Landemore: Open Democracy, part 5

Rejecting “realism”

One of the strengths of Open Democracy is its normative ambition. Rather than lecturing readers about the need to be realistic and to accept elitism in various ways, Landemore insists that the democratic ideal of political equality should be taken literally. Calls for various forms of compromise are the norm throughout the scholarly literature of democracy. Often such calls are to some extent implicit (e.g., Dunn, see part 2 of this post series). Occasionally they are unabashedly explicit. In this genre Landemore focuses her wrath on Achen and Bartels.

Achen and Bartels take the Lippmann-Schumpeter-Dunn line of argument one step farther by explaining to their readers that while their impression that government does not in any way reflect public opinion is wholly justified by the facts, their frustration with this situation is wholly due to unrealistic expectations. Democracy implies elections, elections imply elite control, and elite control implies unresponsivity. It’s time to be realistic and readjust our expectations.
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Landemore: Open Democracy, part 4

Landemore describes (p. 34) Bernard Manin’s analysis of the electoralist regime as a mixed regime whose oligarchical element is the use of elections which favor those who have a chance to be elected and whose democratic elements are the periodic renewal of the mandate and – to a lesser extent – from the principle of the freedom of opinion and from public debate of ideas. She then discusses how this regime is defended by two normative political scientists: Nadia Urbinati and Jurgen Habermas.

For Urbinati this regime is democratic because representation is “a mode of participation that can activate a variety of forms of control and oversight”. The representatives supposedly give voice to their voters and create an alignment between voters’ wishes and actual policy outcomes. Landemore rejects this “metaphorical” participation as being unconvincing.

Landemore describes Habermas’s model as resting on deliberation in two tracks – the mass track and the decision-making track. Landemore sees the model as lacking an explanation of how the mass track influences the decision-making track in a meaningful way. Even if it did, she asks, how is the unregulated mass discussion a proper way to set the decision-making agenda? In particular, mass deliberation inevitably leads, Landemore says, to the formation of parties and thus to partisanship which is antithetical to deliberation.

In short, Landemore points out, what seems like a fairly straightforward point, that “deliberative democracy” is some combination of naive wishful thinking and apologia for the status quo. What is less straightforward is why, given that Landemore recognizes that this is the case, she continues to “embrace” this theory of democracy.

The road not taken

In the second section of chapter 2 Landemore asks why the new regimes of the end of the 18th century represented an ideology of competence of virtue of the leadership rather than an ideology of mirroring of the people or a leadership which is “the people in miniature” – when both ideologies were available and discussed at the time. One possible answer, which Landemore attributes to Yves Sintomer, is that the missing ingredient was a grasp of statistical sampling. Another answer is Manin’s claim that the notion of consent of governed, expressed through voting, was dominant.
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Landemore: Open Democracy, part 3

The crisis of representative democracy

Landemore again goes to the heart of matters when she states at the beginning of chapter 2:

My main point in this chapter will be to trace a certain understanding of the “crisis” of contemporary democracy not so much to contingent external factors (though they obviously play a role) but, rather, to the more fundamental democratic flaws in representative democracy’s original design. The main problem, I will argue, is that representative democracy was designed on the basis of electoral premises that prevent even its best, most democratized contemporary versions from reaching the full potential of genuine “popular rule”, that is, a rule that empowers all equally.

Due to these democratic flaws

the cognitive dissonance between the reality of the regimes we live in and the democratic expectations people attach to them can only grow over time.

Too often the crisis of confidence in electoralist regimes is attributed to a plethora of circumstances that are supposedly incidental, non-inherent to the regime itself: everything from globalization to technological change to polarization to Putin. In contrast, Landemore’s agenda is refreshingly clear and principled. While accepting that at least some of those phenomena have their effects, she does not see these are being root causes but, to they extent they are influential factors, as being symptoms of the root causes that are inherent to the electoralist system (p. 32).

It is unfortunate that this clarity is attenuated again by the mandatory gesturing toward propriety. First, why would Landemore write about a design that “fails to empower all equally” because it is based upon “mistaken premises” if by her own account the electoralist design had explicit anti-democratic objectives? Implying that the founders were incompetent democratically minded law-givers is somehow more acceptable, it seems, than maintaining consistency with the previous analysis and inferring that the founders quite competently designed an impressively successful anti-democratic system.
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Police Oversight In The United States: Implications For Sortition Advocates/Activists

Recent scrutiny of police misconduct in the United States has provoked renewed interest in civilian oversight. Hundreds of police review boards exist. The vast majority have advisory, not disciplinary power. The boards are appointed, and their composition varies, often consisting of community advocates. Sortition activists in Los Angeles (Random Access Democracy) have had preliminary discussions with city council members in two California cities (Petaluma and Culver City) about the possibility of reforming their oversight boards to include members selected by lot. A previous post in this blog asked for references to any sortition based police oversight board. To date, none has materialized.

Is sortition the answer to better police oversight? Probably not, at least not directly. If review boards were randomly selected, their actions and recommendations would likely be more independent. But police in the United States are immunized from oversight by a complex system of laws, police union lawsuits, and court decisions grounded in the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights, a document promoted by the Fraternal Order of Police that proposes limits to investigative and disciplinary power over police abuses, and is woven into law in sixteen states. Meaningful oversight is more than a matter of picking better panels; it needs to involve legislative change.

It’s beyond the scope of this article to provide more detailed information about police oversight, but the following references, while by no means exhaustive, may be helpful to those interested: Campaign Zero is a website dedicated to ending police violence in the U.S. Arrested Oversight provides an in-depth analysis of how civilian oversight should function and how it fails. Why police so rarely get charged, Newark’s Citizen Disciplinary Board, and A proposal to give civilians more say reveal perspectives from opposite sides of the country.

Democratic lotteries might yet have a role to play in oversight. A citizens’ assembly, for example, could be designed to study the problems of oversight, then deliberate, and propose recommendations for improvement. These might include recommendations concerning police unions, which often sabotage oversight in ways hidden to the public. If the idea proves useful, it’s likely that many such assemblies would be needed to address conditions that vary from city to city and state to state.

Sortition advocates looking to demonstrate the usefulness of lottery based panels as direct solutions to community problems might want to consider areas such as housing, redistricting, urban development, etc., before tackling police oversight.

This Is Not a Democracy

A version of this article was first published in the run-up to the 2020 general election in Aotearoa/New Zealand by the public interest journalism platform The Dig as part of a series on Transitional Democracy. You can find the original article here.

By Alison McCulloch

Aren’t we lucky, we’re constantly told, that we live in a democracy, a government by and of and for the people. Except our system of government is none of those things. It’s certainly not by the people, it’s barely of the people and we’ve surely gathered more than enough social and economic data to show it’s not for the people.

But how could it be otherwise when it’s based on elections, given that elections are incompatible with democracy. No, that wasn’t a typo: elections are incompatible with democracy. It might seem a surprising statement on its face, given we are raised to equate the two. But one need only scratch the surface of how electoral systems like ours actually work to see the truth of the claim.

What elections actually do is elevate elites to power — those with greater than ordinary wealth, influence, connections, education, charisma, celebrity, privilege… And rule by elites is in fact the antithesis of ‘Democracy’ which properly applies only to governments where power is exercised by the people, the vast majority of whom are ordinary. Electoral systems do not do this; they cannot do this.

The Westminster-based system we live under serves us very badly. Not only is it undemocratic, it is unresponsive to ordinary people, it is cruel and divisive, and yet virtually from the cradle we are taught that it is sacrosanct, an article of religious faith, untouchable, and that while we might tinker around its edges, there is and can be no better, more democratic system of government.

But this system is a cultural product like any other, something Māori (see glossary at end for discussion of Māori terms) know only too well, having had it imposed on them as if prior to the arrival of British colonists, this land were a kind of political terra nullius. It simply wasn’t so. It’s a point the report of Matike Mai Aotearoa (the independent Māori working group on constitutional transformation) makes in setting out both a Māori critique of the current system, and proposals for a way forward.

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What If A Citizens’ Assembly Decided Trump’s Second Impeachment?

(Written before President Trump’s second impeachment trial on January 18, 2021)

The U.S. House of Representatives has impeached President Donald Trump for a second time, but the Senate will not conduct its trial until after Trump has left office.

The difference between political and deliberative decision-making is that one is based on winning the next election and the other is based on seeking the truth. Professional politicians do not deliberate. They calculate. With each decision, the underlying consideration is the impact it will have on votes and donations.

Republican Senators will consider convicting Trump, but most are afraid, not only of Trump supporters hurting their chances in the next election, but of Trump supporters hurting them physically. Senator Lindsay Graham briefly broke with Trump, declaring that “enough is enough.” But he was soon advising the President again after being threatened by angry Trump supporters at an airport.

Few politicians have the integrity or courage of Justin Amash, the lone Republican congressman who voted to impeach President Trump in 2017, knowingly sacrificing his seat in Congress. Or the ten Republican representatives who voted for a second Trump impeachment, with Liz Cheney boldly stating that Trump “summoned this mob, assembled the mob, and lit the flame of this attack.”

While some of his opponents think Trump should be tried, convicted and banned from holding federal office in the future, others argue that a failure to convict him in the Senate will strengthen him politically and still others claim that if he’s out of office the process is not legal.

I’d like to suggest a novel resolution. What if we let “the people” decide?

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Landemore: Open Democracy, part 2


Revisiting briefly the matter of the title of the book: In Part 1 I objected to Landemore’s choice of the term “open democracy” to describe her ideal for government. In short, I find that the word “open” is essentially meaningless and I suspect that the reason for using it as a modifier is that doing so allows to apply the word “democracy” (as in “closed democracy”) to the existing Western eletions-based regimes. On page 15 of the book, Landemore herself notes that the term is already used and abused in politics – as when it refers to transparency. Landemore also makes the connotation of open-source software explicit and claims that there is a likeness between “open democracy” and open source software because “in a democracy the law should be something to which all have access and on which all can make an impact. Everyone should be able to write and claim authorship over the law”. Again, this is too vague to be useful. It is certainly not true at all that open-source software is democratic in any meaningful sense. For one thing, open source is often financed and controlled de-facto by powerful interests. In fact, if anything an analogy may be drawn between open-source software and the “closed” electoral system where a superficial, formal equality is a mask for inherent systemic inequality.

Technology, direct democracy

Too often political reform advocates have a laissez faire “it’s all good” attitude and they embrace any proposal that is making the rounds. Having an “open mind” may sound like a good idea, but in fact not examining proposals critically is recipe for dissipating energy and missing rare opportunities for change. Landemore does not make this mistake. Despite the invocation of the open-source connotation, Landemore explains that her book is not about democracy through technology. This is good. The barriers to democracy are not technological and focusing on technological solutions is therefore a distraction. Another thing Landemore is explicitly not offering is the “antiquated and largely impractical ideal of direct democracy” (p. 17) – a system where mass participation is a central feature. Her reasoning will be laid out in chapter 3 of the book, so it remains to be seen how convincingly it is argued that this is not the right way forward. But argumentation aside, the conclusion is the right one in my opinion. Rejecting mass participation is therefore an important step in clearing the ground for better ideas.

What is an elite?

On page 18 Landemore has an important clarification of the term “elites”. She writes:
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Sortition has progressed, it seems, into the ridicule phase

As Mahatma Gandhi didn’t say:

First they ignore you. Then they ridicule you. And then they attack you and want to burn you. And then they build monuments to you.

The fondness of the Macron administration for allotted bodies has prompted the following piece by the satirical site Francheinfo. Marlène Schiappa is Macron’s assistant minister in charge of citizenship.

Marlène Schiappa is going to allot 15 citizens for a free Brazilian hair straightening

Democracy above all else, like in ancient Greece, Marlène Schiappa has chosen to use sortition in order to select 15 citizens of all origins, religions and hair types as winners of Brazilian hair straightening at the Ans Brazil salon.

“Under current conditions, we must allow the French people to enjoy soft and silky hair, such as mine, all for a reasonable price as offered at Ans Brasil. This is first of all a matter of social justice. Whether one lives at Aulnay or at Poissy sur Brie, we must allow French people’s hair to be nourished from its tips to its roots, with a sufficient dose of keratin so that it does not become brittle,” explained the minister for citizenship and for the hair-growing areas of the skin.

A government that resembles us?

A piece by Hervé Gardette in France Culture.

A gay man as the secretary of transportation, a Native American single mother as the secretary of the interior, a Black woman as vice president, a transgender person as assistant secretary of health, a Black general at the Pentagon, a person in her forties as secretary of commerce, and at the lead, a White man nearing 80 at the White House. Thus will look Joe Biden’s cabinet, if confirmed by the American Senate. A diversity in the executive that is supposed to best represent the population of the United States.

This is not the first time that an American government presents such diversity. In 2015 Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau used similar criteria to select his team, having for example a First Nations member holding the post of minister of justice and a member of the Sikh community being the minister of defense. A message addressed to the Canadians: this government is yours, it understands you because it resembles you.

The idea that political institutions should be representative of the population is not new, and it is not unique to North America (even if communitarianism is more developed there than here). The concern regarding the best representativity of power claims to be a response to the crisis of confidence in democracy: if the voters do not show up at the polls, it is because they don’t see themselves reflected in the people who represent them. So the near absence of workers in political decision-making positions has the consequence of demobilizing the electorate. The same goes for French people who are descended from immigrants and those (sometimes the same ones) who are from “diverse” backgrounds.

We may be in agreement with this idea, or may reject it in the name of universalism, but this is not the issue which I wish to discuss here. The question which I pose is this: what should the French government resemble if it is to be the most representative of the French society? If it is to resemble us? How many should be residents of Auvergnat? How many plumbers? How many should hold a community college degree?
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Some Problems of Citizens’ Assemblies have recently launched Academia Letters, a peer-reviewed journal consisting of short articles that are distributed to a wide audience, and Alex Kovner and I were invited to contribute to the first edition. The Academia Letters article is here (along with the reviewers’ comments). It was edited down rather severely, the advantage being that, according to the analytics, most people who received the notification actually read it, the intention being to introduce new work to a broader audience than the usual recipients. A fuller version is available on Alex’s blog: Part 1 and Part 2. We’re currently working on a new Superminority article to directly address the problem at the heart of the US and other deeply polarized political systems — where half the electorate are effectively disenfranchised — that led to the attack on Capitol Hill.