David Van Reybrouck: “Elections were never designed to be democratic”

Liberation has an interview with David Van Reybrouck by Béatrice Vallaeys about his sortitionist message.

An automatic translation of the preamble with my touch ups:

To counter distrust toward politics, Belgian historian and writer David Van Reybrouck advocates deliberative democracy, where allotted citizens lend a hand to elected officials.

“We despise elected officials, we venerate the elections.” Thus says David Van Reybrouck in a recently published essay, Against elections. Born in 1971 in Bruges, David Van Reybrouck strives with an undeniable talent to demonstrate “a fatigue of Western democracy”, but he also offers a remedy: instead of the appointment rituals where people are invited to cast their votes for a particular candidate, he proposes the creation of an allotted legislature. “The realities of our democracies disillusions people at an alarming rate. We must ensure that democracy does not wear itself out,” he says, convinced that elections are a cause of paralysis of democracy. His credo: not only the right to vote, but the right to speak.

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20 Responses

  1. What a powerful, concise argument: “We despise elected officials, we venerate the elections.”

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  2. David Van Reybrouck may be open to a hybrid system that combines elections and sortition, but likes my purely sortition model. Here is an article and discussion on the Dutch online news and discussion site “the Correspondent.” He lays out the workings of the model I described in my essay in the Journal of Public Deliberation (followed by 250 comments).

    https://decorrespondent.nl/538/het-kan-een-totaal-andere-inrichting-van-onze-democratie/41621915390-c36f3a9d

    You can use Google’s automatic translation if you use Chrome to view it.

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  3. This may be the best, fairest publicity for sortition yet! Libé is big! The article was quite readable and addressed the first concerns of those new to the idea. I really like the comment that sortition today is “like women’s right to vote in 1850.”

    Kudos @Terry. Do you read Dutch by the way?

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  4. Why would the allotted be more credible and why should we have faith in the people?

    Because we would have representatives of the people who could decide without concern for future elections. Now, for the first time in history, upcoming elections weigh more than the previous.

    This is the pandering argument again which may be the thinking behind reform ideas like term limits. This misses the mark, however, for it implies that the problem with elected officials is that they are worried about re-elections. In fact, the problem with elected officials is that they represent elite interests, whether or not they are thinking of re-election.

    (It is also not clear why electoral worries would be a recent development as Van Reybrouck claims.)

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  5. The De Correspondent article is very nice (although, again, I think presenting such a multi-item plan is not the most effective way to promote our message).

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  6. Yoram,
    I believe that the pandering argument is ONE of a set of compelling arguments for sortition, and is worthy of inclussion. Sometimes elites understand what SHOULD be done for the good of society on some particular policy area (accepting your primary focus for the moment…where the elite’s interests would not be at all adversely affected by doing what is good for society), but they are reluctant to go that way because the electorate is ill-informed, and they know their electoral opponent can make them look bad if they go that way.

    Ahmed,
    Bouricius is a Dutch name (my great-grand-father emigrated from the Netherlands to America), but alas, I don’t speak it. I relied on Google translation, and it was adequate for participating in the live on-line discussion.

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  7. A very strange thing occurred in the case of David Van Reybrouck The first time he appeared on Dutch television to talk about his book on sunday 29th of september 2013, for the first time in the history of television and, for that matter, for the first time in the history of mankind he used the word ‘lottocracy’ in public. The TV program is known as Buitenhof and he appeared in the third item:

    http://www.uitzendinggemist.nl/afleveringen/1368517

    I never would have thought this would happen (the word ‘lottocray’ on TV). The word was used by the Belgian author discussing a new book called ‘Tegen verkiezingen’ (in English: Against elections). He really spoke as an advocate of sortition. However, there was only one problem. He did not use the word ‘lottocracy’ in his book. Therefore the question arises how he knew about this word. The word ‘lottocracy’ has been used many times in the book ‘The Word Solution for World Problems’:

    http://www.socsci.kun.nl/~advdv/leonbook/leonbook.html

    This book was published in 1988. This book is not mentioned in the book of David Van Reybrouck.

    The question remains how did he know about this word. Naturally I asked him by e-mail and naturally I did not get any answer.

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  8. >This is the pandering argument again which may be the thinking behind reform ideas like term limits. This misses the mark, however, for it implies that the problem with elected officials is that they are worried about re-elections. In fact, the problem with elected officials is that they represent elite interests, whether or not they are thinking of re-election.

    I’m in the middle of reading a bunch of books and journal articles on pandering: “Our Culture of Pandering” (Simon, 2003); “Politicians Don’t Pander” (Jacobs and Shapiro, 2000); “Dynamic Representation” (Stimson et al. 1995); “Politicians Do Pander” (Quirk, 2009); “Running Scared” (King, 1997). The authors include an ex-Senator and some distinguished political scientists and political theorists and they all conclude that re-election is the sole cause of pandering. But what do they know, compared to the intuitions of an obscure middle-Eastern software engineer (as Yoram likes to refer to himself)?

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  9. Terry,

    > Sometimes elites understand […]

    Yes, this is theoretically possible. But what would you consider to be important real situations where this is or was the case? I can’t think of any. If such cases do exist at all they are exceptions. The notion that elites are generally trying to serve the public but are stymied by public ignorance is an elitist fantasy that should be dismissed, not lent credence to.

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  10. Yoram,

    This only speculation (I don’t know the inner thoughts), but it may be that a bunch or even a majority of members of Congress believe that far more urgent action on cutting global carbon output is very important…however they also fear that an opponent (whether in the primary or general election) would effectively tag them as supporting job-killing eco-nut legislation that will hurt the economy. They rationalize that by doing little or nothing now on global warming they are at least helping to preserve their spot in Congress so that at some future date (when it is politically safer) they can actually take action, rather than be replaced by an anti-environment opponent.

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  11. A very real case is the New Democracy’s recent project in the city of Canada Bay, Australia. Here’s a summary from New Democracy’s web site:

    In May 2012 the City of Canada Bay Council commenced a process to devolve decision making to a random selection of 36 citizens drawn from the local government area. They are being asked the question ‘What services should we deliver in the City of Canada Bay, and how should we pay for them?’.

    This Citizens’ Panel met five times across 2½ months and had access to detailed information and have technical expertise on hand so they may enquire in detail. Importantly, Council agreed that the Panel would set the level of service to be provided for in the 2014-18 Delivery Plan, subject to the final approval of Council. This goes beyond the realm of consultation and is a world leading advance in allowing the citizens a far greater say in the operations of their local government.

    The link is http://www.newdemocracy.com.au/our-work/item/116-city-of-canada-bay

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  12. Terry,

    For the climate change to fit your scenario we would have to assume that climate change does not affect elite interests in any way other than the electoral. This is very implausible. For example, some members of the elite are profiting from businesses engaged in global warming causing activities, while others are hoping to make a profit by investing alternative technologies.

    In general, any policy that affects the population affects the elite as well (although often the effects are quite different). Therefore the scenario that you suggested seems unlikely.

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  13. David,

    Yes, as you may remember, the Canada Bay allotted panel was discussed here at the time.

    I see no indication that this application increased public support for democratic sortitionist reform (or even that it produced better public policy in Canada Bay).

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  14. Terry,

    >This only speculation (I don’t know the inner thoughts), but it may be that a bunch or even a majority of members of Congress believe that far more urgent action on cutting global carbon output is very important…however they also fear that an opponent (whether in the primary or general election) would effectively tag them as supporting job-killing eco-nut legislation that will hurt the economy.

    This was the explanation Tony Blair gave as to why he did not introduce legislation to tax aviation fuel. We can never know people’s inner thoughts but unless we have specific cause to doubt the reasons that they provide then everyone is innocent until proven guilty. No doubt Yoram will view this as another example of my naivety. I would add that in my recent reading on pandering I have yet to find one author who advocates the materialist explanation that he views as obvious (although there is considerable support for Terry’s speculation).

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  15. Yoram,

    You wrote,

    >I see no indication that this application (Canada Bay) increased public support for democratic sortitionist reform

    I think you raise an interesting question – what would constitute evidence that a particular experiment increased public support for democratic sortition reform? I don’t have a good answer. How do you see it?

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  16. By the way, thank you for finding this and posting it! You do this work week after week, and it benefits all of us greatly.

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  17. Some good sociology would help the discussion, but here’s something that partially answers your question David. In my view it also means one should relax one’s standard regarding reforms.

    To illustrate Constitutional interpretation–and of the Anglo-American legal method in general–and legal, cultural change, Lessig likens judicial interpretation (of previous cases, statutes, the Constitution) to playing Frogger. http://www.brookings.edu/research/papers/2010/12/17-constitutional-interpretation-lessig What’s considered preposterous in one era, becomes a taken-for-granted in another. This is a bit like Van Reybrouk comparing sortition today to women’s right to vote in 1850.

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  18. David,

    > what would constitute evidence that a particular experiment increased public support for democratic sortition reform?

    I would like to see an ongoing and intensifying public discussion of the methods and results of the experiment.

    By the way, your question prompted me to search and see if there was any follow up to the Canada Bay application and I found this:

    41-year-old Rhodes resident, Jodie Hawthorne, who has lived in Canada Bay for the past two years said that she was “surprised to be randomly chosen” to participate on the panel.

    Though Ms Hawthorne found it “interesting” to work with council staff, she did not find the panel to be successful.

    “I certainly did not feel we were given ample opportunity to discuss the opinion on services of Canada Bay City Council with everyday citizens; I only recall one meeting where groups from the community were asked to speak with us, their talk time was limited and the talk was invigilated,” she said.

    “After this meeting I felt terrible that one group of emotional parents and operators of a local child care centre were guided out the door when their time was up.”

    Canada Bay’s mayor, Angelo Tsirekas, was not available for comment when contacted by Burwood Scene.

    Ms Hawthorne does not believe there will be “any positive change” in Canada Bay as a result of the citizen panel.

    “Perhaps if we had been given more time and unrestricted access to citizens, their opinions and feedback the outcome would have been more positive and an accurate reflection of the peoples’ concerns,” she said.

    “The final recommendations of the citizen panel is not reflective of what I stand for.”

    Canada Bay councillor, Michael Megna told Burwood Scene the panel gave members of the community a chance to share their opinions.

    “It gave public credibility to our position,” he said, adding: “Councils are elected to make decisions and we can ask community reps, but the hard decisions should still be made by councillors.”

    I think the contrast between the view of the citizen and the view of the councillor is quite informative.

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  19. > By the way, thank you for finding this and posting it! You do this work week after week, and it benefits all of us greatly.

    Thanks!

    As always, I call on all readers to use this forum to share, either in posts or in comments, any sortition-related news they come across as well as their ideas about sortition-related matters.

    Like

  20. Brilliant find Yoram! I think this goes to show that no experiment is a “failed attempt,” when good information is available about what went on and the people involved can be individually interviewed.

    Like

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