Manuel Arriaga: Rebooting Democracy

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.

Citizen deliberation

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.

Conclusion

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.

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26 Responses

  1. Yoram: >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.

    That conclusion may be “natural” to you, but those of us living in the real world would probably consider what you refer to as the “aggressively democratic” alternative to be liable to the same tragic fate as all the other failed utopian dreams and millenarian projects. Those who seek to re-engineer the operating system of human societies would be better served studying analogue disciplines such as history, psychology, sociology and literature than the binary logic underlying your own profession of computer software design.

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  2. From a quick skim, I’m impressed by the style and the combination of arguments, epistemic, economic, deliberative. Will definitely give it a close look asap. Nice find Yoram!

    @Keith, “replace” could also mean “change the script” on elections–to view them not as “imperfect but sound” but as “a very limited mechanism” to arrive at something much more complex, “rule by the people.” Of course that is my charitable interpretation of Yoram’s “displaced.”

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  3. Charity is certainly a noble virtue — but Yoram has been very clear in the past as to the need to replace “electoralism” with “democracy”, which he views as synonymous with sortition. It’s this kind of binary distinction that provides an ill fit with the analogue nature of human experience.

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  4. Manuel is a reader of this blog and he wrote to me about his book.

    Regarding displacing elections – yes, I mean doing away with this mechanism altogether. Plebiscites may be usable in some particular circumstances, but elections are inherently oligarchical and have no place in a democratic system.

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  5. Yoram: >elections are inherently oligarchical and have no place in a democratic system.

    Why not present your case in the form a numbered catechism (as with the Catholic church): http://www.vatican.va/archive/ENG0015/_INDEX.HTM duly acknowledging the patristic origins of the creed (Aristotle, Montesquieu, etc).

    At least the church acknowledges that these are articles of faith rather than the results of a dialectical exchange. Actually that’s a little unfair to the Western church, which has evolved over time; your unflinching defence of the purity of the kleristocratic faith has more in common with the eternal doctrines of the Eastern church (and Islam). Of course whether the claims of Aristotle and Montesquieu are eternal truths or contingent observations on the very different socio-political arrangements of their times is open to dispute.

    I’ve just received a flyer for next week’s EU elections from the Conservative Party. The left hand column is headed “What you told us you wanted” and the right-hand column is headed “What we did”. There were then listed half a dozen public policy preferences which the party boasted it had obediently put into practice. No doubt this is just smoke and mirrors to conceal the true nature of the oligarchic conspiracy we like to call electoral democracy, but it’s hard to reconcile this with the fact that all the parties are trying to outdo UKIP in the populist stakes.

    That’s why the vast majority of empirical political scientists dispute their political theorist colleagues’ insistence on preserving the fusty old doctrine of the elite theory of democracy. The difference in these two perspectives has for some time puzzled me, on account of my common-sense belief that the role of political theory is to bring some conceptual clarity to practice (as was the case with Aristotle, Oakeshott and other classical political theorists). But pretty well all modern theorists** append the adjective “normative” to their theories, so are purely interested in “ought” (rather than “is”). Elite theorists, from Mosca to Schumpeter, believed that elected oligarchy was the best form of democracy, whereas the new kids on the block (deliberative democrats) think it’s the worst form.

    Who cares whether any of these theories describe existing practice, which IMO is more akin to direct democracy by proxy? Normative theorists never like to let simple things like facts get in the way of their moralising, hence the total disregard of political theorists for the evidence from empirical political science. I’ve spent the last few months immersed in this literature, much to the annoyance of my PhD supervisor (a political theorist) who keeps telling me that the empirical facts are of no relevance.

    ** with the honourable exception of Oakeshottians like John Horton; or Jeremy Waldron, whose inaugural lecture at Oxford had the intriguing title “Political Political Theory”, in which he castigated his colleagues’ obsession with 57 varieties of luck egalitarianism and the likes.

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  6. Keith: >…to be liable to the same tragic fate as all the other failed utopian dreams and millenarian projects.

    Exactly. In the absence of hard empirical data it’s all too easy to convince one’s self of anything one wishes. It could well be the case that an all-sortition or mostly-sortition approach could be the best of all possible democratic governments. It could also end up being the worst for a range of reasons that simply haven’t occurred to anyone yet. We don’t know. There’s no way of proving we haven’t missed anything.

    >”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. … 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.”

    This is brilliant. I love it. I’m not sure how he expects to make the vision statement binding, but I’ll find out when my copy of the book arrives, I guess.

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  7. Naomi,
    A severe problem with a once every ten-year Assembly crafting a long-term vision with some sort of binding effect is that reality fails to cooperate, and humans always need to adjust and amend plans based on new experience, facts and uderstandings.

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  8. Keith,

    When a party reports “What you told us you wanted” this is where the elite manipulation comes into sharp focus. The party obviously had to select which things it wanted to listen for first. As Yoram repeatedly points out, it is this AGENDA SETTING process that is a key element of elite control of electoral systems. In non-democratic Sparta, the elites selected the proposals and let the citizens in the Assembly vote them up or down. The right of an assembly to vote up or down proposals selected by elites is NOT democratic, but rather oligarchic.

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  9. Hence my interest in the exact details of the mechanism used to make the vision binding. There’d need to be considerable room for good-faith non-compliance.

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  10. Terry: >A severe problem with a once every ten-year Assembly crafting a long-term vision . . .

    Exactly, even the Soviets were happy to accept a 5-year limitation on their hubris. Personally I’m averse to any kind of Big Vision, better to muddle on as best we can, patching things up as required. This is particularly problematic if the vision were a binding contract. What if the vision is not to your taste? Remember that the civil condition is a compulsory form of association, you can’t opt out, so this would suggest that the role of the state is to enable us all to fulfil our own telos by making sure that we don’t collide with each other too much.

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  11. A similar idea “Citizen Deliberative Councils”—to be conducted every 12 months at the local, county, State, and national levels—was advocated by Tom Atlee, Empowering Public Wisdom. They would have no agenda but taking a pulse of the community and its priorities, a sort of “state of the community” report. It would later be later used, by politicians or by further citizen panels, to set the agendas at the appropriate administrative levels.

    Even if such things had nothing but a symbolic function, they would be a great way to encourage citizen engagement, and let them know that their concerns, ideas, and knowledge matter. And when they begin only with a symbolic value, they are effectively “sandboxed,” if that is a concern to the squeamish

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  12. Terry:>The right of an assembly to vote up or down proposals selected by elites is NOT democratic, but rather oligarchic.

    That’s why my proposal is for agenda setting by election and/or direct democratic initiative with every possible step taken to democratise the process (widespread use of the internet, low signature threshold for initiatives, strict limits on political donations, proportional representation etc). Although this will never be perfect, it’s far more democratic than leaving it to the whim of the kleristocrats (random oligarchs).

    Even if it were the case that this still left policy proposals in the hands of elites, you are overlooking Harrington’s positive feedback loop (the aristocracy would be obliged to introduce policies that meet the approval of the popular house, otherwise the proposals would be rejected in the up/down vote). This is particularly the case in modern pluralist societies where elites no longer have monopoly control of ideology. (Disciples of the Frankfurt School would, of course, deny this claim.)

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  13. Ahmed: >A similar idea “Citizen Deliberative Councils”—to be conducted every 12 months at the local, county, State, and national levels—was advocated by Tom Atlee, Empowering Public Wisdom. They would have no agenda but taking a pulse of the community and its priorities, a sort of “state of the community” report.

    That all sounds very nice and democratic, but how would you ensure that the agenda was not set by activists and axe-grinders? In my experience the silent majority tend to be, er, silent, and that’s the problem. Policy proposals by randomly selected bodies (binding or otherwise) will be random, as statistical representativity only applies in aggregate.

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  14. Keith,
    It seems to me that you are stretching the term “oligarchy” to the breaking point in your dismissive description of a democratic representative sample of average citizens serving for a single limited term as “kleristocrats (random oligarchs).” Membership must have some duration and persistence (even if there is some turn-over) in order to constitute an olgarchy.

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  15. Terry: >Membership must have some duration and persistence (even if there is some turn-over) in order to constitute an olgarchy.

    Why? You’re conflating oligarchy with class rule. Oligarchy means power in the hands of the few — the only distinction being how the few are selected (wealth, power, drawing straws . . .) but they are still only a few persons and without a legitimising principle (statistical representation fails as it doesn’t apply at the level of individual speech acts). The sample may well be representative at the aggregate level, but the individual persons that make up that sample cannot claim this mandate.

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  16. For the reasons that elections (or. more generally, mass politics) are inherently oligrachical, see here.

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  17. Hi everyone. I would like to thank Yoram for his characteristically
    sharp and insightful review of my book. It provides an accurate
    summarized view of some of its main points. I will just use this space
    to add a couple of minor comments:

    – I wrote this book as an attempt at popularizing, in a short (~120
    pages) and accessible form, a number of reforms that seem viable and
    which, even in the midst of widespread disillusionment with our
    representative democracies, only rarely get mentioned in mainstream
    political debate. I wanted to help combat the common idea that there
    is nothing that could be changed in our current governance systems by
    listing/popularizing these ideas. This means I did *not* write it as an
    integrated proposal, blueprint or “agenda”. Therefore, and in spite of
    sharing some of Yoram’s skepticism about elections, I think that
    issues of electoral reform decidedly belong in the discussion the book
    aims to foster.

    – Yoram writes that “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”. Here my view
    differs a good bit from his. While I do think that much of the
    political class effectively belongs to a separate caste, I believe
    there are additional factors at play. The second chapter of the book
    is my attempt at exploring this issue (it is included in the excerpt
    posted online and which Yoram linked to). It goes over ten different
    mechanisms that help explain why our elected leaders will often fail
    to represent the public interest. Some of these mechanisms adopt the
    perspective of the political class being an elite mostly disjoint from
    the rest of the population (cf. the discussions of the psychological
    effects of power and identification with other elites or that of the
    political class not being demographically representative of the
    general population). Others look at the issue from other angles.

    – The only section of Yoram’s review to which I would like to make a
    small correction is the one headed “Keeping the adults in charge”.
    Perhaps one of the central ideas in the book — that of a long-term
    oriented citizens’ assembly which would define a “binding if general”
    national vision for the country — is, by definition, all about having
    a sortition-based deliberative body engage in agenda-setting of the
    most fundamental kind. So, I was a bit surprised to read that I had
    been “careful to keep the agenda setting in the hands of an elected
    body”. (The quote that opens this section of the review — “enabling
    groups of citizens to actively propose new laws that would come into
    force if approved in a popular vote seems a dangerous proposal” — is
    actually from a section of the book that discusses citizen
    initiatives/referendums. It does not refer to sortition-based
    deliberative bodies.)

    – As highlighted above, the book aims to popularize a number of
    different democratic reforms that I view as meeting (my admittedly
    personal/subjective) minimal criteria of reasonableness — including
    electoral reforms. As Yoram points out, some of these proposals “cover
    ground well trodden by electoral reformers”. Yoram remarks that “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”. While I understand where he is coming from,
    there are two reasons for a slightly more optimistic view regarding
    this matter. First, the design of political institutions is a
    fascinating endeavor, but at the same time it will be the practices
    and political culture associated with those institutions that will
    ultimately determine how “democratic” the resulting political reality
    will be. I suspect that new life could be breathed into an ailing
    democracy through the enactment of measures that might rekindle the
    democratic ethos — even if they do so by trying to ammeliorate the
    way elections work, in spite of all their known limitations. Second,
    most of these reforms have only been tried in isolation. Even without
    taking into account the vital role of practices and culture in shaping
    how institutions work in real life, I would argue that a concerted
    reform effort that involved *several* of these changes would have a
    good chance of effecting substantial change — even if those reforms,
    when they were conducted in isolation, might not have proved that
    earth-shattering. (These — and other related — considerations are
    featured in the conclusion.)

    – Still on this topic, I do not argue that France provides an example
    of “improvement in government” due to campaign finance reform. I
    merely point out that the figures for political party/campaign
    spending suggest that in France these measures succeeded in curbing
    the role of money in politics. I view the latter as being, in and of
    itself, a wortwhile step towards an ideal of democratic governance. It
    is also a development that many throughout the world (notably, the US)
    remain extremely skeptical about and take as nearly impossible to
    achieve.

    Finally, Yoram points out that the book doesn’t present “a clear
    alternative to the existing order”. He is correct. As mentioned above,
    the goal of the book is instead to help put an end to the fiction that
    we are stuck with the world-as-it-is and that there are no credible
    paths to explore when it comes to improving our democracies.

    (Incidentally, in a brief postscript to the book, I engage with the
    topic of why presenting “a clear alternative to the existing order” is
    most probably not the exercise we should be engaging in: similarly to
    what David Graeber has argued, a detailed blueprint for utopia is
    quite a tricky — and possibly less than useful — exercize to engage
    in.)

    I would be delighted to address any other comments or questions that
    might pop up this discussion. Thank you so much for the opportunity to
    discuss the book with all of you.

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  18. Ahmed, thank you for pointing this out. From the very outset, I decided to write this book from a multidisciplinary angle, trying to combine insights from several disciplines in a way that remained accessible. I am delighted to read that in your eyes I might have pulled it off. :)

    > From a quick skim, I’m impressed by the style and the combination of
    > arguments, epistemic, economic, deliberative. Will definitely give it a
    > close look asap. Nice find Yoram!

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  19. > Hence my interest in the exact details of the mechanism used to make
    > the vision binding. There’d need to be considerable room for good-faith
    > non-compliance.

    Naomi, thank you for your interest. I totally agree with you and Terry when you point out that reality can fail to cooperate with long-term plans. That is why the fifth chapter describes this long-term “vision” as providing guidance and there being a need for a deliberative body that would evaluate whether or not, when deviations occur, they arise from good-faith non-compliance — or simply reality getting in the way of our plans.

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  20. Hi Manuel,

    Thanks for the book and for your response.

    Regarding detailed blueprints for utopia, I completely agree – these are not useful. By “a clear alternative to the existing order”, I actually meant the opposite: setting out clear principles or a broad plan (namely, “sortition instead of elections”) not a detailed system.

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  21. Hi Yoram,

    Thank you for clearing that up and for the link, too. (I had missed that post.) Totally, I couldn’t agree more with you when you write that “specific detailed institutional designs cannot be realistically expected to be an outcome of mass political pressure” and, as a result, “concise and principle-based” advocacy is the way to go.

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  22. Does anyone realistically anticipate mass political pressure for sortition? Will “the masses” (forgive the hackneyed term) take to the barricades in order to forfeit the right to choose their political leaders? It strikes me as more realistic to imagine tentative sortition experiments producing benign results, thereby overcoming the scepticism of both the political class and the electorate. “Sortition instead of elections” sounds to me more like a slogan rather than a broad plan.

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  23. Russell Brand reading from Rebooting Democracy: A Citizen’s Guide to Reinventing Politics

    Brand’s analysis of democracy is here: http://youtu.be/YBK_kuC0x9g?t=3m40s.

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  24. Here’s my own short review with links to some other recent books advocating similar reforms that include sortition:
    http://filasophia.com/2015/01/14/debugging-the-system/

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  25. […] del plebiscitarismo e dell’elitismo tecnocratico, a Canton (Guangzhou) come nel Canton Ticino (Rebooting Democracy, di Manuel […]

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  26. […] Manuel Arriaga‘s Foreign Policy magazine article is a well-aimed, much needed corrective to the techno-progressivist formula of popular political theory: […]

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