Mansbridge: Beyond Adversary Democracy

An interview with Jane Mansbridge in the Harvard Gazette.

GAZETTE: How might we get citizens who are so polarized to listen to one another?

MANSBRIDGE: One proven practice is the technique of citizens’ assemblies or deliberative polls. These are groups of citizens drawn randomly, through a democratic lottery, from a particular population. It could be an entire country, a state, a city, or even a neighborhood, from which you bring together a group of citizens to talk about an issue that is of concern to their community. For this technique to be successful, the group has to be random, meaning that you have to have good representation from everyone, not just the white retirees who don’t have much to do and would love to come to this sort of thing. To get a random group, you ought to able to pay the participants because you want to be able to get the poor, the less educated, and people who, for one reason or another, would not give up a weekend otherwise to come together with other citizens to deliberate about some major issue.

GAZETTE: Have you participated in a citizens’ assembly? What was it like?
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The best possible system of representation and democracy we can imagine

Reddit user subheight640 has a post presenting an uncompromising argument in favor of sortition:

Why randomly choosing people to serve in government may be the best way to select our politicians

So I’m a huge advocate of something known as sortition, where people are randomly selected to serve in a legislature. Unfortunately the typical gut reaction against sortition is bewilderment and skepticism. How could we possibly trust ignorant, stupid, normal people to become our leaders?

Democracy by Lottery

Imagine a Congress that actually looks like America. It’s filled with nurses, farmers, engineers, waitresses, teachers, accountants, pastors, soldiers, stay-at-home-parents, and retirees. They are conservatives, liberals, and moderates from all parts of the country and all walks of life.
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Landemore: Open Democracy, part 10

In the final chapter of her book, Hélène Landemore addresses a few potential objections to her proposals. I’ll skip over the objections regarding ways in which the Icelandic setup (which supposedly serves as an example where an “open” process functioned well) is atypical of other political situations (e.g., because Iceland is supposedly small or homogeneous). These are not of much interest both because they lack any real merit and because the Icelandic setup is not a particularly good example of a democratic process to begin with. The remaining objections are fairly well known and are generic enough to be aimed at any democratic, counter-electoral proposals rather than specifically at Landemore’s:

  1. Incompetence of unelected decision-makers,
  2. Manipulation of the unelected decision-makers by unelected professionals,
  3. Illiberal policies may be supported by a majority,
  4. Systemic unaccountability,
  5. Demands on the time of the citizens.

Most of these objections have been discussed repeatedly on this blog in one way or another. (In particular, all of these objections have been addressed briefly in the series of 4 posts titled “Short refutations of common objections to sortition”.) The comments here relate to how Landemore responds to these objections.

1. Incompetence of unelected decision-makers

Landemore puts this objection as follows:

[G]iven the increasing complexity of the world, it is irrational to want to increase the level of openness to ordinary citizens of our central political institutions. In the face of increasing complexity, what we need is increased specialization and division of labor, not putting amateurs in charge (p. 191).

Landemore offers two answers to this argument. The first is that experts should be used as advisors to the amateurs. The second is response the “competence through diversity” argument. But the first argument gets no more than a single paragraph, while the several pages that make the rest of the section offer highlights of the “vast empirical literature” that shows that “political processes and bodies that involve ordinary citizens […] actually outperform processes and bodies that include only experts” (p. 192).
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My Turn: On citizens’ assemblies

Dennis Merritt, a resident of Shelburne Falls, writes in the Greenfield Reporter (keeping Franklin County informed since 1792!):

Judith Truesdell’s letter on immigration reform [“Illegal immigration”, April 24] made me think more about a friend of mine’s opinions on citizens’ assemblies, a form of sortition.

What’s sortition? It turns out the Athenian Greek democracy did not elect representatives. Instead they were chosen at random from the population. That’s sortition.

For some, the very fact that we elect our representatives is at the core of the problems with our government today. They argue that if Congress were made up of randomly selected individuals, who are demographically representative of the country, rotating through fixed terms, then a lot more would get done, and get done better.

Why? Because the representatives would focus on the issues, not the visibility of the issue and how it affects their fundraising and chances for re-election.

That’s clearly not going to happen any time soon, but there is a variation on the idea that is happening in places and could happen on a national level. It’s called citizens’ assemblies.

A citizens’ assembly is a group of randomly selected, demographically representative individuals brought together to address one particular issue, hopefully to make law, but at least to make recommendations. These could be relatively large groups. They would take input from various stake holders and experts. After making their decision, they would disband.
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New Zealand: Fresh water requires fresh ideas

Nicolas Pirsoul, Policy Analyst and Research Assistant, and Maria Armoudian, Lecturer, Politics & International Relations, both at the University of Auckland, write:

While the primary industry sector undeniably plays a key role in New Zealand’s economy (5-7% of GDP for agriculture), its true contribution might look quite different if environmental impacts – and freshwater quality in particular – were taken into account.

Currently, New Zealand taxpayers shoulder the heavy cost of lax oversight and regulation of freshwater. While the public is aware of the issue of freshwater quality, arguably there is less awareness of the democratic deficit contributing to the problem.

In a liberal representative democracy such as New Zealand’s, political decisions result from elections. The three-yearly electoral cycle, however, tends to encourage symbolic politics geared towards winning votes rather than generating long-term solutions to complex problems like freshwater quality.

In 2017, for example, Labour campaigned on cleaning up our waterways. Its eventual plan, “Essential Freshwater: Healthy Water, Fairly Allocated“, appeared promising but is ambiguous and short on detail or substance. Some of the promised reforms have since been delayed.

Elections won’t help

With no real mechanism for public participation beyond the next general election or non-binding public consultation and submission processes, New Zealanders are left largely powerless.
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Rebooting Democracy candidate is running for Cambridge city council

Keith Garrett, co-founder of the Rebooting Democracy party (named after Manuel Arriaga’s book), is running for Cambridge city council. He was interviewed by Alya Zayed.

[Rebooting Democracy] puts forward a system whereby decisions are made by randomly selected members of the public, who discuss and deliberate the issues before coming to a decision, like a jury – a process known as ‘sortition’.

[Garrett] said: “I’ve stood before for the Green Party and nothing has changed. One of the key things in my life is climate change – although it’s not the focus of my party. I did everything I could and it makes no difference because you’re essentially trying to appeal to people in charge who have a set of vested interests. They’re career politicians. They’re interested in keeping their jobs and staying in that party machine.

“But actually, if you directly devolve decisions to a group of people, you give them true power, and it would solve most of our big world ills, like social inequality or climate change.”

He added: “You have deliberation, you talk, and you listen to each other. It’s ‘optimise’ not ‘compromise’. It’s about trying to find the best decision, not just the one that keeps everyone happy.”

If elected as councillor, he plans to use this kind of thinking to change the council’s decision making process.

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Not a one-off threat

The Morning Star is a UK newspaper which describes itself as “a reader-owned co-operative and unique as a lone socialist voice in a sea of corporate media”.

In a recent editorial it writes:

Groups like Extinction Rebellion (XR) have raised the profile of the climate emergency, forcing politicians to acknowledge it. [But the] link between environmental action and anti-capitalism is one movements like XR have been reluctant to concede.

This probably stems from a desire to appeal to the broadest possible coalition willing to take action, but it is self-defeating.

Green parties that have reached the mainstream through accommodation with the capitalist system in Germany and Ireland have become pillars of the centrist, liberal and environmentally catastrophic status quo.

One approach to circumventing this promoted by XR especially is the Citizen’s Assembly, a representative body chosen by sortition (as a jury is, rather than by election) that stands outside the political system and would be tasked with decreeing solutions to the environmental crisis.

The suggestion has one key merit, in drawing attention to the inability of our current political structures to meet the biggest global challenge of our time.

But it falls into the trap of viewing climate change as a one-off threat that can be seen off independently of our political and economic system, rather than a process driven by the economic system itself.
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Non-Partisan Sortition Activism: Real Or Imagined?

I’ve recently been urging legislators in my home state of California to write a bill to implement the CIR (Citizens’ Initiative Review) process to make our ballot proposition system more democratic. We have two parties in our state, and generally, one (the majority) has been more receptive to such a bill than the other. This reflects the national situation where one major political party seems at least overtly supportive of democratic reform, whereas the other, not so much. This state of affairs contrasts with polls that show the idea of democratic lotteries to be popular with both conservatives and progressives. Of course we need to be building a cross-ideological grassroots coalition to give democratic lotteries a place in government. But what about the existing political parties holding power? Currently they make the laws. Do we try to work with them or do we ignore them?

Suppose I continue to have no luck with minority party legislators and we get a CIR bill in my state, and suppose it’s entirely supported by the majority party and not the minority party. This is not a hypothetical. There is a real possibility that such a bill could pass the legislature and become law. But is it worth it? Or will a CIR law supported by only one party, even if the majority party, paint the sortition movement as partisan? Is a one-party supported CIR worse than no CIR? Should we not be working with the legislature at all, but rather using the initiative process in our attempts to make change?

Landemore: Open Democracy, part 8

Chapter 6 of Open Democracy presents “institutional principles” of “open democracy” – Landemore’s ideal system. These are aimed to be compared and contrasted with the principles of “assembly democracy” – the Athenian system, and with the principles of “representative democracy” – the present day electoralist system.

“Assembly democracy” and “representative democracy”

The initial section describing the principles of the Athenian system and of the electoralist system presents a rather conventional view of both those systems. The names used for as labels for those systems are themselves more easily attributable to convention than to their descriptive power. The Athenian system is labeled “assembly democracy”, putting the emphasis in that system, following convention, on the assembly. Landemore does mention the “less often remarked upon” equality of “opportunity to participate in the agenda-setting Council of 500”, but this remains a detail rather than a focal point. The electoralist system is labeled “representative democracy” and is presented as having a commitment to “equality” despite the fact that equality not only is far from the reality of this system but was also explicitly denied as a design goal at the outset.

The conventional approach persists throughout the description of those systems. There is the supposed contrast between “constitutionally entrenched” modern individual rights and the lack of those in Athens. It is far from clear that this conventional contrast is more than apologia for the modern system. In terms of either “institutional principles” or ideology it would in fact be hard to show that such a contrast exists. The Spartan sympathizers in Athens, for example, enjoyed freedom of expression and action that are almost unimaginable in modern “democratic” societies.

Another conventional contrast that Landemore adopts is in the attitudes toward the majority principle. Landemore says that majoritarianism was wholly embraced by the Athenians but is embraced with reservations in the modern system, where it is supposedly feared for potential of “tyranny of the majority”. It is true that “representative democracy” is historically ideologically anti-democratic and thus anti-majoritarian. However, this is a vestigial feature of the modern system and in its contemporary form “representative democracy” is ideologically democratic – and thus committed to majority rule – even if it is substantively oligarchical.
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The True Representation Pledge

This is the final chapter from my book published last year entitled “True Representation: How Citizens’ Assemblies and Sortition Will Save Democracy.”

What if we were to demand that every candidate for President, Senate and House of Representatives sign a True Representation Pledge? The pledge strategy can be used in any election, in any country, at the national, state, provincial or local level, wherever people want to demonstrate the potential of sortition and citizens’ assemblies, by targeting an important issue that politicians cannot resolve.

In signing the pledge, each candidate would promise, upon being elected to office, that:

  • They would quickly enact legislation to authorize and fund a national (or state, provincial or local) citizens’ assembly to decide an important issue, identified for the pledge.
  • The citizens’ assembly would be conducted with a briefing book prepared to fairly represent the pros and cons of a wide range of views on the chosen issue.
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