Landemore: Open Democracy, part 3

The crisis of representative democracy

Landemore again goes to the heart of matters when she states at the beginning of chapter 2:

My main point in this chapter will be to trace a certain understanding of the “crisis” of contemporary democracy not so much to contingent external factors (though they obviously play a role) but, rather, to the more fundamental democratic flaws in representative democracy’s original design. The main problem, I will argue, is that representative democracy was designed on the basis of electoral premises that prevent even its best, most democratized contemporary versions from reaching the full potential of genuine “popular rule”, that is, a rule that empowers all equally.

Due to these democratic flaws

the cognitive dissonance between the reality of the regimes we live in and the democratic expectations people attach to them can only grow over time.

Too often the crisis of confidence in electoralist regimes is attributed to a plethora of circumstances that are supposedly incidental, non-inherent to the regime itself: everything from globalization to technological change to polarization to Putin. In contrast, Landemore’s agenda is refreshingly clear and principled. While accepting that at least some of those phenomena have their effects, she does not see these are being root causes but, to they extent they are influential factors, as being symptoms of the root causes that are inherent to the electoralist system (p. 32).

It is unfortunate that this clarity is attenuated again by the mandatory gesturing toward propriety. First, why would Landemore write about a design that “fails to empower all equally” because it is based upon “mistaken premises” if by her own account the electoralist design had explicit anti-democratic objectives? Implying that the founders were incompetent democratically minded law-givers is somehow more acceptable, it seems, than maintaining consistency with the previous analysis and inferring that the founders quite competently designed an impressively successful anti-democratic system.
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Landemore: Open Democracy, part 2

“Open”

Revisiting briefly the matter of the title of the book: In Part 1 I objected to Landemore’s choice of the term “open democracy” to describe her ideal for government. In short, I find that the word “open” is essentially meaningless and I suspect that the reason for using it as a modifier is that doing so allows to apply the word “democracy” (as in “closed democracy”) to the existing Western eletions-based regimes. On page 15 of the book, Landemore herself notes that the term is already used and abused in politics – as when it refers to transparency. Landemore also makes the connotation of open-source software explicit and claims that there is a likeness between “open democracy” and open source software because “in a democracy the law should be something to which all have access and on which all can make an impact. Everyone should be able to write and claim authorship over the law”. Again, this is too vague to be useful. It is certainly not true at all that open-source software is democratic in any meaningful sense. For one thing, open source is often financed and controlled de-facto by powerful interests. In fact, if anything an analogy may be drawn between open-source software and the “closed” electoral system where a superficial, formal equality is a mask for inherent systemic inequality.

Technology, direct democracy

Too often political reform advocates have a laissez faire “it’s all good” attitude and they embrace any proposal that is making the rounds. Having an “open mind” may sound like a good idea, but in fact not examining proposals critically is recipe for dissipating energy and missing rare opportunities for change. Landemore does not make this mistake. Despite the invocation of the open-source connotation, Landemore explains that her book is not about democracy through technology. This is good. The barriers to democracy are not technological and focusing on technological solutions is therefore a distraction. Another thing Landemore is explicitly not offering is the “antiquated and largely impractical ideal of direct democracy” (p. 17) – a system where mass participation is a central feature. Her reasoning will be laid out in chapter 3 of the book, so it remains to be seen how convincingly it is argued that this is not the right way forward. But argumentation aside, the conclusion is the right one in my opinion. Rejecting mass participation is therefore an important step in clearing the ground for better ideas.

What is an elite?

On page 18 Landemore has an important clarification of the term “elites”. She writes:
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Landemore: Open Democracy, part 1

I have recently started reading Hélène Landemore’s book Open Democracy (2020, Princeton University Press). Having gone through the first two chapters, I find the book very useful and I highly recommend it. Despite its somewhat clichéd title, and despite the occasional bow toward the self-serving traditional Western theory of democracy, Landemore is in fact offering (it seems so far, I should say) a rather radical critique of the status quo and does not shy away from throwing some heavy punches at theorists who in one way or another defend oligarchical ideologies. In fact, Landemore presents – even if intermittently and obliquely – a thoroughgoing critique of the elections-based system that is not only better argued than, say, that of Van Reybrouck, but also more radical than his. I can’t think of a comparable book from a mainstream US political scientist. (Maybe Dahl’s A Preface to Political Theory?) The fact that Landemore, now at Yale, is originally French, may be playing a significant role.

Here is a first installment of my comments. I hope to have quite a few more posts discussing Open Demcoracy.

“Open Democracy”

To start: the title, “Open Democracy”. This does not bode well. Is there such a thing as a “closed democracy”? Is this making an implied assertion that our current system is a closed democracy, while we should be aiming at an open democracy? The term “open” has the odor of a buzzword (as in “open source”) – a feel good term which like “democracy” itself, or “people power”, could really mean anything.

On page 2 (I am reading the electronic version, so page numbers are approximate), when discussing what are supposedly historical examples of democracies, Landemore gives what seems like a definition of “open democracy”: a situation where “in theory”, any member of the political community “could access the center of power and participate in the various stages of decision-making. Citizens could literally walk into the public space to be given a chance to speak and be heard”. This is contrasted with the modern situation where “many have the feeling” of being “left out of the most important centers of political power, while the political personnel form an elite that is separate from them”.
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Chevallier: The chic populism of participative democracy

A column by Arthur Chevallier in Le Point is yet another condemnation of the allotted committee monitoring the French vaccination campaign. The author sees the creation of the committee as a sign of weakness and hesitation. The government, he asserts, must act resolutely and dispose of attempts to over-communicate.

Chevallier is an editor at Passés composés and the author of the book “Napoléon et le Bonapartisme” published by Que sais-je ?.

The chic populism of participative democracy

Jan. 5, 2021

The allotment of 35 citizens to follow the vaccination campaign was aimed to be the perfect exercise in communication. It turned out to be the opposite.

Democracy is not about weakness. It is not about the promotion of amateurism. The creation of a committee of 35 allotted citizens which is supposed to follow the vaccination against Covid-19 invited mockery. What should have been proof of transparency turned into evidence of failure. If criticising the management of the crisis is less a matter of courage than of cynicism, since the matter is not as easy as it may seems, it is still necessary to denounce the unhealthy attempt to compensate for lack of efficacy by populism. Horizotalization of power is an illusion. Democracy did not gain its prominence by getting amateurs to run complex matters, but rather by its successes.

Without being aware of it, progressivism gives way to a stereotype of recationism. Since the 19th century, an ideology which may be called counter-revolutionary mocks democracy for being “feminie”, attaching to it labels such as the well-known “prostitute”, and hurling insults claiming that it is incapable of creating a powerful and harmonious state. History proves the opposite. Democracy is in fact quite often a radicalization of politics. In antiquity, Athens was at its height of power and imperialism at the 5th century BC, being its age where its democracy attained its most sophisticated form.
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Sortition has progressed, it seems, into the ridicule phase

As Mahatma Gandhi didn’t say:

First they ignore you. Then they ridicule you. And then they attack you and want to burn you. And then they build monuments to you.

The fondness of the Macron administration for allotted bodies has prompted the following piece by the satirical site Francheinfo. Marlène Schiappa is Macron’s assistant minister in charge of citizenship.

Marlène Schiappa is going to allot 15 citizens for a free Brazilian hair straightening

Democracy above all else, like in ancient Greece, Marlène Schiappa has chosen to use sortition in order to select 15 citizens of all origins, religions and hair types as winners of Brazilian hair straightening at the Ans Brazil salon.

“Under current conditions, we must allow the French people to enjoy soft and silky hair, such as mine, all for a reasonable price as offered at Ans Brasil. This is first of all a matter of social justice. Whether one lives at Aulnay or at Poissy sur Brie, we must allow French people’s hair to be nourished from its tips to its roots, with a sufficient dose of keratin so that it does not become brittle,” explained the minister for citizenship and for the hair-growing areas of the skin.

Washington state climate assembly

Washington state is having a Climate Assembly.

While the rhetoric around the assembly is by now standard, the sortition methodology employed is interesting, and notably includes video documentation (above, starting about 11 minutes in) of the randomization process.

The WA Climate Assembly called 6,333 households via Random Digit Dialing (RDD) recruiting using a longtime RDD sample provider, Scientific Telephone Samples, for RDD sample development. These samples are based on assigned numbers (for landline) or billing zip codes (for cellphone) to ensure the numbers we targeted were within the target market for this assembly.

Once call recipients who were willing and able RSVP’ed to the WA Climate Assembly team, a volunteer team (Panelot) from Carnegie Melon University and Harvard University used an algorithm they developed to generate a list of 10,000 panel compositions. Each one of these panel compositions had a mix of 80 potential Assembly members that reflected the make-up of Washington State, including:

  • Approximately half men/women
  • Age range from 16+
  • Congressional district
  • Income level
  • Race/ethnicity
  • Education level
  • A range of opinions backed by earlier studies about whether global warming is happening; is caused mostly by human activities; and whether the individual is worried about global warming.

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A government that resembles us?

A piece by Hervé Gardette in France Culture.

A gay man as the secretary of transportation, a Native American single mother as the secretary of the interior, a Black woman as vice president, a transgender person as assistant secretary of health, a Black general at the Pentagon, a person in her forties as secretary of commerce, and at the lead, a White man nearing 80 at the White House. Thus will look Joe Biden’s cabinet, if confirmed by the American Senate. A diversity in the executive that is supposed to best represent the population of the United States.

This is not the first time that an American government presents such diversity. In 2015 Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau used similar criteria to select his team, having for example a First Nations member holding the post of minister of justice and a member of the Sikh community being the minister of defense. A message addressed to the Canadians: this government is yours, it understands you because it resembles you.

The idea that political institutions should be representative of the population is not new, and it is not unique to North America (even if communitarianism is more developed there than here). The concern regarding the best representativity of power claims to be a response to the crisis of confidence in democracy: if the voters do not show up at the polls, it is because they don’t see themselves reflected in the people who represent them. So the near absence of workers in political decision-making positions has the consequence of demobilizing the electorate. The same goes for French people who are descended from immigrants and those (sometimes the same ones) who are from “diverse” backgrounds.

We may be in agreement with this idea, or may reject it in the name of universalism, but this is not the issue which I wish to discuss here. The question which I pose is this: what should the French government resemble if it is to be the most representative of the French society? If it is to resemble us? How many should be residents of Auvergnat? How many plumbers? How many should hold a community college degree?
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20 Minutes: The vaccination collective starts its work

The French news website 20 Minutes reports on the allotted body that has recently been convened by the French government to monitor the Covid-19 vaccination campaign.

Vaccination: The collective of 35 allotted citizen starts working on Saturday

Laure Cometti, 15/01/2021

The 35 allotted citizens representing the diversity of the French, as announced by Emmanuel Macron, are going to have their first work meeting this Saturday.

  • The citizen collective, tasked at the end of November by Emmanuel Macron to guarantee the transparency of the government’s vaccination strategy, is going to start its work on Saturday
  • It is composed of 35 citizens who are supposed to reflect the diversity of the French population and the different points of view regarding the Covid-19 vaccine.
  • It will meet regularly and will be able to interview experts. Its mission is to express the concerns of the population and formulate recommendations for the executive in order to assure the success of the vaccination campaign, lasting until the autumn.

This innovation is aimed at responding to the mistrust of the French toward the Covid-19 vaccine, and more generally toward the management of the crisis by the government. On November 24th Macron announced that “a citizen collective” would be created in order to “involve” the population in the vaccination campaign. This group of 35 allotted French people is now in place and is going to have its first meeting this Saturday. But what will this body do and how will it function? 20 Minutes explores.

Is this group representative of the population?

Not exactly, but this sample aspires to be representative of the diversity of the Frenchpeople. Allotted through the telephone, under the guidance of the Economic, Social and Environmental Council (CESE), the group comprises 18 women and 17 men. According to the CESE, all ages are represented, as are all regions and types of localities (large and small cities, rural areas, etc.). The same goes for levels of education (covering everything from no degree to graduate degree) and occupations. Members include farmers, workers, retail tradespeople, senior executives, lower management as well as the unemployed and the retired.
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New subtitle for Equality-by-Lot

This is to announce the results of the vote for a new subtitle for this blog.

Terry Bouricius has done the hard work of collecting the ranked choice lists and converting them to pairwise comparison matrices. Thanks, Terry!

Following Terry’s instructions, I have summed the matrices and produced the sum matrix. Candidate subtitle #6 has a clear advantage, beating almost all other candidates in a head-to-head comparison. The sole exception is candidate #26 which is tied with #6 at 8 votes each. However, Terry assures me that despite this tie, due to tie-breaking considerations, candidate #6 is the undisputed winner.

Reflecting this result, I will start taking steps to change the subtitle of this blog to “The democratic potential of sortition”.

I thank everybody for contributing candidates and registering their votes. Again I encourage the proposers and voters to take part in this blog in other ways as well.

C.E. Johnson: The Democracy Machine

C.E. Johnson is a multi-disciplinary visual artist working and living in Alabama.
Johnson’s work The Democracy Machine is currently on exhibit in the Contemporary Arts Center of New Orleans. The work is inspired the Athenian kleroterion. It

can be used as an object of meditation for healing in a time of disillusionment with Alabama-based politics. It is an artifact from an alternate history of the state where elections were given up to pure chance and a monument to the ideals of democracy in its authentic form.