to those who give more weight to political theory than I do.

Seems to be working well in New Zealand. But while such topics occupy the minds of the political ‘thinkers’, that’s because academia in particular is so given to ‘big debates’ with ideal types with long histories in the literature.

I think much more progress is possible by paying less attention to theory and the endless set-piece debates between this and that (say FPTP v PR) and more attention to specific hacks which look like they could make a major contribution

https://www.themandarin.com.au/103093-what-is-a-policy-hack/

In the language I developed in that article, juries are both an ‘idea’ and a ‘hack’ — which is to say they intimate a whole repertoire of possible institutions based on a different idea of what makes someone ‘representative’. (here representation by sampling not election)

And they are the ‘hack’ because they provide a concrete action that can be taken. I think there’s a lot to be said for bringing citizens’ juries into our understanding of checks and balances. Not only are they a different way to do democracy.

They’re time honoured institution. So, in seeking the populace’s support, we wouldn’t be asking them to back some professor’s theory but rather the chain of legitimacy back to Magna Carta and beyond and into people’s trust of their neighbours (and distrust of politicians).

I’d LIKE to think that greater PR here would improve things, but I just don’t know. New Zealand has done some good things since greater PR, but nothing DIFFICULT that I can think of. And the alternative is Italy which doesn’t appeal.

I think we can point representation by sampling at specific problems our system has and, in so doing give ourselves a very good chance of making them a lot better.

Some pro-sortition podcasting

Hi all

Just to let you know of a podcast I did with Jim O’Shaugnessey’s program “Infinite loops”. You can download it from this link. I’ve also done another one in Australia which I’ll also post when it’s released in the New Year.

You can download a transcript from this link (pdf).

Appointing public officials by sortition: Guest post from Paul Frijters

A friend of mine, Paul Frijters posted the post below on the group blog we share ClubTroppo. It raises an important issue for me which is the potential use of sortition to institutionalise political independence. I reproduce it for readers’ interest here, though there are over twenty comments on his post at ClubTroppo which may be of interest.

oooOOOooo

Dear Troppodillians, lend me your critical eye. I ask you to consider the system of citizen-jury appointments I have in mind, and tell me how the vested interests would try to game it, ie why it would not work and whether the system can be improved. Bear with me as I describe what I have in mind.

Suppose that in 10 years time in Australia, there is a citizen-jury-system for appointments for the entire upper layer of the public sector. One jury, one top position. Politicians would still be in charge of policy and Budgets, but juries would appoint all the top people working in the public sector. The system would hold for all large entities receiving significant state funding:

  • Universities
  • large hospitals
  • heads of Government Departments
  • State Media
  • Arts Councils
  • Statistical Agencies
  • etc.

So every year, hundreds of top-positions would be decided upon by juries. Consider how this would go for, saying, the director of the ABC.

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Proposing and disposing in the real world

A flow chart of the citizens’ jury process for determining compulsory third party insurance in the Australian Capital Territory.

Alex Kovner and Keith Sutherland have written some interesting things on the importance of separating the process of proposing policies and that of deciding which ones are implemented. I’ve not thought as much as I clearly should have about this myself, but I’ve certainly noted it as something I should think more about, and as a fertile and possibly indispensable idea in trying to introduce more sortition into our politics.

But, as readers of my posts will know, I’m also keen to leaven theoretical considerations with the question of how we get there. In that regard I’m interested in approaches to this question that are being tried by practitioners in the field, tied as they are to their own practical and political exigencies. So I was interested to read this case study by my friends at Democracy.co of their participation in helping the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) Government solve its problem of how to .

The essence of what happened is in the diagram above, though you need to read the case study to fully understand the way things were done. Of course this isn’t life according to the strict logic that I’ve seen proposed. For instance the proposer and the disposer are the same citizens’ jury. But I still think what was done was an interesting step forward in articulating practical options in seeking to inject more sortition into political decision making. I’ll be interested in what comments it attracts from this highly informed community.

The role of secret ballots of our elected representatives

Voters-secret-ballot-system-Australian-British-elections-April-17-1880

From Encyclopaedia Brittanica: “Australian ballot: Voters participating in the secret ballot, or Australian ballot, system in the British general elections of April 17, 1880. Hulton Archive”

Though I have a deep interest in and faith in sortition as “the other way of representing the people”, my own view of a good system and of the path of activism to save our ailing democracies is protean, eclectic and pragmatic. In that spirit I offer this recent column of mine published in Australia. It makes a passing reference to sortition, but is focused on another very simple and critical building block of our democracies as they’re currently constituted – the choice between where voting should be by public and open ballot and where the ballot should be secret. The basic principles seem obvious – secret ballots for citizen’s votes and public voting for their representatives. But some artful exceptions could make a big difference to our current travails.

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As an Irish parliamentarian, Edmund Burke once said that he owed his constituents not just his industry but his judgment, and that if he voted according to their opinions rather than his own judgment he would betray rather than serve them.

This failure to flatter his audience helps explain why he’s better remembered today as a philosopher than as a practitioner of politics. But the distinction he made gives us a key to mending our democracy.

Today, when push comes to shove, politicians’ allegiance is neither to their judgment nor their constituents’ opinion, but to their party. (It is worth noting that political parties were in their infancy in Burke’s time.)

It is not uncommon for legislative chambers around the world to have voted against the judgment of the overwhelming majority of their members and even against the people’s wishes — all at the behest of party bosses.

In this category I’d include numerous votes of the UK parliament regarding Brexit and various decisions of US congressmen and women culminating in the failure to find Donald Trump guilty during his recent impeachment trial — despite Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell describing then-president Trump’s conduct as a “disgraceful dereliction of duty”.

That conduct moved Trump’s political opponents to some genuine eloquence rather than the usual play-acting. As Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer put it:

Five years ago, Republican senators lamented what might become of their party if Donald Trump became their presidential nominee and standard-bearer. Just look at what has happened. Look at what Republicans have been forced to defend. Look at what Republicans have chosen to forgive. The former president tried to overturn the results of a legitimate election and provoked an assault on our own government, and well over half the Senate Republican conference decided to condone it. The most despicable act that any president has ever committed, and the majority of Republicans cannot summon the courage, the morality, to condemn it.

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How sortition points beyond all that sound and fury that signifies nothing

Back in the day, (which is to say for most of the 20th century until things began changing in the 1980s), each of the major political parties had a few percentage points of the population as members. In addition to the intrinsic rewards of being part of one’s country’s social and political fabric, the ultimate point of membership was to influence your party’s political platform and through that to influence government policy.

Correspondingly, mass movements such as the civil rights movement would pare back their platforms to the specific issue they wished to highlight. It took Martin Luther King most of the 1960s to come out against America’s involvement in Vietnam because widening his movements platform was seen to compromise the size of the civil rights coalition. 

Since then politics has famously been ‘hollowed out’. The membership of mainstream political parties has plummeted with those left tending to be careerists, the stooges they attract to stack branches and occasional naïve blow-ins. Political parties still go through some of the motions of members determining policy, but senior party professionals understand themselves as a fighting force which will need to improvise its way through the news cycles through to the next election and that makes member determined policy a potential liability.

And something similar has occurred in mass movements. Their campaigning is increasingly focused on people’s expressive side. And policies are increasingly seen through that lens. Thus Black Lives Matter wants to defund the police or says it does. This is a ridiculous slogan, but one treated with great toleration by our media and commentators. Brexit might mean Brexit, but defund doesn’t really mean defund. It means … well something else – reallocating funds to community building and all that stuff. Likewise, the BLM platform plans to overthrow capitalism and all the rest of it. And it turns out that next to none of the coverage that BLM gets is about its policies. So its policies can be aimed at expression rather than the outcomes that those policies might produce.  

I began writing a post on this back in the days of France’s Yellow Vests. They knew they were pissed off, and, for all I know they were right to be pissed off. They knew they didn’t like certain taxes which they felt targeted them. But what did they like? What policy changes were they after? That was less clear. 

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Knowing your arse from your Albo: how political parties might access the ‘blind break’ to get better leaders

Herewith a brief post I wrote for my (mostly Australian) audience sketching out one possible use of sortition within a political party rather than the political system itself. As those reading this blog with any attentiveness will know, this is part of my own approach to sortition as one of a number of ‘hacks’ that can help unpick some of the pathologies of oligarchies of various kinds both specific and systemic.

A lottery is a defensible way of making a decision when, and to the extent that, it is important that bad reasons be kept out of the decision.
Peter Stone

Left of centre parties have been serving up seriously, obviously bad candidates for years now. That happened at the last election in the US and will happen at the next one. It’s happened at the last two elections in Australia and looks like happening at the next one. This nearly happened to the Liberal Government in Australia when they nearly acquired Peter Dutton as leader.

Why?
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