Home > Democracy, Maurice Pope > Setting a course for a better-run future

Setting a course for a better-run future

One question often nagged me in my four decades as a reporter, writer and conflict prevention analyst: Is the occasional vote for a politician or party truly the best system to choose who runs a country?

Over the past year, I was delighted to learn I wasn’t the only one puzzling over the answer. I was even happier to discover a group of like-minded idealists who are working on DemocracyNext, an independent non-profit dedicated to researching and bringing to life a better-designed paradigm for future governance. Here’s their public online launch event on 15 September 2022 (International Democracy Day).

I’m also very proud that DemocracyNext has asked me to join their Advisory Board. At last, I feel that I have found a political ideal I can believe in and work for.

Learning to love sortition

The key innovation that DemocracyNext is looking into is how to bring people into decision-making through selection by lot, as in jury service. This is also called sortition and is inspired by the classical golden age of Athens, whose definition of democracy was a government by randomly selected citizens. All were equal and took turns, first to deliberate on problems, and then to legislate, judge and act as the executive in the name of the city.

DemocracyNext is one of a number of groups that have sprung up in recent years to promote aspects of sortition. All share many values and principles, but most focus mainly on one country: for example, Sortition Foundation in the UK, Equality by Lot in the US, Mehr Demokratie and its Citizens’ Assembly project in Germany, Tegen Verkiezingen in the Netherlands, G1000 in Belgium, WeDoDemocracy in Denmark, Deliberativa in Spain and newDemocracy in Australia. DemocracyNext adds a more international and radical vision: to put sortition “at the heart of a new democratic system,” not just in government but in the workplace too.

DemocracyNext aims to create brand new institutions, not to bring the sixth century BC back to life or have a lottery to choose the president or prime minister. The approach builds on a growing wave of Citizens’ Assemblies, which are randomly selected so that representatives are a true sample or reflection of their communities or countries. In the past decade, more than five hundred such assemblies in dozens of countries have been finding original solutions to problems that have long stumped politicians: climate change in the UK, France and elsewhere; conflict resolution in the Philippines and Bosnia; and in Ireland, breaking the logjam on abortion and same sex marriage.

Are these assemblies really different from elected parliaments? Two sets of pictures speak volumes to me. One symbolises the current system in the United States, showing the eight top Congressional officials in the Senate and the House. I know that individually some of them – notably Sen. Dick Durbin, whom I’ve interviewed – are wonderfully effective people. But the problem is that collectively, they all look exactly the same. Charismatic, good at raising money, old, male, mostly of one skin colour and likely all pretty well off.

The members of Citizens’ Assemblies, on the other hand, seem exactly like people you might meet on a bus, train or plane. They represent the full, balanced diversity of the community or population. The pictures below – from Citizens’ Assemblies in France, the UK and Germany – also capture both the intense concentration on discussing expert evidence and also the joyful sense of engagement that are characteristic of these gatherings.

Until now, Citizens’ Assemblies have mostly been convened in an advisory capacity. While some politicians have embraced them or joined them, others have stood in their way, seeing them as unqualified or as a threat to their lock on power. In future, such assemblies could achieve much more. At the top of DemocracyNext’s to-do list is the design of and advocacy for sortition-based institutions with real authority.

Why bother?

Personally, I feel many reasons to gravitate towards democracy activism.

I’ve never believed in elections, for a start. They have long struck me as the root cause of the political dead end that delivers government-by-pantomime in my native Britain, the worst polarisation in generations the United States and multiplying numbers of authoritarian leaders around the world. I’m not alone in thinking that something is deeply wrong: a global survey in 2021 by the Pew Research Center found that almost everywhere people have less respect than ever for politicians and are hungry for change.

I’ve never felt that people involved in politics had a special call on my admiration or loyalty. At Oxford University four decades ago – breeding ground of many of the country’s parliamentary leaders – I remember being put off by the stressed and hungry looks of the politically ambitious as they plotted and partied for support. (The parties were fun, though).

I left England a month after graduating to become a reporter and writer. I spent decades criss-crossing the eastern Mediterranean and greater Middle East, from crisis to conflict to economic collapse. Yes, people wanted a better life, including justice, freedom, equality and more. But elections – whether real, faked or only promised – rarely made much difference to what was really going on in most people’s lives. And I never solved the equation that posits: elections equals democracy equals better government.

Take Malta, for instance. In the 1987 elections, an 0.2 per cent swing away from the previous left-wing ruling party triggered a 180-degree about-turn in the small island nation’s rulers. As a young reporter for Reuters news agency, I remember standing bewildered on a midnight pavement in central Valetta as supporters of the triumphant right-wing nationalists went mad around me. For the Maltese, and perhaps many others, it seemed perfectly normal. I however was completely confused by the logic of a system in which a country could so radically change course only because a tiny proportion of the people changed their votes.

Or look at Turkey. In recent decades, the technical side of the electoral process has been generally clean, with lots of parties competing and people able to vote freely. Yet the results are gravely distorted by vote-share thresholds that exclude smaller parties, monopolisation of media by the party in power and the locking up of dissidents. And, in the end, just one man rules.

Iraqi man writes “Yes, yes to the leader” in his own blood on his arm in Mosul, northern Iraq in 2002.

Or Iraq. There was no doubt in my mind, when I observed Saddam Hussein’s referendum on his presidency in 2002, that the process did deliver him something close to the 99 per cent support he claimed. But looking at the traumatised faces of the ‘voters’ being watched every step of the way from the electoral roll to the ballot box, it was clear that the legitimacy Hussein sought was a brittle charade.

Referendums in a much freer country, the United Kingdom, look suspect to me too. How can a decision as serious and multi-faceted as Britain leaving the European Union or Scotland leaving the United Kingdom be left to a majority achieved by a razor-thin number of voters, after a process that is thoroughly politicised and open to all kinds of domestic and foreign manipulation?

Meeting Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, then prime minister, in 2004.

Then there are the professional politicians. I have met and interviewed dozens of heads of state and government, almost all winners of elections. Only rarely, I found, did what they said leave a lasting impact or memory. When I did occasionally admire a politician, it was because of their achievements in life or the charisma of their personality, not because I felt that they deserved to be in charge of so many details of other people’s lives.

All that is before we take conflict into account. When I worked for the International Crisis Group, I once did a back of the envelope reckoning and found that nearly one third of the conflict prevention reports we wrote in one six-month period in 2015 were about violence before, during, or after elections. I wondered: were elections the symptom, or the cause?

Blanking out at the ballot box

As a result, I’ve only voted once in my life, in my Brussels neighbourhood, and I did that because it is a legal obligation in Belgium. I felt so overwhelmed that I just voted for the mayor, probably because he seemed familiar from the monthly commune newspaper. And maybe a bit because he had cancelled a plan for a carpark under our local square that everyone protested about. But I had nothing against the other faces on the voting slip. Compared to the commitment and seriousness of the voting station workers, I felt silly. But I also felt frustrated: as a former reporter, I knew that I would have to do days of work to know if the mayor was really the best candidate, days I just didn’t have.

Perhaps electoral politics and voting never had a chance with me. Growing up, my late classicist father Maurice Pope lampooned politics and elections from the head of the family dining table. He even wrote a book in the 1980s, advocating a completely new democratic framework based on sortition. When I read it back then, I teased him about how unrealistic it all sounded. His publishers rejected the work as too outlandish. He put it aside. Years later, the work seemed to be actually lost.

Over the decades, much changed and not just with me. A decade ago, there was only a trickle of books on sortition; it is now a torrent. As frustrations with politicians, corruption and political dysfunction mounted, academics and publishers began rediscovering the democracy by lot that made ancient Athens one of the greatest civilisations the world has ever seen. Looking at ever-more extreme inequalities of wealth in countries with electoral systems, they remembered what Aristotle and many other Greek thinkers took as self-evident: elections create oligarchies, and only the random selection of citizen decision-makers, or sortition, qualifies as democracy.

Those who support electoral systems often quote Winston Churchill in their defence. Britain’s World War II leader famously said in 1947 that: “democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”’

Britain’s electoral democracy may have been freer and more accountable than many others in the mid-twentieth-century – probably a generous view – but such thinking is too complacent and sets the bar too low for us today. Is our democratic ideal really only to be a bit better than dictators, absolute monarchs and monopolists of religion and ideology? Surely, we can at least try to take decisions for the common good in ways that give much fairer weight to principles like equality, participation and justice?

That’s why I’m glad to be a small part of DemocracyNext, contributing something to a real and growing wave of activism in support of sortition-based, deliberative democracy. In the same spirit, after my Dad’s death in 2019, my mother found the manuscript of his lost book in his library; finally able to understand its importance, I was inspired to edit it, with help from my brother Quentin, and pitch it for publication. A noted UK publisher, Imprint Academic, has now taken it on. Watch out for publication next spring: The Keys to Democracy: Sortition as a New Model for Citizen Power.

This text was updated on 19 September after the actual launch of DemocracyNext

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