C.E. Johnson: The Democracy Machine

C.E. Johnson is a multi-disciplinary visual artist working and living in Alabama.
Johnson’s work The Democracy Machine is currently on exhibit in the Contemporary Arts Center of New Orleans. The work is inspired the Athenian kleroterion. It

can be used as an object of meditation for healing in a time of disillusionment with Alabama-based politics. It is an artifact from an alternate history of the state where elections were given up to pure chance and a monument to the ideals of democracy in its authentic form.

Varoufakis on democracy

An excerpt from a 2019 discussion between Yanis Varoufakis, the Greek economist and politician, leader of the MeRA25 party, and Caroline Lucas, the only Green Party UK MP.

CL: Your country is seen as the birthplace of democracy. In your opinion has there ever been a really good democracy we can look at and say, ‘That was when it was working well’?

YV: Democracy is always unfinished business. It is imperfect by design, especially in societies with vested interests vying for domination. But the merits of studying ancient Athenian democracy, which only lasted a few decades, is that it was the first and last time the poor controlled the government. Which is, interestingly, Aristotle’s definition of democracy. It was a remarkably radical idea that control over the instruments of the state should be independent of wealth.

CL: How did it work?

YV: Back in the times of the grand debates at the Pnyx, which was the parliamentary space in ancient Athens, there were two opposing parties: the Aristocrats and the Democrats. The Aristocrats hated democracy with a passion – but all the great philosophers we now eulogise like Aristotle and Plato were on the side of the Aristocrats. Nevertheless, the Aristocrats, who hated democracy, supported elections. And the Democrats did not.

CL: That sounds very paradoxical.

YV: The argument was that the Aristocrats could afford to buy influence in an election, so elections were an enemy of democracy. Democrats supported a lottery – sortition, as it is called today. Every official position in Athenian democracy was elected by lottery, including judges. Their terms were confined to six months. The only posts not sorted by lottery were the general, who had to know how to conduct a war, and bankers. The officials responsible for minting the money and for quality control of products like wine were slaves. Why? Because citizens had the right not to be beaten. Slaves did not. The idea was that bankers had to fear that they would be beaten up if they messed up the finances of the city. I think this is a splendid proposal for the City of London!
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Sicard: Replacing representative democracy with participative democracy is dangerous, Part 2/2

This is the second and final part of a translation of an article by Claude Sicard published in July 2020 in Le Figaro. The first part is here.

In order to put an end to the Gilets Jaunes revolt, Macron embarked in January 2019 upon what he called the “Great National Conversation”. This has consisted of organizing huge meetings in city halls with the participation of mayors and the local elected politicians, and urging the population to share their comments in person in during the meetings or through an online platform. Macron himself made many animated appearances in these meetings all over the country, which usually lasted more than four hours. Macron would take off his jacket and respond to all the questions addressed to him. Meetings took place in more than 10,000 municipalities, and 1.9 million comments were made. The “Great Conversation” was concluded with a press conference on April 25th, 2019. On that occasion Macron said: “I wished to meet you in order to draw the main lessons from the Great National Conversation and to propose to the nation directions for a new way that our citizens are looking for, a new way for our republic”. He has described the Great Conversation as “an unprecedented exercise for contemporary democracies”. This was therefore a mass popular consultation whose goal was to orient the actions of public institutions over the coming years.

That was followed by a second step. Following the coronavirus crisis, on May 25th, the “Health Conference at Ségur”. The crisis required great dedication from health professionals in order to make up for grave weaknesses of our public hospital system. It was therefore necessary to take their many demands into account without any further delay. Macron saw himself as forced to try to address as well as possible those demands, having been the first praise the exceptional dedication of the health personnel during the crisis, going as far as calling the first responders “national heros”. Macron initiated another great consultation, this time among 300 principal actor in the health sector. This was a second exercise, then, in participative democracy. The goal of this consultation was particularly ambitious. The prime minister defined it as follows in his opening speach: “To construct together the future of the hospital, to heal a system that was blocked and impoverished, and build a new health system organization in each territory”. The participants were given an incredibly short period for reforming our public health system: a month and a half at the most.
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Belgiorno-Nettis: There’s a problem with elections

Luca Belgiorno-Nettis, the founder and director of the newDemocracy​ Foundation, takes the opportunity of US elections day to propose sortition to the readers of The Sydney Morning Herald. Belgiorno-Nettis recounts Australia’s historical record of electoralist innovation.

Australia led the world in democratic innovations throughout the 19th century, beginning with the secret ballot, the first independent electoral commission, and then compulsory and preferential voting. […] New Zealand is often heralded as pioneering the vote for women, but it was Australia that also enabled women to stand for office – 20 years ahead of the Kiwis. The American political scientist Louise Overacker wrote in 1952: “No modern democracy has shown greater readiness to experiment than Australia.”

He then offers the adoption of sortition as continuing this trend:

[W]e need to go further. In 2017 the former secretary-general of the United Nations, Kofi Annan, said: “We need to make our democracies more inclusive. This requires bold and innovative reforms to bring the young, the poor and minorities into the political system. An interesting idea would be to reintroduce the ancient Greek practice of selecting parliaments by lot instead of election. In other words, parliamentarians would no longer be nominated by political parties, but chosen at random for a limited term, in the way many jury systems work. This would prevent the formation of self-serving and self-perpetuating political classes disconnected from their electorates.”
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Consent of the governed

A few months ago I offered the following operational definition of “democracy”:

A regime is democratic to the extent that the people who are governed by that regime believe it serves their interests, where their opinions are equally weighted.

This definition is (quite close to being) an objective operationalization of the notion of democracy, I claimed. (It is not a full operationalization since the method by which people’s opinions about the regime are collected still needs to be fully specified. That, however, is an open-ended research program, so it cannot be fit into the space of a blog post.) It is certainly much more specific than the “essentially contested” literal “people power”. It is also more specific and less open for subjective interpretation than procedural definitions such as Schumpeter’s or Dahl’s, as well as having the advantage of not making quite absurd a-priori assumptions about the value of elections (or any other institutional procedure).

The proposal garnered some mixed reactions. Along with some support, there was a lot of criticism. Several commenters were concerned that this metric would indicate that China, Russia or other rivals of the West are more democratic than the West itself, a notion which they found patently absurd, it seems. Another objection was that an outcomes-based criterion for democracy cannot be satisfactory because any outcome can be produced by a dictatorship. It was also argued that according to this definition those who expose corruption in government and thus reduce trust in government could be blamed for destroying democracy. Occasionally the tone was that such a definition was a revisionist innovation and that whatever the definition of democracy is (no real alternative was offered, I believe), this obviously does not come close.

This seemed to lead the discussion to a dead-end. Yes, Prof. Wang Shaoguang has a pretty similar definition for what he calls “substantive democracy” and a survey he cites shows that this idea has wide support in China and its surrounding. But Prof. Wang and the Chinese are Chinese, so clearly they have nothing to teach Westerners about democracy (or maybe these are not even their true opinions and they are merely saying whatever they are saying in order to please whoever is eavesdropping). Moreover, even Prof. Wang still leaves room for “formal democracy” that would be defined differently.

It is only with great and inexplicable delay that I have recently realized how solid and respected is the pedigree of the proposed definition. Continue reading

Rothchild: “Ancient wisdom” in MI’s new redistricting process

John Rothchild, Professor of Law at Wayne State University, writes approvingly in The Conversation about Michigan’s new allotted electoral redistricting commission. Rather naively, Rothchild seems to believe that democratic redistricting could result in the selection of “representatives who truly reflect [citizens’] political preferences”. Alas, this is more than mere redistricting can deliver, however well done.

How, then, should Michigan’s decision to assign unskilled members of the public the job of drawing nonpartisan election districts be evaluated?

Redistricting is a complex task. Michigan’s Constitution says that the districts must be drawn in compliance with federal law. That includes a requirement that voting districts have roughly the same population. It also requires that the districts “reflect the state’s diverse population and communities of interest,” and “not provide a disproportionate advantage to any political party.”

Dividing the map to meet all of these criteria is not likely to be within the capabilities of a group of randomly selected citizens.

There are several reasons to think that the redistricting commission will nevertheless prove adequate to the task.
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Cirone: Lotteries in Political Selection

A 2019 paper by Alexandra Cirone, Assistant Professor of Government at Cornell University, is titled “When democracy is broken roll the dice: Lotteries in political selection”.

There is a long tradition in political science and law that analyzes the benefits of lotteries in political selection (Manin 1997; Elster 1989; Engelstad 1989; Dowlen 2009; Duxbury 1999; Ober 1993 among many others). Most readers will be familiar with selection by lottery – also called sortition – where individuals are randomly chosen for political office.

The element of chance in a lottery has always captured our imaginations. Yet from a policy perspective, lotteries are now being proposed in various forms to address democratic deficits. Lottery-based selection of high-ranking politicians have been suggested for the national parliaments of the UK and France, as well as for the supranational institutions of the European Union. Citizens assemblies have been implemented in a wide range of countries, at both the local and national levels (Fishkin 2011).

However, lottery-based political selection is no panacea. There are a number of shortcomings to these processes. First, no matter which selection rule, it is likely that elites can still be disproportionately involved in politics, and lotteries don’t insulate all democratic institutions from partisan or corrupt pressures. Second, politics benefits from investment in expertise and career politicians; the uncertainty inherent in random selection of permanent institutions could disincentivize potential candidates from acquiring skills or experience. Alternatively, problems with recruitment and attrition from selected citizens will always be an issue with lottery-based selection; and randomly chosen officials might lack democratic legitimacy, which could impair their ability to do their job well. Third, even implementing lotteries in the form of temporary citizens assemblies require time, resources, and careful design of the process. Lotteries are also difficult to endogenously implement, particularly at top levels of governance — political parties and other groups are too invested in current systems of selection, so it is unlikely we will see a return to the pure sortition of ancient times.

Still, there is distinct promise to the use of lotteries in political selection, to help include more citizens in the democratic process. By examining unique institutional experimentation in the past, and by adapting democratic initiatives based on more recent instances of lottery-based selection, it may be possible to alleviate current democratic shortcomings.

Knowing your arse from your Albo: how political parties might access the ‘blind break’ to get better leaders

Herewith a brief post I wrote for my (mostly Australian) audience sketching out one possible use of sortition within a political party rather than the political system itself. As those reading this blog with any attentiveness will know, this is part of my own approach to sortition as one of a number of ‘hacks’ that can help unpick some of the pathologies of oligarchies of various kinds both specific and systemic.

A lottery is a defensible way of making a decision when, and to the extent that, it is important that bad reasons be kept out of the decision.
Peter Stone

Left of centre parties have been serving up seriously, obviously bad candidates for years now. That happened at the last election in the US and will happen at the next one. It’s happened at the last two elections in Australia and looks like happening at the next one. This nearly happened to the Liberal Government in Australia when they nearly acquired Peter Dutton as leader.

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Wang Shaoguang: Representative and Representational Democracy, Part 3/3

Part one, part two.

Wang’s skeptical evaluation of the Western conception of democracy and of the arguments for elections as a democratic tool are in fact merely a segue to his main topic which is the “Mass Line”. According to Wang, the Mass Line is the basis for decision making by the Chinese system of government. Wang describes the Mass Line as an ongoing process by which decision makers interact with the population in order to become informed and shape public policy. Wang quotes Mao Zedong as follows:

In every aspect of my party’s practical work, if leadership is to be correct it must come from the masses and go to the masses. This is to say, we must collect the views of the masses (disparate and un-systematic views) and, through study, turn them into collective and systematic views, and then we must go back to the masses to disseminate and explain them, turning them into the masses’ own views, enabling the masses to persevere, and to see these views implemented in practice. From the practice of the masses we must conduct examinations to determine whether these views are correct. We then must once again collect the views of the masses, and once again go back to the masses and persevere. This endless cycle will each time be more correct than the last, richer and more vivid than the last. This is the epistemology of Marxism.

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Democracy according to Richelet

The Richelet dictionary, edited by César-Pierre Richelet and first published in 1680, was one of the first dictionaries of the French language. The dictionary defines “Democracy” as follows:

Democratie: Gouvernement populaire. État populaire. Forme de gouvernement où les charges se donnent au sort.

Or, translated to English:

Democracy: Popular government. A popular state. A form of government where offices are distributed by lot.

(Thanks to Arturo Iniguez for noting this historical fact.)