Paul Lucardie sent the following excerpts from his new book ‘Democratic Extremism in Theory and Practice. All power to the people’ (London: Routledge, 2014).
Author’s comment: Democratic extremism may appear to be an oxymoron, as ‘democracy’ is usually associated with moderation, pluralism and tolerance. Yet one could also regard democratic extremism as the opposite of autocratic and aristocratic extremism: whereas the latter imply that all decisions are taken by a dictator, a class of landowners or perhaps (in a more modern variety) the Central Committee of a ruling Communist Party, the former means that all decisions are taken by the people and that a political elite does not play any significant role. Examples of extreme democracy are rare, as far as I could find out. More common are cases of what I would call radical democracy: not all decisions but most important decisions are taken by the people, some are left to a political elite. Even more common, however, are mixed regimes where most decisions are taken by an elected aristocracy (professional politicians) and some by the people. In fact most so-called representative democracies are, in my opinion, mixed regimes, if not elective aristocracies.
In the book I distinguish four models of extreme and radical democracy. In an assembly democracy, decisions are taken by a popular assembly open to all citizens. In a council democracy, workers’ councils and neighbourhood councils take most decisions but are bound by mandates from the workers or the citizens. In a plebiscitary democracy most important decisions are submitted to the people in a referendum or result from a popular initiative. In a sortitionist democracy, all or most important decisions are taken by a random sample from the population. The following are excerpts from the concluding chapter where I evaluate the four models and sketch a utopian synthesis of all four.
(…) a weakness of plebiscitary democracy that often disturbs classical democrats is the lack of serious and thorough public deliberation before the people vote. Debates may be held in the media, but they tend to be monopolised by political and (to a lesser extent) intellectual elites. This seems to happen not only in the press and on television, but also in the new digital media – with a vengeance, if Matthew Hindman is right. Therefore, deliberative democrats like Peter Dienel, Ned Crosby and James Fishkin have designed new institutions to provide for more deliberation among the common citizens. Randomly selected citizens are invited to participate in citizen panels, assemblies or deliberative opinion polls to discuss salient problems and elaborate a solution. Sortitionist democrats have generalised this principle of selection by lot (sortitio in Latin). They argue that randomly selected citizens might be better legislators than the professional politicians elected to parliament or Congress. The latter are often alienated from the electorate, manipulated if not corrupted by particular interests and no longer representative of the average population. Allotted representatives will draw on a much wider variety of experiences and perspectives, coming from groups that are practically always under-represented in elected bodies such as ethnic minorities, immigrants, women or unemployed youth.
Sortition is not a modern invention, of course. It was practiced in ancient Athens, to select the Council of 500 as well as the popular courts or juries and the law-makers. It has also been used since medieval times to select criminal and civil juries in the United Kingdom, and later in the US and several other countries. Modern statistics and sampling techniques have given it a new political legitimation, however. Since Gallup developed his sophisticated opinion polls in the US in the 1930s, we have come to identify random samples with the population they are drawn from. If sixty per cent of a sample approves of abortion, we believe ‘the people’ approve of abortion. So decisions taken by a randomly selected citizen assembly are in fact seen as decisions taken by the people.
Very few sortitionists want to replace all elected bodies by randomly selected citizen assemblies. Perhaps the Canadian lawyer Simon Threlkeld and the small Spanish Chance Party (Partido Azar) might favour this variety of democratic extremism. I might do them injustice here, however, as their ideas have not been elaborated in detail. Only John Burnheim designed a complete political system based entirely on sortition, which he baptised ‘demarchy’. All political and even administrative decisions are taken by councils consisting of randomly selected citizens. However, the power of each council is far from absolute, it deals only with specific sectors of society such as health care, education or public transport. Hence, the councils may check and balance each other to some extent, as jurisdictions will overlap – a weakness of the system, in the eyes of some critics, but possibly a safeguard against extreme monism. Council members will be selected (at random) from a list of volunteers who will have some affinity or experience with the sector. The voluntary character of the council membership, however, may detract from the democratic qualities of the system and produce oligarchies of full time activists – or of Bolsheviks in a new garb, who might even intimidate rivals and try to monopolise the lists of volunteers. So demarchy need not be extreme democracy; at the end of the day it might not even be very democratic at all.
The other proposals discussed in Chapter Five are cautious compromises between allotted and electoral representation. Ernest Callenbach and Michael Phillips, Keith Sutherland, Alex Zakaras, Kevin O’Leary and Ethan Leib advocate different combinations of sortition and election, to extract the best from both worlds. So far, none of these proposals seem to have been tested in real life.
Sortitionist democracy seems strong where plebiscitary democracy is weak, and vice versa. Participation is limited to a random sample from the population, which may cause a legitimation problem. There is ample room for deliberation, but the impact is not always clear. Statistical samples tend to be perfectly inclusive, yet if participation is voluntary (as it usually is in citizen juries and similar bodies) self-selection may lead to under-representation of certain groups like ethnic minorities or people without much formal education. However, weighing procedures or special sub-samples might compensate for this.
Imagine a city of about a million inhabitants. Obviously it is too large to assemble all citizens on a square and let them deliberate, so it is divided into 100 municipal districts, each large enough to exercise some autonomy but small enough to convene their inhabitants in a large theatre or stadium in the civic centre. The civic centre contains also a public library, a school for civic education and training, sports facilities and a large green area. It is maintained mainly by volunteers who are rewarded with vouchers or free use of the facilities. The district assemblies decide about the district budget and they have to approve all expenditures over a certain amount. They also discuss priorities and proposals for the city budget, as well as problems that should be put on the city council’s agenda. Their preferences can be overruled by the city council but only with a qualified majority. The city council is elected by the citizens, who can recall any member that fails to meet their expectations. Moreover, citizens can veto decisions of the council in a referendum and impose decisions through a popular initiative. And finally, most departments of the city administration as well as corporations which offer a public service such as public transport, council housing, local radio and television, theatres, parks and schools, will consult a users’ council as well as a workers’ or employees’council when they take important decisions. The users’ councils consist of randomly selected registered users or consumers of the services: regular passengers of buses and subways, tenants, regular listeners of the radio, frequent visitors of the theatre or the park, patients of hospitals and health care centres, pupils of schools (or their parents). The selected candidates will be rewarded for their efforts by vouchers or free services. The councils may have a strong advisory status, meaning that their advice cannot be ignored without arguments. In certain cases, e.g. when privatisation, mergers or other drastic changes of the services are considered, the councils might even have veto powers. If participation in the councils or district assemblies would drop below a certain level (say ten per cent of the relevant population), Tännsjö’s rule should apply and representatives should be elected.
A similar combination could be imagined at the level of a national (or federal) state. Even if we do not want to replace elected legislatures by a House of Lots (as in Aleatoria), we might combine allotted and elected chambers the way Callenbach and Phillips, Sutherland or Zakaras have suggested. Furthermore, Burnheim’s randomly selected users’ councils could also be tried out at the national level, at least in certain sectors such as public transport, higher education, national parks and museums. The laws passed by allotted and elected legislators could be initiated or repealed by the people in a popular initiative or referendum (respectively).