Book Review: Democracy: A Life

I seem to be reviewing a lot of books lately, including this review of Paul Cartledge’s Democracy: A Life in the Los Angeles Review of Books (cited in a previous post by Peter Stone). While the book covers what will be familiar ground for many here, the author also charts how the idea of ‘people power’ has been treated over the centuries that have elapsed since Athenian democracy. As such, I feel that he (intentionally or unintentionally) made an important contribution to challenging the negative perception that we have of citizen participation by explaining how this view developed over time. Another one to order for the library!

Cartledge goes to some effort to show how later [post-Athens] historians and statesmen were anxious to portray Greek democracy as a horrible mistake, the unworkable aspiration of starry-eyed dreamers that was preprogrammed to end in chaos. Under the onslaught of these propagandists, the vast majority of whom never experienced Athenian democracy — and indeed were often born several hundred years after it ceased to exist — the idea of political equality came to be regarded as a myth, the notion of the collective people holding power a danger to be shunned, suppressed, and preferably forgotten.

The truth was that democracy was a dangerous idea — to the kings, emperors, and high clergy who controlled information in the centuries after it ceased to be a living form of government. As the author puts it, while these autocrats held sway throughout the Middle Ages, the very idea of democracy was “on life-support.” And while things may have improved since, modern democracy is, in Cartledge’s view, not in much better shape — off the machine perhaps, but still staggering around the hospital ward, clutching at bits of furniture, and trying to remember what had happened to bring it there in the first place.

Democracy Talk, Episode 1

Patrick Chalmers and I are aiming to turn this into an ongoing video series. Any comments are welcome.

Arash Abizadeh: Take electoral reform away from politicians and let citizens decide

David Schecter wrote to point out an article in the Canadian Globe and Mail by Arash Abizadeh, a professor of political science at McGill University:

Take electoral reform away from politicians and let citizens decide

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau campaigned on a promise to change the way we elect Parliament. Here’s the problem: letting politicians who won the last election decide future election rules is like letting the team who won the last playoff game decide rules for the next game. There’s an obvious conflict of interest. Electoral rules determine who forms government, and different rules favour different parties.

[…]

One solution is a referendum. But the Liberals have ruled this out. Maybe they’re right to do so. Referenda are expensive, few Canadians care much about electoral reform, and fewer still will cuddle up with a treatise on voting systems this Sunday evening. A referendum might be a big waste of money in which few vote and fewer still care to learn about the pros and cons of alternative electoral systems.

But without a referendum, how could electoral reform be legitimized? We need a manifestly fair procedure – a neutral body, unbeholden to politicians, that will reasonably evaluate the alternatives.

Fortunately, political scientists have a solution that fits the bill – a randomly selected citizen assembly. The idea is this: randomly select a few thousand Canadians, ask if they are willing to serve, and, from those saying yes, randomly select 100 to 200 to serve on an assembly empowered to determine federal election rules.
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Sortition theory and practice: the G1000 comes to the UK

The End of Politicians screeenshotThe “short, powerfully argued and carefully researched” book The End of Politicians, by Sortition Foundation co-founder Brett Hennig, is now 75% funded and well on the way to being published by the crowdfunding publisher, Unbound. You can help get this book to 100% and get published by pledging and pre-ordering it here: https://unbound.co.uk/books/the-end-of-politicians

And the ideas in the book are on the way to becoming a reality – on the 10th and 11th of June Harm van Dijk and Jerphaas Donner, the founders of the G1000 in the Netherlands, are coming to the UK to help launch the G1000 in the UK. The aim of the G1000 is to bring a representative, random selection of people from a community together to deliberate about what they think is most important for their community.

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Gutting: Should Everyone Vote?

An op-ed piece in The New York Times by Gary Gutting, a professor of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame:

At election time we inevitably hear earnest pleas for everyone to vote. Voter participation is a data point often cited in political studies, along with an assumption that the higher the percentage, the better: 100 percent participation is the goal. But we rarely question this belief, or objectively consider whether everyone who can vote ought to vote.

The author then outlines the problems of mass democracy, including ‘trumpery’, plutocracy and rational ignorance, and attempts to justify voting as an act of participatory solidarity. But he goes on to consider sortition as an alternative:

At least one political philosopher has put forward the radical idea that we could ensure informed voters by employing an “enfranchisement lottery.” Such a lottery would restrict voting to a randomly chosen group of citizens who are provided unbiased in-depth information relevant to an election. We can think of this approach as a matter of modeling our voting on our jury system. We would never accept deciding important and highly publicized trials by a vote of the general public. We think only people fully informed of the facts and relevant arguments put forward in a trial should make such important judgments. Shouldn’t we be at least as careful in deciding who should be president?

Notice that answering yes does not imply the elitist view that only a small minority of citizens are capable of making informed votes. The idea is not that voters are too stupid or biased to access the needed information; it’s just that they don’t have the time and resources to do so. Ideally, we would provide everyone with the relevant knowledge, but that would be impractical, time-consuming and expensive.

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Allotted bodies better than referenda

Two new articles argue that allotted bodes are a better democratic tool than referenda. Both criticize the referenda system for asking the public to make uninformed decisions and both invoke the Athenian precedent. There are also some differences for the sharp-eyed reader to pick out.

Simon Threlkeld writes in Truthout:

Let Juries Legislate: Why Citizen Juries Are Better Than the Ballot Initiative for Citizen Lawmaking

Twenty-four US states have the ballot initiative. Unfortunately, the process is heavily skewed in favor of rich interests and unsuitable for making informed decisions. A much better method of citizen lawmaking is needed.

[…]

Classical Athens, often called the birthplace of democracy, sheds light on how citizen lawmaking can be done in an informed, fair and highly democratic way. In Athens, much of the decision-making was done by various juries chosen from the citizens by lottery. This kept a wide range of decisions in the hands of the citizens, prevented elite rule and provided a more informed version of citizen rule than popular vote.

Keith Sutherland writes in openDemocracy:

The Brexit lottery

On June 23, Britain will go to the polls to decide whether or not the country should remain a member of the European Union. David Cameron’s in–out referendum on EU membership is, ostensibly, about finding out what the people want. But there is a better, and more democratic, way.

[…]

Referendums are swayed by irrelevant issues, are “very blunt instruments” and the outcome would be “a lottery”, [Peter Mandelson] said. In a sense, Lord Mandelson is right – the experience of countries like Ireland, where referendums are commonplace, suggests that they are often used to give the government of the day a kicking, rather than deal with the issue at hand. And yet a different kind of lottery could be more representative of public opinion than a referendum vote.
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Selecting Police (partly) by Lottery

The Long Island Exchange reports that Suffolk County, Long Island, NY (Pop.1.5 mn) Police Department is holding a lottery for the order in which qualified candidates are assessed:

Gregory Hosts Lottery to Rank New Suffolk Police Candidates

(Long Island, NY) Suffolk County Legislature Presiding Officer DuWayne Gregory on March 4 hosted a lottery in which the 3,739 individuals attaining a score of 95 on the written exam to become a Suffolk County Police Officer were ranked in priority order to advance to the next stages of the selection process. The lottery was live-streamed from the William H. Rogers Legislature Building in Hauppauge.

The additional phases of the selection process include a personality and psychological assessment, physical fitness test, medical examination, a polygraph examination and a background investigation.  After the testing and background review are completed, candidates who successfully complete all parts of the selection process will be considered for appointment in the same sequence in which their names were drawn in the lottery.

Suffolk County Legislature Presiding Officer DuWayne Gregory pulls a name at the March 4 lottery in which the 3,739 individuals attaining a score of 95 on the test to become a Suffolk County Police Officer were ranked in priority order to advance in the next stages of the selection process. Gregory hosted the lottery at the William H. Rogers Legislature Building in Hauppauge, from which it was live-streamed. Photo Credit: Suffolk County.
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