Nicholas Reece: The momentous success of radical democracy

Nicholas Reece writes in The Age:

Experiment pays off: Melbourne People’s Panel produces quality policy

Citizen juries are one of the most promising innovations to emerge in the conversation about democratic renewal.

Melbourne’s radical experiment in democracy has reached a momentous conclusion, with the City Council announcing on Friday it will accept nearly all the recommendations of a 10-year financial plan developed by a citizens’ jury. That a group of 43 randomly selected Melburnians meeting over six weekends developed sound policy that is now being implemented is a profound result for anyone despairing at the state of our democracy. And it invites the exciting question, what’s next?

It turns out that having a plan “developed” over 6 weekends to guide the expenditure of billions of dollars over 10 years is considered a momentous success of radical democracy. What’s next, indeed.

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44 Responses

  1. >”On another front, a major think tank in Britain last week called for the House of Lords to be replaced by a citizens’ senate – a randomly selected group of citizens to approve or veto legislation. There has been a similar call for reform of the Senate in Canada.”

    This is becoming a remarkably common suggestion.

    Perhaps Lords reform would be the best vehicle for comprehensive reform. I’ve seen plenty of hybrid Senate models where there would be a mix of elected and appointed members. Adding randomly drawn citizens to the mix would be both natural and popular given the growing publicity of the concept. That’s exactly the sort of “let’s try to accommodate every position” reform we would expect to actually make it as far as a referendum. All we really need to do is to promote the concept further, encourage the segregation of powers between the different types of members as a key part of any mixed-member reform proposal and, later, push for a rebalancing of powers leaving behind a ceremonial Commons. I wonder if that last bit would occur naturally over time, like the erosion of the powers of the Lords. I have a growing suspicion that it would.

    Given the current powers of the Lords it would be a very low-risk reform and could be an electoral asset for a major party. Lords reform plus a century of waiting might be the easiest path to a sortition/stochation-based government possible.

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  2. The success of the Melbourne jury teaches an important lesson. It is not just another instance of a successful deliberation. That it happened is due to two people, the director and financial backer of New Democracy Foundation, Luca Belgiorno-Nettis, and its full-time organiser, Iain Walker. The spread of such citizen bodies is rarely spontaneous. Most of the successful operations have evoked widespread approval, but they don’t move others to emulate them, because organising such ventures is a complex and time-consuming task. In the past most of the best results have come from isolated experiments set up by academics who are not in the business of doing it on a regular basis.
    If decisions on public policy based on careful deliberation by selected groups of citizens are to become the norm it is essential that there be professional, experienced organisers available who can design and implement the necessary arrangements.They can provide a reliable and proven service to authorities that would like to have the guidance in setting up consultations and, most importantly, identify and promote opportunities for persuading concerned groups of people to set citizen bodies on their own initiative. If the movement can get the requisite momentum community policy formation by these means could become the norm. There would be mo need for constitutional changes. Politicians would be constrained by the voters to follow the decisions of public deliberation.
    It won’t happen without a lot more dedicated institutionss like New Democracy, with backers like Luca and organisers Iain.

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  3. It’s very positive news isn’t it Naomi?

    What are our top priorities now & how does this information empower us to take direct action, be it lobbying our MP’s or chaining ourselves to fracking rigs?

    The House of Lords were discussing constitutional conventions on Thursday 25th June. That’s of course nothing new, but Lord Wills kicked-off the debate quite well, and even got in a quote by Aristotle:
    “constitutions which aim at the common advantage are correct and just without qualification, whereas those which aim only at the advantage of the rulers are deviant and unjust, because they involve despotic rule which is inappropriate for a community of free persons”.

    The thing is, while parliaments endlessly compare notes on the rule of law they’re still permitting the ramping up of risk & debt, & allowing multinationals to in effect streamline laws and regulations in favour of financial profit via opaque trade deals the likes of which TTIP, TPP, CETA have never been so ill-judged and desperate..

    Together we can & must use all available resources i.e. internet, community groups and lobbying etc to do two things: In a co-ordinated fashion enforce the best principles of law such as reason and accountability to limit risk and stop dangerous extractive permits, and secondly to rekindle our sense of our own interdependence, and rediscover true wealth through a healthy ecology, culture and education.

    Timing is everything now, and the current anniversaries being celebrated/ planned of great charters past is as fantastic a time as any to fight for future generations such as our grandchildren’s.

    I’ve started a local grassroots democracy meetup & I’d love to hear what others are doing.

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  4. Yoram:

    >It turns out that having a plan “developed” over 6 weekends to guide the expenditure of billions of dollars over 10 years is considered a momentous success of radical democracy. What’s next, indeed.

    Assuming this is a sarcastic comment, it’s an interesting example of the revolutionary mindset, in which the incremental introduction of sortition is viewed as a retrograde step — improvements will appease the fury of the masses over the evils of “electoralism” and put off the final day of reckoning. To us ordinary mortals it’s an encouraging sign of progress and I agree with John that we should be thankful to the New Democracy Foundation for their pioneering efforts. BTW Yoram, do you dismiss in principle Naomi’s Bagehottian suggestion that elected officials would, over the passage of time, join the crown as part of the “dignified” facade of government. Surely it’s the effect that counts, not the process, or do you require the catharsis of the popular overthrow of the electoral system (as opposed to evolutionary developments)?

    I would be interested to know some more details of the sortition process and deliberative procedure — I imagine Yoram’s scare-quotes around “developed” indicate that it was not entirely dissimilar to Fishkin’s Zeguou DP, in which the citizen jury narrowed down and prioritised proposals that were originated by the elected government and appointed officials.

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  5. John,

    Belgiorno-Nettis and Walker surely have good intentions and they also seem to carry some significant influence in elite circles. However, I think there is every reason to be skeptical about the idea that such experiments can lead to a real transfer of power from elected bodies to allotted bodies. Clearly no such transfer occurred in the current setup.

    Why would elected officials, who spend a lot of effort attaining power, willingly relinquish any part of their prize to people who may use that power in ways that the elected officials would not appreciate?

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  6. Yoram,

    But don’t you agree that seeing numerous examples of bodies of randomly selected citizens acting competently in a policy arena is absolutely essential before it is even conceivable that average citizens will entertain the idea of replacing elected bodies with those selected by lot? Setting aside whether elected elites will willingly give over fundamental powers, there will be no “demand” among the citizenry for such a change until they SEE that it could actually work.

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  7. >”Why would elected officials, who spend a lot of effort attaining power, willingly relinquish any part of their prize to people who may use that power in ways that the elected officials would not appreciate?”

    The pursuit of power for one’s self and the pursuit of power for one’s office are not the same. At times they are at odds.

    All our current politicians are going to be out of a job sooner or later either way. What rational and self-interested PM wouldn’t sacrifice an iota of power of the *office* to pull down a few more percentage points at the next election? A little bit here and there—hardly enough to notice on the scale of a single government/administration—adds up to a lot over time. They have already thrown ideology to the wind and embraced government by opinion poll for strategic reasons. We see politicians all across Europe using the referendum—yielding their final say—to avoid taking responsibility. Take the upcoming Greek referendum. Syriza can quite comfortably get the outcome they want by going through parliament. So why bother with the referendum? It’s a posterior covering maneuver. They would rather risk losing on one of their central issues than face the wrath of the voters for what follows.

    Different institutions built upon different legitimizing principles will not necessarily remain stable with respect to their relative powers over time. The Lords and the remarkable domestication of the European monarchs are the classic examples. At the risk of generalizing a bit too much, the ballot box trumps inheritance. The lot is a different beast. Until we have more experience with it we can’t confidently predict how the relationship between an elected institution and an allotted institution will shift over time. My on suspicion is that the short-term nature of elected offices

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  8. I accidentally touched the “post comment” button. That should have been: my own suspicion is that the competitive and short-term nature of elected institutions will lead to the gradual and progressive erosion of their powers. But I could be completely wrong.

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  9. Yoram:

    >Why would elected officials, who spend a lot of effort attaining power, willingly relinquish any part of their prize to people who may use that power in ways that the elected officials would not appreciate?

    1. Adding legitimacy to their own role as policy advocate and/or government executive, leading to benign outcomes at the next election (according to the comments of elected politicians to Fishkin’s Rome DP).

    2. In fiscally challenged times it’s much easier to outsource difficult decisions to “the people” (covering your arse, as Naomi puts it).

    3. They might even believe that the nonpartisan outcome would be an improvement on electoral point-scoring. To echo Naomi again, they may well be in politics to pursue the common good (as they see it), as opposed to just feathering their own nest. Their “interests” may well be the national interest (as they see it).

    The really extraordinary thing is that the convenor of a prominent sortition blog should view this significant development as a retrograde step. But the gradual erosion of the [efficient] power of electoral institutions is clearly of no interest to those possessed of a revolutionary mindset.

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  10. Terry,

    I am skeptical that such situations are giving allotted bodies credibility or leading the way toward a sortition-based system. It seems more like a smoke screen and a way to control the image of sortition and make sure it does not emerge as a competitor to elections.

    A big part of the issue is how the discussion about those situations is conducted. If the headline was “Melbourne makes a timid step toward citizen involvement in government” I would be sympathetic. When a stage managed performance is presented as a momentous achievement of radical democracy, this is just ridiculous.

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  11. Naomi,

    > We see politicians all across Europe using the referendum—yielding their final say—to avoid taking responsibility.

    Yes, to state the obvious, if there is a credible threat to their position elected officials will try to meet this threat and if other methods fail they will be willing to cede some of their power in order to save the remainder.

    So if we are to believe that something along those lines has happened in Melbourne then we need to believe that (a) a credible threat to the power of Melbourne politicians existed, and (b) no way to meet this threat was available to the elected politicians other than ceding some of their power.

    No evidence for either of those two conditions has been presented. Instead, we are simply asked to believe that due to the good services of the newDemocracy foundation Melbourne politicians willingly have ceded some of their power. This is just not a reasonable story. And, of course, the institutional arrangements that were set up for this experiment do not inspire confidence in this story as well.

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  12. Yoram,

    I don’t think Keith, Naomi nor I are saying the Melbourne experiment was a fundamental break or even a case of elected politicians significantly ceding some of their power. Yes, the news article hyped it (“to help sell papers” as they say)… But until this Melbourne example is replicated many times over again, the kind of change you want will never enter the consciousness nor be imaginable for 99.99% of the citizenry.

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  13. Ah, but there is no need for demonstration or replication, as the clear superiority of sortition can be revealed by logical inference alone. All that is necessary is to eliminate the false consciousness caused by centuries of indoctrination with “electoralist dogma” and the masses will spontaneously rise up and demand real democracy.

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  14. P.S. Just to dispel any misunderstanding, my last comment was intended to be as sarcastic as Yoram’s original post.

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  15. > we are simply asked to believe that due to the good services of the newDemocracy foundation Melbourne politicians willingly have ceded some of their power. This is just not a reasonable story

    Why isn’t it? I mean, this isn’t the parliament of a superpower like Russia or the US. It is the city council of the second largest Australian city. There is a lot less at stake on this level already, so there’s not that much power to give up in the first place. Is it so unbelievable that they would cede some direct/discretionary power in the hopes of getting better outcomes?

    There’s a difference between seeking an outcome and seeking power for its own sake. You are an activist, you seek an outcome, but not discretionary power for yourself. There are fortunately some politicians who tend to ward that mindset too, and they have plenty of good reasons to cede power in democratic experiments.

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  16. Terry,

    > But until this Melbourne example is replicated many times over again, the kind of change you want will never enter the consciousness nor be imaginable for 99.99% of the citizenry.

    I don’t think the Melbourne example should serve as a model for replication. Using such a dog-and-pony show as some sort of a goal is a waste of energies (which may very well be one of the reasons we were treated to the show). If the elites are so accommodating, we should ask them kindly to set up some more meaningful applications of sortition. (And, if not, we should be a bit more confrontational.)

    By the way, we’ve been over this before.

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  17. Harald,

    > There is a lot less at stake on this level already

    Supposedly there are billions of dollars at stake.

    > You are an activist, you seek an outcome, but not discretionary power for yourself. There are fortunately some politicians who tend to ward that mindset too

    There are some such politicians (Bernie Sanders seems like a recent prominent example) but they are the exception to the rule. The outcomes of the system expresses the balance of power of many politicians and the majority of them will not want to give up any of their power.

    All of that is just an a-priori argument of course. The facts of the Melbourne case fit with this expectation.

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  18. Yoram wrote,

    >>Why would elected officials, who spend a lot of effort attaining power, willingly relinquish any part of their prize to people who may use that power in ways that the elected officials would not appreciate?

    Keith replied,

    1. Adding legitimacy to their own role as policy advocate and/or government executive, leading to benign outcomes at the next election (according to the comments of elected politicians to Fishkin’s Rome DP).

    2. In fiscally challenged times it’s much easier to outsource difficult decisions to “the people” (covering your arse, as Naomi puts it).

    3. They might even believe that the nonpartisan outcome would be an improvement on electoral point-scoring. To echo Naomi again, they may well be in politics to pursue the common good (as they see it), as opposed to just feathering their own nest. Their “interests” may well be the national interest (as they see it).

    I would add two more points.

    4. I would expand Keith’s answer about “in fiscally challenged times it’s much easier to outsource difficult decisions. . . ” – because even in prosperous times, there are decisions such that whatever politicians decide, they know they will catch hell for it from some important group or other.

    5. There are also situation in which opposing political parties are spending a lot of resources fighting each other, with no visible way out of the “gridlock,” and so giving the decision to the people would be a relief for both parties.

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  19. Yoram:

    >All of that is just an a-priori argument of course.

    Yes, indeed. Political science is an empirical discipline, so why do you keep making these dogmatic assertions? (I’ve yet to find anything that passes for an argument).

    David,

    I’m glad that we now have five compelling reasons why we may indeed hope that sortition would be sympathetically received by the political class (so long as we stop bad-mouthing them).

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  20. Yoram wrote:
    >”set up some more meaningful applications of sortition.”

    Can you think up a plausible use of sortition that WOULD advance its future prospects? Are there implementations that could be realistically made in the next year or two that WOULD be helpful? Or is it only in revolutionary moments where sortition might be applied completely independently of any role by current government authorities?

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  21. Terry:

    >Or is it only in revolutionary moments where sortition might be applied completely independently of any role by current government authorities?

    Exactly, anything else on Planet Gat is just bread and circuses (or a dog-and-pony show). Yoram, you’re on your own here.

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  22. Terry,

    > Can you think up a plausible use of sortition that WOULD advance its future prospects?

    Yes – allotted bodies that monitor and supervise elected bodies. It turns out we had a very similar conversation some time ago.

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  23. David,

    The situations you are describing are all such that the people in power have little interest in the policy outcome, or expect that their preferred policy outcome would be chosen by the allotted body.

    The former case is unlikely to happen unless the decisions are of little consequence. Any major policy decision will affect the interests of people in power and their associates.

    The latter case is a situation where the transfer of power is nominal. The decision making setup has been designed to ascertain a given decision.

    In other words, yes, some situations in which power appears to be ceded can be described. However, in reality these situations are either unlikely or do not reflect a real transfer of power.

    The Melbourne situation is of the second kind – no real power has been transferred. Whatever is in the recommendations of the citizen jury can be used to justify or legitimate whatever those with real power – elected politicians and other professionals – want.

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  24. Yoram,

    What you say is clearly true if you define politics in terms of the a priori conflicting interests of the elite and the masses, but that’s what is normally referred to as a tautology.

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  25. Yoram,
    I reread the threads you linked to. You leave something of a gap between the creation of allotted bodies with supervisory powers and the existence of a pure sortition government. What happens in between? You make mention of popular pressure, but you have also rejected the idea that elected officials are responsive to popular pressures.

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  26. Naomi,

    > What happens in between?

    A detailed schedule was not available at press time.

    I expect that as the supervisory body proves itself to be representing the values and interests of the public against those of the elected politicians, public support for shifting more authority to allotted bodies would build up.

    > rejected the idea that elected officials are responsive to popular pressures

    When popular support builds around an issue and maintains a long term focus, it becomes difficult for any government (electoral or any other) not to respond in some way. Of course influencing the details of policy in this manner is unrealistic. However, obtaining broad structural changes can be achieved via popular mobilization. It is a difficult and uncertain process, but until we use this process to install a democratic government system, that is all we have.

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  27. >I expect that as the supervisory body proves itself to be representing the values and interests of the public against those of the elected politicians, public support for shifting more authority to allotted bodies would build up.

    Another tautology. Note the use of of the assertive preposition “as” rather than “if” (conditional), that would be the correct choice for a hypothesis.

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  28. Yoram,
    With that kind of support the proponents of the positions favored by the allotted body would simply win a landslide election victory and the pressure on the institutions themselves would be relieved.

    Also, if the elected officials had to choose between the abolition of their institutions and the adoption of a ceremonial role, they would embrace the ceremonial role.

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  29. Naomi,

    > With that kind of support the proponents of the positions favored by the allotted body would simply win a landslide election victory

    I don’t see your point. What positions? That corruption should be punished? Of course everybody nominally supports that. It is only when it comes to specifics that things get murky. Candidates get elected on an anti-corruption platform only to turn out to be as corrupt as everybody else. Having worked hard to win a privileged position, they naturally want to exploit it.

    > Also, if the elected officials had to choose between the abolition of their institutions and the adoption of a ceremonial role, they would embrace the ceremonial role.

    I agree, but again I don’t see your point.

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  30. In any case, this is closely related to what I was talking about before. If the hybrid Senate does a better job of coming up with good policy and is respected and trusted over the Commons, then the Commons politicians would have nothing to gain and everything to lose by standing in its way. Those who do would be rejected at the ballot box.

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  31. Yoram,
    >I don’t see your point. What positions?

    This is an excellent question. Surely you believe sortition goes beyond simple corruption reduction. That’s a problem which can be dealt with though legal mechanisms. If nothing else having citizen’s assemblies appoint and dismiss prosecutors and judges would be enough.

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  32. I’m also not sure why working hard to win a privileged position is different from winning one in a lottery. From a self-interest standpoint it would make just as much sense to exploit both positions for personal gain at the expense of the public at-large.

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  33. > Surely you believe sortition goes beyond simple corruption reduction. That’s a problem which can be dealt with though legal mechanisms.

    Not if the corruption is legal.

    And, yes, as I made clear, fighting electoralist corruption is proposed merely as a stepping stone to a more wide ranging – in fact, universal – sortitioninst authority.

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  34. Naomi, you need to remember that in Yoram-speak “corruption” means being responsive to elite interests as opposed to those of the masses.

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  35. > From a self-interest standpoint it would make just as much sense to exploit both positions for personal gain at the expense of the public at-large.

    For a representative sample, there is no difference between the group-interest and the interests of the public at large. That is exactly the point of sortition.

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  36. >For a representative sample, there is no difference between the group-interest and the interests of the public at large.

    You’ve got to remember that those drawn into the sampling are made different from the people at-large by being given power. It is in their self-interest to line their pockets with every penny of public money they can grab.

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  37. And if they play ball with wealthy interests there are cushy jobs waiting for them after they leave office.

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  38. Yes – a scenario of the allotted instantly dropping their pre-selection world views and interests and developing cohesive corrupt ones is conceivable. It is however a very different scenario – and a much less likely one – than that of people who have devoted their lives to attaining a position of privilege having different world views and interests from those who have not led this kind of life.

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  39. BTW, see here for an analysis of the assumptions and models associated with these issues.

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  40. *** Naomi (June 28) develops the idea of an ” hybrid Senate” as a evolutionary path towards democracy-through- minipublics. With adding “All we really need to do is to promote the concept further, encourage the segregation of powers between the different types of members as a key part of any mixed-member reform proposal”. I like a priori any idea of minipublic, agreeing with Terry Bouricius (June 29): “seeing numerous examples of bodies of randomly selected citizens acting competently in a policy arena is absolutely essential before it is even conceivable that average citizens will entertain the idea of replacing elected bodies with those selected by lot”.
    *** But the hybrid idea is very dangerous, as I think Naomi senses given the words about “encouraging the segregation of powers”. When in a deliberating body you mix ordinary people and professional ones, there is a big risk the deliberation will quickly be controlled by the professionals. In an allotted jury, as Keith Sutherland repeats, there is a risk of control by persons with superior rhetorical skills. But they will be a small proportion, and that lessens the problem. If half of the deliberating body comes from an elite with superior rhetorical ability and with much better knowledge of politics, I am afraid the allotted half will be de facto overwhelmed.
    *** Morally the hybrid Senate will not be a mirror of the civic body, and the presence of non-allotted members will be a permanent reminder of the supposed inferiority of the allotted members.
    *** The “hybrid Senate”, or any “hybrid council” will be easily a way of giving democratic legitimacy to a deeply oligarchical entity.
    *** A better model of hybridity could be a Senate divided into two separate chambers, deliberating separately, one alloted and one appointed or elected. The first chamber would be an authentic minipublic. But I am afraid that that would be precisely a reason for the model to be rejected by the dominating political forces.

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  41. *** The discussion about this post was interesting, but there is a flaw : it was too much centered on the “ political class” and its reactions to a movement towards “democracy-through-minipublics”..More important are the reactions of the main lobbies and elites which are the actors of the system. The new model will encounter fierce resistances. The hope could be in divisions inside some elites, divisions inside some lobbies, and feuds between antagonist elites and lobbies.
    *** The post was about an evolutionary transition from polyarchy to dêmokratia. But we must consider the possibility that the first case of modern dêmokratia could occur through the collapse of a dictatorship, where some elements of the ruling group would prefer dêmokratia than polyarchy, expecting more understanding from a grateful dêmos rather than from opposition factions dominating a polyarchy. A modern Cleisthenes could appear in unexpected situations. Let’s imagine a Chinese one…

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  42. Andre,

    I believe Naomi’s model for a hybrid senate involves a strict separation of functions between deliberation and voting rights, with the latter restricted to allotted members. Speech rights would be restricted to members chosen from the existing polyarchies. Whether or not this would be “deeply oligarchical” depends on your perspective on the prefix (“poly”) and your view on the need for the polyarchies to shape their policy advocacy to anticipate the views, preferences and interests of the allotted minipublic.

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  43. Andre,

    >We must consider the possibility that the first case of modern dêmokratia could occur through the collapse of a dictatorship

    Yes, it’s no coincidence that there is significant interest in sortition within the Chinese Communist Party. But what Naomi and I are proposing is an evolutionary development of liberal democratic practice, as neither of us are attracted to the apocalyptic scenario that you outline. Why would lobbies and elites be opposed to a system that gives them an effective monopoly of speech advocacy rights (in the upper house), without the inconvenience of the ventriloquist’s dummy (elected politicians)?

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  44. […] I express skepticism about the utility of ad-hoc, local, advisory allotted bodies, the retort is often that without such initial steps the average person, habituated to electoralism, would […]

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