Reybrouck explains to the New York Times that Against Elections is not really against elections

The crisis of electoralism (more commonly misleadingly referred to as “the crisis of democracy”) has been producing a stream of books warning about its dangers and proposing solutions. Ari Berman, a senior reporter at Mother Jones, a fellow at the Nation Institute and the author of “Give Us the Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America”, reviews in the New York Times 4 of the books in the genre, with one of those books being David van Reybrouck’s Against Elections.

While the other three books, which according to the review offer no useful actionable remedies, are evaluated in generally appreciative terms (“comprehensive, enlightening and terrifyingly timely new book”, “hard to argue with [the] analysis”, “[the] book provides important insights into the present political moment”), van Reybrouck’s book is rather rudely dismissed:

Democracy is experiencing a “crisis of legitimacy,” writes Van Reybrouck, a Belgian cultural historian, who cites declining voter turnout, higher volatility in voter support and fewer people identifying with political parties. This is the fault not of politicians or the structure of the electoral system, but of elections themselves, Van Reybrouck says. “We have all become electoral fundamentalists, despising those elected but venerating elections.”

Van Reybrouck is a skilled polemicist, but his solutions to remedy “democratic fatigue syndrome” are naïve and unfeasible. Echoing the ancient Greek practice of drawing lots, he suggests replacing the American House of Representatives with a random sample of citizens, like a jury pool. That seems like an utterly impractical way to govern nowadays and reflects the same demonization of political experience that led the country to favor a reality television star over a former secretary of state in 2016.

Van Reybrouck fetishizes direct democracy, like citizens’ councils, but ignores the way existing electoral institutions could be made more responsive to the popular will through reforms like proportional representation or nonpartisan redistricting. The solution to democratic fatigue syndrome is to make elections more democratic, not to get rid of them altogether.

In response, van Reybrouck protests in a letter to the editor that he has been misunderstood:
Continue reading

Stephen Boucher proposes “an EU Collective Intelligence Forum”

Stephen Boucher, managing director of Fondation EURACTIV, writes on Carnegie Europe, the website of Carnegie Endowment for International Peace:

Whatever the analytical debates over Europe’s democratic deficiencies, citizens certainly feel that EU decisionmaking is remote and often impenetrable. Unless some tangible and high-profile initiatives are forthcoming, the EU will remain more remote and complex for the average citizen than public authorities closer to home. Busy citizens will not engage with broader European politics unless they feel that their voices have a good chance of being heard.

The endless aim to “communicate Europe better” is one facet of this predicament. Despite the EU’s focus on glitzy communication gimmicks, dedicated television channels, enticing Facebook pages, and the promise of Citizens’ Dialogues in which EU commissioners meet with citizens around the member states, many Europeans frequently feel that they have little to no influence over this particular level of international governance.

To address this problem, Boucher offers some ideas, one of which is what he calls “an EU Collective Intelligence Forum”.

A yearly Deliberative Poll could be run on a matter of significance, ahead of key EU summits and possibly around the president of the commission’s State of the Union address. On the model of the first EU-wide Deliberative Poll, Tomorrow’s Europe, this event would bring together in Brussels a random sample of citizens from all twenty-seven EU member states, and enable them to discuss various social, economic, and foreign policy issues affecting the EU and its member states. This concept would have a number of advantages in terms of promoting democratic participation in EU affairs. By inviting a truly representative sample of citizens to deliberate on complex EU matters over a weekend, within the premises of the European Parliament, the European Parliament would be the focus of a high-profile event that would draw media attention.

But no need for the elites to be apprehensive. The idea is not to force popular decisions upon them, but rather the other way around – to make citizens see sense.
Continue reading

Robin Cohen: Beating the Cambridge Analyticas

Robin Cohen, Senior Research Fellow at Kellogg College and Emeritus Professor of Development Studies at the University of Oxford, writes in OpenDemocracy about his concerns following the “Cambridge Analytica” scandal:

We are now all aware of how our electoral systems have been manipulated by harvesting our digital footprints and preferences. Targeted messages, images and false information are then deployed to support or denigrate particular candidates, with no verification and no disclosure of the source of the posts.

We need to change the game to outsmart the Cambridge Analyticas. The best way to do this is vastly to increase the pool of candidates, then select our representatives by lot. This is technically known at sortition, or demarchy.

The system has many advantages, but in this context it would make digital electoral fraud uneconomic and, indeed, pointless. Allocation of offices by lot now gets an increasingly respectful hearing from political theorists [See, for example, Peter Stone ‘Sortition, voting, and democratic equality’, Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy, 19 (3), 2016, 339-56, DOI: 10.1080/13698230.2016.1144858]. There is even a Sortition Foundation set up to promote the idea worldwide.

Here are just some of the advantages:

  • Corrupt, power-hungry or narcissistic politicians will be stopped in their tracks.
  • A public service ethic will be enhanced.
  • As the pool of talent will be massively enlarged there is a good chance that we will get better public servants compared with those who are self-selected or supported by special interest groups.
  • Party loyalties will be diminished, limiting block votes (whipping) and encouraging individual judgement.
  • Given random selection, our representatives will be more representative of the population. There will be no need for women-only shortlists or positive discrimination to include hitherto excluded minorities.

There are two obvious objections to sortition. First, unsuitable people might be drawn by lot. Second, it is generally acknowledged in the literature that the system works best in small communities or assemblies. How damaging are these objections?
Continue reading

Criteria and two proposals for the use of sortition in politics

The Dutch organization Democratie.nu has published a document (Dutch, German, Français, English) with criteria for the application of sortition in a political system and with two proposals for the use of sortition in the European political system.

The criteria deal with how the agenda is set, the sampling system, the size of the allotted chamber, its service term, its powers – advisory or binding and the potential for manipulation.

The two proposals are:

  • a “transitional” system in which the size of an allotted chamber is determined by the number of voters indicating support for this chamber during elections, and
  • a ‘European Citizens Jury’ – an allotted chamber set up as a review chamber next to the European parliament.

From the introduction:

According to historical sources, our political system was developed to protect the elite AGAINST democracy (sovereignty of the people). An “Electoral Aristocracy” was installed (18th century). Nevertheless, this can be seen as a positive evolution compared with monarchy.

Later on, some “democratic” elements were introduced, for instance “free”, or so called “democratic”, elections with universal suffrage, the equality principle, freedom of speech, freedom of organization, free press etc. However, some of those elements were moderated or abolished afterwards.

But a “democratic element” is not yet a “democracy”. Freedom of organization may be a “democratic element” without which a democracy cannot exist, but on its own it is no democracy. Hence “free elections”, to appoint a governor for instance, may be a democratic element, but on their own they are by no means a democracy. Furthermore, our political system of representation by elected representatives originates from the Roman Republican system and not from the Athenian Democracy. Calling our political system a “democracy” is deliberately misleading propaganda.
Continue reading

Bouniol: The idea of a Citizens Chamber gains ground

Béatrice Bouniol has been showing some interest in sortition in her stories at La Croix. Last November, on the occasion of the publishing of a new book on the subject of “The Citizens Assembly of the Future”, Bouniol had the following story.

The idea of a Citizens Chamber gains ground

During COP 23, the Foundation for Nature and Man calls on France to make a democratic innovation by establishing a Citizen Assembly for the Future. Facing a crisis of representation, a citizens’ third chamber, an idea which has been discussed for about twenty years, gains ground.

On July 3rd, 2017, speaking in front of Congress, Emmanuel Macron proposed the transformation of the Social and Environmental Economy Council (CESE) into a Chamber of the Future, “a forum of our Republic” aimed at becoming “the crossroad of public deliberation”. Dominique Bourg, president of the scientific council of the Foundation for Nature and Man – created by Nicolas Hulot – having advocated the creation of such a chamber since 2011, was thus pleased at the proposal, but expressed his worry on the pages of La Croix that it could be a mere “rebranding – certainly necessary but far below what is desired.” The programmatic essay that appears today under his direction (Inventing the 21st Century Democracy: The Citizen Assembly of the Future. [Inventer la démocratie du XXIe siècle. L’Assemblée citoyenne du futur, Les Liens qui libèrent/Fondation pour la Nature et l’homme, 2017]) aims therefore to remind the President of the Republic of the conditions required for creating a Citizen Assembly for the Future.


The hall of the Social and Environmental Economy Council, at Iena Square, Paris.

In order to go beyond a feel-good formula, the establishment of a third parliament chamber must rest on an effort of democratic creativity, required by an unprecedented situation. At the age of the anthropocene (a new geological period defined by the impact of humans on their environment), reported by a group of researchers, it is necessary to systematically take into consideration of the impact of laws on the long term, that is, of their influence on the large scale physical and biological evolution of the planet.
Continue reading

When is a democratic innovation not a democratic innovation? The populist challenge in Australia

An interesting article by Lucy Parry about the Australia mini-publics in participedia:

Outside the room: the populist challenge

Remember those NIMBYs and SIFs that mini-publics aim to exclude through random selection? Their exclusion rests on the assumption that the quality and outcome of deliberation is better without those insistent voices. The aim is that through a process of deliberation, people will become ‘more public-spirited, more tolerant, more knowledgeable, more attentive to the interests of others, and more probing of their own interests’ (Warren 1992, p8). Producing deliberated public opinion involves weeding out weak and poorly informed arguments. Again, this is all very well if you are inside the room. If you’re outside the room, you may very well object.

And let’s face it, those objectionable voices are not going away. As Ben Moffit points out, ‘Populism, once seen as a fringe phenomenon relegated to another era or only certain parts of the world, is now a mainstay of contemporary politics across the globe’. The voices that a Citizens’ Jury wants to keep out of the room now have the room surrounded. If we continue down the mini-publics road, the very thing that allegedly legitimises mini-publics will also be its downfall. The assumptions underpinning random selection are that it is representative of the wider community; and that it facilitates better quality deliberation by bringing together everyday citizens rather than insistent voices. Whether these things are accurate or not is a moot point – what actually matters is how they are perceived by broader publics. It is sad but possibly true that for those outside the room, what goes on inside the room doesn’t matter. And I suspect that the argument that a Jury is representative and very well informed is simply not going to cut it.

Mini-publics rely on information presented by experts; populism rejects the knowledge of experts. With all the will and most independently-recruited-and-facilitated process in the world – people may just not trust it.

This is in line with the criteria for the use of sortition in politics I proposed a while ago and especially with our Two Chamber proposal (page 9):

The presentations of the experts and groups of interests have to be public in case of legislative juries, in order to provide both public information and control. This also has to ensure that ‘informed citizens’ share the same view as the citizens’ jury. That way, we avoid that decisions taken by the citizens’ jury differ from what the people think, in case they had the chance to express their view in a referendum.)

Shallit: The Sortition Solution

Mathematician and professor of computer science Jeffrey Shallit has a post on his blog in which he advocates for sortition. Some excerpts:

The US political system is clearly broken. … Proportional representation is often proposed as a solution to some of these problems. … But this doesn’t resolve the corruption and tribalism problems…

My solution is exotic but simple: sortition, or random representation. Of course, it’s not original with me: we use sortition today to form juries. But I would like to extend it to all legislative bodies.

Here is a brief outline of how it would work. Legislators would be chosen uniformly and randomly from a universal, publicly-available list; perhaps a list of all registered voters.

In each election period (say 2-5 years), a random fraction of all representatives would be completely replaced, perhaps 25-50%. This would allow some institutional memory and expertise to be retained, while insuring that incumbents do not have enough time to build up fiefdoms that lead to corruption.

Sortition could be phased in gradually. For the first 10 years, sortition could be combined with a traditional electoral system, in some proportion that starts small and eventually completely replaces the traditional electoral system. This would increase public confidence in the change, as well as avoiding the problem of a “freshman class” that would be completely without experience.
Continue reading