Democracy, public opinion and sortition

Democracy is a disputed term. Many totalitarian regimes have claimed it in the name of the true destiny or real interests of the people, assuming that in all major decisions all those who are committed to that destiny or those interests must agree. Whether they know it or not, deviants are working against the people and must be discredited. These regimes devote great efforts to constructing a facade of unanimity among almost all of their citizens.

This demand for unanimity is not limited to dogmatic Communists and Fascist movements. It also characterises populist movements that appeal to segments of a population who feel that their way of life is threatened by the dominant elites within their society or by infiltration by sinister enemies. These enemies are identifiable by their lack of enthusiasm for the right values.

In opposition to these disastrous regimes, liberal democrats insist on freedom of opinion and on political practices that ensure there is a real choice between rival occupants of positions of political authority. This view assumes that the competition between aspirants to power takes place against a background consensus about the limits of legitimate power and the sort of considerations that are relevant to choosing between opposing policies. People who prefer one set of candidates to others can accept their opponents as legitimate occupants of public office, at least for their term of office.

Such a society depends on a strong public opinion being understood not as fixed agreement about everything of importance to public life, but on a confidence that the process of public discussion will deliver practical conclusions that are certainly fallible, and by no means universally agreed, but open to correction in the normal course of events. What is largely agreed is what sort of considerations are to be taken into account in particular kind s of decisions, even though people will differ about the relative weight to be attached to different considerations.

So, for example, it is generally agreed that it is desirable that an educational program should both offer maximum equality of opportunity and encourage the pursuit of excellence. But spelling out what that means in a given situation is very complex. There are no simple solutions. Obviously, people will differ about the relative weight to be attached to conflicting considerations. Any practical decision is necessarily a compromise between those considerations. A healthy public opinion will acknowledge this and resist any dogmatic attempt to give absolute priority to either consideration.

Where the opposing political forces see each other, and are seen by the electorate, as systematically opposed to each other on ideological principles or political ambitions, the role of public discussion of particular practical problems is marginalised. Debate degenerates into mutual denigration. Elections become a crude struggle for power. No legal or procedural safeguards can produce responsive and responsible government in such a situation.

It may seem that such a decline is inevitable. Thinking is hard work. People like to believe there are simple solutions to their problems. They are attracted to politicians who seem confident and decisive. Even very sophisticated people fall for simplistic slogans, images and metaphors. The electoral process strongly encourages such abdication of serious discussion. The electors are reduced to giving all power to one or other of the dominant parties.

It is the great merit of sortition that it gives power to a group of people who are not as a group committed to any particular ideology or organisation, but represent the whole range of interests in the community. If the members of this body are to assure the general public that it is doing its job its deliberations need to be public and to welcome public discussion in deciding what to do in any particular situation. The group will then have the problem of adjudicating rival claims and finding acceptable compromises between conflicting considerations on a great variety of problems.

In our very complex societies the range of different problems is so great that nobody can hope to be adequately informed about all of them, much less to have the time to enter into practical negotiations with others who have different priorities. The distinctive feature of the approach I call Demarchy is that it proposes that what is to be done in any particular matter be determined as far as possible by a small group that is statistically representative of those most substantially affected, favourably or unfavourably, by the decisions they have to make. Public discussion will be invited at every stage and discussions within the committees broadcast and recorded online in real time. Policy will be developed from practical specifics. The general public can be assured that all relevant consideration have been taken into account. As the process develops over time it will be continually monitored and revised. Before the development of the internet, this complete openness and discussion was impossible.

Introducing such changes of procedures and powers can only become possible when public opinion is convinced that it is worth trying. That, in turn is only likely to come about if there is experience of how it works in practice. In my book The Demarchy Manifesto for better public policy (2016) I have suggested how this experience might be achieved without legislative change.

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13 Responses

  1. John,

    The essential difference between demarchy and the system I advocate is this clause: “what is to be done in any particular matter be determined as far as possible by a small group that is statistically representative of those most substantially affected, favourably or unfavourably, by the decisions they have to make.” Such a group should certainly try to find a common-ground win-win proposal, but the final decision should be made by a body representative of the entire population. If that conclave of most-interested people can come to a consensus that is certainly a good proposal to consider… but also may be detrimental to the rest of society (who are not part of the negotiation). And what if the different interests can’t come to a consensu? Would they take a majority vote?

    A key point that I make is that the authors of a proposal should NOT be the judges of that proposal. Pride of authorship, or self-dealing make that a bad idea.

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  2. Yes, I agree that the authors of a proposal should not be the final judges of that proposal to the extent that I agree that there need to be checks on its acceptability. I’m not sure how these would operate, perhaps through a variety of reviewing bodies at various levels of public affairs.
    My obsession, if you like to call it that, is with breaking down the power of the nation-state and the whole idea of sovereignty that is almost inevitably chauvinistic, given to the use of force simply on their own say-so. So much of our identities is bound up with the religion of nationalism, that the cultural change involved is enormous.
    Nevertheless, we must face the fact that all the most serious problems facing us are produced by activities that can be effectively regulated only if they are addressed on a global scale. A global state would be a nightmare. We have to establish that there are ways of setting up specific independent authorities to deal with specific problems that arise out of our ordinary economic, social and political practices.
    Ther already are many such authorities that exercise such authority in very limited matters, and make regulations that are in fact accepted by all states that claim general recognition. This authorities are not democratic but technocratic. The sort of specialised sortition I advocate could easily be extended to such authorities.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. John,

    I suspect you also see a possible role for sortition (if not demarchic bodies) in purely non-governmental large enterprises as well. I am working with some co-op activists who are interested in the use of sortition as a means of democratic governance of large consumer cooperatives. They are working on what is termed “platform co-ops” Imagine something like Uber, but owned by the users. They were stymied on how to democratically govern such a vast enterprise, until I presented the idea of random selection and rotation. This might even be a two-tier system where a representative hiring committee was randomly drawn to essentially “hire” a board of directors, and new juries periodically review and hold such board accountable.

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  4. Yes,again. A lot of coops rely on electoral procedures, which inevitably result in their being runny a small group of people whose names are familiar to the tiny minority who bother to vote.
    Certainly don’t want to undervalue the use of various role for sortition throughout civill society. In The Demarchy Manifesto I have discussed a number of possibilities for its use outside of strictly political contexts. But nobody has offered any comment on these suggestion or on the general preoccupation;ation with developing public goods and the various publics that arise out of concerns for specific public goods.
    Understandably, given our histories, people are focussed on representation and power. but I think that a good , richly satisfying society involves lots of public goods, as I try to explain in the book.

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  5. Hello John, you emphasise “” If the members of this body are to assure the general public that it is doing its job its deliberations need to be public and to welcome public discussion in deciding what to do in any particular situation. “” I know a lot of people who don’t stand up even in a small audience to have their say (including me). Making deliberation public is excluding all those people who are not used to speak in public. I attended meetings where participation was facilitated by offering the possibility to deliver written remarks and questions and even there was help to write the question or remark. The system of speaking in public gives an “undemocratic” advance to people who have the gift of oratorical talent. One of the reasons that deliberation in the sortition system is subject of discussion.

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  6. I agree strongly with your comment, an suggestions. In the book I envisage almost all the debate toking place online and actual meetings being more a matter of getting to know people. I also agree that it will be useful to some people to have assistance in in making their written interventions.

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  7. Something you could be interested in, especially John and Terry, is the citizen platform “Barcelona en comu” whose try to build partizipatory democracy on municipal level and won the city elections in 2015 (with a perspective for nation-wide and transnational networking of “rebel cities”). Their organizational structure kinda reminded me of Terry’s multi-body model (as seen here on page 8): https://barcelonaencomu.cat/sites/default/files/win-the-city-guide.pdf

    Greetings from Germany.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. Paul,

    > I know a lot of people who don’t stand up even in a small audience to have their say (including me). . . I attended meetings where participation was facilitated by offering the possibility to deliver written remarks.

    It remains the fact that most citizens will have little to actively contribute, either in speech or writing. But this doesn’t mean that they cannot choose who they would like to speak on their behalf by ticking a box on a ballot paper. Those who seek to abolish elected politicians (and this does NOT include John Burnheim) need to explain how they intend filling this enormous democratic hole. The claim that a randomly-selected sample will automatically speak and act like the population that it “describes” has already been demonstrated to be false.

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  9. Keith,

    >The claim that a randomly-selected sample will automatically speak and act like the population that it “describes” has already been demonstrated to be false.

    Could you please provide a citation for that?

    I have looked up the work of James Fishkin’s Deliberative Democracy experiments and the examples in Surowecki’s *Wisdom of the Crowd* as proving the opposite.

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  10. meant to say ‘I have looked UPON the work…

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  11. CLS,

    >Could you please provide a citation for [the claim that a randomly-selected sample will automatically speak and act like the population that it “describes” has already been demonstrated to be false.]?

    Hanna Pitkin:

    If the contemplated action is voting, then presumably (but not obviously) it means that the [descriptively-mandated] representative must vote as a majority of his constituents would. But any activities other than voting are less easy to deal with. Is he really literally to deliberate as if he were several hundred thousand people? To bargain that way? To speak that way? And if not that way, then how? (Pitkin, 1967, pp. 144-145)

    What Pitkin is saying here is that voting on binary issues (yea or nay) is a simple aggregative process – it would be possible for example for a delegate-style representative to simply act as a token for the aggregate votes of her constituents (as is the standard practice at trade union conferences). However the delegate is entirely ignorant as to why each of her members might choose to vote that way; as soon as the delegate rises to her feet to speak, she can only give a particular argument and immediately loses democratic legitimacy as only those in the target population sharing that particular perspective would be represented. Anything other than aggregate behaviour by a descriptively-representative chamber is in breach of its democratic legitimacy and that means that allotted members would necessarily be restricted to asking questions (on points of information) and voting.

    Peter Stone:

    The [descriptively] Representative House apparently doesn’t have to do anything specific in order to do its job. It just has to exist, and somehow whatever it winds up doing will be right, precisely because it descriptively represents the people as a whole. (Stone, 2008, p. 14)

    The problem is that the currency of legislative assemblies is speech acts and there is no way to ensure that the perlocutionary force of the speech utterances of each randomly-selected member will be equal. So as soon as a member rises to speak the assembly ceases to be a faithful representation of the target population. This is particularly the case as most randomly-selected persons will have little to say (most will say nothing at all). Unless you believe that silence is an appropriate way to represent the views of “the silent majority”, such a mechanism would be a travesty of what we normally mean by political representation.

    >I have looked up the work of James Fishkin’s Deliberative Democracy experiments and the examples in Surowecki’s *Wisdom of the Crowd* as proving the opposite.

    Fishkin’s work is on opinion polling — his experiments measure aggregate views and preferences before and after a learning stage (the presentation of balanced information). The DP process involves an element of small-group deliberation but Fishkin has never claimed that each small group will will automatically speak and act like the population that it “describes” (that would be absurd, given the numbers involved). Surowiecki’s work is also on the aggregation of perspectives and he specifically rules out the wisdom of crowds as a model for democratic politics (the last chapter in his book).

    Refs

    Pitkin, H. (1967). The Concept of Representation (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press).

    Stone P. (2008). Introduction to Callenbach and Phillips, A Citizen Legislature (Exeter: Imprint Academic).

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  12. “In The Demarchy Manifesto I have discussed a number of possibilities for its use outside of strictly political contexts. But nobody has offered any comment on these suggestion or on the general preoccupation;ation with developing public goods and the various publics that arise out of concerns for specific public goods.
    Understandably, given our histories, people are focussed on representation and power. but I think that a good , richly satisfying society involves lots of public goods, as I try to explain in the book.”

    John Burnheim makes a very important point here and in his scholarship that it is necessary to consider demarchy not just in relation to the legislative branch of the nation-state (a state-centric approach) but also in decision-making throughout society — from local to global governance and from political institutions to institutions of economic, international finance, security, environmental, and workplace decision-making (Burnheim also mentions applications for auditing in The Demarchy Manifesto and there are a wide range of other possible applications).

    A lot of further research is needed in this area. I’m working on this myself and will be posting my research on this.

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