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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Cancio: Sortition and the Allotted Chamber as Institutional Improvements to Democracy

Here [PDF] is an automated translation (with a few touch-ups) of Jorge Cancio’s 2010 paper “Invitación a un Debate: El Sorteo y las Cámaras Sorteadas Como Mejoras Institucionales de la Democracia”.

Abstract:

I start off inviting my readers to exercise their imagination and then explaining a proposal of creating new “sortition chambers” on all administrative levels – from a chamber at the same level as the present-day Spanish Congress and Senate down to sortition chambers for each municipality. They essentially would be an addition to present-day institutions and would partake in the powers which are held today by elected representatives and officials, although the proposal envisages that in the short run they could be out-voted by the elective institutions. They would exercise their powers according to deliberative procedures.

After that introduction I offer a short account of present-day theoretical and practical proposals and implementations of sortition-based systems in the political field – highlighting the fact (following Manin) that mainstream discussions on democracy tend to ignore sortition altogether (including those made by the political left), but also making the point that since Dahl and others (inter alia, Burnheim, Goodwin, Barber; and the more recent works now appearing in Imprint Academic) there seems to be an increasing renaissance of this subject. I also point to the practical experiences of the Planungszelle and the voters’ and citizens’ juries.

Thereafter I try to explain why sortition is mainly ignored nowadays – here I follow again Bernard Manin – identifiying the contractualist bias of the XVII and XVIII century revolutions (which sought to establish a rule of consent for being governed) as the main reason for opting for elections instead of sortition as mechanism for the selection of political office-holders. Afterwards, the emergence of the political parties as oligopolical forces in the political market (here I refer to the work of C.B. Macpherson) and their growing distance from society and increasing autonomy vis-à-vis societal needs have led to a “party democracy” or “cartel party” system (Katz and Mair). The facade of autonomous decision in electing public officials covers, therefore, a system where political offers are very limited, allowing me to speak about an “election-fetish”. Contrasting to this evolution I then underline the paradox of identifiyng democracy with elections (and political parties) when we consider that democracy was linked in Athens with sortition whereas elections were considered aristocratic.
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Radical reform: selecting 5-10% of councillors by lot

Vernon Bogdanor, Research Professor at the Institute for Contemporary British History at King’s College London and Professor of Politics at the New College of the Humanities, advocates bold, radical reforms:

Local government reform

One way that our democratic system can face these challenges is by making local government `Self Government’ once again. […] Local government is the best arena for the next phase of constitutional reform, but something much more radical than elected mayors is needed.

Selection by lot

That more radical innovation might be found in the principle of sortition—selection by lot. That principle was first adopted in fifth‐century Athens, a direct democracy, but it is perfectly feasible to extend participation in a modern democracy.

A small proportion of councillors—say 5 per cent or 10 per cent—could be selected randomly by lot from the electoral register. Participation would be voluntary but most of those selected would probably be willing to do so. That would increase the representation of the young and of members of ethnic minorities, groups markedly under‐represented in most local authorities. These councillors could decide what was best for their communities without being beholden to party.

Sénat Citoyen and Citizens’ Assemblies

Sénat Citoyen is a French organization whose manifesto offers the following principle:

For every authority, government or elected assembly, there must exist an allotted citizen assembly which monitors, creates proposals and controls this authority.

Citizens’ Assemblies is a book by the Polish activist Marcin Gerwin which he describes as “a step-by-step presentation of how to organise a citizens’ assembly, with the primary focus on the city level”. It is available online for free in 6 languages.

On the website Gerwin lists “Basic standards for organizing citizens’ assemblies”, which are:

  1. Random selection of participants
  2. Demographic representation
  3. Independent coordination
  4. Citizens’ assembly can invite experts
  5. Inclusion of a widest practical range of perspectives
  6. Inviting all stakeholders
  7. Deliberation
  8. Openness
  9. Sufficient time for reflection
  10. Impact
  11. Transparency
  12. Visibility

Legislature by Lot: Transformative Designs for Deliberative Governance

[This is repost from https://www.bretthennig.com/legislature_by_lot_published]

Legislature by LotLegislature by Lot: Transformative Designs for Deliberative Governance has just been published by Verso a few days ago. I contributed a chapter, “Who Needs Elections? Accountability, Equality, and Legitimacy Under Sortition” that questions the premise of the opening chapter of the book: that sortition should only accompany an elected chamber.

However, even as I’m excited by the publication of this new book, I’m thinking today about Erik Olin Wright, who conceived of the “Real Utopias” series and brought so many challenging and brilliant insights to this and his many other works, but sadly passed away recently. It was another book in this series, Deepening Democracy, which he co-edited as well, that started me down the path I’m now on. It was such an honour to meet him and get to know him – and to sing “Bella Ciao” together with him at his house a few short years ago.

McKay: Combining mini publics and multi stage popular votes

The section ‘Combining mini publics and multi stage popular votes’ in Spencer McKay’s new paper ‘Building a better referendum’ presents an interesting overview of several systems where the referendum is combined with mini publics.

Pairing a multi-stage popular vote with a mini-public – a process I refer to as an iterated popular vote (IPV) – may aid in bridging the gap between micro-deliberation and macro-participation. The IPV is an attempt at institutional design inspired by the notion of “designed coupling,” which seeks to “find the optimal strength of linkages between different parts of a deliberative system” (Hendriks, 2016, p. 55).

Two proposals for representative representation

Representative representation: a citizens’ jury appointed by sortition (v 2019.03.11). (For a fuller context, see the paper released by democratie.nu: ‘Sortition as a democratic system for the appointment of a real parliament, also called ‘Citizens’ Jury’).

Introduction

Proposal I: The principle of our proposals is derived from some aspects of the jury in its judicial application. The ‘Legislative Citizens’ Jury’ is only called when necessary and has a short term mandate with the power to make a decision in just one specific case.

During the national elections, voters can allocate a number of additional parliamentary ‘seats’ to a descriptively representative Citizens’ Jury of at least 500 citizens, appointed by sortition[1]. This Legislative Citizens’ Jury will vote, along with the elected parliamentarians, on all bills and proposals for implementing decisions that citizens consider to be of sufficient social importance. A new jury will be summoned for each vote.

Questions and answers

Q1. What does the legislative power look like after summoning a ‘Legislative Citizens’ Jury’?

A1. The Citizens’ Jury presents itself like a ‘party’ in the political structure. The citizen himself determines the balance of power during free elections.


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