More Keith Sutherland on openDemocracy

Where’s the Democracy?

The annual British Academy lecture was delivered this week by M.H. Hansen, a leading authority on Athenian democracy and the ancient Greek polis. Professor Hansen’s thesis was that Montesquieu’s doctrine of the separation of powers – the model used by the founders of the American constitution – is well past its sell-by date. This is because a) the leaders of modern ‘democracies’ have assumed powers that are normally associated with seventeenth-century absolute monarchs and b) because the prerogative of modern legislatures is regularly usurped by the judiciary.

Positive action or a portrait in miniature?

Trevor Phillips, the head of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, claimed on Sunday that it is time for “positive action” to end the predominance of “white, middle-class lawyers” in parliament. Speaking ahead of an online conference, Human Rights in the Post-Election UK, he called on the three main party leaders to ensure that the next generation of MPs more accurately reflects the social makeup of the population.

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2 Responses

  1. If I’m reading Keith S. correctly, then descriptive representation is valuable, not just because he wants a representative body to just “be,” but because he values the opinion expressed by such a body, at least if it is properly informed. Just give them access to good information and argument, and see what they think (i.e., would they like a particular law). But for purposes of gathering information and conducting argument, there is no need for descriptive representation. And that’s the realm in which party/interest group politics might be relevant and permissible.

    I think that Jon Dryzek’s work on deliberation might be relevant here. Dryzek suggests that when it comes to deliberation, we want POSITIONS to be adequately represented, and that doesn’t require having each position represented in proportion to the number of citizens holding it. Keith seems to be saying, that’s right, but the descriptive representation should come in at another stage.

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  2. But for purposes of gathering information and conducting argument, there is no need for descriptive representation. And that’s the realm in which party/interest group politics might be relevant and permissible.

    I disagree. Either gathering information and conducting argument are objective non-political activities – in which case parties and interest groups are irrelevant – or they are subjective, interests-driven activities – in which case allowing elites to control them is dangerous.

    I think that it is pretty clear that while expertise should play a role in decision making, the entire process – data gathering, analysis, proposal authoring, bargaining, voting, and everything else – is political and therefore it must be driven by a body that represents the interests of the citizenry. That body, as a group, or its members as individuals, should (and would) seek advice from experts, much as Congress does now.

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