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Setting a course for a better-run future

September 13, 2022 Leave a comment

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 in 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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“The Keys to Democracy” Has a Publisher

September 11, 2022 Leave a comment

Good news! The UK’s Imprint Academic will be publishing my late father and classicist Maurice Pope’s last and long-lost book, which I and my brother Quentin been busy editing for the past several months. It will appear in Spring 2023 as “The Keys to Democracy: Sortition as a Model for Citizen Power.”

Three decades ago, my father’s then publishers turned down the text. They found his proposals for political innovation too radical, utopian and implausible, even though they were inspired by ancient Athenian democracy. He turned to other projects. The book disappeared into what we thought was an irreparably corrupted 1980s computer file.

Then, after my father’s death in 2019, my mother Johanna found the typescript in his library. Time changes points of view! Back in the 1980s I too thought the text wasn’t very realistic. But now I see how much politics-as-usual needs to change, his argument for decision-makers selected like juries looks fresh, relevant, clear & compelling.

The project to revive the book would have got nowhere unless others had felt the same.

Huge thanks for a generous Foreword to Prof. Dr. Hélène Landemore of Yale University, whose 2021 book “Open Democracy: Reinventing Popular Rule for the 21st Century” sets a gold standard for academic studies of sortition. She calls my Dad’s book “visionary … a prescient and self-assured argument for democracy by lot before pretty much anyone else.”

I much appreciated too a scene-setting Introduction by classicist Prof. Dr. Paul Cartledge of Cambridge, author of the masterful “Democracy: A Life.” Here’s part of what he says: “The Keys to Democracy remains unique in its philosophical breadth and scope. And in its vision it is still bolder than many on offer.”

Many thanks as well for early endorsements from Dr. Brett Hennig of Sortition Foundation, Claudia Chwalisz of DemocracyNext, Dr. Heather Grabbe of Open Society Foundations, Michael Keating, executive director of the European Institute of Peace and ex-UN envoy to Somalia and Prof. Richard Youngs of Warwick University and Carnegie Europe. They have variously supported the book as “Incredibly knowledgeable”; “Gives us hope”; “Required reading”; “Learned and entertaining”; and “[A] masterful tract”.

Much gratitude too to pioneering political scientist Prof. Dr. Peter Stone of Trinity College Dublin, who connected us to sortition guru and publisher Keith Sutherland. Imprint Academic is placing “The Keys to Democracy” in its series on Sortition and Public Policy.

Over the years, we also owe much to the moral and real support of Jonathan McVity, an author and student of philosophy who helped my father in trying to interest US publishers in the text in the 1980s; he tells the story in one afterword. And also Dr. Michael Potter, Professor of Logic at Cambridge’s Faculty of Philosophy, who shared rooms with me when we were undergraduates at Oxford. Michael often discussed sortition with my father, and in another afterword describes what he would have liked to have had out with my father about the use of juries (and my father did love a good argument).

The conclusion of The Keys to Democracy, Maurice Pope’s 2nd draft

It’s been a busy year of typing out the manuscript, editing, reaching out and researching footnotes. But it’s been wonderfully motivating to meet leaders of the new wave of innovators trying to upgrade our democracies, and above all to feel their selfless support.

Personally, I felt a great sense of closure when I pressed the button and sent the final manuscript to the publishers on Thursday.

I’m also so glad too to think that my father – silently but deeply disappointed, I believe, that this culmination of his life’s work didn’t see the light of day – can rest in peace. His ideas will now live on.

Democratic Wisdom from the 1930s

June 16, 2022 Leave a comment

It’s wonderful when an old book speaks clearly to what’s happening around us today.

I had sought out Pour le Tirage au Sort de la Chambre des Députés (For the Random Selection of the Chamber of Deputies), published by an anonymous French ex-parliamentarian in 1936, because it seems to be the first (in the past century or so) to argue that choosing our representatives by lot, or sortition, would be a better and truer form of democracy than elections.

I’ve become fascinated by sortition-based democracy as I help prepare my late father’s typescript on the subject for posthumous publication. For sure, Pour le Tirage au Sort was WAY ahead of its time. The next books to argue for sortition came decades later. The earliest comprehensive work actually only appeared in 2013 (Against Elections by David van Reybrouck, to whom many thanks for alerting me to the French deputy’s old book).

It wasn’t just the ex-deputy’s proposals that struck me as noteworthy: it was how he described the angst of the 1930s, an age when significant numbers of people thought dictatorship was the best answer to dysfunctional democracy. For some, Adolf Hitler in Germany was a shining example, for others Joseph Stalin in Russia or Benito Mussolini in Italy. Normally, I don’t see much connection between 1930s authoritarianism and today, or worry much about threats to the freedoms we enjoy in Europe and Western countries. But something in the old French politician’s warnings struck home.

Humanity doesn’t govern itself – alas! – by reason. The disquiet that is working on all peoples, in the New World just as in the Old, is pushing them to look to authoritarian regimes for the security and peace that an improvidently and badly run freedom has dissipated in the wind of chimaeras and illusions.

That sounds familiar! The dictators in power in the 1930s were no doubt more bloody than today, the economic situation worse and the sense of impending world war more palpable. Yet today’s range of leaders – Vladimir Putin, Boris Johnson, Donald Trump, Tayyip Erdoğan, Viktor Orban and many others – are ever-more worryingly unreliable and/or authoritarian. The conflict in Ukraine is bringing war ever closer to west Europeans. And there is a whole new range of threats to Western countries from densely populated, unstable, climate-change threatened countries in their neighbourhoods.

Paris by night (1935). Frank Hellsten’s clever new colouring of Dutch photographer Willem van de Poll‘s Champs-Elysées scene highlights how close we are to the past.

The old French parliamentarian echoes the kind of criticism we direct at the likes of Johnson or Trump today, but not against individual politicians. He blames the whole system of elections for producing a political class whose members “have all more or less gone bankrupt, and who, in the disorder of our society, demonstrate the most lamentable egotism or the most culpable profligacy.” His long administrative experience had made him sick of blatant corruption and foreign meddling, but he saw the cure in more democracy, not more elite rule. While ready to see experts in an advisory role, he believed that in terms of moral judgment, educated people “do not always represent the social class with the best grip on reality … the representatives of the masses are less educated [than those with instruction and beautiful diplomas] but more endowed with good sense.”

One cannot chase out the plague with cholera

As he plots a way out of France’s 1930s mess, the author surveys proposed solutions to the country’s problems being discussed at the time. (One book he cites is La France veut un chef, or France wants a chief). But he sees a weak link running through all of them: the idea that there should be politicians chosen through the ballot box. “Because all [these proposals] depend without reserve on elections – considered as a kind of incontrovertible dogma – and because every election, whatever measures one takes to make it just, is based on the corruption of conscience and its consequence, the waste of public funds, the evils one wants to suppress cannot be avoided. One cannot chase out the plague with cholera.”

This all leads him to propose a radical idea: a new constitution based on democracy by lot, because “random selection [is] the simplest and most legitimate way to ensure that deputies have moral independence, without which no government has a serious foundation.” The same is true today: selfish politicians like Trump or Johnson keep proving their contempt for the idea that leadership involves noblesse oblige or any moral compass. And from Putin to Erdoğan, all the problematic modern leaders took and maintain power through elections.

The ex-deputy next outlines a new constitution for France, which in 1936 had about forty million inhabitants. It’s an interesting exercise. He suggests a three hundred-seat parliament: two hundred and forty members would be randomly selected from forty constituencies of one million people (using a system similar to the national lottery); the remaining sixty people would be nominated from the expert class by the head of state from among people in pre-determined top posts (eg heads of unions, industrialists’ associations, administrative bodies, parliament and the like). This head of state would be chosen for life by four-five hundred holders of such top posts during a deep, rapid deliberation that would avoid bribery and lobbying. He compares this to the way the College of Cardinals selects a new Pope. That system has worked pretty well, for much longer than most.

“Elections have a less rational and logical basis than [random selection],” the French politician wrote. “By making those elected the slaves of parties and obligated to financial interests, [elections] suffocate their conscience and kill their personality …. Sincerity, rather than an often perverted intelligence, will be the guide of our institutions …. In all things, conscience and sincerity are worth more than knowledge and cunning.”

For better or worse, nobody heard the former parliamentarian’s call in his own time. Four years after the publication of Le Tirage au Sort, Germany’s army made short work of defeating an unreformed France. I can find no suggestion of the author’s name in online searches or link to the work beyond the facsimile of his book offered by the Bibliothèque Nationale Française.

Fortunately, though, the ideas of sortition and deliberative democracy are now taking off. After David van Reybrouck‘s book Against Elections came Brett Hennig‘s An End to Politicians and his Sortition Foundation, Hélène Landemore‘s Open Democracy and a raft of publications by Claudia Chwalisz at the OECD. There’s much more great research elsewhere. And in the past decade, nearly 600 randomly selected Citizens’ Assemblies have shown that sortition and deliberation work well together to produce practical, credible solutions to knotty political problems.

The 1930s French author would doubtless have been pleased to learn that France has been a trail-blazer of this “deliberative wave”. President Emmanuel Macron used random selection in his grand national debates and successful climate convention, and in 2021 the city of Paris decided to create a Citizens’ Assembly chosen by lot that will from now on be a permanent part of its administration.