Perry Walker writes:

This is the name of a book, just published, by Manon Loisel and Nicolas Rio. They are two practitioners of…wait for it… participatory democracy, running a consultancy called Partie Prenante, or Stakeholders. The book is full of provocations, as you might guess from the title, and well worth a blog.

I confess that I’ve not read the book. My French is not up to it, and it is not (as yet) available in English. Instead, I’ve relied on pieces in two online investigative newspapers: a long interview with them by Mediapart and an article they wrote for Médiacités.

Their thesis is, in short:

  • Representative democracy is in crisis, as shown by two shifts:
    • the rise in abstentions at election time
    • those who do get elected are increasing unrepresentative of the rest of us in socio-economic terms
  • Participatory democracy aims to compensate for these failings
  • Yet in fact it tends to reproduce, even worsen, the shortcomings of the representative system.
  • Rather than looking outside representative democracy for a solution to its problems, we should tackle them head on. In particular, they have a striking proposal in relation to abstentions.

They give two examples, both from France, of the impotence of participation:

  • In 2019, there was a series of public meetings called the “Great Debate” planned as a response to the “yellow vest” crisis. These culminated, say the authors, in a press conference where President Emmanuel Macron explained that the Debates endorsed exactly what he was doing. They say that the Great Debate “was the caricature of a participatory democracy used solely as a tool of legitimation”.
  • 2019-2020 saw the Citizens’ Convention for the Climate. Its recommendations were watered down by the government, with Macron remarking, “you can’t say that just because 150 citizens wrote something, it’s the Bible or the Koran”. (As a Brit, I’m full of admiration for the French ban on domestic flights when the route can be travelled by rail in 2.5 hours or less. It’s true that the Convention proposed 4 hours, but it still seems radical, path-breaking.)

But it is their point 4., relating to abstentions, which I should like to explain and to explore. Their first proposal is that abstentions be converted into seats allocated by drawing lots. Now recall that their second criticism of representative democracy was how unrepresentative the elected are. Their second proposal is therefore that “this drawing of lots must serve to make a sociological correction in relation to the profile of the elected officials”. This means that among the people chosen by lot, there will be a disproportionate number of women, people from the working class, ethnic minorities and so on.

I have three reflections about these proposals. The first is about legitimacy. The authors describe “each [category of representative] drawing its legitimacy from the shortcomings of the other”. The legitimacy of those elected comes from their having coming victorious on the election trail. The legitimacy of those who are selected by lot comes from their compensating for the lack of representativeness of the elected.

Hmmm. I remain doubtful about having two forms of legitimacy at work within one chamber. Years ago, I ran an event on how to reform the UK’s House of Lords. Here’s what the report said:

“We ended up with a sense that there were two very strong underlying arguments, with the only problem being that they were entirely contradictory:

  • There was a strong case for combining different ways of deciding the composition of the second chamber. The reason for this is that different methods make different and complementary contributions to various principles of composition, especially: expertise; representativeness; and independence.
  • There is also a very strong case for not combining different ways of deciding the composition of the second chamber. This is because members are very likely to regard the method by which they were selected as conferring greater legitimacy than is enjoyed by members selected by other methods. This could lead to timewasting and paralysis.”

My second reflection is that their proposal might actually encourage abstentions. But I don’t know if the authors would reckon this a failure.

Finally, what the proposal seems to omit is the white vote. This is the French term for a protest vote, also called a blank, null, spoiled, or “none of the above” vote. It expresses dissatisfaction, either ith the choice of candidates or with the current political system.

I found myself thinking about this in terms different from Loisel and Rio. They think of abstentions as giving legitimacy to a new form of representation chosen by a form of random selection. I thought of white votes and abstentions as reducing the legitimacy of representative democracy – and instead increasing the legitimacy of participatory democracy.
Let me explain. In the table below are the figures for the second round of two French presidential elections. You will see that in the ‘Legitimacy score’ column I have given abstentions a zero, but given white votes a negative. That is because white votes seem to me a more active form of protest than an abstention. Note that the white votes doubled between the two elections.

2012 Voters (millions) Legitimacy score 2017 Voters (millions) Legitimacy score
Hollande 18.0 18.0 Macron 20.7 20.7
Sarkozy 16.9 16.9 Le Pen 10.6 10.6
Abstention 9.0 0 Abstention 12.1 0
White votes 2.1 -2.1 White votes 4.1 -4.1
Total 46.1 32.8 Total 47.6 27.2

Having got this far, my conclusions are less elegant than those of Loisel and Rio. It seems to me logical that if representative democracy is doing worse, the role for participatory democracy should increase. A fall in the legitimacy rating should lead to an enhanced role for elements of participatory democracy such as initiatives and referendums (I&R), initiatives and deliberation (I&D) and so on. Exactly how that might happen I’m not sure. But fortunately our readers are so talented that I can leave that to them!