Dominic Lawson: We hound today’s politicians but we take them for granted at our peril

This article in the Sunday Times is a valuable corrective to the prevailing view on this blog that elected politicians are only in it for themselves. Note the claim from the FT Whitehall editor “There’s almost no one I’ve met in a decade in [Westminster] who isn’t here because they want to help the country.”

Various trades are being depleted by an exodus of those willing to do what can be an unpleasant job: we are now seeing this in road haulage and social care. For many workers in these sectors the pain seems no longer worth the gain. For the rest of us — the consumers — there are unwelcome consequences, readily appreciated. But what if the same thing happens to the trade for which the public seems to have least respect? I mean our politicians.

Last week the Financial Times’s Whitehall editor, Sebastian Payne, said on Twitter he was “struck by the number of MPs who have told me they’re seriously considering leaving parliament, following the killing of Sir David Amess”. But it wasn’t just a matter of concern for the physical safety of themselves and their families: “That’s before considering the threats, abuse and hatred that spills in every day.” Defending the political trade as a whole, Payne observed: “There’s almost no one I’ve met in a decade in [Westminster] who isn’t here because they want to help the country.”

That is not a frequently expressed opinion in the traditional outlets of journalism, let alone the sewers of social media. This is the general atmosphere in which the North Devon MP, Selaine Saxby, was appalled to come across a cartoon in her local parish magazine showing a woman in a confessional saying: “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. Last night I killed a politician”, and the priest responding, “My daughter, I’m here to listen to your sins, not your community service work.” This was published before the slaughter of Amess; but he was not the first MP in recent years to have been murdered, or stabbed, while, actually, doing his community service work.

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Mueller on Landemore

Jan-Werner Mueller, Professor of Politics at Princeton University and author of the recent book “Democracy Rules”, wrote an article in which he reviews Hélène Landemore’s book Open Democracy: Reinventing Popular Rule for the Twenty-First Century (along with a couple of other books that he devotes less space to).

Luckily Mueller’s review focuses on the better points made by Landemore (e.g., that elitism is inherent to elections) rather than on the less convincing parts of the book. (For a detailed review of the strengths and weaknesses of Open Democracy see my series of posts devoted to this book.)

Mueller’s objections to allotted chambers are the following:

  1. Alotted “bodies also can end up favoring the privileged, either because those who feel unqualified will abstain or because more educated and eloquent participants will dominate the debate.”
  2. A sortition-based system “promises inclusion and openness, but it ultimately excludes all who have not been chosen in the process of random selection. In large countries, many people will never get a turn (indeed, serving would amount to winning the lottery).”
  3. A “lottocracy might fail to fulfill one of the functions that elections reliably serve: the peaceful resolution of conflict through vote counting. If one accepts political realists’ argument that elections are always essentially conducted in the shadow of civil war, the counting process serves to demonstrate the relative strength of each conflicting party.”

Mueller concludes:

In any case, one need not go as far as abolishing elections to see that sortition chambers could play a useful role in situations where highly fraught moral issues need to be debated (as in Ireland’s abortion decision), or where conflicting parties need to set the terms of competition. That could apply to the shape of election districts, salaries for legislators, the overall size of parliaments, or any other issue where professional politicians have a conflict of interest.

Abizadeh: Representation, Bicameralism, Political Equality, and Sortition

A paper by Arash Abizadeh.

Representation, Bicameralism, Political Equality, and Sortition: Reconstituting the Second Chamber as a Randomly Selected Assembly

Perspectives on Politics, 2020


The two traditional justifications for bicameralism are that a second legislative chamber serves a legislative-review function (enhancing the quality of legislation) and a balancing function (checking concentrated power and protecting minorities). I furnish here a third justification for bicameralism, with one elected chamber and the second selected by lot, as an institutional compromise between contradictory imperatives facing representative democracy: elections are a mechanism of people’s political agency and of accountability, but run counter to political equality and impartiality, and are insufficient for satisfactory responsiveness; sortition is a mechanism for equality and impartiality, and of enhancing responsiveness, but not of people’s political agency or of holding representatives accountable. Whereas the two traditional justifications initially grew out of anti-egalitarian premises (about the need for elite wisdom and to protect the elite few against the many), the justification advanced here is grounded in egalitarian premises about the need to protect state institutions from capture by the powerful few and to treat all subjects as political equals. Reflecting the “political” turn in political theory, I embed this general argument within the institutional context of Canadian parliamentary federalism, arguing that Canada’s Senate ought to be reconstituted as a randomly selected citizen assembly.

It damages society if we keep on calling our politicians cheats and liars

Matthew Syed’s column in the current Sunday Times is a valuable corrective to the widespread cynicism over elected politicians expressed on this blog.

A story caught my eye last week about Priti Patel, the embattled home secretary. It involved Shirley Cochrane, a woman from Essex who had been diagnosed with breast cancer in 2016 but who felt abandoned by the NHS during the pandemic. She had been seeing cancer specialists every six months but was told last spring to “self-manage” at just the time she thought she felt another lump.

Unable to get through to specialists or generic phone numbers, Cochrane contacted her local MP — Patel — in a state of desperation. “She managed to secure for me a telephone appointment, and that was followed by the mammogram, and thankfully that was OK,” Cochrane told the Commons health select committee. She sounded more than a little grateful.

I mention this because I can’t help noticing how often Patel is demonised in our political culture. Every time I see her on TV, I brace myself for the vitriol, the ad hominem attacks, the questioning of her motives and intellect, a tsunami of nastiness that shames those who indulge in it. This isn’t just limited to social media. You see it in commentary, radio phone-ins and the “most liked” comments on newspaper websites.

This isn’t just about Patel, though. It seems to me that this is part of a more pervasive rush to see the worst in our political representatives. Sure, MPs sometimes bring criticism on themselves, but how often do we acknowledge the other side of the ledger: the dutiful constituency work, the civic-mindedness, the reports of select committees that few notice but that, through the slow accretion we call social evolution, improve countless lives?
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Elections and consent

It has been claimed, notably by Bernard Manin (The principles of representative government pp. 79-93), that the reason that sortition of representatives was never considered, and in fact hardly ever mentioned, by the founding fathers of the Western system was because it conflicted with their commitment to the notion that a just system must be based on consent. The argument is that only elections, which institutionalize the act of explicit selection, are compatible with this principle and thus sortition was ruled out a-priori to such an extent that it was never part of the set of ideas being discussed.

While the commitment of the founding fathers to the principle of consent cannot be realistically disputed, the notion that they saw a strong link between elections and consent is much less convincing. This link is far from obvious since, as Manin notes, the principle of consent long predates the modern era. Such a link would therefore not have been taken for granted by the founders, and presuming that it were important to them it would surely have merited a central place in their rhetoric. In fact, however, Manin cites no primary source which argues that elections are a mechanism of consent. He quotes, for example, John Locke as saying:

And thus that, which begins and actually constitutes any Political Society, is nothing but the consent of any number of Freemen capable of a majority to unite and incorporate themselves into such a Society.

But this, of course, makes no mention of elections. Quite the contrary – it is the consent to the incorporation itself, rather than any particular procedures of the newly formed body, that is crucial.
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Zaremberg and Welp: Beyond utopian and dystopian approaches to democratic innovation

A 2018 paper by Gisela Zaremberg and Yanina Welp has the following abstract:

This paper discusses the myths regarding both the conceptualization and the expected effects that are implicitly or explicitly presented in analyses of the so-called ‘democratic innovations’, that is, the new institutions that aim to increase public participation beyond regular elections. It is argued that these myths, together with the (fictitious) confrontation between direct and indirect politics, have generated false oppositions and reductionisms that mask the debate and limit empirical approximations to democratic innovation. A research agenda based on the concept of ‘participatory ecologies’ is suggested as a way to gain an understanding of the mechanisms of participation in a systematic way.

I found these excerpts of particular interest to the Equality-by-Lot blog:

In a participatory ecology there is no single mechanism that is able to deliver all the virtuous democratic effects. Empirical evidence supports this proposition. For example, a positive balance of participatory mechanisms was observed in Ireland with the combination of a citizen’s assembly selected by sortition, which opened an informed debate about abortion, and a referendum, as a fair mechanism to make legitimate decisions. A negative balance is exemplified by the experience with recall referendums in Japan, where recall is activated more against policies than against authorities; however, as the first is binding and easier than the activation of initiative, it is used more frequently.

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Victor Bruzzone on sortition

Victor Bruzzone is a doctoral student at the University of Toronto. In a segment on a podcast he makes an argument for a selecting the legislative chamber of government by sortition (starting about 1 hour into the recording). The segment mentions a chapter Bruzzone wrote in a soon-to-be-published book, Liberalism and Socialism: Mortal Enemies or Embittered Kin?, which presumably argues for the same idea.

Normal people are stupid. Stop Democratic Reforms before it’s too late!

Democracy by Lottery is a blog about sortition written by “John H”. Here are some excerpts from the latest post.

George Carlin once said, “Think of how stupid the average person is, and realize half of them are stupider than that”. And it’s true. You, yes our lovely reader, are another random average person of the world, too stupid to think for themselves and too stupid to govern themselves.

The Status Quo ensures that normal people are not in control

Thank God for the American Republic, which ensures that normal, stupid people will have little to no influence on politics. According to Pew Research, 65% of foolish Americans believe that the federal government is doing too little to reduce the effects of climate change. A Yale 2020 survey also showed that 68% of ignorant Americans favored a revenue-neutral plan to “require fossil fuel companies to pay a carbon tax”.

Thankfully, our elected representatives keep the impassioned grumblings of stupid Americans from affecting policy. Smart and astute Congressmen continue to refuse to pass climate change and carbon taxation legislation. I’m sure these Congressmen have great reasons to delay and delay, because well, Congressmen are simply better than the rest of us. I patiently and enthusiastically wait for the great things Congress will pass, eventually!

Thomas Guénolé: Three problems, one solution

Thomas Guénolé is a French political scientist. Two of his books are La Mondialisation malheureuse (The Unhappy Globalization), published in 2016, and Le Livre noir de la mondialisation (The Black Book of Globalization), published in 2020. According to the Wikipedia, the latter book argues that globalization “as a worldwide system of production and distribution of resources” has been responsible over the years 1992 to 2017 for over 400 million deaths (mostly due to preventable or treatable diseases).

He writes the following in Marianne.

Contrary to a common, but unfounded, conception, the low turnout in parliamentary elections is not a sign of political apathy among voters. This is evident from the fact that turnout in presidential elections is consistently very high. In other words, presidential elections are of interest and all other elections are not. Rather than making voting mandatory, it is necessary to find a way to produce legitimate democratic assemblies, but without elections which are of low interest to the voters.

Allotting all assemblies resolves this problem. They would become truly representative. When using allotment to create a sample of the entire population the probability that this would be a faithfully representative sample of the whole is extremely high. In statistics this is called “pure random sampling”. Sortition would automatically produce assemblies that are truly representative of the French population. They would contain, for example, the same proportion of women, of retirees, of the unemployed, of workers, of young people, as in the population. This vast inflow of representatives, whose gender, age, and poverty normally keep them away from positions of power, would surely change how matters are discussed. At the same time, it is clear that in the presence of those directly affected by reform proposals, the discussions would have radically different tone and content, and would be much more concrete, as would be the proposals themselves that originate from these representatives.
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Can sortition help fend off the threat of “broader prosperity and rising wellbeing”?

“Democracy Rules”, a recently published book by Jan-Werner Müller, Roger Williams Straus Professor of Social Sciences at Princeton University, is another contribution to the “democratic crisis” genre:

They do not all look the same; plenty of differences are obvious. But group them together and they clearly make up one political family: Orbán, Erdogan, Kaczynski, Modi, undoubtedly ex-president Trump, perhaps Netanyahu, but Brazil’s president Jair Bolsonaro for sure. It is imperative to understand what is often described as a global trend in authoritarianism.

According to a review of the book in Financial Times, Müller is concerned about “performance legitimacy”:

As exemplified by China, that is the undemocratic bargain in which illiberal, one-party control is put up with in return for broader prosperity and rising wellbeing. Its appeal stirs fears that there are other attractive norms on offer and that history may not be cheering liberal democracy on.

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