Cutting through the Brexit cacophony

In April 2016 — before the Brexit referendum — I posted an article on Open Democracy calling for a deliberative alternative based around a citizen’s jury. The UCL Constitution Unit has now adopted a similar approach to deciding what form Brexit should take, as reported by James Blitz in the Financial Times:

The Constitution Unit at University College London has tried to fill this gap. Together with the think-tank UK in a Changing Europe, it recently brought together a “Citizens Assembly” of 50 voters. The group reflected a careful cross section of how people voted at the referendum (25 voted leave, 22 voted remain and three did not vote). The group spent two weekends listening to, and taking part in, a balanced debate on Brexit with the involvement of political speakers, academics and other experts. They were then asked to decide how Brexit should proceed in four votes on specific aspects of the negotiation.

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‘We spent almost two years sitting on a jury’

There has been some debate on this site regarding the optimal length of service for a political jury.  On the one hand most of those chosen by lot to participate will have had very little political experience, and will need a period of induction and this has led to suggestions for a service period of up to 2 years with overlapping tenure, so that at all times there will be jurors who will have served for at least a year to help guide new inductees. On the other hand others (including myself) argue for short ad hoc juries, allotted for each legislative bill, in order to ensure ongoing representativity (i.e. to combat the risk of jurors ‘going native’).

However the discussion has always been from the perspective of the system rather than the participants who, it is assumed, will go back to their normal lives once their service period has ended. But evidence from a recent fraud trial suggests this may be difficult if the service period is for a year or more. Jurors rarely talk about their court-room experience but four out of the twelve participants in this case have revealed how difficult the transition back to civilian life has been (three of the original 15-strong allotment dropped out, suggesting negative outcomes for nearly one half of the original sequestration). One of the jurors, ‘Julie’

returned to her job in a travel agency when the case finished, but quickly found herself struggling. Julie says: “I went back and did two days training and then I went two days into the shop. I’ve never been back since. I’ve not given it up yet. “I am going through the doctor and trying to get back into it. I’m still struggling. I just felt like I could not even hold a conversation.”

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The Paradox of Democratic Selection: Is Sortition Better than Voting?

Book chapter just uploaded to by Anthoula Malkopoulou

Sortition, or the selection of political officers by lot, has its antecedent in the direct democratic tradition of ancient Athens. Its transfer into a modern context of representative democracy poses rightful scepticism not only about the practical difficulties, but more so about the theoretical inconsistencies that arise. Modern systems of political representation are based on the aristocratic idea of ‘government by the best’, who are to be selected through a competitive call for candidates (Manin 1997). Sortition, on the other hand, replaces this aristocratic criterion of competition and evaluative election with the democratic mechanics of direct and equal distribution of political office by chance. Hence, the very expression ‘democratic (s)election’ includes a paradoxical contradiction in terms, between the democratic concept of equal access to public office and the aristocratic idea of government by the (s)elected best. My aim in this chapter is to shed some light on this contradiction by critically discussing the benefits and pitfalls of using sortition today, comparing it throughout the chapter with voting and the general effects of electoral representation.

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McCormick: The new ochlophobia? Populism, majority rule and prospects for democratic republicanism

Contributors to this blog who argue the case for full-mandate, voluntarist sortition will find support for their arguments in a forthcoming book chapter by John P. McCormick, author of Machiavellian Democracy. According to McCormick, electoral representation involves rule (primarily) by the rich, whereas democracy by lot is rule by the poor — a perspective that he derives from Aristotle, mediated by Machiavelli, Montesquieu [and Marx]:

The hoplites of ancient Greece and the plebeians of Republican Rome established institutions that granted ultimate legislative authority to the majority qua the poor . . . Athenian democracy and the Roman Republic exhibited primary institutions intended to insure that the poor would rule over or share rule equitably with the rich. (pp. 2-3)

Given this dichotomy it matters little which individuals are selected by preference election or sortition, as the two mechanisms will privilege (respectively) economic elites and the poor, and the resulting political decisions will (presumably) reflect the preferences of these two socio-economic groups.
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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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