Citizen assemblies in Bristol

Adam Postans and Matty Edwards report in The Bristol Cable (January 15, 2020):

Experiment in democracy, as council to pilot citizens’ assemblies

Bristolians could be gathered to make decisions on issues such as the climate crisis.

One of the biggest shake-ups in years in how decisions are taken on the major issues in Bristol has been approved with the introduction of citizens’ assemblies.

It came as the city council’s ruling Labour group threw its weight behind the Green Party’s idea, with backing from the Lib Dems.

But the Tories voted against it amid fears it would become “consultation on steroids” and add an unnecessary new layer of bureaucracy when, they say, the power of the mayor should instead be returned to councillors.
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Residents will be chosen at random, like jury service for the assemblies and be paid to spend time hearing from experts on complex issues, including the climate emergency, before making decisions which could be binding on Bristol City Council.

Labour said it “radically strengthened” the Greens’ motion by assigning between £5million and £10million from the council’s capital budget to the “deliberative democracy” proposals, including giving communities more power over spending decisions in their areas.

But Tory group leader Cllr Mark Weston said: “We are going to end up with consultation on steroids. You will have opinions expressed from the centre of the city, all having the same view, and suburbs won’t have their say.”

Sortition in tribal democracy

Alpa Shah writes in the Hindustan Times:

The electoral process is said to be the cornerstone of the world’s biggest democracy. But it has also often been about maintaining or gaining power, status, and money as a means to exert elite control over the political process. Perhaps, it is not surprising then that across India, one finds that those involved in electoral politics are also seen by ordinary people as doing “rajneeti”, an impure and immoral world of corruption, illicit activity and ruthlessness.

As a long-term researcher of Jharkhand, I find that discussions about democracy in India have been reduced to mere elections. But there is an alternative form of democracy that was central to some of Jharkhand’s tribal communities. And it may contain the seeds of a transformative global process of democracy that allows ordinary people the power to rule the world. It is democracy by sortition — the use of random selection to choose those who govern us.

I first saw it in December 2000, less than a month after Jharkhand became a separate state, in the Munda tribe village, where I was staying as a social anthropologist. They were selecting their new pahan and paenbharra, who presided over secular and sacred village matters, for three years.
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Electoral redistricting by an allotted citizens commission in Michigan

The Monroe News from Michigan reports:

Applicants sought for Michigan redistricting panel

The Secretary of State’s office recently sent 250,000 randomly selected Michigan voters applications to serve on the Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission.

The 13-member commission will be responsible for drawing the boundaries for the state’s Senate and House of Representatives districts. It also will design the districts for the congressional delegation.

The commission is being formed as a result of the passage of Proposal 2 in November 2018. The ballot measure amended the state constitution to grant the authority to an independent citizen commission, taking the power away from the state’s governor and the Legislature.

Proposal 2 passed statewide 2,522,355- 1,593,556.

The commission will be composed of four Democrats, four Republicans and five voters who do not identify with either party. Districts are redrawn every 10 years in response to the U. S. Census, which will be conducted this year.

Per the proposal, the secretary of state’s office is required to mail out the applications to at least 10,000 randomly selected voters. Troy-based Rehmann LLC handled the selection process.

Residents within the state who weren’t part of the random mailing also may apply for the commission.

The Democratic Diarchy

Alex Kovner and myself have been banging on for some time about the ongoing necessity for political parties (albeit in a heavily-modified form) for policy proposal and advocacy in a well-functioning democracy (the disposal role being reserved for randomly-selected juries) and this has not gone down particularly well on this forum. We’re presenting a short paper on it at the Association for Political Thought conference at Oxford in January and would greatly appreciate feedback before we go. It’s very short and we’ve put a lot of effort into refining and clarifying the necessary distinctions. The full paper is on Academia.edu, here’s the abstract:

Isegoria (equal speech) and isonomia (equal law), the two norms that constituted classical Athenian democracy, were implemented respectively by the right of every citizen to propose (or argue against) new laws (isegoria), and equal voting rights over their implementation (isonomia). In the fourth century the latter (disposal) function was entrusted to large, randomly-selected juries (nomothetai) that could be viewed as descriptively-representative microcosms of the citizen body. Isegoria rights were restricted to the five citizens elected by the assembly.

Most current models for ‘citizens’ assemblies’, although claiming Athenian provenance, more closely resemble modern parliaments in that the proposal and disposal functions are conflated, the only difference being that citizens’ assemblies are not constituted by preference election. This paper argues that such models result from a conceptual confusion, have no historical precedent and are vulnerable to corruption and domination by the very hegemonic forces that they seek to counter. The paper argues that, whilst the democratic argument for legislative decision-making (disposal) by a large ad hoc representative jury is persuasive, sortition can have no role to play in the proposal function and such sortition-based bodies can only be part of a mixed constitution in which political parties (albeit of a radically different form to their current incarnation) are required in order to implement ‘representative isegoria’.

And here’s details of the conference panel:

‘The Circumstances of Sortition’

  • David Owen (University of Southampton), ‘The Uses of Sortition’
  • Yves Sintomer (Université de Paris 8), ‘The Contrasted Models of Democracy in Sortition-Based Innovations’
  • Alex Kovner; and Keith Sutherland (University of Exeter), ‘Isegoria and Isonomia: Election by Lot and the Democratic Diarchy’
  • Peter Stone (Trinity College Dublin), ‘The Paradox of Sortition’

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

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.

Agora Brussels wins a seat in Brussels Regional Parliament

Gabriel Popham reports in openDemocracy:

Agora Brussels [website, Facebook page] started less than two years ago as a grassroots citizens’ movement to reboot democracy in the Belgian capital. Earlier this year Agora ran for the regional elections and managed to gain one seat at the Brussels Regional Parliament.

Agora is a unique political party, in that it doesn’t have any political programme to speak of: its only agenda is to organise a permanent citizens’ assembly, promote its institutionalisation for the region of Brussels, and defend its decisions in Parliament.

Pepijn Kennis, MP for Agora, admits that Agora’s strategy of running in elections might seem counterintuitive at first. “As a movement, we’re very much inspired by the book Against Elections by David Van Reybrouck,” he tells me from his office in the Regional Parliament. Agora shares Van Reybrouck’s view that elections nowadays tend to prioritise short-term thinking at the expense of genuine democracy.
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