My review of ‘Our very own Brexit’

In good bookstores everywhere – at a very reasonable price

Here’s a review of a book recently published in Australia on the ‘hollowing out’ of democracy.  Cross-posted from the Lowy Institute Blog.

Instead of munching popcorn at the political theatre, citizens’ assemblies would give the community a chance to reflect.

In what we now see in retrospect as something of a political “golden age” – say from the early 20th century through to the 1980s or so – political parties were the institution through which the political aspirations of different sections of the community were articulated and conveyed to the commanding heights of government. Millions of members joined those parties, which were embedded in the community alongside churches, unions, and business associations.

Yet as Sam Roggeveen has described in Our Very Own Brexit, “hollowing out” has now inverted that process. Senior officers of the parties now comprise a political caste, the majority of whom secured their parliamentary position within their party’s career structure with scant achievements elsewhere.

Each party manages their “brand”, and politics has become a Punch and Judy show. We barrack for our side if we have one – or our point of view in innumerable improvised or staged culture-war skirmishes. We cheer and boo, tweet and retweet.

The governance that emerges from this is an uncanny mix of stasis and instability. Stasis because, at least when seeking their votes, each party hews to a small target strategy on policy while probing for ways to misrepresent and catastrophise their opponents’ policies and purposes. Instability because “we the people” so hate it all.

We tell ourselves that the pollies are only in it for themselves. There’s truth in that. But also evasion. They’re victims too. The lead players in the show could be living much more prosperous, happy lives out of the madhouse. We fancy we deserve better than this as we sit in the stalls munching our popcorn. Indeed we do. Yet our clicks and our tweets – above all our votes – drive the whole system. Ultimately we decide who represents us and the terms on which they do.

The most significant achievement of Australian voters’ emphatic decision at the 2013 election was the abolition of carbon pricing, which had taken a decade of political struggle to be absorbed into the apparent political security of bipartisan consensus.

Whenever a political party offers a skerrick of leadership – whenever they depart, however cautiously, from their traditional “small target” or “comms” strategies of relentless manipulation and tendentious evasion, they’re easy meat for the scare campaigns and outrage machines of their party political and ideological opponents.

Roggeveen’s definition of what constitutes “a Brexit” for his purposes is situated within his own, and the Lowy Institute’s focus on Australia’s external relations. I would characterise the UK’s Brexit moment and the US’s Trump moment more generally as the point at which the electorate perpetrated some action that the overwhelming bulk of the political class regarded in their heart of hearts as crazy.

If that’s your definition, then just as Australia led the world in various aspects of economic policy – such as income-contingent loans, community strategies on AIDS, and the strengthening and targeting of welfare – our rendezvous with political crazy predates its moment elsewhere in the Anglosphere by three years.

For the most significant achievement of Australian voters’ emphatic decision at the 2013 election was the abolition of carbon pricing, which had taken a decade of political struggle to be absorbed into the apparent political security of bipartisan consensus. It’s demise has plunged our energy sector into crisis and dysfunction. And it’s rarely noted by the commentariat (why am I not surprised?), but it’s also costing our budget more than $10 billion annually and rising.  Continue reading

Fienberg: Randomization and Social Affairs: The 1970 Draft Lottery

A 1971 Science article by Stephen E. Fienberg, professor of statistics at the University of Chicago, deals with the problematic 1970 draft lottery and places it in a wider context of randomization in social affairs.

Democracy without political parties: the case of ancient Athens George Tridimas

Here’s the abstract of a recent article by George Tridimas in the Journal of Institutional Economics:

Democracy without political parties: the case of ancient Athens

Political parties, formal, durable and mass organizations that inform voters on public policy issues, nominate candidates for office and fight elections for the right to govern, are ubiquitous in modern representative democracies but were absent from the direct participatory democracy of ancient Athens. The paper investigates how the political institutions of Athens may explain their absence. The arguments explored include voter homogeneity; the conditions at the start of the democracy, characterized by single constituency configuration of the demos, simple majority voting and lack of organized groups; the irrelevance of holding public office for determining public policy; appointment to public posts through sortition; and voting on single-dimension issues. The paper then discusses how in the absence of parties voters became informed and how political leaders were held accountable by the courts.

I’ve not yet read it. If you want to email me on ngruen at gmail, I might be able to help you out with access to the article.

The Climate Convention: Technocratic illusions and pseudo-direct democracy

An article in Liberation by Salvador Juan, professor of sociology at the university of Caen and researcher at the Center for Study of Risks and Vulnerabilities. Original in French.

The Climate Convention: Technocratic illusions and pseudo-direct democracy

How are the 150 citizens who are supposed to embody the people as they face the climatic challenge supposed to reach reasoned conclusions after a few weekends of work whereas expert researchers spend years in order to understand the complexities of energetic and ecological issues?

If there is a useful concept for defining what the government is doing, it is that of technocracy. Being neither right-wing nor left-wing but promoting progress and growth, technocracy is defined by the identification of the general interest with that of the powerful organizations which manage it – the electronuclear generators, the petrochemical conglomerates, the high speed trains or the industrial agriculture of the 1970’s.

Another characteristic of this new (at the historical scale) power, in which the great state bodies are surpassed by private ones, is the requirement for legitimization by the creation of social demand and of popular support for its products. As opposed to classical economic theories, according to which supply adapts to demand, this power implies the fashioning of daily life according to the products of an industry which is unconcerned with the ecological or health consequences of its activities as long as it can make a profit, either economic or symbolic, related to its image.

Finally the last important characteristic of this new power is contempt for intermediary bodies – associations or unions. It is a quasi-royalist and popular fantasy of a direct relation between a central authority and a mass of atomised citizens, a notion whose dangers for democracy were already described by Tocqueville.[1]
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Dean, Boswell and Smith: Deliberative systems design

A post on the LSE website by Rikki Dean, John Boswell, and Graham Smith introducing a recent paper of theirs is a very useful and provocative piece.

One example of the post’s value is its ability to describe the systemic and inherent problems that are involved in the creation of a democratic process, seemingly without either using those problems manipulatively as a way to justify the oligarchical character of the existing system or falling back on the cliched feel-good formulas of leadership, participation, empowerment, etc.:

In our recent paper in Political Studies, we take a pioneering case of such a systems-oriented approach to democratic innovation – the NHS Citizen initiative – and explore how it played out in practice. Did this approach mitigate the aforementioned perennial problems of institutionalisation? And did it create new problems?

NHS Citizen was a participatory initiative launched by the appointed Executive Board of NHS England. Echoing the systemic emphasis on the distribution of functions across settings, the eventual design consisted of several interacting parts categorised into three broad stages – called Discover, Gather and Assembly – each of which had its own function.

There was initial enthusiasm both from participants and from the Board for this exciting new form of innovation. However, over time, a series of obstacles emerged, and the initiative for all intents and purposes shut down less than three years into its run. The way the process developed over the period demonstrated the ever-present difficulty for participatory organisation to connect both with public space and empowered space.

For the first Assembly, the agenda-setting process was not fully operational, meaning the Assembly dealt with issues that largely reflected the Board’s concerns. The Board were very positive about this first Assembly. Once Gather was better established, it genuinely did shift the agenda so that is was more reflective of civil society concerns. However, this culminated in the Board losing faith in NHS Citizen and choking off funding for the process. In addition, an unanticipated effect of the separation into different parts was that some of the participants in the earlier stages were unhappy about being prevented from taking part in the Assembly, which planned to use random selection. Their rebellion in the end forced a change to the selection mechanism for the Assembly. NHS Citizen thus pioneered some promising practices for better connecting deliberative assemblies to civil society, but this was at the cost of institutionalising some irresolvable tensions.

More on the French Citizen Convention on the Climate

A short video published by CESE (Economic, Social and Environmental Council) – the body which organizes the French Citizen Convention on the Climate – provides some details on the process of sampling used for selecting the 150 citizens that serve in the convention.

The process has been sub-contracted to “Harris Interactive” – a market research company. According to the video, the company produces its sample by calling randomly generated phone numbers and inviting those who answer the phone to participate. The responses of those contacted are equally split between those who definitely accept, those who tentatively accept (pending being able to attend on the days of the convention), and those who reject the offer to participate.

As published earlier, the final sample is made by selecting from those who accept the invitation while matching the makeup of the French population in terms of gender, age groups, education attainment and place of residence.

Also on the matter of the Citizen Convention on the Climate: Loic Blondiaux, political science professor in the Sorbonne and member of the governance committee of the Convention was interviewed by FranceInter radio. He sees the Convention as a historic event. He believes that because the Convention is being organized by a body that is independent from the government it really is a democratic process despite the fact that it was initiated by the government.

Minipublics beyond representation

[This serves, in a sense, as my response to the discussion on the French climate assembly post.]

Now that minipublics are no longer limited to local level “experiments” but are regularly involved in consequential political occasions, constitutional amendments (Ireland), long term city planning (Australia, Germany, US), responses to major political crises (France, Iceland, Ireland), institutionalized checks within representative government (East Belgium, Oregon)–to name a few—the question of their “representativeness,” and, more fundamentally, their legitimate democratic role is no longer academic. Given the response rate problem, those who accept invitations to a citizens’ assembly or jury (however scientifically sampled) are different in some respects from those who do not, and the number of participants in any such minipublic will, regardless of sampling, be exceedingly small compared to the population. Sortinistas and participatory democrats have raised the question of how a not entirely representative, unelected minority could legitimately affect political outcomes for the overwhelming majority who do not take part in the minipublic. In contrast to the “allotted citizen,” with the implication of egalitarian empowerment, some would disparagingly label participants in a minipublic chosen by lot an “aleatoric elite”–ignoring the standard implication of non-ephemerality in the term “elite.” But this focus on strict representativity misses the strongest reason for using minipublics chosen by lot in the first place, and it distracts us form their most promising participatory democratic uses.

After summarizing the strongest arguments articulated by both sortinistas and participatory democrats for the strengths and political potential of minipublics, I suggest another dimension on which they can function. Allotted minipublics can serve as unique spaces of political action and contestation, different from the space of electoral struggle, the space of confrontation in protest, or “enclave” spaces within activist groups and political parties. An electoral campaign is mostly fighting, a protest mostly “manifesting” strength or conviction, a party/union/organization meeting mostly strategizing or venting; but a minipublic provides a rare opportunity for the “everyman,” in a time of cognitive and political “bubbles,” to confront or act with a plurality of points of view, no one of which she/he can anticipate.
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