Citizen Conventions for Complex Issues

By John BristowNo Comments

“What kind of democracy is appropriate to an era of fast, decentralised communication?” Asks David van Reybrouck. “How should the government in the UK and other democracies deal with all those articulate citizens who stand shouting from the sidelines?” He goes on:

In the years after the second world war, western democracies were dominated by large mass parties, and they held the structures of the state in their hands. Through a network of intermediary organisations, such as unions, corporations and party media, they succeeded in being close to the lives of individual citizens. This resulted in an extremely stable system, with great party loyalty and predictable voting behaviour.

This changed in the 1980s and 1990s, when discourse was increasingly shaped by the free market. Party newspapers disappeared or were bought up by commercial media, commercial broadcasters also entered the field and even public broadcasters increasingly adopted market thinking. Viewing, reading and listening figures became hugely important – they were the daily share price index of public opinion. Commercial mass media emerged as the most important builders of social consensus, and organised civil society lost ground. The consequences were predictable, as citizens became consumers and elections hazardous.

Parties began to see themselves less as intermediaries between people and power, and instead settled into the fringes of the state apparatus. To retain their places there, they had to turn to the voter every few years to top up their legitimacy. Elections became a battle fought out in the media for the favour of voters. The passions aroused among the populace diverted attention from a far more fundamental emotion, an increasing irritation with anything and everything pertaining to politics.

In 2004, the British sociologist  Colin Crouch came up with the term “post-democracy” to describe this new order (see a review of his book with this title.

Colin Crouch

        Colin Crouch

Under this model, while elections certainly exist and can change governments, public electoral debate is a tightly controlled spectacle, managed by rival teams of professionals expert in the techniques of persuasion, and considering a small range of issues selected by those teams. The mass of citizens plays a passive, quiescent part, responding only to the signals given them

The Italy of Silvio Berlusconi came closest to fitting this definition of the post-democratic state but elsewhere too we have seen processes that tend in that direction. Since the end of the 20th century, citizens have started looking like their 19th-century predecessors. Because civil society has become weaker, a gulf has opened up again between the state and the individual.

After the rise of the political parties, the introduction of universal suffrage, the rise and fall of organised civil society and the dominance of commercial media, another factor has now been added: social media.

At the beginning of the 21st century, citizens could follow the political theatre, minute by minute, on radio, television or the internet, but today they can respond to it from second to second and mobilise others. The culture of immediate reporting now has instant feedback, resulting in even more of a cacophony. The work of the public figure, and especially the elected politician, is not made easier by any of this. He or she can immediately see whether new proposals appeal to the citizen, and indeed just how many people the citizen can whip up. New technology gives (some) people a voice, but the nature of this new political involvement makes the electoral system creak at the joints all the more.

Commercial and social media also reinforce one another – picking up each other’s news and bouncing it back to create an atmosphere of perpetual mudslinging. Tough competition, loss of advertising revenue and falling sales prompt the media to produce increasingly vehement reports about increasingly exaggerated conflicts. For radio and television, national politics has become a daily soap opera, and while editors determine to some extent the framing, the script and the typecasting, politicians, with varying degrees of success, try to slant things this way or that. The most popular politicians are those who succeed in altering the script and reframing the debate – in other words, those who can bend the media to their will.

Imagine having to develop a system today that would express the will of the people. Would it really be a good idea to have them all queue up at polling stations every four or five years with a bit of card in their hands and go into a dark booth to put a mark next to names on a list, names of people about whom restless reporting had been going on for months in a commercial environment that profits from restlessness?

People care deeply about their communities and want to be heard. But a much better way to let the people speak than through a referendum is to return to the central principle of Athenian democracy: drafting by lot, or sortition as it is presently called. In ancient Athens, the large majority of public functions were assigned by lot. Renaissance states such as Venice and Florence worked on the same basis and experienced centuries of political stability. With sortition, you do not ask everyone to vote on an issue few people really understand, but you draft a random sample of the population and make sure they come to the grips with the subject matter in order to take a sensible decision. A cross-section of society that is informed can act more coherently than an entire society that is uninformed.

Experiments with sortition have been successfully applied in the US, Australia, and the Netherlands. The most innovative country so far is certainly Ireland. In December 2012, a constitutional convention began work in order to revise several articles of the constitution of Ireland. Its members were not just a committee of MPs working behind closed doors, but a mixture of elected politicians and ordinary people: 33 elected politicians and 66 citizens, drafted by lot, from both Ireland and Northern Ireland. This group met one weekend per month for more than a year.

An independent research bureau put together the random group of 66 citizens, taking account of age, sex and place of birth. The diversity this produced was helpful when it came to discussing such subjects as same-sex marriage, the rights of women or the ban on blasphemy in the current constitution. However, they did not do all this alone: participants listened to experts and received input from other citizens (more than a thousand contributions came in on the subject of gay marriage). The decisions made by the convention did not have the force of law; the recommendations first had to be passed by the two chambers of the Irish parliament, then by the government and then in a referendumBut it is essential that recommendations are seen to be seriously considered and implemented with explanations for any aspects not implemented.

By talking to a diverse cross-section of Irish society, politicians could get further than they could have by just talking to each other. By exchanging views with elected officials, citizens could give much more relevant input than they could have in an election or a referendum.

What if this procedure had been applied in the UK before the EU referendum? What if a random sample of citizens had a chance to learn from experts, listen to proposals, talk to each other and engage with politicians? What if a mixed group of elected and drafted citizens had thought the matter through? What if the rest of society could have had a chance to follow and contribute to their deliberations? What if the proposal this group would have come up with had been subjected to public scrutiny? Do we think a similarly reckless decision would have been taken?

Sortition could provide a remedy to the democratic fatigue syndrome that we see everywhere today. The drawing of lots is not a miracle cure any more than elections ever were, but it can help correct a number of the faults in the current system. The risk of corruption is reduced, election fever abates and attention to the common good increases. Voting on the basis of gut feeling is replaced by sensible deliberation, as those who have been drafted are exposed to expert opinion, objective information and public debate. Citizens chosen by lot may not have the expertise of professional politicians, but they add something vital to the process: freedom. After all, they don’t need to be elected or re-elected.

Juries for criminal trials that are chosen by lot prove that people generally take their task extremely seriously. The fear of a chamber that behaves recklessly or irresponsibly is unfounded. If we agree that 12 people can decide in good faith about the freedom or imprisonment of a fellow citizen, then we can be confident that a number of them can and will serve the interests of the community in a responsible manner.

If many countries rely on the principle of sortition in the criminal justice system, why not rely on it in the legislative system? We already use a lottery like this every day, but we use it in the worst possible form: public opinion polling. As the American political scientist James Fishkin famously remarked: “In a poll, we ask people what they think when they don’t think. It would be more interesting to ask what they think after they had a chance to think.”

Democracy is not, by definition, government by the best, elected or not. It flourishes precisely by allowing a diversity of voices to be heard. It is all about having an equal say, an equal right to determine what political action is taken.

In order to keep democracy alive, we will have to learn that democracy cannot be reduced to voting alone. Elections and referendums become dangerously outmoded tools if they are not enriched with more sensible forms of citizens’ participation. Structured deliberation with a random sample of citizens promises to generate a more vital, dynamic and inclusive form of democracy. In Utrecht, the fourth city of the Netherlands, the city council now drafts by lot 150 citizens to co-create its sustainable energy plan. These processes may become a permanent feature of any modern democracy.

The most common argument against sortition is the supposed incompetence of those who have not been elected. A body of elected representatives undoubtedly has more technical competencies than a body chosen by lot. But what is the use of a parliament full of highly educated lawyers if few of them know the price of bread?

Besides, the elected do not know everything. They need staff and researchers to fill the gaps in their expertise. In much the same way, a representative body chosen by lot would not stand alone. It could invite experts, rely on professionals to moderate debates and put questions to citizens. Legislation could arise from the interaction between it and an elected chamber.

The arguments put forward against sortition are often identical to the reasons once put forward for not allowing peasants, workers or women to vote. Then, too, opponents claimed it would mark the end of democracy.

If David Cameron had opted for the genuine participation of citizens (before or instead of the EU referendum), he would have obtained a much clearer view of what people really wanted, a powerful list of shared priorities, an agenda for further negotiations, and created much less distrust between the masses and the ruling class. On top of that, he would have gained global admiration for daring to tackle a complex challenge by an innovative process that values people’s voices instead of counting their votes. He could have set a new standard for democracy, rather than serving as its gravedigger.”

This is an edited extract from the book Against Elections: The Case for Democracy by David van Reybrouck (translated by Liz Waters). The Bodley Head, 2016. See also the article on it in the Guardian newspaper


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