Public opinion in crisis

A stable democracy depends on a sound public opinion. It is the essential basis of agreement about what is legitimate behaviour on the part of both public institutions and many of the relations of citizens to each other. It is the central common good or communities of most sorts.

The traditional notion of public opinion

Until the advent of continuous polling what was invoked by the phrase “public opinion” was a set of beliefs and attitudes that were assumed to be shared by nearly everybody in the nation concerning the grounds on which choices of public policies were to be judged and the performances of public activities to be assessed. As contexts change, depending on the degree to which different groups approve of those changes, differences emerge in many fringe situations. As long as there is a sense of community people deal with these differences mainly by agreeing to small verbal changes that accommodate certain important new demands without abandoning traditional formulae “I’m not a feminist, but…”

Public opinion in this sense was traditionally invoked by prominent public figures, politicians, journalists and intellectuals often with such phrases as “will not tolerate” or “demands” that a government do this or that. Such public protagonists assumed that their attempts to articulate the tacit understandings on which the society operated would be endorsed by the “general public” if they thought seriously about the matter. So churchmen would assume that as Christians their followers were committed to certain views, labour leaders that justice required a certain treatment of workers and business leaders that the rights of investors be respected. They would each attempt to represent such claims as reflecting a more fundamental agreement on the way the community needed to work of it was to flourish and command loyalty.
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Marcela Iacub: To reform political life, long live the lottery!

The French original is here.

The prevalent disgust with the political class will not be resolved as long as the powerful enjoy unwarranted privileges and as long as the president lives in the Elysée palace

It seems that attempting to reform political life brings bad luck. Once the government appointed François Bayrou to draft a law for reforming political life he was quickly paralyzed. Ever since the announcement of this effort, scandals are surrounding the allies and the close associates of the president’s party. Faced with this curse, two explanations suggest themselves.

The first is sociological. The privileges associated with power are shared by practically the entire political class. How then may one find the person capable of putting an end to those privileges? And if by happenstance such a person is found, even the most straight-laced would be surrounded by others who may not be…

The demands of honesty keep increasing year-by-year. That which was common practice suddenly becomes ethically unacceptable, and that which was unethical becomes illegal. Things are moving so quickly that the political class will soon face a crisis. And it is normal. In a democracy, isn’t the gratitude of the people the only privilege allowed? But maybe under those conditions, no one would wish to govern…

For a regime to be really deprived of unwarranted privileges, it must be based on sortition: the rulers are to be appointed in the same way juries are. Everything would then be very different: the political class would simply be a mechanical intermediary and the public in involvement in politics would be strong. Populism would disappear because the citizens would be educated about every question being collectively discussed.

The second reason is psychological. In the current context, the one who is charged with reforming political life is necessarily hated. Not only because he is suspected of hypocrisy – must he not be hiding his own scandals or those of his associates? – but also because the mere idea of “reform” provokes a desire to punish. The entire political class is transformed into a scapegoat for all the collective frustrations. The disgust with the political class is but a mild version of the desire to eliminate it. If it recently benefited the present government, it will soon to turn against it. Can this be doubted?

This is why it is hopeless that the attempt to reform political life will restore the public’s confidence in those who rule over it. It will only further this hate. No sanction will appease the public’s wish to make the power elites pay, to make them fall, to see them suffer. For that to dissipate, the entire system of privileges accorded to the rulers has to be abolished. And above all a profound remaking of institutions has to conceived. Representative democracy has to be reconsidered. It creates the political elites that extract from the people the power to shape their destiny. It is necessary to abolish the material privileges attached to the exercise of power. Today, the most symbolic and the most jarring among those is the fact that the president lives and works at the Elysée palace. Doesn’t this hall signify the unfathomable abyss which separates the rules and the ruled? Aren’t the former nothing but the servants of the sovereign will of the latter? These transformations will make the people, woken from the aggressive apathy toward the ruling elite, re-become a real actor in political life, their hate transformed into delight.

Sortition-related proposals in Belgium and Switzerland

In Belgium, Christie Morreale, a senator, proposes a Peonidisesque scheme where blank votes would be translated into allotted MPs.

In Switzerland “Génération nomination” is starting to collect signatures for putting its sortition-related proposal on the ballot. According to the proposal, 50 out of the 200 members of the Swiss national council would be selected by lot.

A Dutchman offers sortition to the Scots

Dr Jasper Kenter, an ecological ­economist at the Scottish Association for Marine Science and Honorary Fellow of the University of Edinburgh, writes in The Scotsman:

Being Dutch, Westminster politics and ­elections horrify me. […] In Holland, […] [c]oalition agreements mean ­ministers can get on with their jobs without being threatened by reshuffles. They are even expected to have expertise relevant to their post.

Yet, proportional representation faces the same issues as first past the post: policies in the long-term interest of society are hard to sell because of short-term impacts. This is exacerbated by the commercial and political interests of media, with power to sway opinion by triggering fear, anger and envy, deluding people into thinking the extraordinary is more ­common.

For example, air pollution leads to 40,000 deaths a year, far more than terrorism and homicide. Addressing this would require policy overhauls and investment opposed by ­powerful lobbies, so we stick our heads in the sand.

Another example: preserving healthy ecosystems is the most important thing we can do for future generations – but the UK’s environment department has had more severe cuts than any other, with barely anyone noticing.

There is a solution: replace MPs with randomly selected citizens called up for parliamentary duty, a ­system called sortition. Imagine ­parliament being a true reflection of the public, with mothers and teachers thinking through education and childcare, health workers influencing how to run and fund the NHS. MPs would be ­independent of wealthy donors and no need to be popular, so would be better at making difficult decisions.

They would be supported by an office providing independent expertise, like the current Parliamentary Office for Science and Technology. By changing a third of MPs at a time, experience could be passed on.

In Scotland, there is an ideal opportunity to try sortition: Holyrood does not have a ­second chamber and, regardless of Indyref2, will receive more powers after Brexit, so arguably needs one.

Sortition as a direct democratic system to appoint a real citizens representation, also called “citizen jury“


According to historical sources our political system was developed AGAINST democracy (sovereignty of the people). An “Electoral Aristocracy” was installed (18 century). Nevertheless, this can be seen as a positive evolution compared with ruling by inheritance.

Later on some “democratic” elements were installed, for instance “free” or so called “democratic” elections with universal suffrage, the equality principle, freedom of speech, freedom of organisation, free press, … but some of them were weakened or eliminated afterwards.

But a “democratic element” is not yet a “democracy”. Freedom of organisation may be a “democratic element”, without it a democracy can not exists, on his own it is no democracy. This way “free elections”, to appoint a governor for instance, can be a democratic element but on his own it is by no means a democracy.
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Constitutional reform: could the Irish approach be useful also for Italy?

More from Improving Democracy:

Constitutional reform in Italy
Italy has incurred a stalemate situation similar to that in which Ireland found itself some time ago relating to a project of constitutional reform. On December 4th 2016 Italians were called to vote on a constitutional reform, previously approved by Parliament, but without the necessary qualified majority, for definitive approval. The electoral turnout at the referendum was quite high in relation to similar prior experiences, recording a vote of over 65% of people eligible to vote. As for the outcome: 40,88% of the voters voted “YES”, while nearly 60% voted “NO”.


Could the Irish approach be a viable solution for Italy?
Here is precisely where the Irish approach, based on the creation of an advisory body of citizens, may come to rescue the opportunity of change and assure alignment with the real thoughts and feelings of the people.

In Ireland, after the economic crisis, citizens developed a sense of mistrust towards the political parties. There has been a strong movement pressing to change parts of the Constitution, which in that country always requires final approval through a referendum in the end. The political parties, on the other hand, were unable to come to an agreement. The Labour Party in its 2011 program for elections included the promotion of a Convention on the Constitution with the intent of involving citizens directly in the process. After the elections, the program was approved by Parliament. The Convention, proudly referring to itself as “a new venture in participative democracy in Ireland” on its own web site, was formed at the end of 2012 and started its work in January 2013. The body was formed by 100 people, 66 citizens randomly selected and broadly representative of the Irish society, 33 parliamentarians, nominated by their respective political parties and an independent chairman skilled in coaching complex assemblies. The Convention had a mandate to debate and elaborate specific proposals on 8 constitutional issues, plus 2 to be autonomously selected by the Convention itself. Parliament was committed to debate the proposals in the following four months and to prepare the consequent bill for approval through referendum.

Full text: 1, 2 (PDF).

Ganesh Sitaraman’s sortition version of the Roman tribunes

Ganesh Sitaraman proposes a sortition version of the tribunes of the Roman Republic in his new book The Crisis of the Middle-Class Constitution: Why Economic Inequality Threatens Our Republic.

Angus Deaton, the Nobel Prize winning Princeton economist, describes the proposal in his review of the book in the New York Times (March 20, 2017):

Perhaps the least familiar and most intriguing policy proposal that Sitaraman discusses is the idea of reviving the Roman tribunate: 51 citizens would be selected by lot from the bottom 90 percent of the income distribution. They would be able to veto one statute, one executive order and one Supreme Court decision each year; they would be able to call a referendum, and impeach federal officials.

Such a proposal seems fanciful today, but so is campaign finance reform, or greater redistribution. Yet we do well to remember Milton Friedman’s dictum that it takes a crisis to bring real change, so that our job in the meantime is to develop alternatives to existing policies that are ready for when “the politically impossible becomes politically inevitable.”

Sitaraman is an associate law professor at Vanderbilt Law School.