When Citizens Assemble

What happens when Irish citizens get to deliberate on abortion law?

Ireland’s efforts to break a political deadlock over its de facto ban on abortion inspired a bold response – the creation of a Citizens’ Assembly to tackle on the issue.

During five weekends spread over five months, a random selection of Irish people deliberated on the highly divisive and controversial issue. Their conclusion, in April 2017, recommended a radical liberalisation of existing laws, including a change to the Constitution.

Their work helped prompt Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar to pledge a national referendum on abortion. In 2018, Irish voters will have a chance to make new laws.

Breakthrough moment

The Assembly represents a breakthrough moment not just for Ireland but also for ways of doing politics in the rest of the world. Ireland used random selection and deliberation on a highly contentious issue, rather than leaving it to elected politicians. The effect is to gift us all a real-life lesson in doing democracy differently.

At a time of deep dysfunction in our electorally driven political models – what issue wouldn’t lend itself to a citizens’ assembly approach?

When Citizens Assemble is the first in a global, nine-film series on the state of democracy and efforts to radically improve the way it works. Please feel free to sign up for project updates, to offer funds for its completion or other support in kind.

 

When Citizens Assemble from Patrick Chalmers on Vimeo.

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Sortition in Switzerland

The Swiss news website 24heures has a story about sortition in Switzerland. (Original in French, my translation, corrections welcome.)

And if parliament members were allotted?

Democracy A seminar examines the use of sortition in Switzerland, which some citizens want to implement.

By Caroline Zuercher, 25.10.2017

Antoine Chollet, research professor at UNIL. Photo: Marius Affolter

Allotment is useful not only for selecting the winners in lotteries. A group of citizens, Generation Nomination, wants to use it for selecting our people’s representatives in Berne. In time, they place to launch a initiative to this effect. The mechanism is far from being new having already been used in ancient Greece. An international seminar, on Friday and Saturday at the university of Lausanne is examining exactly these experiences in Switzerland and in Europe.

Sortition has been used in various contexts. And it has not always been synonymous with democracy. Antoine Chollet, teaching assistant in the University of Lausanne, gives and example. In the 18th century Berne used it to name bailiffs and other magistrates, but only the members of noble families participated in the allotment. The goal was therefore about all to share power among the powerful.

Switzerland had more democratic experiences as well. Studies supported by the National Swiss fund for scientific research examined cases in Schwytz and in Glaris. “There, the people demanded allotment in order to reduce the corruption of the elites and to enhance the circle of powerful families”, explains the researcher. In Glaris at the end of the 18 century, for example, the deputies were for allotted among the entire body of citizens. With limited success: “Our research shows that it was transformed into a form of lottery. Those who were selected could resell their post: that was the great prize!”
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Peers at top of credibility rankings

The following data is from the “2017 Edelman Trust Barometer“, a multi-country opinion survey. Interestingly, the report seems to have generated very little press coverage.

The survey finds that in most countries surveyed, including all Western European countries surveyed, a majority of the population thinks the system is failing. In all countries surveyed, except for two, there are more people who think that the system is failing than people who think the system works. The exceptions are China and the UAE.

With loss of faith in electoralism reaching crisis levels, the mood seems ripe for democracy with trust in “a person like yourself” now at the top of the trust rankings.

Hugo Bonin: Using sortition in order to resolve the crisis of representation

The French-Canadian newspaper Le Devoir has an interview with Hugo Bonin with the publication of his book, La démocratie hasardeuse (Éditions XYZ, Montréal, 2017, 150 pages).

Using sortition in order to resolve the crisis of representation

The essayist Hugo Bonin proposes to rid democracy of that which ails it: elections

Guillaume Lepage, October 28th, 2017

On November 5th the municipal elections in Quebec will take place. In the previous elections fewer than one citizen in two exercised their right to vote, a turnout which despite being slightly higher than that of 2013, remains steady under the 50% mark. Is that evidence of a dysfunctional system?

“Our political system is in crisis, almost everybody agrees about that. A crisis of institutions, of democracy, of citizenship, a crisis, finally, of politics,” writes author Hugo Bonin in the opening of his first essay, “The uncertain democracy” (XYZ publishers).

In 150 pages, the political science doctoral candidate at UQAM and the University of Paris-VIII proposes to introduce chance in our seats of power. In allotting among the citizens our next rulers we eliminate, according to him, the principle reason for the ails of Western democracies: elections.

The author therefore invites the readers to think beyond electoral reforms. If sortition in politics appears audacious, this idea was not created yesterday but rather is an echo of antiquity in our days.

Fundamentally “elitist” by reproducing “relations of domination”, the system in place is aimed at limiting the power of the citizens, emphasizes the author, when we meet in a the Plateau Mont-Royal cafe. “And elections were seen as one way of assuring that the better people in society, or those who were already at the top, continue to be there.”

Rather than electing the people who “are considered the most competent”, sortition places its bet on the idea that anyone can carry out political roles. In this selection mode of representatives of the people “there are no better candidates. What is important is allocating political responsibilities in an equal manner and assuring that everybody can govern.”

Nor are elections “a measure of competence”, Bonin asserts. “Donald Trump seemed in the eyes of the majority as being a better candidate than Hillary Clinton. Does this mean that he is more competent?” he asks amusedly.
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The allotment for the convention of La France insoumise has started

La France insoumise (“France Uprising”, FI) is a Left-wing French political party which was founded in 2016. In the 2017 presidential elections its candidate, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, won almost 20% of the votes in the first round and narrowly missed making it to the second round. FI has presented a platform it calls L’Avenir en commun one plank in which is having a constitutional convention where a certain proportion of the delegates would be selected by lot.

FI is now in the process of having its own internal convention “for setting its new objectives, improving its tools and modes of action and specifying its principles of organization.” This process involves allotting delegates to the convention. FI has now announced that it has sent invitations to those allotted:

The first phase of the sortition has taken place. A list of the first 1,200 people has been drawn. Each one of those people has received a registration form. Those women and men who fill out the form before November 13th will participate in the convention. The unclaimed slots will be redistributed in the second phase of the sortition on Friady, November 10th. There is therefore time for you to participate in the allotment if have done so yet.

P.S.: For the curious, here is the script which we used to implement the sortition.

Arturo Íñiguez: On the meaning of the word ‘democracy’

Arturo Íñiguez, an occasional contributor to Equality-by-Lot, recently published a rather beautiful essay touching upon sortition which weaves together history, linguistics and political philosophy (English, French, Spanish). Well worth reading in its entirety even for people familiar with the idea of sortition, here is an excerpt from the essay:

[R]epresentative regimes can be either aristocratic, if they rely on election, or democratic if they rely on sortition.

According to my experience, a lot of people, when exposed to these truths, will react in complete denial. But the fact is that this has been completely trivial knowledge for political scientists for most or recorded history: from Plato and Aristotle to Montesquieu and Rousseau, in the mid XVIIIth century, all of them wrote the same: elections are aristocratic and sortition is democratic. How come, then, that we have been so thoroughly indoctrinated as to believe the exact opposite of something that was crystal-clear for the greatest human thinkers?

Well, the change began in the late XVIIIth century, when the rich bourgeois in France and North America decided that they would be better off in the future by breaking free from the existing monarchic regime (which after all had not been so bad with them, or they wouldn’t had got so rich in the first place). Needless to say that sharing any power with the poor masses was always completely out the question. The masses would be used to fight the royal armies and then abused into thinking the the victory was also theirs. Both the Founding Fathers and the French revolutionaries were adamant in opposing democracy. Suffice to read what they said and wrote to understand that democracy was for them a very bad and ugly word.

But calling their elective system aristocracy, which would have been the logical thing to do following the philosophical tradition we have just mentioned, was also a no-go. Was not the aristocracy the despised enemy recently destroyed? And at the end they had to settle for a word like ‘republic’, an empty signifier which can mean anything you want it to mean.

A lively discussion followed the essay in the comments and Arturo exhibited the proper democratic mindset and engaged in conversation with some of the commenters. Here, for exmaple, is one comment by a reader and Arturo’s reply:
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Detoxing democracy: Brexit and the considered will of the British people

Nicholas Gruen is an economist, entrepreneur and commentator who has been described by former Australian member of the House of Representatives Lindsay James Tanner as “Australia’s foremost public intellectual”.

On Nov. 6th, Gruen will be giving a talk at King’s College London titled “Detoxing democracy: Brexit and the considered will of the British people”.

Abstract:

Though material conditions played their part, the degradation of politics now so evident in the shock and awe of Brexit and Trump also reflect the way in which elections orient politics around political combat, rather than deliberation and problem solving. Yet Britain could use the ancient Athenian idea of selection by lot – choosing a cross-section of the public to deliberate together to complement elections – to turn its slow-motion crisis into the rebirth of democracy, moving it from government according to the will of the people, and towards the richer, safer notion of government according to the considered will of the people.

An outline of the argument: Detoxing Brexit by detoxing democracy.

Britain’s governing class is now engineering a tragedy that arose from a piece of political improvisation gone horribly wrong. Yet there’s a principled way of handling the situation.
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