A review of Manuel Arriaga’s Rebooting Democracy: a citizen’s guide to reinventing politics
Rebooting Democracy is a short and enjoyable book (available at Amazon; the first 50 pages are available online). Its introduction explicitly positions it as being motivated by the sentiments of the Occupy protests and the author’s proposals as responding to those sentiments. Like the Occupy protests Arriaga’s message is to a considerable extent anti-electoral:
[V]oting out one politician or party to bring in a different one will not solve our problems. Time has made it clear that this is not merely an issue of casting. If the play stinks, replacing the actors will not make it any better.
The first two chapters present an explanation of why the Western electoral system does not serve “us”. Arriaga summarizes his explanation with the following two points:
1) We have delegated power to the political class and hardly supervise it.
2) As voters, we are condemned to unreflective and easy-to-influence decision-making. Even if we were inclined to effectively supervise politicians, this would severely limit our ability to do so.
Arriaga spends some space explaining the second point as being an unavoidable rational ignorance effect. He makes his point effectively and amusingly:
[V]oters’ political views rarely, if ever, get exposed to the light of day. In fact, they have quite a dark, depressing life cycle: they emerge from a murky, deeply flawed information-gathering process, live a largely unquestioned existence in the depths of their carrier’s mind and, finally, seep out to leave their mark on a secret ballot. With the exception, perhaps, of mushrooms, nothing good grows in the dark. So, it should be evident that opinions formed this way are at odds with the kind of careful, reasoned decision-making required of citizens when it comes to politics.
This is indeed a significant effect, but it is important to realize that it is secondary to the first point – the existence of an elite political class. When an electoral elite controls public policy, more informed and more considered political views would do the public very little good. Arriaga doesn’t address the inevitability of the formation of such an elite under the electoral mechanism. It is this effect – the principle of distinction – that is the most fundamental fact of electoralism (and indeed of any oligarchical system). It would have been useful to elaborate the mechanism which ensures that elected officials are members of an elite rather than representative members of the population and dwell on the effects of this phenomenon. It seems to me that such a discussion could have better focused and informed Arriaga’s reform proposal agenda.
Unlike the Occupy movement, Arriaga sets out to present a clear reform agenda:
[M]uch of the power of modern-day protest movements is lost whenever they fail to articulate a list of concrete demands. Our repeated inability to do so has led many to believe the fiction that there are no credible alternatives
A main component of Arriaga’s agenda is “citizen deliberation”:
[T]he little-known practice of citizen deliberation […] has the potential to help us address one of the fundamental challenges facing us today.
The fundamental idea is a radically simple one. A group of ordinary citizens is tasked with collectively deciding on a policy matter. They consult with experts, listen to advocates representing different interest groups and, with the assistance of skilled facilitators, engage in careful, reasoned group discussions in which they explore the issues at hand.
Throughout the entire process, the citizen panel is autonomous and its actions self-directed: it decides on, for example, the information it needs to gather from external sources, which experts or advocates to interview and what questions to ask them. A professional administrative and research staff assists the citizens in these duties.
After an adequate deliberation period, the group makes a collective decision on the topic by taking a vote and then issues a public statement.
Now, how does one go about selecting ordinary citizens to participate in these deliberative panels? One doesn’t. Citizens are recruited from the electorate at random—the same way they get called up for jury duty in Anglo-Saxon (and other) countries—and then are appointed for a single, non-renewable term.
Citizen deliberation is featured in two of Arriaga’s proposals, the proposition and legislative review panels and the “long now” assembly. The review panels are inspired by the Oregon Citizen Initiative Review panels, which are randomly selected groups of citizens who are officially empowered to review propositions that are about to go on the Oregon ballot and to publish official assessments of those propositions. Arriaga goes one step further and suggests that such panels would not only issue official assessments of propositions but would also review bills that are originate in the legislature and would be able veto legislation (with “a sufficiently large super-majority”).
The “Long Now Citizens’ Assembly” is a once-in-a-decade event which is empowered to generate long term plans which are binding guidelines for government.
A “Long Now Citizens’ Assembly” would be a large citizen panel that would convene every ten years. These citizens would be tasked with defining a national vision for the polity. They would focus strictly on the big debates in which long-term choices need to (or can reasonably) be made.
As the end of its deliberation period approached, the assembly would focus on generating a vision statement that could garner the support of a supermajority of its members. The resulting document would then be submitted for public approval through a referendum. Their task completed, the assembly would disband
If approved by the citizens in a referendum, the Long Now Citizens’ Assembly’s vision statement would become something akin to a “contract” between the citizenry and its political officials. It would offer binding, if general, guidance on how politicians should conduct public affairs. Deliberative referendums (discussed in the third chapter) would provide citizens with a powerful corrective mechanism should political officials start to deviate from this long-term vision. In the face of a government seemingly intent on contradicting this long-term vision, gathering a sufficient number of signatures would trigger a deliberative referendum on the issue. A citizen panel would be convened and, after an adequate period of study, would issue a statement on whether or not it deemed the government’s actions to be in line with the long-term vision for the country. Informed by the citizen panel’s statement, the public would then have the final say at the voting booth.
Used in this way, citizen deliberation offers us a promising alternative vision of what a “post-ideological” political reality might be like.
Keeping the adults in charge
Arriaga makes it clear that despite the emphasis on “citizen deliberation” and the notional long term binding plans by an allotted body, he is careful to keep the agenda setting in the hands of an elected body.
[G]eneral concerns suggest that it might be wise to use referendums strictly as a way for the electorate to pass judgment on the decisions politicians make. Enabling groups of citizens to actively propose new laws that would come into force if approved in a popular vote seems a dangerous proposal. The case of California warrants this concern, as does the recent use of popular initiatives in Switzerland to advance openly xenophobic agendas.
Furthermore, his proposals make blocking the agenda of elected deliberately difficult, requiring super-majorities in an allotted body or a majority in a plebiscite. The day-to-day decision making in Arriaga’s proposed system would therefore remain in hands of the elected, and it is only appropriate then that the majority of his specific proposals actually deal with fixing the electoral system:
- Switching to a Single Transferable Vote electoral system
- Campaign finance reform
- Internet based discussion forums
- Referenda for vetoing legislation and recalling elected politicians
Those proposals cover ground well trodden by electoral reformers. In light of both experience and theory, hopes that such reforms would result in significant improvement of the quality of the government seem to be unfounded and can only be attributed to desperation and reluctance to ditch the electoral system rather than to any rational analysis or empirical evidence.
Arriaga does seem to think that he has an example of reforms to the electoral system producing improved government:
The reforms enacted in France between the late 1980s and the early 2000s suggest that things could be different. Over this period, that country took significant steps to curb the role of money in politics and seems to have succeeded.
But it is not clear what this assertion is based on. While France is indeed among the few OECD countries in which income inequality has not increased over the last few decades, there is nothing to show that this is a result of a specific institutional arrangement such as campaign finance regulation. Other countries with campaign finance regulation, such as Israel, have shown significant increase in inequality over the same period.
In addition to the proposals above, Arriaga also devotes a chapter to the issue of super-national government, specifically in the context of the EU and concludes with recommending “[c]areful balancing of the clear costs of political integration, on the one hand, and the reality of our need for international cooperation, on the other”, but it is not clear how this is supposed to be translated to political design.
Manuel Arriaga’s book is interesting and well worth reading. Its style lives up to the irreverent, outsider spirit of Occupy.
In terms of its proposals, Rebooting Democracy falls squarely within the limited democracy genre which contains work by writers such as Alex Zakaras, and Barnett and Carty and occupies a middle ground between more aggressively democratic proposals such as that of Callenbach and Phillips and the fully managed theater-of-democracy proposals such as those of Fishkin and Leib.
So while the book may be commended for presenting allotted bodies as an important part of its proposals, it fails to achieve its objective of presenting a clear alternative to the existing order. When so much attention is spent on proposing various devices for fixing the electoral system the reader is not compelled to draw the natural conclusion – that electoral system needs to be displaced, not amended. The resulting picture is interesting, but unfortunately it is too timid to serve as a good roadmap toward a more democratic future.
Filed under: Books, Elections, Initiatives, Proposals, Sortition | Tagged: citizen deliberation, citizen juries, democracy, elections, electoral system, Manuel Arriaga, Occupy, OWS, reform, sortition |