Category Archives: democracy

If not elections, what else?

“Our democracy is being wrecked by being limited to elections, even though elections weren’t invented as a democratic instrument.” — David Van Reybrouck

In Europe, voters are discontented. Some are deserting their party loyalties, erratically. Some are attracted to populists railing against the system but without an alternative to it. Unstable governments are becoming more common, and in Belgium the country went for over a year without a government. Then there are non-voters, those who have opted out of the electoral circus.

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“Anyone who puts together low voter turnout, high voter turnover, declining party membership, governmental impotence, political paralysis, electoral fear of failure, lack of recruitment, compulsive self-promotion, chronic electoral fever, exhausting media stress, distrust, indifference and other persistent paroxysms see the outlines of a syndrome emerging. Democratic Fatigue Syndrome is a disorder that has not yet been fully described but from which countless Western societies are nonetheless unmistakably suffering.” (p. 16)

This is the diagnosis of David Van Reybrouck in his book Against Elections: The Case for Democracy, just published in English. The title of the book is challenging: isn’t democracy all about having elections? What about all those people in countries without elections, or with massive voter fraud, agitating against dictatorial governments and demanding fair elections?

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David Van Reybrouck

Sortition versus elections

Van Reybrouck, to present another view, goes back into the history of democracy, which etymologically means rule by the people, the demos. In ancient Athens, the members of most of the important decision-making bodies, such as the Council of 500, the People’s Court and the magistracies, were chosen randomly, a system called the lot or sortition.

kleroterion
The kleroterion, used in ancient Athens for randomly selecting public officials

Athenian citizens comprised only perhaps one-sixth of the adult population, the others being women, slaves and foreigners. Although it was a flawed form of democracy, it was an extraordinary innovation for its time, a dramatic departure from arbitrary rule.

Sortition is Van Reybrouck’s special interest. He traces its use from ancient Greece through the Middle Ages in Europe. In Florence, Venice and other cities in several parts of Europe, sortition was used in combination with elections in intricate ways to choose leaders. However, only aristocrats were involved, with no popular participation.

Through the 1700s, popular participation in decision-making was only an idea, not a practical reality. People were ruled by hereditary aristocracies. Then came the American and French revolutions, resisting and overthrowing monarchies. What system of decision-making should they use?

According to Van Reybrouck, there were two options on the table, elections and sortition. The general view by key writers at the time was that elections were an aristocratic mechanism and sortition a democratic one. As we know, the revolutionaries adopted elections. According to their writings, they opposed democracy, being afraid of the lower classes having power. So they wrote constitutions that ensured continuing power for elites through elections, with only a limited number of landowners entitled to vote.

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In the following decades, the franchise gradually expanded but the system worked largely the same way, ensuring that people were not directly involved in governance, having only the occasional and limited role of helping to choose their rulers. Along the way, the previous idea that elections were an aristocratic mechanism was reversed to the current belief that elections are democracy. This idea became so dominant that elections were written into the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Representative government is now called “democracy,” so other possibilities for citizen participation have to make do with adjectival forms such as “participatory democracy” or “direct democracy” or “deliberative democracy.”

“Electoral fundamentalists, we have for decades clung to the ballot box as if it were the Holy Grail of democracy, only to discover that we have been clinging not to a Holy Grail but to a poisoned chalice that was deliberately set up as an anti-democratic instrument.” (pp. 92-93)

The jury system

The best analogy to sortition is the jury system used in courts. Twelve or so citizens are selected at random to serve for a limited period, hearing from lawyers and witnesses and then reaching a verdict. Although jurors are far less experienced than judges, the jury system has several advantages. First, the jurors, because they are chosen by lot, are more representative of the citizenry in terms of age, occupation, education, gender and ethnicity. Second, the jurors have no stake in the outcome: because their time as jurors is limited, and they have no reputation to defend, they are less subject to influence or self-interest. Third, the jurors are able to deliberate, namely to discuss evidence and views with each other, each bringing to the discussion their own backgrounds and understanding. Fourth, serving on a jury provides a powerful education in citizen participation. Fifth, the jury system gives greater credibility to decisions: jury members are peers of the accused, not overseers.

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Scene from 12 Angry Men, a classic film about a jury

Sortition involves random selection of citizens to serve limited terms in decision-making roles. The terms in office are limited because being chosen by lot provides no mandate. Those chosen are demographically representative of the community, and this representativeness can be enhanced by stratified sampling: for example, if women and men each constitute half the population, then half of the citizen jurors can be chosen from women and half from men, thus overcoming biases due to some of those selected declining or being unable to serve. Decision-makers serving for short periods are less susceptible to bribery and other influences from vested interests; furthermore, vested interests cannot groom individuals for office because there is no way to increase the odds of being selected.

Since the 1970s, there have been experiments with sortition, most commonly in what are called policy juries or citizens juries. Twelve to 25 or more citizens are chosen randomly from a specified population and brought together for several days to make a decision about a policy issue involving, for example, energy, genetic engineering or education. Neutral facilitators provide the jurors with written materials and arrange for experts, representing different positions, to give presentations and answer questions. The facilitators encourage a balanced and respectful discussion. The jury members then explore common ground and develop a set of mutually agreed recommendations, always allowing for a minority report. The experience from hundreds of such juries is that so-called ordinary citizens take the responsibility given to them very seriously, come up with sensible recommendations, and find the experience illuminating and empowering.

Van Reybrouck gives most attention to large-scale experiments: the Canadian and Dutch governments commissioned citizens panels to offer recommendations for electoral reform. Although none of their recommendations were implemented (being rejected by referendum or government decision), the experiments show the potential of sortition as an antidote for voter dissatisfaction and disengagement.

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Van Reybrouck thinks the best hope for reform is to replace one of the two parliamentary houses – the house of representatives or the senate – with a chamber of randomly selected citizens. He provides tables showing the various options proposed by writers and political theorists, with special attention to a complex yet flexible model involving six different bodies, some randomly selected and some elected, each providing checks to the power of the others.

Van Reybrouck’s book Against Elections is one of a growing number of treatments of sortition. It is undoubtedly one of the most engaging. Van Reybrouck musters facts and figures and historical examples in a style that makes for compelling reading. There are plenty of references; Van Reybrouck has an impressive grasp of the topic. In the English translation (Bodley Head edition), the physical book is attractive in layout, slim and elegant. It deserves to be widely read.

against-elections

Sortition from the bottom up

In plumping for a randomly selected parliamentary chamber, Van Reybrouck endorses reform, but a particularly difficult type of reform, because it needs to be instituted from the top. Yet the obstacles to this sort of reform are enormous. In Against Elections, Van Reybrouck notes the hostility of both politicians and the mass media to the idea of sortition.

An alternative road to sortition is to begin at smaller scales, in organisations and local communities. Rather than choose citizens to make decisions for a country with a population of millions, random selection could be used for groups of hundreds to tens of thousands, much closer to the original Athenian model. The newDemocracy Foundation in Australia follows this sort of road.

There is another sense in which Van Reybrouck looks only to reform: he assumes the continuing existence of the state apparatus: all those government departments and parliamentary staffers who, arguably, make most of the real decisions. As he notes, elected politicians can’t actually learn all that much about all of the hundreds of topics on which they are asked to vote, so they rely on party positions or assistants.

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Returning to court juries and citizens jury experiments, one key feature is that citizens are asked to address only a single issue: a single court case or a particular policy issue. There is an opportunity for learning quite a lot about specifics, of hearing from a range of experts and for engaging in lengthy deliberations. This would be hard to achieve in a large legislative chamber dealing with dozens of different policy issues.

In 1985, philosopher John Burnheim in his book Is Democracy Possible? proposed an alternative to representative government that he called demarchy. It relies on randomly selected groups of decision-makers – namely, sortition – with one additional and crucial feature. Each group addresses only a single function in a local community, for example education, land use or transport. Burnheim calls them functional groups.

Burnheim modelled his concept of demarchy on ancient Greek democracies, not even being aware that when he wrote, pioneering work using policy juries was underway in Germany and the US. Demarchy can be considered the natural extension of policy juries.

Random selection is definitely an idea on the rise, in a variety of contexts, for example admission to university. Yet most of this is happening under the radar, from a very low base. Politicians, as might be expected, are resistant to random selection, even those politicians such as The Greens that officially support participatory democracy. So there is a very long way to go before sortition starts being treated as a serious alternative, as a way of invigorating systems of rule. Van Reybrouck’s Against Elections is a valuable contribution to the journey.

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Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au

Thanks to Lyn Carson for valuable comments on a draft.

Politics and morals

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Jonathan Haidt has analysed the moral foundations of people’s political orientations. To fully explain people’s political allegiances, attention also needs to be given to the ‘tactics of assignment’. Proponents of deliberative democracy can learn from studying moral foundations.

Introduction

Jonathan Haidt is a psychologist who has investigated the foundations of people’s morality. In his engaging and pathbreaking book The Righteous Mind, he draws on a wide range of evidence to argue that morality has six main foundations: care, fairness, liberty, authority, loyalty and sanctity. Previously I commented on how this framework applies to whistleblowing.

Righteous_Mind

            The ‘care’ foundation means caring for others, an extension of the instinct to care for children, necessary in human evolution for the survival of groups. Care in a contemporary political context means concern for those who need assistance, such as people who are poor, disabled or abused. This care foundation inspires support for government welfare services such as unemployment payments.

Haidt applies his framework to US citizens, with a surprising conclusion. He finds that libertarians rely especially on single foundation, liberty, which means opposition to domination. Libertarians oppose government controls, and taken to extremes this leads to surprising conclusions: they may oppose drug laws, environmental regulations and even taxation. A principled libertarian trusts in individuals and markets to solve social problems.

Liberals in the US – which might be called progressives or leftists elsewhere – draw heavily on three moral foundations: care, fairness and liberty, with care as their foremost value.

Finally there are US conservatives. The more a person follows a conservative line, in Haidt’s assessment, the more likely they are to rely on all six moral foundations in roughly equal measure. Conservatives are influenced by authority, loyalty and sanctity more than are libertarians and liberals.

One measure of where you stand on the liberal-conservative continuum is openness to new experiences. If you are stimulated by new foods, new ideas and people from different cultures, you are likely to be at the liberal end of the spectrum. Haidt notes that within universities, liberals greatly outnumber conservatives.

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One important consequence of differences in moral foundations is that people do not fully understand what drives others. Unless you realise that libertarians prioritise liberty in their assessments of right and wrong, it can be hard to figure out how they come to their judgements.

Haidt has a message for liberals: conservatives have an advantage in political engagements. Conservatives, drawing more equally on all six moral foundations, can understand where others are coming from. However, liberals, emphasising just three foundations, cannot as easily understand the passions of conservatives, because for liberals the roles of authority, loyalty and sanctity are less salient.

A conservative, for example, may react viscerally to the act of defacing the American flag. This is a violation of a sense of sacredness that underpins emotional responses and consequently shapes viewpoints. A liberal might think, ‘it’s just a piece of cloth, so what’s the big deal?’ The liberal simply does not rate stamping on a flag (a violation of sanctity) as anywhere comparable to stamping on a person’s body (a violation of care).

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Haidt says there is something to learn from conservatives, for example the value of traditions. More generally, he argues that politics needs to be based on mutual understanding. In particular, liberals need to better understand what drives conservatives so that each of them can move beyond pointless arguments that are based on deeply felt, but sometimes unrecognised, emotional responses.

The rider and the elephant

Haidt, like other psychologists, finds it useful to think of the mind as composed of two components. One is intuitive, fast and judgemental. Haidt calls this component the elephant. The other component, which is reflective, slow and strategic, Haidt calls it the rider.

Elephant and Rider

            The intuitive side of the mind is very useful for day-to-day life, making quick evaluations that enable survival. If you see an object rapidly coming towards your head, it is better to duck immediately rather than first try to calculate its trajectory. The rational part of the mind carefully considers evidence and options and is more suited for evaluation and long-term planning.

Haidt uses the labels elephant and rider because, according to the evidence, much thinking operates by the elephant making a quick judgement and the rider working out a way to justify it. There are some ingenious psychological experiments showing how the power of rationality is used to justify gut reactions, sometimes involving elaborate intellectual contortions. Those whose rational powers are more developed may actually be better at developing rationalisations for pre-made judgements. The rider usually follows the elephant’s preferences.

Applied to politics, this means that a lot of political argument is just a sideshow, because evidence and arguments are mainly used to justify positions based on intuitive judgements, themselves related to the six foundations of morality. The metaphor of the elephant and rider helps to explain why so few people change their minds when exposed to new evidence. More commonly, they ignore or dismiss the evidence, or find ways to undermine it. This is a feature of the phenomenon called confirmation bias, in which people look for evidence to support their current views and ignore, dismiss or criticise contrary evidence.

Willful-blindness

Assigning moralities

A question Haidt does not systematically address, though he is aware of it, is why moralities are assigned in particular ways and not others. For example, in relation to sanctity, why should someone care more about desecration of the US flag than, for example, the California flag or the UN flag? In terms of the fairness foundation, why should someone get more upset about welfare cheats than about inherited wealth?

There are big differences between the US and Europe in how some moralities are assigned. For example, in the US, people who have never been employed may not qualify for unemployment payments. In many European countries, universal unemployment insurance is taken for granted, and is far more generous. Does this mean that in the US, the fairness foundation is more important than the care foundation? Probably not: a better explanation is that US citizens have been conditioned to think about welfare in a different way than Europeans.

This is apparent in the US debate about ‘socialised medicine,’ which means universal health insurance. Many in the US see this as a dangerous idea, presumably appealing to the foundation of liberty, namely resistance to government domination. In Europe, universal health insurance is seen as normal, and appeals to the foundations of care and fairness.

Socialized_Medicine

            Another example is transport. It is well known that US transit systems — trains and buses primarily — are limited in service, low in quality and expensive compared to many European systems. In the US, the car reigns supreme, a symbol of independence and freedom, appealing to the liberty foundation. But what about roads? The US interstate highway system, built in the 1950s onwards, was the largest public works program in the world. Yet no one in the US talks about ‘socialised roads’ or even castigates trains and buses as ‘socialised transport’. Admittedly, some libertarians would like to privatise the road system, but they are a tiny minority.

US-roads

            To explain the peculiarities of how moralities are assigned in different ways, Haidt refers to moral entrepreneurs, public relations people and political operatives. A moral entrepreneur is someone who tries to stir up passions about a topic. Anti-abortionists, animal liberationists and sellers of deodorants all are trying to persuade others to think and act a certain way, and doing it by linking their special concerns to moral foundations. Anti-abortionists and animal liberationists each appeal to the care foundation, but with very different objects of concern, while deodorant advertisers appeal to the sanctity foundation, trying to induce people to buy deodorants to prevent or disguise allegedly disgusting body odour.

Loyalty to what?

Moral entrepreneurs are active in all things political. Patriotism is a prime example, linked to the loyalty foundation. Early humans lived in small groups, comprising dozens to a few hundred individuals. Maintaining loyalty to this group often made the difference between life and death for group members, so in evolutionary terms it makes sense that human minds are primed for loyalty. As Haidt expresses it, loyalty is an aspect of the first draft of the mind.

But loyalty to what? Why should a mental preference for loyalty to small human groups be assigned to a country, sometimes with millions of people, in what we call patriotism or national pride? Why not loyalty to one’s nearest one hundred neighbours? Or why not loyalty to the entire human species? Or maybe loyalty to life more generally, in a type of pantheism?

The answer is that identification with one’s own country is cultivated in all sorts of ways, many of them so obvious as to be unnoticed. In school, children are taught about their country’s history, often in biased ways. Students in Australia learn much more about Australia — usually good things, sometimes bad things — than about Brazil or Ethiopia. Then there is the media, reporting national news as a priority. In sports coverage, it might be reported, ‘Australia took a lead over India’. Yes, it’s cricket, and nothing really significant perhaps, but it reinforces thinking about the world in terms of countries.

cricket-India-Australia

Democracy

Winston Churchill’s comment that ‘democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried’ is often quoted. The system of government commonly called ‘democracy’ has taken on a type of god-like status. Indeed, it appeals to the sanctity foundation in many people who follow politics.

The media provide a steady diet of news about government policies, government crises, politicians and elections. It might be said that politics is one of the world’s leading spectator sports. Nearly everyone has an opinion.

Politics is indeed a spectator sport in an important sense: most people are spectators, not participants. Aside from occasionally voting and talking to others about politics, most people have no greater involvement. In terms of participation, electoral politics is quite low. Just as it is misleading to refer to a ‘sporting nation’ when many unfit citizens interact with sports only as spectators, it is also misleading to refer to ‘democracy’ when most citizens are passive spectators of rule by politicians, not to mention unelected lobby groups who serve the interests of the wealthiest 1%.

For these reasons, my co-author Lyn Carson and I prefer the expression ‘representative government’ over ‘democracy’. Historically, there have been quite a number of political systems with much greater direct participation in decision making, for example in ancient Athens.

For those who support greater participation, for example through referenda, town meetings, consultative forums, community representatives on planning bodies, and randomly selected policy-advising bodies, the challenge is how to move from representative government to participatory democracy. In Haidt’s terms, current attachments of fairness, authority, loyalty and sanctity are to the system of voting and elections — representative government — and not to more participatory processes.

This is not an easy task, to say the least. Representative government is taught to school children, is taken for granted in media coverage, is touted as the solution to autocracy, and is regularly legitimated through voting and elections, in which voters give their implicit consent to the system of rule.

Consequences-of-consent

The occupy movement challenged the system by pointing out the complicity of governments and corporations in serving the wealthy at the expense of the majority – the 99%. Representative government in many countries has become a tool of powerful groups and serves their interests regardless of which party is in power. The occupy movement had a presence on the streets of many cities around the world, but in the US was subject to police harassment. Challenging the system in a direct, open way can be a risky business.

Attaching to participatory politics

Many people have developed strong beliefs in the superiority of representative government and the impossibility of participatory democracy. Their moralities have become assigned to one particular moral matrix, namely a configuration of moral assessments. Voting is seen to be fair, and so is the election of rulers, even though having money and connections is crucially important to electoral success. Few people think it is unfair that most people have no hope of being elected to office.

On the other hand, some moral assignments are more compatible with participatory processes. For example, in countries where juries for trials are selected randomly, this is seen as fair — as a way of selecting an unbiased cross-section of the population to hear evidence from two sides and to make a considered judgement. That trial juries are seen as fair shows that the fairness foundation might be assigned in a different way in politics. Randomly selected groups of citizens might be brought together, provided with information about a controversial issue – such as town planning or nanotechnology – hear from experts and partisans, discuss the issue among themselves and reach a consensus. Such groups are called policy juries or citizens panels. Hundreds of such panels, in several different countries, have been formed and have deliberated on a wide range of issues. The challenge is to get more people to think of these sorts of processes as the epitome of fairness, rather than voting.

Deliberative-democracy-handbook

Participatory democracy can come in various forms, for example referendums and popular assemblies, which complicates the challenge of encouraging people to think of them as viable alternatives to representative government. Another important factor is deliberation, which means careful consideration of arguments, often in discussions with others, as in juries. Only some participatory processes are deliberative: referendums often are not, being determined more by campaigning, advertising and slogans, whereas citizens panels are.

Advocates of participatory and deliberative alternatives can learn from Haidt’s research on moral foundations. Rather than trying to convince people through information and logical argument that participation and deliberation are good things, it is likely to be more effective to come up with ways to get people to sense in their guts that these alternatives are valuable and worth supporting.

Probably the best advertisement for participation is the experience of participation itself. Many of the people chosen randomly to serve on citizens panels find it incredibly engrossing and satisfying: they feel they are doing something worthwhile and become committed to the process. The same applies to experiences in workers’ councils, neighbourhood meetings and social action groups. The occupy movement, for example, provided on-the-ground training in participatory politics.

The implication is that ‘doing democracy’ – namely participating in groups or processes that involve direct decision-making – is a powerful way to promote participatory alternatives to representative government. The challenge is to make these experiences as satisfying as possible, thereby building commitment to the process, without getting too fixated on changing things immediately. This is the familiar dilemma of task functions and maintenance functions within groups. Achieving the group’s goal is important, but so is maintaining good relationships within the group, as the basis for commitment and long-term survival.

Taking a lead from Haidt, promoting participatory alternatives needs to pay more attention to what affects people’s moralities — their senses of care, fairness, liberty, authority, loyalty and sanctity — and figure out how to reassign moral foundations to participative and deliberative processes. There is nothing automatic or inherent in patriotism or a belief in the superiority of representative government. Alternatives are possible; the question is how best to promote them.

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au

Thanks to Lyn Carson for valuable comments on a draft.

From selling politicians to promoting deliberation

Dee Madigan’s book The Hard Sell reveals how Australian political advertising works. It can also be used to highlight obstacles to deliberative democracy.

Dee Madigan worked for many years in the advertising industry as a creative director. She became involved in political advertising, being part of the campaign teams for several politicians in the Australian Labor Party. With this background, she was highly knowledgeable about what might be called “The selling of Australian politicians” (in the tradition of several accounts of US presidential campaigns).

Hard-sell

Madigan has written an exposé entitled The Hard Sell: The Tricks of Political Advertising (Melbourne University Press, 2014). She tells about various standard techniques used in advertising efforts on behalf of politicians, for example branding of parties, preparing advertisements, the use of positive and attack ads, different platforms (television, social media, etc.) and focus groups.

This is a no-nonsense guide that is engaging in its style and content. For example, in the chapter “TV isn’t dead but the internet is awesome” she writes:

With the advent of social media things got even more frantic in the ad world. Agencies started employing “social media experts” (which was anyone with a Twitter account) to run campaigns. These “experts” were full of lines like, “It’s about starting a conversation.”

Every time someone says this, I’m tempted to whack them over the head with my laptop.

Because it is utter, utter bullshit.

The role of any form of marketing is to persuade. And anyone who says the conversation itself is the purpose is either fooling themselves or fooling you. (p. 133)

She writes about the Australian political scene but also draws on research and experiences in other countries, especially the US where political marketing techniques are most highly developed. The Australian political system is different from the US in several ways. One of the most important, for the purposes of political campaigning, is that voting in the US is voluntary, so much effort is expended trying to encourage supporters to actually vote. In Australia, where voting is compulsory, the orientation is more to try to get so-called “swinging voters” — who don’t pay much attention to politics — to vote for the preferred brand.

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Swinging voters (image: Eric Lobbecke, The Australian)

Madigan acknowledges that shady activities can occur, such as unfair and manipulative slurs in ads, but she basically believes in the system, arguing that dodgy practices are constrained in various ways, and can actually be counterproductive. She could hardly be an effective player in campaigns if she was too cynical.

She is a supporter of Labor, but The Hard Sell is quite balanced in providing insights, pointing to the strengths and weaknesses of efforts on behalf of Labor, Liberals and other parties. You don’t have to be a Labor supporter to learn a lot from the book.

Here, I want to use Madigan’s book for a different purpose, namely to highlight features of the Australian political system that are obstacles to the goal of deliberation in political decision-making, in particular deliberation by citizens. The word “deliberation” in this context means carefully considering information, options and goals, often in discussions with others.

In a jury trial, the jury members are involved in a process of deliberation. They hear the evidence and assess it, and then discuss with each other their observations and views with the goal of reaching a consensus on the verdict. This is quite different from listening to ads and deciding what product (or politician) to buy.

The idea of jury deliberations has actually been applied to political decision-making in what are called policy juries or citizens panels. A group of 12 or more randomly selected citizens is brought together for several days and asked to address a particular issue, such as nanotechnology policy. They get to hear presentations from advocates and researchers, receive printed materials to study, spend time discussing options with each other, and deliberate towards a consensus position. The panels are coordinated by independent facilitators, rather like referees at sporting matches, whose aim is good process rather than any particular outcome. They help the group find its own way towards mutually agreed recommendations.

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Citizens’ jury in Minnesota

Hundreds of such policy-panel deliberations have been organised in recent decades, in many different countries. The results are encouraging. Jury members take the process very seriously, carefully consider the evidence, learn from each other, and come up with recommendations that most external observers see as sensible, even wise. Perhaps best of all, most participants report that the experience is satisfying for them personally. Some even say it is the best thing they have done in their entire lives. Genuine participation, with deliberation, is empowering. The experience with citizens’ juries provides some of the best evidence that deliberative democracy is a worthwhile ideal.

In looking at Australian political campaigning, as so clearly presented by Madigan, in light of the goal of greater deliberation, I will consider branding, focus groups, voting and news cycles. This isn’t a comprehensive coverage of ideas in The Hard Sell but is sufficient to illustrate that any political system susceptible to marketing is unlikely to foster deliberation.

Branding

Madigan:

Many politicians get cross when we in advertising refer to “political brands”. They feel we are emphasising the selling over the doing. But that just shows they don’t really understand what a brand is. A brand is who you are, what you say and what you stand for. Equally, it’s about how the voter feels about you — the emotions that are elicited when they think of you. It is the emotional and psychological relationship a political party has with their voters.

So, yes, political parties are brands, and individuals within parties have personal brands. Unless parties understand this they will struggle to connect with voters. (p. 2)

The value of a brand is that it short-circuits thinking. At a supermarket, a shopper who relies on brands does not check prices or contents: the brand is enough to ensure a purchase, or at least a preference. When products are essentially identical, brands make choice easier. They can also command a premium. Some fruit juices, for example, come from the same cannery but are put into differently branded containers. Some designer clothes are little different from cheaper copies. Purchasers may be buying image rather than substance.

Any political system in which branding plays a significant role is likely to be the enemy of deliberation. In Australia, political brands are highly influential. Labor and Liberals try to create favourable images, sometimes contradictory ones to different sections of the electorate, with the hope that voters will identify with them.

Branding of parties means that voting doesn’t require examination of policies or performance. The key is image.

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Australian Liberal Party attack ad

Political party identification actually can induce people to accept positions contrary to their personal beliefs. In the US, researchers found that when a policy position was labelled Republican or Democratic — namely endorsed by their favoured party — many voters would accept the policy even when it conflicted with the belief system supposedly associated with their party. What this means is that a Republican voter might accept a policy if it is labelled Republican but reject it if it is labelled Democratic. In short, these voters don’t think for themselves.

If deliberation is to become important in a political system, branding needs to be minimised. The most radical solution is to get rid of political parties. Imagine going to a polling booth and finding that the ballot paper only has names, without any party identification. However, this doesn’t get rid of personal branding.

An alternative to the electoral system is to use random selection of decision makers, as in a jury. Branding doesn’t give any advantage when choices are made randomly. Indeed, election campaigning becomes superfluous.

Focus groups

Madigan:

On any given night, somewhere in Australia, there is a group of eight complete strangers being paid to sit around a table in a room and give their opinion about something: a flavour of ice-cream, the merits of eight grooves in a tampon instead of six (no, I am not joking), or a particular ad for TV. And behind a glass window, there is another room filled with people watching them. (p. 31)

Focus groups might sound like a form of deliberation, but they are closer to a type of opinion poll. Furthermore, they are used for market research, a non-deliberative purpose.

Australian political parties use focus groups extensively to test out ideas. Madigan’s special interest is how focus groups are used to assess political ads. She creates an ad, or at least the draft of an ad, and then it is introduced to a focus group. The response can make the difference between running it and canning it. This use of a focus group is designed to help select tools — ads — that more effectively manipulate voters. The word “manipulate” is appropriate here because ads are not aimed at fostering insight or reflection but at producing an outcome or, to use the relevant metaphor, inducing the selection of the desired political brand.

Then there is choice of who is selected to join focus groups.

In elections, focus groups are chosen according to targeted demographics; in short, they are the “low-hanging fruit”. “High-hanging fruit” are those who are voting the other way — there’s no point trying to get them as you’ll never reach them. And the fruit on the ground are yours anyway so you don’t spend much money trying to get them either. The low-hanging fruit are the soft voters — they have voted for you at one of the last two elections, and are considering voting the other way this time around. (pp. 36–37)

Parties hire recruitment companies to survey people and, using their answers to key questions, identify those who soft voters. These are the ones invited to focus groups and whose opinions are used to select ads — that are, as a result, oriented to soft voters. So the entire operation of focus groups in political campaigning is targeted at these sorts of voters. In Australia, they are often called swinging voters, because they may swing back and forth, from one election to another, between one major party to another.

(Australia has preferential voting, so a vote for a minor party usually ends up supporting one of the two major parties, especially in the House of Representatives. In any case, the idea of swing in the “two-party preferred vote” is highly influential in the way commentators and party officials think about elections.)

So focus groups are, during an election campaign, a particular type of market research, namely targeting swinging voters with persuasive ads.

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Australian Labor Party attack ad

Putting so much weight on the views of swinging voters puts deliberation even further from the agenda, because many of these voters pay little attention to political issues: they are more swayed by the brand than policies and by promises rather than performance. In a fully functioning deliberative democracy, the views of all citizens would be taken into account, and those who are most informed would be more respected and possibly influential.

Voting

Madigan’s main interest is political advertising, but she recognises the value of traditional forms of campaigning. In particular, she acknowledges the importance of politicians actually meeting voters, for example through door-knocking.

door-knocking
Door-knocking on climate change

In a large electorate, a politician cannot possibly meet everyone, so door-knocking is carried out by supporters. And in this there is plenty of data and analysis about how to be more effective. Parties, or agencies working for them, build up databases about citizens. Again, those targeted in efforts to meet and interact with voters are the “low-hanging fruit.” Furthermore, meetings with voters are designed to be efficient, usually last two minutes or so, enough to make an impression but no longer than necessary. Spending an hour with a voter is not an efficient use of resources, especially with a voter with strongly held views.

Madigan reports that up to 20% of voters make up their decisions on the way to the polling booth. One key influence is the how-to-vote card. Near polling stations, supporters of different parties set up shop with tables, banners and leaflets. Most important is the how-to-vote card, indicating exactly what boxes to number to support a particular party or candidate.

Many voters do not know enough about the candidates, parties or issues to make a decision based on informed choice, so they choose a brand — a party — and follow its instructions. Some Australian governments have made this even easier by introducing voting “above the line”: a voter can give a tick to single party, without giving preferences to other parties or candidates, and the party chosen selects the preferences. There is all sorts of horse-trading between parties as they seek to acquire preferences from other parties.

All of this could be overcome by simple changes to ballot papers. Instead of listing political parties, just the candidates could be listed — in a random order. Different ballot papers would have the names printed in different sequences. This would mean that the usual how-to-vote card wouldn’t work: instead of ticking according to the card — 4, 5, 1, 6, 3, 2 for example — the voter would actually have to identify their favoured candidate by name and put a 1 next to it. This doesn’t sound like much, but many voters pay so little attention to elections that without a how-to-vote card they would be clueless.

There is a phenomenon called the donkey vote. Some voters, rather than submitting a blank ballot — which seems the most sensible option if you don’t really care who is elected — instead number the candidates sequentially: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6. This means that the candidate allocated the top position on the ballot gets extra, unwarranted votes. If different ballot papers had the candidates listed in different orders, then donkey votes would give little or no advantage.

donkey-vote

Of course, parties could still hand out how-to-vote cards giving the names of their preferred candidates. Furthermore, some desperate candidates might change their names to Liberal Party or Labor Party, seeking the ultimate in brand identification. Randomising names on ballot papers would be only a small step towards encouraging greater awareness by voters. On its own it would not do a lot towards deliberation.

News cycles

The mass media, especially television, remains a potent influence on voters. Political parties have various ways to influence the news, for example putting out media releases at suitable times (to encourage or discourage coverage, depending on the story), cultivating journalists and using spin. Madigan covers all this, including the peculiarly Australian aspects of parliamentary elections, such as the blackout of political ads on radio and television three days before elections (newspaper and online ads are allowed).

greens-jobs-bumper-sticker-1024x404
Australian Greens bumper sticker

Madigan notes that the 24-hour news cycle, in which something more than a day old is no longer newsworthy, no longer exists. The news cycle is much shorter, in part due to social media.

As news cycles get shorter, so do political memories. The amount of credit you get after an event also gets shorter and shorter. It’s why politicians are increasingly looking for short-term wins rather than planning for the long term. (p. 160)

The news cycle, long or short, is hardly conducive to deliberation. It has been well documented that most news coverage lacks context, history and careful analysis. Hearing the news provides little insight into the pros and cons of issues. It does very little to encourage deliberation. This is especially true when the news is subject to politicians’ efforts to sway opinion via what is called “spin.”

Spin is designed to argue a viewpoint and direct people’s attention. It is one side of the truth. Democracy is built on the principles of debate, after all. The danger is when the media presents it as the whole truth. (p. 163)

“Democracy” is seen here by Madigan as built on debate — but a debate between opposing spin doctors, each using the media to present a one-sided, partial truth. This form of debate is all very well, but citizens are positioned as the audience, not as participants in the debate.

In any debate each side has both the right, and indeed the responsibility, to present their arguments in as compelling a way as possible to garner the most support from the audience — or, in this case, the voters. That is a fundamental part of democracy. And just as some people are better with numbers and others at fixing stuff, some are experts at communicating. So it makes sense to use these people in this area. Especially now that so much of political debate takes place in media forums in which effective, persuasive communication is essential. (p. 156)

This passage articulates the conventional idea of politics as a professional activity, in which political operatives, along with communication specialists such as Madigan, attempt to persuade voters to adopt their brand. Citizens become the audience, watching the performance and occasionally — at elections — expressing their preferences.

Deliberative democracy is something quite different. It involves the erstwhile audience members becoming the performers. Rather than just debating preformed views, they explore options, imagine alternatives and work towards collective judgement.

Some questions then arise. Is there any scope for the skills of Madigan and other political communication specialists being used to promote deliberative democracy itself? Is deliberation simply one more product to be sold to an audience? If not, what is the process for transforming political systems into more participatory forms? What would be the role of persuasive communication in a set of deliberative processes?

Ideally, the process of promoting deliberative democracy would itself be participatory: the means would reflect the ends. Perhaps, in doing this, Madigan or others like her can contribute. Meanwhile, we can learn from The Hard Sell the essence of party politics as marketing, and better understand why politicians have such difficulty imagining participatory alternatives.

Brian Martin

bmartin@uow.edu.au

Acknowledgements

Thanks to Lyn Carson for invaluable comments on a draft.