Explaining non-participation in deliberative mini-publics

One of the issues dividing commentators on this blog is whether participation in sortition-based assemblies should be mandatory or voluntary — see, for example. Those of us advocating legislative juries based on Athenian nomothetic panels advocate quasi-mandatory participation in order to ensure accurate descriptive representativity. Those, however, who argue for full in-depth participatory deliberation claim that mandatory participation would be ‘disastrous’, as it is hard to see how a a ‘full-charge’ legislature — essentially like existing elected legislatures but with members selected by lot — could function with (in effect) conscripted members.

A paper by Vincent Jacquet in the European Journal of Political Research, examines why it is that the overwhelming majority of randomly-selected persons refuse the invitation to participate in deliberative minipublics. Given that the descriptive representativity of the minipublic (vis-a-vis the target population) is one of the principal rationales for sortition, acceptance rates are extremely poor, ranging from 1% (America Speaks) through 3% (Belgium), 5.7% (Ontario), 6.2% (Netherlands), 7.4% (British Columbia) to 20% in Deliberative Polls. As a result there is a danger that voluntary participation risks the ‘over-representation of better educated and politically active individuals’ as ‘the [overwhelming] majority of the recruited population refuse to participate (pp.2-3).

Stratified sampling can enable some correction but this is generally on the basis of crude population metrics and ‘[voluntary] participation follows the social unequal distribution pattern of political engagement . . . participants are better educated, mostly men and older than the average population . . . participants are more politically interested and have a higher sense of efficacy’ (p.3). Such ‘statistical biases’ might suggest that deliberative minipublics privilege the usual suspects, the added disadvantage being that nobody has chosen ‘descriptive’ representatives and there is no way to kick the rascals out. There is a danger that

Using mini-publics to shape public policies may create new deliberative elites — randomly selected but distinct from the wider population precisely because they have taken the time to deliberate. (p.14)

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Representative Isegoria

In my sortition thesis I argue that both elements of Athenian democracy — isonomia and isegoria — need to be representative when applied to large modern states. Representative isonomia is achieved via large randomly-selected juries, but isegoria requires different mechanisms — including competitive commercial media — to ensure the accurate representation of public opinion. This presupposes a bottom-up model in which commercial newspapers “refine and enlarge” the opinion of their readers (in order to increase subscription revenue). This has been much criticised by advocates of the Lasswell propaganda thesis — the critique specifically aimed at the concentrated ownership of the MSM — arguing that “the freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one”.

The top-down Lasswell thesis has been thrown into doubt by the Brexit referendum — the Daily Mail supported Brexit and the Mail On Sunday supported Remain. Both newspapers are owned by the strongly Remain supporting Lord Rothermere, whereas the position of the broadsheets owned by Brexit-supporting Rupert Murdoch was the other way round (Sunday Times for Brexit, The Times for Remain).
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Equal Participation in the Post-Democratic Age

Forthcoming book chapter by Dirk Jörke and Anthoula Malkopoulou

Equal participation is a sine qua non of democracy. Yet, today equal voting rights are insufficient for embodying this principle. On one hand, the use of voting rights is not equal among the population. On the other, elections have increasingly become a post-democratic facade, because decision-making has shifted to unelected bodies or non-transparent network meetings. Are more direct democratic procedures the solution to this predicament? This chapter argues that they are not. For once, deliberative citizen assemblies bring inequalities in from the backdoor, as they permit knowledge, skills and other resources more available to advantaged citizens to weigh in positively. Likewise, introducing random selection as a way of distributing public office may allow advantaged citizens to dominate, if the pool of candidates is voluntary and thus self-selected. We argue that reforms should generally focus not on introducing more direct participation, but on reducing the inequalities of participation in representative systems.

The other alternative being large non-deliberative juries with mandatory participation.

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Mary Beard and UKIP’s Arron Banks agree over sortition for the House of Lords

SPQR author Mary Beard and UKIP eminence grise Arron Banks occupy the opposite poles of the political spectrum — the former being a self-acknowledged liberal leftie and the latter a Trump-supporting right-wing populist. After their Twitter war over the role of immigration in the downfall of the Roman Empire they agreed to meet over lunch to discuss their differences and were surprised to find that they had more in common than either of them anticipated:

After they have warmly agreed to renationalise the railways and the energy companies, draw the House of Lords by lot because it works perfectly well for juries, scrap Trident, and counter the mania for solving every problem with legislation, Mary concedes that the philosophical borders of Banksland “lie in a slightly different place to where I’d previously thought”.

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Let’s reimagine democracy: replace elections with lotteries

An article by Joe Humphreys, in the The Irish Times, November 19th, 2016:

What’s happening to our democracies? Donald Trump’s presidential-election victory in the United States, after a bitter campaign characterised by deceitful and incendiary rhetoric, is not an isolated episode. It’s the natural outcome of what David Van Reybrouck calls democratic-fatigue syndrome.

One of the most worrying facets of electoral democracy is what political scientists call rational ignorance. Citizens have negligible chances of influencing which candidates get elected and of influencing those candidates once elected. “Citizens thus have no incentive to become well-informed regarding political affairs,” says Dr Peter Stone of Trinity College Dublin.

The answer, says Stone, is to find new ways of invigorating democracy, suggesting a much greater role for “citizen juries” randomly selected to serve public roles. This notion of governing by lottery rather than election is at the heart of Van Reybrouck’s book, which has sought to popularise a concept that stretches back to ancient Greece, the birthplace of democracy. In Athens, in the fifth and fourth centuries BC, the most important governmental offices were appointed by sortition, or the drawing of lots.

The Democratic Significance of the Classical Athenian Courts

This draft, not-for-citation paper by Daniela Cammack (forthcoming in Declinism, Central European University Press), argues that the 4th Century was actually the high point of Athenian democracy and culture:

The incomparable Mogens Hansen has done more than anyone to refocus attention on fourth century Athens (particularly 355-22), arguing convincingly not only that the democracy in the age of Demosthenes differed significantly from that of Pericles but also that the vastly richer philosophical, oratorical and epigraphical sources of the fourth century should make it the centre of gravity of histories of the period.

Unfortunately Hansen views the change from assembly- to sortition-based legislative decision making as ‘a move from the “radical” democracy of the fifth century to a more “moderate” (later “modified”) system in the fourth’. According to Cammack this is anachronistic:

This is exactly what a subject of a modern constitutional democracy would expect. The judiciary, in such systems, is indeed meant to limit what “the people” (or their representatives) can do to themselves. But it is not clear that the relationship between Athenian judges and assemblygoers should be understood in these terms. In particular, we cannot assume that late fifth-century Athenians regarded their courts as a less democratic forum than the assembly, since in both cases, among other things, decisions were made by ordinary citizens voting en masse. Indeed, I will argue that judicial panels may have been regarded as a significantly more reliable vehicle of the rule of the dêmos, conceived as the collective common people as distinct from those who took leading political roles. From this perspective, far from moderating democracy, the reforms of the late fifth century seem designed to render it more extreme.

Could we rebuild our post-Brexit democracy by modelling it on the jury system?

Andreas Whittam Smith, founding editor of the Independent, argued recently that ‘a cross-section of society that is informed can act more coherently than an entire society that is uninformed’:

In fact, the jury system, with its random selection of jurors from the local community and their thorough briefing as result of the hearing and challenging of evidence, has often been examined as providing a model for democracy. David Van Reybrouck has just written a book, Against Elections: the Case for Democracy. He argues against what he calls “electoral fundamentalism”, an unshakeable belief in the idea that democracy is inconceivable without elections, and elections are a necessary and fundamental precondition when speaking of democracy.

Whittam Smith read my book A People’s Parliament when it was published in 2008 and wrote to me saying that he agreed with the general thrust of the argument, but he clearly disagrees with the title of Van Reybrouck’s book, as he describes himself as an ‘electoral fundamentalist’. David, of course, does not wish to replace elections with sortition, and this would suggest to me that Kleroterians would be well advised to avoid rhetorical language that might lead to such a conclusion.