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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IPSA World Congress, 25-29 July 2020

The Call for Papers is currently out for the World Congress of the International Political Science Association. The congress will take place on 25-29 July 2020 in Lisbon. I am currently involved with an effort to assemble a panel or two for this meeting. The focus will be on combining sortition with election and other institutional mechanisms.

The Call for Papers can be found here: https://wc2020.ipsa.org/wc/home. If you have any interest in joining a panel like this, please let me know ASAP. The deadline is coming rather fast–10 October, in fact.

The principles of representative government and the French sortitionists

A fun paper paper by Samuel Hayat, “La carrière militante de la référence à Bernard Manin dans les mouvements français pour le tirage au sort”, Participations 2019/HS (Hors Série) [original in French, abstract in English], tells the story of how Bernard Manin’s book The principles of representative government came to play a role in the sortitionist movement in France. The bottom line, according to Hayat’s telling, is that it is all Etienne Chouard’s doing. Hayat also claims that Manin’s book was not the source of the reformists’ interest in sortition but rather that they, and in fact mostly Chouard himself, used the book, with its impeccable academic credentials, as a legitimating force for their position.

Hayat’s paper seems to serve as the starting point for Antoine Chollet (“Les postérités inattendues de Principes du gouvernement représentatif : une discussion avec Bernard Manin” by
Antoine Chollet and Bernard Manin, Participations 2019/1 (N° 23)”, [original in French, abstract in English]) and for his claim that Manin’s book was misunderstood by both activists and scholars as a polemic in favor of sortition, when in fact Manin is pretty happy with elections, which he sees as mixing democratic and aristocratic elements.
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The cartelization thesis

A paper by Richard Katz and Peter Mair called “Changing models of party organization and party democracy: The emergence of the cartel party” published in Party Politics Journal in 1995 (and based on a 1992 workshop presentation by the same authors) spurred a body of academic work in political science dealing with the “cartelization” of party politics. In the abstract of a 2009 paper by the same authors (“The Cartel Party Thesis: A Restatement”) Katz and Mair write:

The cartel party thesis holds that political parties increasingly function like cartels, employing the resources of the state to limit political competition and ensure their own electoral success.

The thesis sees this cartelization as a phase in the evolution of party dynamics. Earlier phases were the “cadre party” (19th c.), the “mass party” (first half of 20th c.), and the “catch-all party” (second half of the 20th c.). While the mass parties and the catch-all parties competed for votes by presenting competing policies, the thesis asserts, the cartel parties do not. They huddle around a neo-liberal consensus and offer the public no alternatives.

In their 2005 paper “From Catch-all Politics to Cartelisation: The Political Economy of the Cartel Party”, Mark Blythe and Richard Katz explain the cartelization phenomenon as follows:

We argue that two key changes have occurred that have effectively turned parties from maximising competitors into risk averse colluders: the limits of catch-all politics, and the rhetoric and reality of globalisation.

The first factor, according to Blythe and Katz, is that by the 1970’s the policy competition between parties has produced welfare policy that was at the maximum capacity of the state to provide. Supposedly this was the dominant dimension along which parties were competing, and it has now become impossible to compete along this dimension any longer.

The second factor is a reduction in the ability of states to control the economy due to globalization:

In brief, catch-all parties were creatures of the Keynesian era. States were assumed to have primary responsibility for ensuring jobs and growth and were also assumed to be able to marshal fiscal instruments to those ends.

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Roslyn Fuller: Don’t be fooled by citizens’ assemblies

Highly recommended post by Roslyn Fuller on UnHerd.com:

I believe that the biggest threat to democracy is the belief among the current societal elite that what they want and what democracy is are the same thing – and that tweaking the rules of the game to get what you want is therefore right, just and somehow unto itself democratic.

This trend that sees democracy as a set of particular decisions, rather than just as a method for making decisions, has been well under way for some time and tends to divide the world between ‘informed’, ‘correct’ decisions, and ‘uninformed’ ‘incorrect’ decisions. ‘Correct’ decisions are automatically democratic; ‘incorrect’ ones are not.

One of the ways that is currently in vogue for ensuring ‘informed’, ‘correct’ decisions is to hold so-called citizens’ assemblies, a democratic ‘innovation’ that many leaders currently feel assured will bring them the results that they want.

This is followed by a nuanced (and sceptical) examination of the use and abuse of randomly-selected citizens’ assemblies, focusing on (wilful) misunderstandings of Irish CAs:

British politicians and intellectuals apparently feel themselves entitled to just blithely repeat these myths as a justification for holding such assemblies on all manner of decisions in Britain.