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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Significant support in European countries for citizen assemblies as a complement to parliament

A recent poll finds (p. 129 and on) that the public in France, Germany, the UK and Italy is generally supportive of using allotted bodies to discuss and form opinions regarding various matters, with two thirds of those polled supporting using such bodies to address national-level issues.

Most surprising is the finding that about 30% of those polled support having such bodies used systematically to complement the work of parliament. The fact that there is widespread support for establishing a political power which is independent of the elected bodies is most extraordinary since there is no precedent for such an institution in modern times and since there has been no significant advocacy for such an idea by any established political power.

In addition, a large majority of the citizen polled believes that the decisions made by the allotted bodies should be binding: 55% supporting, 23% undecided, and only 15% objecting.

(Thanks to André Sauzeau for pointing out this poll.)

Public Support for Citizens’ Assemblies Selected through Sortition

A new paper explores public opinion in the EU regarding sortition based decision-making bodies. The paper was written by Jean Benoit Pilet, Damien Bol, Emilien Paulis, Davide Vittori and Sophie Panel.

Title: Public Support for Citizens’ Assemblies Selected through Sortition: Survey and Experimental Evidence from 15 Countries

As representative democracies are increasingly criticized, a new institution is becoming popular in academic circles and real-life politics: asking a group of citizens selected by lot to deliberate and formulate policy recommendations on some contentious issues. Although there is much research on the functioning of such citizens’ assemblies, there are only few about how the population perceives them. We explore the sources of citizens’ attitudes towards this institution using a unique representative survey from 15 European countries. We find that those who are less educated, as well as those with a low sense of political competence and an anti-elite sentiment, are more supportive of it. Support thus comes from the ‘enraged’, rather than the ‘engaged’. Further, we use a survey experiment to show that support for citizens’ assemblies increases when respondents know that their fellow citizens share the same opinion as them on some issues.

Trust in government and corona virus deaths

The scatterplot above shows the association between trust in government in EU countries as measured by the Eurobarometer 92 back in November 2019 and the publicly available count of corona deaths per 1M inhabitants as of March 6th, 2021 in those countries (data).

A standard regression (solid line) shows a negative relationship with each percentage point of trust being associated with a decrease of about 15 deaths per 1M inhabitants. (A more robust regression procedure – dotted line – shows even steeper association.) The share of this association is about 15% of the total inter-country variance in corona deaths prevalence in the EU, and about 25% of the variance when the outlying data point of Cyprus is removed.

There are at least two possible mechanisms that could be offered to explain the association. The first is that both trust and corona deaths are affected by government competence. Lower competence is associated with lower trust and with higher pandemic death prevalence. Continue reading

20 Minutes: The vaccination collective starts its work

The French news website 20 Minutes reports on the allotted body that has recently been convened by the French government to monitor the Covid-19 vaccination campaign.

Vaccination: The collective of 35 allotted citizen starts working on Saturday

Laure Cometti, 15/01/2021

The 35 allotted citizens representing the diversity of the French, as announced by Emmanuel Macron, are going to have their first work meeting this Saturday.

  • The citizen collective, tasked at the end of November by Emmanuel Macron to guarantee the transparency of the government’s vaccination strategy, is going to start its work on Saturday
  • It is composed of 35 citizens who are supposed to reflect the diversity of the French population and the different points of view regarding the Covid-19 vaccine.
  • It will meet regularly and will be able to interview experts. Its mission is to express the concerns of the population and formulate recommendations for the executive in order to assure the success of the vaccination campaign, lasting until the autumn.

This innovation is aimed at responding to the mistrust of the French toward the Covid-19 vaccine, and more generally toward the management of the crisis by the government. On November 24th Macron announced that “a citizen collective” would be created in order to “involve” the population in the vaccination campaign. This group of 35 allotted French people is now in place and is going to have its first meeting this Saturday. But what will this body do and how will it function? 20 Minutes explores.

Is this group representative of the population?

Not exactly, but this sample aspires to be representative of the diversity of the Frenchpeople. Allotted through the telephone, under the guidance of the Economic, Social and Environmental Council (CESE), the group comprises 18 women and 17 men. According to the CESE, all ages are represented, as are all regions and types of localities (large and small cities, rural areas, etc.). The same goes for levels of education (covering everything from no degree to graduate degree) and occupations. Members include farmers, workers, retail tradespeople, senior executives, lower management as well as the unemployed and the retired.
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Getting out the vote

There are twenty-six options to vote for in the poll for changing the subtitle of this blog and, at the time of writing (08 Jan) we have only seventeen voters. Unless we have a large increase in voters (this blog has 996 followers) there is a good chance that the outcome will be random in the pejorative sense, rather than reflecting the preferences of posters and readers. The poll ends on Tuesday 12th, so we would strongly encourage as many people as possible to vote. The voting system is Ranked Choice, so you can include as few or as many choices as you wish. Vote by posting a comment to

The French Citizen Climate Convention: a provisional analysis

It has been about 5 months since the French Citizen Climate Convention has published its proposals, and with acrimony setting in about the de-facto shelving of much of its work, various conclusions are being drawn about the CCC process. As usual, the conclusions almost invariably confirm the existing notions of the analyst. My analysis is no different in this sense: it seems to me that to a large extent each party to the process has played its expected role and thus the outcomes are quite predictable. I will highlight however two points that have been established empirically that should not have been taken for granted regarding how things would turn out.

Here are points about the CCC process that in my opinion are worth noting:

1. The process was launched as a government response to the Gilets Jaunes, a mass movement whose agenda was not just anti-government but also anti-electoralist. A popular initiative process (Referendum d’initiative citoyenne, or RIC) and to a lesser extent sortition were a major part of the discourse of the Gilets Jaunes. The rise of the Gilets Jaunes movement was triggered by what the government presented as environmentalist policy – increasing the gas tax. Thus having a non-electoralist process for generating environmental policy proposals was a direct capitulation to GJ demands. This origin of the body as a direct, stop-gap response to mass protest is very different from the origins of other allotted bodies, such as the Irish constitutional conventions. Such bodies, even if they were in some way a response to public disaffection with the status quo, were constituted in a much more carefully controlled manner by established power.
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Claude Sicard: Replacing representative democracy with participative democracy is dangerous, Part 1

A translation of an article from Le Figaro.

Replacing representative democracy with participative democracy is dangerous
Claude Sicard, economist and international consultant
July 6, 2020

Seeing his popularity ratings decline, Emmanuel Macron appeals to the French people for a reform. For this economist, the head of state’s seemingly bright idea is a mistake because making decisions concerning the future of a country requires thorough study and the assistance of experts.

Macron at the Citizen Convention for the Climate at the Élysée, June 29, 2020.

The distance in our country between civil society and the institutions never stops increasing. In every democratic system it is the law that the majority prevails: the dominant fraction imposes its will on the minority, and the electoral moment is decisive for the duration of the mandate of the elected representatives. These principles are increasingly questioned these days. Minorities are increasingly unwilling not to be heard, and moreover they too often observe that the elected do not always have the virtues which they claimed to have during the campaign. Pierre Rosanvallon, a noted researcher of democracy, tells us that we are seeing in our modern democracies the rise of the “people as a judge”. The “monitoring citizen”, he says, is replacing the “voting citizen”. In this way a tendency has developed in our modern societies toward the creation of “counter-democracies”.

CEVIPOF surveys confirm this claim: 70% of the French think that in our country democracy “does not function very well”, and assert that they have no confidence in the ability of members of parliament to address issues that the country is facing. The American political scientist Yascha Mounk, a Harvard professor, writes in his book The People vs. Democracy published in 2018 that “in North America and in Western Europe, a growing number of citizens are turning their backs on democracy: they are feeling that they have less and less influence over political decisions”.
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Deliberative assemblies are finding their feet – but also facing political barriers

On Friday the 16th of October, the Hannah Arendt Center at Bard College hosted a webinar entitled ‘Revitalizing Democracy: Sortition, Citizen Power, and Spaces of Freedom’, which you can watch here. The workshop heavily featured people putting sortition into practice right now, and so the overall focus was very much on deliberative assemblies in advisory roles, rather than non-deliberative juries or lawmaking roles. If you’d rather not spend the whole day watching a videoconference, here’s the CliffsNotes:

David Van Reybrouck, who gave one of the keynotes, helped design the new citizens’ council and assembly system in the parliament of the German-speaking region of Belgium – an area with only 76 000 citizens, but devolved powers similar to Scotland’s. The system involves a permanent citizens’ council and temporary citizens’ assemblies, both selected by sortition, as well as a permanent secretary who acts as a sort of ombudsman for the system. The council sets the agenda for the assemblies, and chases up their conclusions in the regional parliament – essentially acting as an official lobby group for the assemblies’ recommendations. Politicians have to report back to the council a year after each assembly, setting out how they’ve acted on their recommendations and, if they’ve deviated from them, why. In this respect it is a major step forward in the institutionalisation of sortition. Under the Belgian constitution, however, sortitional bodies cannot be given legislative power, so the assemblies are restricted to an advisory role until and unless momentum can be built for a constitutional amendment.

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People in “increasingly autocratic” regimes show confidence in “democracy” in their countries

The Centre for the Future of Democracy is based at Bennett Institute for Public Policy at the University of Cambridge aims “to explore the challenges and opportunities faced by democratic politics over the coming century”. Back in January, the Centre has published a report [PDF] titled “Global Satisfaction with Democracy 2020”. The report is based on what seems like a very useful data set created by combining multiple survey data sources comprising 3,500 surveys from many countries around the world over the years 1973 to 2020 asking citizens whether they are satisfied or dissatisfied with democracy in their countries.

The key findings are not surprising:

Across the globe, democracy is in a state of malaise. In the mid-1990s, a majority of citizens in countries for which we have time-series data – in North America, Latin America,Europe, Africa, the Middle East, Asia and Australasia – were satisfied with the performance of their democracies. Since then, the share of individuals who are “dissatisfied” with democracy has risen by around +10% points, from 47.9 to 57.5%.

This is the highest level of global dissatisfaction since the start of the series in 1995. After a large increase in civic dissatisfaction in the prior decade, 2019 represents the highest level of democratic discontent on record.The rise in democratic dissatisfaction has been especially sharp since 2005. The year that marks the beginning of the so-called “global democratic recession” is also the high point for global satisfaction with democracy, with just 38.7% of citizens dissatisfied in that year. Since then, the proportion of “dissatisfied” citizens has risen by almost one-fifth of the population (+18.8%).
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