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
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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.
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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.

The people’s voice: as rage and as healing

There’s a spectre haunting Europe … and the rest of the Western world. We have elaborate ‘diversity’ programs in good upper-middle-class places to prevent discrimination against all manner of minorities (and majorities like women). It’s a fine thing. But there’s a diversity challenge a little closer to home which is tearing the world apart. There’s a war on the less well educated.

They’re falling out of the economy in droves, being driven into marginal employment or out of the labour force. This is a vexing problem to solve economically if the electorate values rising incomes which it does. Because, as a rule, the less well educated are less productive.

Still, the less well educated are marginalised from polite society. Polite society even runs special newspapers for them. They’re called tabloids and they’re full of resentment and hate. And yes, a big reason they are the way they are is that the less well educated buy them. They’re also marginalised, except in stereotyped form from TV.

Then there are our institutions of governance. While less than 50 per cent of our population are university educated, over 90 per cent of our parliamentarians are. Something very similar would be going on down the chain of public and private governance down to local councils and private firms.

And I’m pretty confident that a lot of this is internalised even by those not well educated. The last working-class Prime Minister we’ve had in Australia was Ben Chifley who was turfed out of office by a silver-tongued barrister in 1949. Barrie Unsworth in NSW going down badly in his first election as NSW Premier despite seeming – at least to me to be doing quite a good job. But he sounded working class – because he was. I wonder if that was it?

The world is made by and for the upper middle class, those who’ve been to the right schools and gone to unis (preferably the right unis), to get on. The ancient Greeks had a political/legal principle of relevance here which is entirely absent from our political language. In addition to ‘παρρησία’ or ‘parrhesia‘ which is often translated as ‘freedom of speech’ but which also carries a connotation of the duty to speak the truth boldly for the community’s wellbeing even at your own cost (as Socrates did), they also had the concept of ‘ισηγορια’ or ‘isegoria‘ meaning equality of speech.1

In Australia Pauline Hanson’s One Nation represents the political system’s concession to isegoria – toxified as a protest party within a hostile political culture. My own support for a greater role for selection by lot in our democracy is to build more isegoria into our political system in a way that, I think there’s good evidence, can help us get to a much better politics and policy.

In any event, the big, most toxified political events illustrating these problems are, of course, Brexit and Trump – concrete political acts of transformative significance standing before illustrating the power of isegoria as rage. Continue reading

Democracy, sortition and inequality

I was a little crestfallen when, after my public lecture on democracy and sortition at King’s College London was filmed with a view to producing a video, the contractors informed us that the recording was hopelessly corrupted. So I was pleased that when I gave another presentation on democracy to the Communities in Control conference in Melbourne a few weeks ago its recording appears to have remained uncorrupted. The presentation was similar to the Kings College lecture, though the King’s College lecture was longer and focused on Brexit whereas this one focused on inequality.

Anyway, reactions are, of course, welcome.

Citizens’ juries as activism: holding the US Congress to its constitutional role

For some time now we’ve been ‘proving up’ citizens’ juries as a means of consulting the people, but generally within the context of governments being in charge. As a result they’ve been mostly relatively innocuous. For instance the first two in South Australia were focused on making Adelaide’s nightlife safe and vibrant and getting motorists and cyclists to share the road more safely. They’re pretty anodyne and boutique issues for politicians so it’s pretty low risk. They might generate some answers they’re happy with, help get community buy-in to tricky issues. And if they don’t work out as hoped for, governments can walk away without too much angst.

Having tried exercises with a degree of difficulty of about 3 out of ten, the then Premier of South Australia Jay Weatherill had a rush of blood to the head and tried the citizens’ jury with pike and triple twist – rated in the diagnostic and statistical manual of democracy at 10. Should South Australia start a nuclear waste storage industry? The answer was … no, which wasn’t much fun for anyone. Elsewhere in Melbourne a citizens’ jury worked on a ten year budget plan which was certainly well received at the time. The plan is now a few years old and I’m not sure how well it’s stood the test of time.

In the UK, a consortium of academic and other interests held a citizens’ jury on Brexit but, in the angst ridden atmosphere of Brexit Means Brexit Britain, they were at great pains not to antagonise the politicians who were planning on spending the next four years masterminding what the overwhelming majority of them understood to be the disaster of Brexit (you know, the way Australia’s politicians did abolishing carbon pricing against the better judgement of around 80 percent of them – it’s costing the budget over $10 billion a year since you asked.)

Thus, as the organisers collateral put it dutifully, “The UK’s voters have decided to leave the EU. The Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit is not reopening this question. This decision has already been made.”[1] However I can’t think of any big change that came about from people playing by the rules of the existing system and asking nicely. And the fact is that sortition has roots going deep into our history and culture – in fact back two and a half millennia to Athens, the birthplace of democratic politics, but also back more than 800 years to Magna Carta in our legal system in the form of juries. As public trust plummets for so many institutions, its trust in juries is alive and well and while ‘vertical’ trust – the trust of people in large and powerful institutions – has been falling, horizontal trust – in people’s peers and People Like Them has not fallen and may have risen.

And, not being able to recall any form of political activism that brought about major change except by asserting its own legitimacy in competition with the legitimacy of the existing system, I want to find ways of confronting the existing system in its weakest places with the legitimacy of citizens’ juries and sortition where they are strongest. This is the way I put it in a recent interview:

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Bleg for research or contacts on sortition and egalitarianism

Hello to the Equality by Lot community and thanks to Yoram for inviting me to post here.

I’d be really grateful if anyone in the community could help me with something I’m trying to research. A critical question in many people’s minds in assessing the merit or otherwise of sortition based political deliberation is the way in which the conclusions deliberative groups chosen by sortition would differ from the conclusions arrived at after ‘deliberation’ as it occurs in the current system – via the mutual assured misrepresentation we see at the heart of most political campaigns.

Websites such as this one have extensive information on changes of view in individual deliberations in deliberative polling, but I’m interested in what writing has been done to try to characterise the kinds of changes that take place. The only stylised fact I have been able to glean from the literature and from researchers I’ve contacted is that sortition based deliberation tends to produce ‘swings’ towards more socially minded and cooperative conclusions – for instance people show themselves more prepared to pay for collective goods like environmental protection.

The question I’m particularly interested in, is whether deliberation amongst ordinary people tends to make them more supportive of egalitarian policies. To be specific, whether it would support policies to generate a more equal distribution of income and wealth than electoral democracy. It seems to me that it should, and that to some extent that is implied in more ‘social mindedness’ and preparedness to pay for collective goods but I’d be interested in any research or authorities anyone could point me to on the subject.