Yves Sintomer: Blow the dust off of democracy with an allotted third chamber. Part 1

This is an English version of an interview with Yves Sintomer in the journal Socialter (original in French).

The Gilets Jaunes, who are looking for new democratic experiences, have called for an “assembly of assemblies”. Would it be necessary, in order to resolve the impasse, to radicalize our democracy? Why not re-institutionalize one of the its original components: sortition. A conversation with Yves Sintomer, a political scientist and an expert in democratic procedures.

Philippe Vion-Dury, 17/04/2019
Photos: Cyrille Choupas

The Gilet Jaunes have been first presented at an anti-tax movement and then as a social justice movement. Isn’t it, however, fundamentally, the question of institutions and democracy question which predominates?

What unites the Gilets Jaunes, it seems to me, is not so much the question of institutions in the strict sense as much as denial of recognition to which they respond by protesting against social injustice and against the democratic gap, a sentiment of non-representation. These two components appear to me to be tied together: society does not recognize them both because its fruits are distributed too unequally and because their voice is not being heard.

Popular distrust can be observed in most western democracies, in different forms. Isn’t there a generalized crisis of “representative government” itself?

There is a French particularity: a President with disproportionately concentrated power, little countervailing power, unusually weak political parties… and the revolt of the Gilet Jaunes is a social mobilization to which there is no equivalent in neighboring countries. This particularity has to be put in context, because it works within a much more general crisis of representation which affects not only European democracies but is also the young democracies of Latin America and in the formally democratic countries of Africa and Asia.

Representative governments were created during the English, French and American revolutions as a compromise solution. It involved giving effective decision power to a self-proclaimed elite – from this point of view, there is an aristocratic dimension to representative government. This ruling aristocracy, however, would not longer be one of “blue blood”, of nobility, but an aristocracy determined by the voters.

This institutionalization of representative government has long been opposed to the feudal society of the Ancien Regime, but also against democracy, understood as “government of the people, for the people, by the people” – to quote Abraham Lincoln. The is to limit the power of the people by giving decision making power to an elected aristocracy. That allows us to distance ourselves from the classical liberal conception asserting that “democracy means elections”.
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Sortition in the press

Some recent media items mentioning sortition:

Verena Friederike Hasel, Politico, May 16:

Germany’s democracy problem: History has made Germans reluctant to let the mob decide.

BERLIN — Germany, like many places in Europe, is badly in need of democratic rejuvenation.

But where other countries are experimenting with bringing voices from the street into the political process, Germany’s dark history casts a shadow on efforts to break down barriers to political participation.

There’s no question Germany would benefit from listening to its citizens and engaging in some talk therapy. […]

In ancient Greece, that cradle of democracy, citizens’ assemblies consisted of 500 people who were elected by lot. After serving for a year, they were replaced by others. Lately, with democracy in crisis, the Greek model has served as an inspiration for modern-day democracies. Ireland, for example, set up a citizens’ assembly in 2016. […]

The Germans have been more reluctant to tinker with their political system. But on a Saturday morning in late February, 44 people gathered in Frankfurt. The choice of venue had symbolic value. Frankfurt, nowadays known as the country’s financial hub, was home to the first freely elected German parliament in 1848. This time around, people gathered for an event called Demokratiekonvent. It’s the brainchild of Dominik Herold, a 27-year-old politics major who wanted to take a cue from Ireland, knowing full well that “Germany still has a long way to go.”
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Rentoul: “Our politics may be utterly confusing, but it certainly isn’t ‘broken’”

John Rentoul writes in The Independent:

[Nigel Farage’s] leaflets, posted through every door in the country, say: “Politics is broken. Let’s change it for good.” Where have we heard that before? On the R side of politics, that’s where. The Remainers in Change UK left their parties complaining that politics is broken. They too rail against the two-party system, even as the two main parties’ combined share of the vote in European election polls is now 34 per cent.

On the other L side of politics, the left-liberal side, the consensus is also that politics is broken. It was a powerful part of Jeremy Corbyn’s message when he was the future once. For many Corbyn supporters, “politics” is an elite conspiracy against the many that needs to be swept aside by radical forms of democracy.

The same theme animated the Extinction Rebellion protesters when they had a sit-in in Parliament Square. The government has done too little to slow down climate change, they said, so politics has failed. As ever, the problem with our democracy is that it is the wrong kind of democracy. Extinction Rebellion want a citizens’ assembly – a group of non-politicians chosen by lot to discuss the climate emergency. Once upon a time, “the Commons of England in parliament assembled” was a form of citizens’ assembly, but now the protesters want to tear it down and start again.

Of course not, says Rentoul. It’s all just a technical issue.
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Sortition vs. Russia

Nicholas Ross Smith, Assistant Professor of International Studies at the University of Nottingham, has a column in The Conversation which offers sortition as the antidote to the evil machinations of Russia. Those reading carefully, however, will realize that Russia is just a lure: Smith makes the very valid point that Russia has not done and is not doing anything unusual.

The Mueller Report in the US, for instance, found that Russia’s lobbying tactics “consisted of business connections, offers of assistance to the campaign, invitations for candidate Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin to meet in person, invitations for campaign officials and representatives of the Russian government to meet, and policy positions seeking improved US-Russian relations.”

In addition to lobbying, Russia has arguably also sought to promote anti-establishment sentiments in the West by positioning itself as a traditional and conservative power. Through its RT news network, Russia has seemingly had some success in fanning the flames of discontent in Europe, especially with regards to topics like the EU, the refugee crisis, and Islamic terrorism.
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Loïc Blondiaux: “Nobody believes anymore that the system can reform itself”

An interview with Loïc Blondiaux, professor of political science at the Sorbonne in Paris and a researcher at the European Center for Sociology and Political Science (CESSP) and the Center for Policy Research (CRPS) of the Sorbonne, in International Politics and Society journal:

New instruments of participatory democracy, such as citizen meetings with participants drawn by lot, are sometimes presented as the solution to the crisis of representative democracy. What does that reveal about the current state of French society?

It’s striking about the current democratic crisis in France, but also in the entire Western world, that instruments such as the sortition-based community meetings, where participants are selected at random, are spreading so successfully, and that such democratic innovations are generating high hopes. Who would have thought that political actors would advocate the idea of a third parliamentary chamber, determined wholly or partly by lot, or even the idea of replacing the Senate with a similar process? This interest in sortition attests to the great disrepute that traditional institutions of representative politics have fallen into. The same also applies to the “RIC” (référendum d’initiative citoyenne) promoted by the gilets jaunes, which aims to enable both citizens’ initiatives in constitutional and legal matters and the repeal of laws and the dismissal of elected representatives.

How do you explain the high expectations people have of these participatory instruments?
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Van Reybrouck: Belgium’s democratic experiment

David Van Reybrouck has a piece in politico.eu about the new sortition-based bodies in Belgium.

Those looking for a solution to the wave of anger and distrust sweeping Western democracies should have a look at an experiment in European democracy taking place in a small region in eastern Belgium.

Starting in September, the parliament representing the German-speaking region of Belgium will hand some of its powers to a citizens’ assembly drafted by lot. It’ll be the first time a political institution creates a permanent structure to involve citizens in political decision making.
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Delanoi: Sortition does not replace elections, it complements them

Simon Blin interviews Gil Delanoi in the Liberation. Original in French.

Gil Delanoi, a researcher at Sciences-Po, a sortition expert, promotes this procedure as a fundamental improvement of the democratic system, provided that it is used in an ad-hoc fashion. [Editor’s note: This sub-headline seems to be a misrepresentation of Delanoi’s position – see below. – YG.]

Gil Delannoi, professor at Sciences-Po and researcher at Cevipof, has just published a new book Sortition: how should it be used? (Sciences-Po Press). According to him, this procedure, if it is well-established, could improve the representation of the diversity of the electorate.

How can sortition cure the malaise of democratic representation and participation?

As opposed to voting, sortition does not aggregate voices but rather subsamples people from a group in order to delegate a task to them, whether a deliberative, an advisory or a decision-making task. From this perspective, sortition complements voting because it allows breaking out of the legislative logic where only representatives make the law and are concerned with it and where the administration applies it. This way, sortition does not replace elections but completes them. It is certainly possible to combine the two processes.

What form should it take?

Sortition is adaptable. There are at least as many ways to allot as there are to vote. It all depends on the objective that is sought. Sortition can be mandatory or volutary. In the first case it is a duty, in the other it is a right. The size of the sample is also very important. If the allotment aims to construct a mirror of the population, it is preferable to have a large number of people involved in order to create a detailed picture. That said, even if we allot a few people, we already a sample that is more representative than that of a simple vote, particularly in terms of age, gender and profession. We may need allotments of size 10,000 or 1,000 people. Logically, the larger the number the more accurate is the representation. In the case of court juries, where sortition is regularly used in France, it is evident that the group must be able to really have a discussion. Here the optimal size is on the order of 10 to 50 people. The larger the sample, the more difficult this is.
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