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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Neil Mackay: Only sortition could save the UK

Neil Mackay writes in The Herald of Scotland (paywalled, but full text available here):

BRITAIN feels wobbly, shaky. The killing of MP David Amess is just the latest event to unmoor us a little more from stability. In truth, the whole of the Western world feels shaky. Democracy seems to quiver wherever you look. The smart money is on Trump returning to Washington. France toys with the far right. The European project looks ready to implode. China looms over the once dominant West, threatening to eclipse America.

How did we get here? Just 20 years ago we were enjoying ‘the Great Holiday from History’ – the end of the 1990s when stability, peace and prosperity (at least in the West) seemed on an ever upward trajectory. Today, only the flagrantly optimistic don’t fear the future.

Perhaps historians – centuries from now, if humanity makes it that far – will call this period ‘the Great Disruption’, when everything was in flux and the world seemed broken.

Here in Britain, though, matters look even more dark and dangerous than in other democracies – aside perhaps from America with Trump waiting in the wings.

We’ve had two MPs assassinated in five years. The country is quite literally coming apart as Scottish independence and Northern Ireland threaten to turn the Union into a failed project. England is utterly divided between remainers and leavers. We’re facing a Winter of Discontent – a breakdown of functioning business. Britain has become a byword for treachery among our closest neighbours. After the Aukus deal, France views Britain with contempt. Dublin warns Britain cannot be trusted following threats to rip up the Northern Ireland protocol – a treaty negotiated by Number 10 but now up for destruction because it no longer suits.

Hate, division and conspiracy isn’t just stoked online – it now comes dished up in our mainstream media, from once reputable papers to broadcasters. Commentators fuel rage and seek scapegoats; the comment sections of newspaper websites drip with venom. In Scotland, the worst elements of unionism and nationalism make you fear how any future referendum – if it ever happens – might be conducted. Politicians – themselves the victims of so much hate – also stoke rage, with loose, dangerous language. Words in parliament profoundly affect the nature of British debate.

We’re an ailing state. What worries the mind is that an ailing state can become a failing state – and failed states turn very dark very quickly.

It’s not that the major forces currently at play in politics are wicked: Euroscepticism, unionism, nationalism – they’re all legitimate positions to hold. It’s how we’ve conducted the debate around these issues which has broken Britain so badly.

We are all better individually than the collective mess we’ve made, and we must all share some portion of responsibility for what’s happened, because we’ve all played our part in one way or another.
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Shadi Hamid on sortition

Shadi Hamid is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute and a contributing writer to The Atlantic. He seems to have recently discovered sortition through the writings of Hélène Landemore and he is quite excited. (He still seems quite confused in his terminology about what should be called “democratic”, but ideas die hard.)

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

Abstract

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.

The politics of sortition: Raisons politiques

The French language journal Raisons politiques has a new issue with a section devoted to sortition. The section comprises of an eponymous editorial by Lionel Cordier, Marie Montagnon, and Théophile Pénigaud as well as 6 papers by Dimitri Courant, Nabila Abbas and Yves Sintomer, Théophile Pénigaud, Nadia Urbinati, Lionel Cordier, and Pierre-Étienne Vandamme.

I have not yet read any of the texts, but the topic seems very interesting: what kind of political visions are being associated with sortition? Examining such questions critically, the French-language discussion of sortition is, as always, ahead of the English-language discussion. Like much of the Anglophone political science, the English-language discussion of sortition is impoverished by its business-orientation and the implied attitude that critical reflection is not necessary because we all know where we are going and we all agree on the important issues and there are only some technical details that have to be taken care of.

If anyone reads any of the articles, a post with an English-language summary and a critical evaluation would be most useful.

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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The Irish Times: Colleges expect spike in random selection

The Irish Times reports:

Colleges expect spike in random selection: High-points courses in health, law, pharmacy and science most likely to be affected

A system of lottery entry for equal-scoring candidates has been in place in Ireland since 2009. It seems that this year’s exceptional circumstances (Covid) has led to a ‘spike’ in its use.

Perhaps the headline should have read:

For those scoring equally high points, despite (a Covid-related) spike in top scores, random selection (a lottery) will sort out who wins a place

The article continues:

Universities fear they will have to restrict entry to more high-points courses on the basis of “random selection” this year due to record-breaking Leaving Cert results.

Results this year climbed to a new high with a sharp increase in the number of students securing top H1 grades.

Senior university sources expect they will have to introduce more random cut-off points for entry into high-demand courses such as medicine, dentistry, law, pharmacy and science when CAO offers issue on Tuesday next.
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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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“Putting the practice of sortition on firmer foundations”

An article in Nature by Bailey Flanigan, Paul Gölz, Anupam Gupta, Brett Hennig and Ariel D. Procaccia proposes a sampling algorithm which produces samples with specified quotas for given subgroups of the population. Since the quotas do not match the proportions of the groups in the population, the probability of selection of each person in the population is not the same. However, the algorithm aims to make those probabilities as equal as possible.

The authors propose the use of their algorithm for selecting citizen assemblies from groups of volunteers. In existing practice, the group of volunteers for a citizen assembly is usually very unrepresentative of the population as a whole and the quotas are used to supposedly compensate for this unrepresentativity and make sure that the selected assembly is descriptive of the population as a whole. The authors claim that “[b]y contributing a fairer, more principled and deployable algorithm [than the previous algorithm used], our work puts the practice of sortition on firmer foundations. Moreover, our work establishes citizens’ assemblies as a domain in which insights from the field of fair division can lead to high-impact applications”.

In my view, while this work may be of theoretical interest in the field of sampling, and while the authors may have the most commendable intentions of promoting democratic decision making, the notion that this work in any way improves the political application of sortition is not only unjustified, but may actually be the opposite of reality.

First, it is obvious that unless absurdly arbitrary and drastic assumptions are made, quotas can in no way compensate for the unrepresentativity of a volunteer sampling group. For quotas to be able to compensate for the unrepresentativity of the volunteer sampling group, it must happen that within each quota group the probability of volunteering is uncorrelated with (informed and considered) opinions on the matters at hand. One would have to have a horribly mechanistic and reductionist notion of what determines individual opinions in order to make such an assumption. Thus, the entire endeavor of quota-adjusted sampling is no more than cosmetics over the reality of bias introduced by low volunteer rates in existing applications of sortition in politics.
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