Upsetting power

I wrote this because it was something I hadn’t really thought about and I wanted to have the argument with myself.  For as long as I can remember, I have argued the elitism inherent in our democratic politics, and the idea of finding some way to install “ordinary people” at the heart of democracy, to make citizenship meaningful, as been a guiding thought.

There is a lot to worry about in the idea of sortition, not least the extent to which it implies a sort of a diminishment of voting itself.  As I watch conservative and elite voices both here and in the United States go out of their way to stop people voting (by redistricting or by rigged voter ID laws), you can feel that to suggest anything at all that weakens our hold on voting itself is playing into their hands.

And the last thing I want to do is give comfort to the Russell Brands of the world who counsel “don’t vote” as a radical democratic act when it is nothing of the sort.

And yet, on some level, the idea of a simply installing people into the heart of government on a random basis does seem like it has at least the potential the break down the current bad habits and ingrained stupidities of business-as-usual politics.  The simple fact that I can hear the political class scoffing at such an idea is enough to make me want to consider it.

What you might be wondering is what a non-voting method of deciding political representation has to do with the subject of this website, work, rest and play in the near future.  The answer is that if we do approach some sort of workless future, where technology and structural change make entire classes of work disappear, it is our political institutions and structures — as much as our work practices — that are going to have to adapt unless we want to be stuck with some sort of dystopian nightmare of haves have nots.

In other words, civic involvement may just be one of the ways that workless workers will spend their time, devoting themselves to community and governance in a way that is impossible in the world of work or of looking for work.  Under such circumstances, sortition looks like a reasonable way to decide the level of people’s involvement.  It potentially brings forth a world of civic engagement that almost presumes a future where people are less bound up in the day-to-day entanglements of paid work, one where people have time to do other things.

See what you think….

Making democracy democratic again

The basic logic of voting is that it is the method by which we determine the will of the people.  Free elections are therefore understood to be the cornerstone — the defining characteristic — of democratic governance.

No vote, no democracy is just about a truism.

But what if that’s wrong?  What if voting actually hampers democratic governance and is leading to undemocratic outcomes?

What if all the stuff we complain about in regard to our politicians — that they are unrepresentative, that they are out of touch, that they are in the pocket of various vested interests, that all they are really interested in is getting reelected — what if all those problems are actually a by-product of voting itself?

Wouldn’t it then make sense to get rid of voting?  To choose our politicians by another method?

David Van Reybrouck is a Belgian historian and founder of the G1000 Citizens’ Summit, and although he doesn’t want to get rid of voting altogether, he does want us to think about other ways of deciding who governs us.

Reybrouck wants to replace traditional democratic voting with a combination of voting and sortition, that is, the drawing of lots.

Let me say at this point that I am not completely convinced by his argument, but I am sufficiently incensed by our current parliamentary democracy and its many failures to at least consider what he suggests.

Essentially sortition is a lottery, where political power is given to candidates on the basis of random sampling.  It is not dissimilar to the system we use to select juries, and it is often used in other informal and semi-formal situations.

But why go down this path?

Reybrouck’s concern is that Western democracies are changing in ways that make traditional hierarchies — reflected in party politics and conventional voting — not just obsolete but stifling of the democratic will.  He writes:

Democracy is like clay: it moulds itself to the times. The concrete forms it assumes are always shaped by historical circumstance. As a governmental model centering around consultation, it is extremely sensitive to the available means of communication. That is why the democracy of ancient Athens was formed in part by the culture of the spoken word. That is why the electoral-representative democracy of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries flourished in the age of the printed word (the newspaper and other one-way media such as radio, television and the Internet 1.0). Today, however, we find ourselves in the age of permanent interactivity. Hyper-fast, decentralized communication leads to more and more critical voices being heard. But which form of democracy fits these circumstances?

In suggesting that political office be filled on the basis of a lottery, he is not advocating we hand over the Treasury benches or the defence department entirely to a random selection of people.  His model is what he calls bi-representative:

The route we should be taking today is one which leads to a bi-representative model, a legislative branch comprising both allotted and elected officials. Both systems, after all, have their advantages: the expertise of professional politicians alongside the freedom of citizens who are not constrained by the need to be re-elected.

On one level, it is a radical idea, not least because it is entirely predicated on a belief in the good sense and good will of the voting public as a whole.  To even contemplate sortition is to presume civic competence, something our elites are often loath to do.

Obviously there are risks with a lottery system, especially in the transition stage, but who would seriously argue that there are no problems with the current system?  And really, if the best argument you can offer is that “I don’t trust ordinary people to run the country” then you are not much of democrat to start with.

Indeed, it wasn’t so long ago that people insisted that women or black people, or unskilled workers, or non-landowners should not be allowed to hold office.  We shouldn’t let similar prejudices scare us off random sampling as a way of choosing parliamentarians.

What’s more, the fear that a parliament chosen, in part, by sortition would be one populated by incompetents is contradicted by our continuing comfort with juries and by experiments like deliberative polling.

It is also contradicted by the small experience we have of those few independents who manage to get themselves elected in our party-rigged parliaments.

My politics doesn’t always coincide with the likes of David Leyonhjelm, or Rob Oakeshott, or Nick Xenophon or even Cathy McGowan, but few of us, I suspect, would see them as other than sincere, hardworking representatives.

So why not have a system — sortition — that opens up the possibility of getting such people into parliament as a matter of course, rather than one that relies on the whims of a voting system effectively rigged against such a possibility?

Indeed, for those voters looking for democratic renewal, for an alternative to the least-worst option of voting for the two majors, or registering a “protest” vote by voting for the likes of Clive Palmer, why not consider a system of governance that guarantees ordinary people — other people — a seat at the parliamentary table?

It’s worth thinking about, isn’t it?

As Reybrouck says, “Treat critical, outspoken citizens as a voting mob and they will behave like a voting mob. Treat them like adults and they will act as adults.”

I couldn’t agree more.

(Originally published in The Drum as “A ‘lottery’ electoral system could break our malaise“)

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