Fila Sophia

applied philosophy, deep democracy, sustainability / by A.R.Teleb

Minipublics beyond representation

First posted on Equality by Lot on Oct 8

Now that minipublics are no longer limited to local level “experiments” but are regularly involved in consequential political occasions, constitutional amendments (Ireland), long term city planning (Australia, Germany, US), responses to major political crises (France, Iceland, Ireland), institutionalized checks within representative government (East Belgium, Oregon)–to name a few—the question of their “representativeness,” and, more fundamentally, their legitimate democratic role is no longer academic. Given the response rate problem, those who accept invitations to a citizens’ assembly or jury (however scientifically sampled) are different in some respects from those who do not, and the number of participants in any such minipublic will, regardless of sampling, be exceedingly small compared to the population. Sortinistas and participatory democrats have raised the question of how a not entirely representative, unelected minority could legitimately affect political outcomes for the overwhelming majority who do not take part in the minipublic. In contrast to the “allotted citizen,” with the implication of egalitarian empowerment, some would disparagingly label participants in a minipublic chosen by lot an “aleatoric elite”–ignoring the standard implication of non-ephemerality in the term “elite.” But this focus on strict representativity misses the strongest reason for using minipublics chosen by lot in the first place, and it distracts us form their most promising participatory democratic uses.

After summarizing the strongest arguments articulated by both sortinistas and participatory democrats for the strengths and political potential of minipublics, I suggest another dimension on which they can function. Allotted minipublics can serve as unique spaces of political action and contestation, different from the space of electoral struggle, the space of confrontation in protest, or “enclave” spaces within activist groups and political parties. An electoral campaign is mostly fighting, a protest mostly “manifesting” strength or conviction, a party/union/organization meeting mostly strategizing or venting; but a minipublic provides a rare opportunity for the “everyman,” in a time of cognitive and political “bubbles,” to confront or act with a plurality of points of view, no one of which she/he can anticipate.

First, let me begin with the strongest rationales for the use of lot mentioned by sortition theorists. Oliver Dowlen maintains that neither in Athens, nor in Venice and Florence, nor even in Harrington’s fictional Oceana, was lot used for “representation.” In Athens it was a way to temper the potential domination or the revenge taking by “the many” against the aristocracy, and to avoid factions in general. In Venice and Florence, lot was used to avoid domination by any one powerful family or faction. Harrington suggested that lot be used for allocating soldiers to units in order to avoid dangerous military factions. Moreover, Peter Stone suggests there are only two legitimate uses of lottery, and by extension allotted minipublics: 1) when there is no other legitimate selection criterion, and 2) in order to avoid corruption or undue influence. If the main dissatisfaction with contemporary representative government is domination by special interests and the economically (or socially) powerful—which seems to be the case—then minipublics are a democratic tool against domination by elites and systematic bias due to the overrepresentation of special interests. This conforms with much of the discussion of the participants in the German citizens’ assembly on democracy. “Lobbyism” was a major concern and “citizen councils” were seen as a potential “counter-lobby for the citizen.”

Second, resonant with the “citizens’ lobby” sentiment, the focus on representativeness turns our attention away from the unquestionably democratic uses of minipublics that participatory democrats see as their democratizing political potential. Political theorist and fifty-year advocate of a “participatory society,” Carol Pateman suggests that minipublics can only be democracy prompting in view of the society they are in. A truly democratic society requires reform of social and political structures. Democracy must be practices in “everyday life,” such as the workplace. People other than those lucky enough to be chosen for a minipublic need to have the opportunity and the ability to participate in the decisions that affect their lives. Christina Lafont, also once a critic of minipublics came to accept them under the condition that they are not used as “short cuts” to reaching better decisions by majority rule through improving public opinion. The issue, for Lafont, remains democratic legitimacy. If democracy ultimately relies on self-rule, then even a perfectly representative, informed, an organized minipublic still must persuade the general public that its recommendation/decision is the best choice.

The “deliberative systems” approach argues that minipublics are but one kind of a “variety” of discursive forums, but does not tell us what role a minipublic in particular ought to play within the “system.” Lafont sees the potential in a minipublic in its ability to claim its result is a “considered opinion” of the public It can do this so long as selection by lot assures inclusive diversity of perspectives and non-capture by elites/special interests, while adequate facilitation and unbiased information assure that the process is indeed considered/deliberative. I would add a fourth condition. Transparency allows independent scrutiny and ensures legitimacy in the eyes of the public.

In fact, we can understand this claiming that a minipublic represents the “considered opinion” of the wider public as representation in the sense of Michael Saward. Representation here means neither “descriptively” nor “authoritatively” representing the public; but it is a claim by those who would use the minipublic’s result as representative that the person making the claim still had to defend politically, publicly.

Given that, Lafont’s classification of the democratically promising political uses of minipublics is helpful both in resolving some of the theoretical issues and in interpreting recent events like the citizens’ assemblies. Case 1) the recommendation of the minipublic is contrary to current public opinion surveys. This case, she calls, contestatory. Although it would be illegitimate to force the result on the public, the result can be used as a signal to the public to further consider the issue, and as a rhetorical tool and encouragement for the minority opinion to continue to fight to change public opinion. Case 2) when the minipublic agrees with prevailing opinion, the vigilant use, the results can be sued as a further argument by the public against the government to change current policy. Such was the case, contrary to Roslyn Fuller’s view, in Ireland on abortion. It wasn’t that the government “manipulated” the tool of the citizens’ assembly to do what they wanted to do anyway; rather, they used the result politically to prevent an illegitimate minority opinion from blocking action. Such is also the case with the German citizens’ assembly on democracy in Leipzig. Public opinion is already in favor of more participation and more direct democracy. Those in favor of that can now argue that the Assembly shows that the prevailing opinion is also a considered one. The process was open and transparent and one can see that a variety of positions was presented to the minipublic in an even handed way, and that facilitation did not allow any one view to dominate discussion.

Case 3) there is no current public opinion on a matter, the anticipatory use of a minipublic. Here a minipublic can be an impetus for the public to start thinking about an issue that they had not until then seen as impacting their lives. A good example might be a new technology, otherwise obscure or known only in special circles, such as cryptocurrency. The findings and reasoning of a minipublic could begin a necessary public conversation to prevent a technocratic elite from taking action without public oversight. Lastly, case 4) empowered minipublic, which unfortunately dominate the discussion on Equality by Lot. An empowered minipublic is an institutionalized body that makes a decision in conjunction with other government institutions. Such a body can check other agencies or co-create policy. Here it derives its legitimacy from its institutionalization and that it can be contested politically just like any other government decision. Again, in none of these uses is strict representativity crucial, although in the case of empowered minipublics representativity becomes more important.

Furthermore, we can infer from Lafont’s suggested uses that minipublics could play a salutary role on public opinion because better information and better reasoning will be seen as something that could affect the results of a minipublic. The minipublic, or the organization running it, would also be incentivized to be transparent and independent, in order for its results to be taken seriously by the public, to maintain its status as “independent evidence.”

Finally, let me turn to another political dimension of minipublics. In their everyday lives, people rarely interact politically with others they may disagree with on important public issues. As one sociologist argues, “political” is almost an offensive or tabu in everyday life. Electoral campaigns are mostly spectator sports, besides perhaps for the small number of very self-selected political volunteers. Demonstrations are not venues of give and take but pure “shows” of force. Union or activist meetings are again for a small number and revolve around strategizing not genuine discussion and confrontation. Town Hall meetings are not meetings between equals but a place either to gauge or demonstrate raw sentiment. Minipublic are an almost unique space where without foreknowledge of anyone’s political positioning or background, ordinary citizens must confront, deal with, and act with difference politically.

The same characteristics that allow minipublics to claim, if done right, to embody “considered public opinion” also make them unique venues for encountering difference. Lot assures diversity, inclusivity, and that they are not captured by elites; facilitation (done right) means that no voices or perspectives dominate. Moreover, even when, maybe especially when, minipublics such as citizens’ assemblies do not make final decisions but only generate ideas, reasoning, and concerns, they encourage the healthy discussion of a variety of views. That they are outside the distorted spaces of party and parliamentary politics, make them not only more “considered” and “deliberative,” but also more genuine and more plural. Absent the filters of party coherence and the electoral game, minipublics are literally “refreshing,” as participants often comment. This aspect should not be underestimated and should be further investigated in itself.

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