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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An Australian local community co-op allots board members

The Kyneton and District Town Square Co-op is an organization that was formed in order to manage a piece of land for community use. It has announced that three of the co-op’s board members will be allotted. (It seems that there are 4 additional board members who were elected.) The process is handled by a Sydney-based consultancy named ‘Deliberately Engaging’.

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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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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