Chalmers: The nakedness of elections

Patrick Chalmers writes:

TOULOUSE, France — In the Danish fable “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” it was a little boy who pointed out what no adult dared expose: The king was naked; his court, a cast of pompous fools beguiled by tricksters.

It’s time to do the same with our own reified system of government — representative democracy and its so-called free and fair elections.

Shocking? Of course it is. We’ve been taught to hold our voting rights as sacred — that despite our political system’s many flaws, representative democracy is, to paraphrase Winston Churchill, “the worst form of government, except for all the others.”

But what if there were, after all, a real alternative? What if there were something less corruptible than pure democracy by election? That something needn’t replace periodic elections, or at least not at once, but it could certainly guard us against their worst failings. Not least of those is the grossly outsized influence of narrow interests at the expense of everyone else’s.

2018 review – sortition-related events

This is the end-of-year summary of notable sortition related events for 2018.

Sortition received some increasing attention in the English-speaking world in 2018. The Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities at Bard College has announced the creation of the Bard Institute for the Revival of Democracy through Sortition. Richard Askwith and Tim Dunlop published books advocating for sortition. Selina Thompson put on a sortition-themed play and organized a sortition-themed workshop. Van Reybrouck’s Against Elections was (dismissively) reviewed in the New York Times. Sortition was featured in the Left-leaning magazine Jacobin as well as on BBC radio, and was mentioned in the Washington Post. Canadian scientist and environmentalist expressed interest in drawing politicians from a hat.

Brett Hennig’s TED talk about sortition was featured by TED on their main page, generating a spike of interest in the idea, including by Beppe Grillo, co-founder of the Italian electorally successful Five Star movement. Another spike of interest in sortition followed media reports about the arrest of a sortition advocate who allegedly planned to blow himself up in an attempt to draw attention to the idea.

Late in the year, sortition was on the agenda of two mass-action movements: UK’s Extinction Rebellion and France’s Gilets Jaunes.

Earlier in the year elites continued to express their dissatisfaction with the way elections are turning out. A proposal was made to use sortition to improve citizen behavior. Former UK prime minister Gordon Brown made a similar suggestion in the context of Brexit. The Ireland abortion referendum that approved the recommendations of an allotted chamber was held as an example to emulate.

Reports about sortition being used or advocated at local government appeared in the press. An initiative for appointing judges by lot is under way in Switzerland. Charlie Pache, a Swiss sortition activist, promotes single issue allotted citizen panels. Academic conferences about sortition were held in Belgium and in the US.

In France, the discussion has moved beyond the initial stage of unfamiliarity into some substantive discussion of the details of applications of sortition. A member of La France insoumise who was allotted to its electoral committee expressed disillusionment with the process. Other FI activists claim that “so far, the allotted have had no real power”. Michel Quatrevalet, a power industry professional in France, complains that the so-called participatory democracy process that was part of the process for the creation of a French multi-year energy plan was a sham.

Hennig: Citizens’ Assemblies and the next democratic revolution

Brett Hennig writes in the New Internationalist magazine:

Is this the beginning of another winter of discontent? The Extinction Rebellion that hit London in the weeks around 17 November might be the spark that lights the tinder box of our democratic malaise. Thousands of people blockaded bridges, disrupted traffic, and engaged in non-violent acts of civil disobedience to demand the UK government truthfully address climate change, and convene a national citizens’ assembly to create ‘a democracy fit for purpose’.

Meanwhile, across the channel, the ‘Gilets Jaunes’ (Yellow Vests) protestors have grabbed enough attention – perhaps by causing enough havoc – to get an invitation to meet the French Prime Minister. Their demands? Initially that the government address the rising cost of living (specifically a rise in fuel tax), but the protest has morphed into a broad movement that has, according to several reports, also demanded ‘the creation of a citizens’ assembly to replace the [French] Senate’ or ‘the creation of a citizens assembly to put forward demands that would then be submitted to referendum’, among many other disparate propositions.

Whatever the diverse causes of, and messages from, these two very different protests, it appears that the demand for a citizens’ assembly is crossing cultural barriers and being promoted as the preferred democratic tool of a new generation of activists.

Gordon Brown embraces citizens’ assemblies

In a thoughtful contribution to considering the governance of Britain in the context of the still running Brexit fiasco, Gordon Brown offers this suggestion:

We must renounce the unsatisfactory, inward-looking, partisan and inevitably piecemeal decision-making process of the past 30 months.

In the old days, political parties saw their role as aggregating and then articulating grassroots views. But to the British people the parties seem – like social media – to be dominated by those with the loudest voice.

[…]

I envisage bringing together in each region a representative panel of a few hundred citizens, engaging them in a day’s dialogue to deliberate on arguments presented by informed opinion leaders and advocates from both sides — and testing whether pro and anti-Brexit voters can find any common ground.

Thought Cages: a Parliament by lottery

Readers of this blog may be interested in this brief documentary radio program that recently went to air on BBC Radio 4.

A Parliament by Lottery

Could we fix the disconnect between the public and its politicians – by selecting our MPs by lottery?

In today’s episode, ad guru and expert on human behaviour Rory Sutherland explores how a “House Of The People”, comprised of a random cross-section of the British public – might be better at truly reflecting the considered will of the British people.

Rory is joined by the Australian political economist and expert on innovation Nicholas Gruen – who explains how the idea dates back to the Ancient Greeks – and the MP for Birmingham Yardley, Jess Philips, an elected parliamentarian who’s keener on the idea than you might expect…

From academic to pragmatic

Reading coverage of the UK’s Extinction Rebellion movement this week – which is beginning a campaign of civil disobedience in an attempt to pressure the British government into far more radical action to combat greenhouse gas emissions – I was intrigued to come across this:

The group also calls for the creation of a national Citizens’ Assembly to oversee “the changes necessary for creating a democracy fit for purpose”.

I can tell this will be a fun one for Equality by Lotters to contemplate.

For my own part, I got belted on the arms and peppered sprayed by Danish police in Copenhagen in 2009 in an attempt to chronicle what it felt like to take part in a civil disobedience action linked to global climate change negotiations. I did it deliberately to better understand the experience of civil disobedience – an approach inspired by the late, legendary US writer George Plimpton.

He called it participatory journalism. I experienced it as pretty stressful.
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Social Inventions Journal Extracts on Sortition

Here, for the sake of bibliographic completeness, are proposals for forms of sortition published in the Social Inventions Journal’s (SIJ), annual compilations from the Institute for Social Inventions, up until 2002, when it ceased publication.

Additional suggestions were posted to its website for several more years, until it was hacked and disabled, making it impossible for me to look through it. Its backup versions on the Wayback Machine do not allow one to see more than the first 25 or so entries under its “Politics” category. (I wish some charitable foundation would fund its restoration to archive status, at a minimum.)

From Re-Inventing Society, 1994, “Random selection of Lords,” by T.M. Arting Stoll, page 190

How about random selection from the population of people to serve one year in a Senate replacing the Lords?

From Best Ideas, 1995, “Voter juries, vetoes and feedback,” by Geof Mulgan and Andrew Adonis, page 245

[SIJ Editor’s note:] Adapted extract from an article by Geof Mulgan and Andrew Adonis in Lean Democracy, issue No. 3, £5, of a journal from the think tank Demos, 9 Bridewell Place, London EC4V 6AP (tel. 0171 353 4479, fax 0171 3534481; e-mail Demos@Demon.Co.UK>).

If democracy means self-government, it is doubtful whether Britain and other western countries should be called full democracies.

A critical democratic dimension, the personal involvement of citizens in government, has gone almost entirely neglected.

We have three moderate, specific proposals for change:

Voter juries [good term—RK]: the piloting, at the national and local level, of voter juries to assess the pros and cons of contested policy proposals. They would be established on a similar basis to judicial juries, but without formal constitutional authority.

Voter vetoes: The introduction of voter vetoes, giving citizens at national and local level the right to call consultive referenda on strongly contested legislation or council decisions. At national level one million citizens would need to sign a petition for a referendum to take place.

Voter feedback: Local experiments to engage people in deliberation on local issues of controversy using the combined television and telephone networks being built by cable companies in conurbations, in collaboration with local authorities and other local institutions.

From Creative Speculations, 1997, “Citizen juries for considering policy options,” by the Institute for Public Policy Research, pages 234–36
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