Sortition: It’s for your own good

Claudia Chwalisz follows up on a recent article.

Chwalisz’s previous article concluded by observing that

the dilemma of how to get elected elites to relinquish their grip on the seats of power remains unresolved.

Chwalisz’s attempt at a resolution follows the lead of David Van Reybrouk. She addresses herself to the ruling class as the responsible concerned advisor who aims to help established actors find their way through troubled seas, meet the gathering hostile forces and to finally emerge maintaining as much of their power as possible.

The new article’s abstract is as follows:

New forms of contact democracy and innovative forums that allow political and economic institutions to deliberate with citizens are important steps in the long-term battle to renew representative democracy for the 21st century. They should not be seen as a threat to formal systems of government but as important add-ons that enrich democracy and give a window into the complexity of governance


The article identifies the enemy:

[W]e should not demonise populist forces. They raise legitimate questions about the state of democracy today. […] Centrists must fight the reactionary elements of populism but listen to the signal of legitimate discontent and revisit their own approaches to representation, governance and ensuring equality of political voice.

According to Chwalisz the electoral elite is well meaning if somewhat out of touch. It is not self-serving policy but objective difficulties in governance that create dissatisfaction with government:

Global changes in the 21st century mean that the biggest challenges confronting our current generation – climate change, the banking crisis, the euro crisis, immigration, and overpopulation – cannot be solved at the national level alone. This growing complexity has moved parties away from their representative role to one of responsible government.

[…]

How to bridge the demand for belonging, engagement and voice, and the simultaneous need for complex governing structures? There is no miracle solution for improving democracy overnight. But the gap between representativeness and responsibility can certainly be narrowed over time.

Chwalisz urges elected politicians to see things as Ronald Plasterk, the Dutch minister of the interior, does:

Formal democracy is elections, politicians, etc. Sometimes people in formal democracy see informal democracy as a threat. They question the legitimacy of citizen assemblies, thinking ‘we are the elected politicians.’ This is a mistake. No one doubts the legitimacy of the city council and the parliament. They see them as an addition to enrich democracy.

The bag of remedies that Chwalisz offers “people in formal democracy” contains the usual assortment – deliberation, assemblies, localism, techno-participation – but also sortition.

This kind of grab-bag of “democratic reforms” is very useful for exactly the legitimization purpose that Chwalisz intends it. Talking broadly about “contact democracy” allows the elite to apply whatever tool is useful for its purposes at any point – that is, whatever tool leaves the elites in charge, while diffusing democratic criticism. It is the kind of approach that can be expected to become more common as electoralism becomes threatened and if and when sortition becomes more widely supported. Sortition advocates should be ready to respond to this kind of approach not by embracing it uncritically but by insisting on a focus on sortition and insisting that sortition is used in ways that promise to make it effective and successful rather than merely an add-on to electoralism.

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3 Responses

  1. >Sortition advocates should be ready to respond to this kind of approach not by embracing it uncritically but by insisting on a focus on sortition and insisting that sortition is used in ways that promise to make it effective and successful rather than merely an add-on to electoralism.

    Agreed, and that’s why we need careful analytic work in political theory, in order to understand the different but complementary roles of election and sortition. Rather than a random pot-luck dinner we need to decide in advance who should cook the meat and who should cook the potatoes. Here’s my own attempt: https://equalitybylot.wordpress.com/2011/03/03/what-sortition-can-and-cannot-do/

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  2. […] turns out that in addition to dealing with complex governing structures modern elected officials face another objective problem which makes dealing with democratic […]

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  3. […] or “revitalizing”, or “taking back our democracy” is a recurring one in the writings of some sortition advocates. But such expressions imply, first, that the […]

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