Luebwick: How democratic is democratic innovation?

Patrick Luebwick, Professor of Political Philosophy at the University of Antwerp and Visiting Professor at the University of Ghent, critiques sortition in general and more specifically what may be called “the citizen assembly process”, i.e., the way allotted bodies are being employed nowadays within the existing power structure. Some excerpts are below. [The text seems to be an automatic translation of an original text in French(?) and contains some dubious phrases, which I tried to correct.]

Betting on direct civil democracy is not an innocent game

Belgium jumps on the bandwagon of democratic renewal. The elected representatives of the people increasingly seem to desire direct assistance through the insights and advice of ordinary citizens. There is a project under way in the German-speaking community where commissions drawn up by lot can provide input to Parliament. The federal government has just completed an online citizen survey inviting us to share ideas about the future of Belgium. The Vivaldi government itself also has a bill ready to allow bodies in which citizens selected by lot can engage in dialogue with each other, politicians, experts and civil society to formulate policy recommendations for state reform.

Various arguments are used to support these types of initiatives. Politicians present it as a good sign to increase political participation and citizen participation. Civic democracy as a means of bridging the gap with citizens and promoting democracy. Proponents often assume that citizen paintings drawn by lottery can speed up and improve political decision-making.

[However, the use of sortition relies on the idea that i]f we inform citizens adequately and allow them to reasonably discuss with each other, we can track down the will of the people. This assumption is problematic. First, the outcomes of the allotted body may reflect what citizens see after deliberation about a particular political topic. But the rest of the population may not be convinced. The use of citizens’ committees thus runs counter to the idea that democracy is a form of self-government. After all, the well-thought-out judgments made by allotted citizens do not match what the what the population thinks or wants. Democracy as autonomy is not served by a participatory shortcut that is taken over the heads of the majority of citizens. Rather, the strength of deliberative democracy lies in the attempt to involve the whole of society in political opinion and decision-making, particularly through open debate in the public sphere and through diverse civil society and civil society.
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Public support for allotted citizens’ assemblies in Western Europe

A new paper in the European Journal of Political Research (full text) provides data about popular support for allotted citizens’ assemblies in Western Europe. The countries surveyed were: Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Ireland, Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, and the UK.

Public Support for Deliberative Citizens’ Assemblies Selected through Sortition: Evidence from 15 Countries

Jean-Benoit Pilet*, Damien Bol**, Davide Vittori*, and Emilien Paulis*

*Université libre de Bruxelles, Belgium
** King’s College London, United Kingdom

Abstract

As representative democracy is increasingly criticized, a new institution is becoming popular among academics and practitioners: deliberative citizens’ assemblies. To evaluate whether these assemblies can deliver their promise of re-engaging the dissatisfied of representative politics, we explore who supports them and why. We build on a unique survey conducted with representative samples of 15 Western European countries and find, first, that the most supportive respondents are those who are less educated, have a low sense of political competence and an anti-elite sentiment. Thus, support does come from the dissatisfied. Second, we find that this support is for a part ‘outcome contingent’, in the sense that it changes with people’s expectations regarding the policy outcome from deliberative citizens’ assemblies. This second finding nuances the first one and suggests that while deliberative citizens’ assemblies convey some hope to re-engaged disengaged citizens, this is conditioned to the hope of a favourable outcome.

Despite emphasizing the “deliberative” label in the title of the paper, the question measuring support for allotted assemblies makes no mention of this obfuscatory term and instead focuses directly on decision-making power:

Overall, do you think it is a good idea to let a group of randomly-selected citizens make decisions instead of politicians on a scale going from 0 (very bad idea) to 10 (very good idea)?

The median response was 4.32, which is pretty impressive for such a radical idea. The chart below shows the distribution of responses. It is interesting to note that (if I read the chart correctly) the two countries with the lowest median support for the idea (3/10) are Denmark and Norway – the two Scandinavian countries in the survey. Those countries are among those with the highest level in the Western world of satisfaction with current government.

UK government as seen by UK citizens

A report by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) in the UK has some new data about the opinions of the UK citizens about their government. The findings, showing low levels of satisfaction and trust in the system, are not surprising, but useful in giving some details and in showing that no significant change in the general negative sentiment has taken place.

Contrary to the supposed polarization, there exist a wide consensus regarding the oligarchical nature of the system. UK citizens across the political spectrum see the voters as having little influence compared to party donors, business, media and lobbyists. There is also a widespread agreement that politicians “do not understand the lives” of typical people and that “democracy in Britain does not serve [their] interests”.


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1,000

The number 1,000 seems to have some kind of charm when it comes to allotted bodies. There is of course the G1000 – “a Belgian platform for democratic innovation” backed by the renown of David Van Reybrouck. But more generally, there is somehow the notion that 1,000 is a good size for an allotted body. Supposedly, 1,000 is how big a body has to be in order to be “representative”. This intuition may be to some extent reinforced by the fact that opinion polls often use (or claim to use) samples of a similar size. There is also the fact that when one is surrounded by 1,000 people there is a feeling of being in the presence of a crowd and one becomes an anonymous, insignificant point in that crowd – and maybe that seems to reflect what membership in a mass community is about.

In fact, the number 1,000 is completely arbitrary. Its use in opinion polling is rather coincidental, and there is certainly no reason to use it when allotting political bodies. Indeed, the feeling of being lost in a crowd of 1,000 people is a strong indication that 1,000 is too many.

As is generally the case when considering the design of allotted bodies (and when thinking about sortition on the whole) it is most fruitful to consider the issue of body size via the model of extending self-representation. For the decision-making body to make policy that represents the interests of the people, two things have to happen:

  1. The body has to be internally democratic. That is, there has to be an equality of political power within the body.
  2. The membership of body has to reflect the population in the sense that its values and world view match those of the population.

Those two conditions generate two conflicting considerations: since large groups of people tend to generate spontaneous inequalities within the group, the first condition implies that the size cannot be too large. The second condition implies that the makeup of the body has to be statistically representative, so that it should not be “too small”.
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Ostracism and EbL

The launch of Jeff Miller’s Democracy in Crisis: Lessons from Ancient Athens was marked with discussion threads on academia.edu and Equality by Lot (EbL). Whilst the debate on the former was (on the whole) polite and informative, the latter quickly degenerated into claims that the author was “mistaken”, “confused” and “self-contradictory”, before going off on a tangent. Although EbL (launched in 2009) was the first blog dedicated to sortition, we are currently languishing on the ninth page of a Google search for the term and are struggling to find new posters, commentators and readers (of the 8,423 “followers”, most are on twitter and very few have signed up to the WordPress site). We clearly need to take a long hard look at why this blog is, frankly, a catastrophic failure.

EbL was launched on 14 December 2009 by Conall Boyle, Peter Stone and Yoram Gat, the blog being intended for

  • Academic papers, especially in draft, pre-published form for discussion.
  • ‘Think-pieces’ by group members, preferably which have been published elsewhere.
  • News items about the use of randomness (lottery) in both governance and distribution

But there was also another (paranthetical) goal, namely a “a ‘shop-window’ for our ideas”, which has increasingly been viewed as a consciousness-raising opportunity for sortition activists to encourage the masses to revolt against “electoralism” (which is denied any democratic provenance). This is compounded by an antipathy to academic expertise as just another example of “elitism”, even when the sub-discipline (democratic theory) is of direct relevance. This being the case, most academics (including two of the aforementioned founders) have little or no truck with EbL. What makes matters worse is that differences of opinion have degenerated into vituperative personal attacks, and this is extremely off-putting for new participants.

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Austria’s Climate Citizen Council: Broken from the Get-go

Suspicious decisions and coincidences surround the preparations for Austria’s planned “Klimabürger*innenrat” (Climate Citizen Council) hosted by Austria’s Ministry for Climate Protection, Environment and Energy. Worrisome information emerged regarding the award of the organiser’s role and the choice of scientific experts.

Some background: Austria’s Ministry for Climate Protection, Environment and Energy is headed by Leonore Gewessler, a Green Party nominee within Austria’s coalition government of conservative ÖVP (People’s Party) and environmentalist minority partner “Die Gruenen” (Green Party). Their business lobbying sub-branch is called “Gruene Wirtschaft” (“Green Economy”) with its offices located at Seidengasse 25, in Vienna’s 7th “bobo” district.

As an aside, Austria now has the third Chancellor in quick succession since the 2019 elections due to a scandal surrounding fake citizen surveys which boosted the first Chancellor’s political ascent. SMS conversations revealed that a powerful boulevard newspaper was “incentivised” with government funds under the influence of said Chancellor to publish these fake surveys prominently. This matter is currently under investigation by Austria’s Anti-Corruption Agency. My readers will know that easily manipulated and biassed traditional surveys capture the Madness of Masses instead of Wisdom of Crowds, thus acting as a clandestine cause of corruption and many democratic ills in Austria (and other countries with a political party system).

With this background in mind: Gewessler answer to a parliamentary inquiry (the protocol is here) about the preparations to the “Klimabürger*innenrat” (Climate Citizen Council) stated that bids for independent organisation and moderation of the Klimarat were accepted throughout the EU and its 27 countries. Strangely, the Minister received only one single application by a consortium of three partners, PlanSinn GmbH, PulsWerk GmbH, and ÖGUT. PulsWerk is located at ​​Seidengasse 13. What a coincidence! Just six houses up in the same street as Gruene Wirtschaft. PlanSinn is – surprise! – also located in Vienna’s 7th district, in Zollergasse, a five minute walk from Gruene Wirtschaft. According to the Minister’s response, this single consortium’s offer luckily fulfilled all her quality criteria exactly and was thus awarded the contract.

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Sortition in 2021

Equality-by-Lot’s traditional yearly review post.

The most significant piece of sortition-related news of the year was, in my view, the findings of an opinion poll run in four Western European countries – the UK, France, Italy and Germany – regarding the place of sortition in government. The survey found that 27%-30% among those asked support using allotted bodies to systematically complement the work of parliament.

As always, sortition has been most prominent in 2021 in the Francophone world. Early in the year, Macron’s administration in France formed an allotted panel monitoring the Coronavirus vaccination campaign. Not much has been heard of it since. The utilization of allotment by the Macron administration has become frequent enough to merit condemnation as well as ridicule. Sortition’s political presence is such that it draws regular criticism from elite writers, but also some support. The journal Raisons politiques devoted a large part of an issue to sortition. In Switzerland, a proposal to select judges by lot among qualified candidates failed at the polls.

However, sortition had some presence elsewhere as well in 2021. An allotted assembly was convened as part of the COP26 UN climate change conference. In Bosnia and Herzegovina a citizen assembly was called to express its opinion on constitutional and electoral questions. Scotland’s Citizen Assembly published its report. One of the recommendations in the report was to use allotted bodies to scrutinize government proposals and parliamentary bills. An allotted assembly about the climate was discussed in Austria as well. Ireland held a citizens’ assembly on gender equality. Washington state allotted a climate assembly. In the wake of the protests following the murder of George Floyd, allotted police oversight commissions were discussed in California. A CS course at Harvard dealt with sortition and an algorithm for quota sampling from unrepresentative volunteers made it into Nature.

The Japanese journal Law and Philosophy devoted an issue to “Just Lotteries”. Hélène Landemore, Yale political science professor and author of the book Open Democracy, has promoted sortition in an interview in The Nation magazine and in an article in Foreign Policy magazine. The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard College held a conference about sortition.

Sortition was proposed as a way to create a governing body for the Internet, as tool to counter the allure of the Chinese system, as a way to save the UK and to stop popular but “undemocratic or illiberal” leaders from getting elected, and as a way to appoint public servants. A paper discussed sortition with a focus on India. In Massachusetts a letter to the newspaper introduced its readers to the idea of allotted citizen assemblies. A new book asserted that sortition is the only way to achieve a demcoratic system, while an article claimed that sortition is unable to address the biggest problem of the existing system, citizen apathy.

Escoubès and Proriol: Democracy, differently; The art of governing with the citizens

Frank Escoubès and Gilles Proriol are the authors of the book “La démocratie, autrement – L’art de gouverner avec le citoyen” (Democracy, differently: The art of governing with the citizens). In an article in L’ADN they describe the thesis of their book.

There is no doubt that our representative democracy is in trouble. Humiliated, attacked, sometimes rejected: what is going to be its fate in the period between now and the presidential elections of 2022?

The citizens do not feel represented anymore

This is hardly news – our democracy is flawed. The elected are supposed to create the most faithful, the most accurate representation of the citizens, that which a technocracy cannot achieve. The coronavirus crisis has sunk the nail, in silencing the citizens like never before. In the face of that, populism and demagoguery are rising, claiming that they will provide ways for the people to decide everything, all the time, by themselves. Denial the complexity of reality, political irrealism, ideological naivety. In this context, the risk of “democratic retreat” is real. This could be due to an absence of consultation with the citizens (plowing through) or due to a simplistic consultation without a follow-up (an unkept promise). There is therefore an urgent need to “repair the links of trust”.
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Pew poll asks about citizen assemblies, finds widespread support

A Pew Research poll conducted in November and December 2020 asked people in France, the U.S., the U.K. and Germany about their attitudes toward the political systems in their countries. As usual, there was a lot of dissatisfaction. It turns out for example that in France and the U.S. about 20% of those polled think that the political system in their country “needs to be completely reformed”.

Interestingly, the poll had a question about “citizen assemblies”.

In all four countries, there is considerable interest in political reforms that would potentially allow ordinary citizens to have more power over policymaking. Citizen assemblies, or forums where citizens chosen at random debate issues of national importance and make recommendations about what should be done, are overwhelmingly popular. Around three-quarters or more in each country say it is very or somewhat important for the national government to create citizen assemblies. About four-in-ten say it’s very important.

Surprisingly, in my opinion, support for such advisory bodies is somewhat higher in all countries than support for binding referenda.

(Thanks Paul Gölz.)

Democratic power, outcomes and ideology

This post continues the inquiry carried out in a few previous posts regarding how democracy can be measured. Thanks to various commenters for the discussions that encouraged further thought on this matter.

Dimensions of democracy

In a democracy, political power is distributed equally among all members. This should probably be considered the definition of democracy. However, there are two additional democratic dimensions: democratic outcomes and democratic ideology. Outcomes are democratic when power is used to serve everybody equally. Democratic ideology states that political power should be distributed equally. This normative statement could be justified either directly or consequentially. The direct justification is that equally distributed political power is the only just political arrangement. The consequential argument is that democratic outcomes are the only just outcomes and that democratic power is the only political arrangement that can deliver democratic outcomes. Presumably often those with democratic commitments believe in both the direct and the consequential arguments. The position that political power must be distributed equally even if this leads to undemocratic outcomes seems questionable. For those who adopt consequential democratic ideology, democratic results are a necessary and sufficient condition for democracy (i.e., for democratic power).

A-priori, there are 8 possible situations regarding the presence or absence of democracy along each of the dimensions of democracy. A wholly undemocratic society lacks all three dimensions: the dominant ideology is not democratic, power is distributed unequally and the outcomes favor some at the expense of others. A fully democratic society has all three dimensions present: the dominant ideology is democratic, power is equally distributed and outcomes serve everybody equally. Partially democratic societies could have some combination of situations along the axes.

As pointed out above, however, to believe that democratic outcomes can exist in a non-democratic society, or that non-democratic outcomes can exist in a democratic society we – as observers – need to adopt a non-democratic stance. Accepting that democratic power is uniquely suited for attaining democratic outcomes implies believing that the settings along those two axes must be aligned.
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