The long and arduous road to participation

While we talk a lot about participatory democracy, political theory seems to have neglected the question of mass deliberation. Cristina Lafont criticizes deliberative shortcuts to take an interest in this difficult as well as long path.

Has political theory given up on mass deliberation? This is a question that the philosopher Simone Chambers already asked ten years ago and which has also concerned Cristina Lafont for several years. While participation has long been the watchword for those who wished to renew democratic institutions, the last three decades have seen the emergence of a new paradigm: the deliberative movement. By shifting the focus from voting to the discursive formation of policy preferences, it is perhaps no exaggeration to say that the deliberative approach has revolutionized the theory of democracy. Its weakness, however, remains the difficulty of reconciling the strong demands linked to quality deliberation with mass democratic participation. In most cases, either deliberative theory is very abstract, or it turns away from mass democracy to concentrate on institutions of a size more favorable to deliberation: constitutional courts, parliaments, or mini-publics. . Mass participation, for its part – and mass deliberation in particular – remain under-theorized. The merit of Cristina Lafont’s recent work, Democracy without shortcuts, is precisely to offer a conceptualization of democratic participation that is both “sensitive to deliberative concerns” and “adapted to mass democracies” (p. 7).

C. Lafont had already distinguished herself a few years ago with her criticism of these mini-publics made up of citizens chosen by lot, leaving non-selected citizens in the shadows. In this work, the author extends this criticism to a series of conceptions of democracy requiring citizens to blindly trust a shortcut procedure rather than taking the long and arduous path of participatory democracy and deliberation massive.

The majority shortcut

It is therefore on the “shortcuts” in political decision-making procedures that the criticism developed in this book focuses. Unfortunately, a clear and stable definition of these is lacking, but we can understand what it is by contrast with the alternative defended by C. Lafont, namely the deliberation of all citizens aimed at “changing the hearts and minds” (p. 4) of each other. Such inclusive deliberation aims for as broad an agreement as possible on the appropriate response to a political question. In contrast, shortened procedures renounce this search for collective agreement, to save time.

The first conception of democracy that C. Lafont rejects for this reason is the pure proceduralist approach, or “deep pluralist”, which suggests simply relying on the opinion of the majority due to the deep disagreements that run through the companies and make a broader agreement illusory. From this point of view, the legitimacy of political decisions in no way depends on their quality; it is only due to the intrinsic fairness of the decision-making procedure.

C. Lafont notes that citizens do not seem ready to adopt such a conception of democracy. If this were the case, they would not bother to challenge decisions adopted by a majority. They therefore seem to believe that a political question is not settled by the mere sanction of numbers, that it is not settled until there is a shared agreement on the response which is the most adequate or the more just. And according to the author, they are right. Without guarantees that majority decisions, and in particular those which involve fundamental rights, can be called into question and the debate reopened, minorities have no reason to rely on majority rule alone.

Proponents of the procedural or pluralist approach generally believe that disagreements over fundamental rights are indissoluble. Nothing is less certain, according to C. Lafont. Whatever the partisans of an “agonistic” conception of democracy, valuing conflict and dissensus for their own sake, say, a simple look at the great political struggles of the past – against slavery, for universal suffrage or same-sex marriage – shows that the intention of the groups whose rights were violated was always to obtain the broadest possible consensus on their rights rather than a simple temporary compromise giving way to dissensus (p. 64). And such consensuses have ended up imposing themselves in all democratic societies, alongside questions that remain highly controversial. This is why it is a reasonable expectation, even if convincing all of your fellow citizens may seem like an endless road.

The epistocratic shortcut

Is it nevertheless reasonable to hope to transform public opinion with a view to obtaining more enlightened political judgments? Wouldn’t it be simpler and more realistic to trust the opinions of the most informed people among us? It is this technocratic or “epistocratic” alternative, which does not fail to appeal to many citizens, that C. Lafont then attacks. The problem it raises is that, however intelligent the decisions taken by a circle of public policy experts may be, if the opinions of the majority remain what they are, the effectiveness of the decisions cannot be guarantee (p. 86-89). If, for example, enlightened leaders decided to open the borders widely to compensate for the aging of the population, but without changing the xenophobic attitudes of a large number of citizens, it is not obvious that progress would be recorded. on the migration issue. A political community cannot progress (or even maintain itself) by simply ignoring the opinions of the greatest number of its citizens. Rather, we must look for ways to improve their well-considered judgments.

Furthermore, citizens must be able to recognize themselves as authors of the law. This is the idea of ​​self-government: allowing citizens to shape the decisions to which they are subject and to recognize them as their own (p. 7; 17-33). Without it, they become politically “alienated,” that is, their interests, reasons, and ideas are permanently disconnected from the laws and policies to which they are subject (p. 19). It is for this reason that in the eyes of C. Lafont, democracy must be participatory. Not, however, in the sense that all citizens should be involved in all decisions. The idea is rather to imagine institutions allowing a lasting alignment between the decisions to which citizens are subject and the processes of forming opinion and political will (p. 23). The institutional implications of this formula, which remains quite abstract, could have been explored further by the author.

Such a conception of participation does not prevent trusting a limited number of representatives, but it excludes doing so blindly. However, according to the author, we have reason to trust elected representatives because we have a certain power of control over them. On the other hand, we have no reason to trust experts or random citizens to make decisions for us.

Judicial review of constitutionality: an illegitimate shortcut?

What about the review of constitutionality by courts of justice? Isn’t this another form of “epistocratic” shortcut? No, says C. Lafont in a very interesting final chapter. Constitutional judges do not take the place of citizens in deciding what rights they should enjoy. Their role essentially consists of interpreting rights that it is up to the political community as a whole to define and revise if they seem inadequate (p. 220). Furthermore, it would be wrong to lose sight of the fact that it is generally citizens themselves who initiate constitutionality reviews. And, rather than a means of serving the government of judges, judicial control of constitutionality is an instrument of democratic control, according to the author (p. 226). Indeed, it allows citizens to initiate or relaunch a public debate by drawing attention to the fact that certain fundamental rights may have been violated. This form of protection against abuse is also the essential condition for minorities to have reason to rely on majority rule – so that they do not have to do so blindly.

What place for citizen assemblies?

In certain respects, citizen assemblies chosen by lot (like the recent Citizens’ Convention for the Climate in France) – to which C. Lafont devotes two and a half chapters – can also strengthen minorities. Let us imagine, for example, that such citizen assemblies become the voice of certain minority demands ignored by dominant public opinion or by the majority in power: this would allow the minorities concerned to alert public opinion and invite them to reconsider the demands. in question (p. 147). If a representative sample of a certain diversity of the population recognizes, after having informed itself and having deliberated, the validity of these requests, the credibility and the weight of the latter in fact greatly increase.

However, while she recognizes a certain number of promising uses of such citizen assemblies, C. Lafont is reluctant to grant them too much power. She indeed believes that they have a useful role to play in the formation of public opinion, like the media (p. 141), but that they should not shape political decisions. Indeed, expressing only the well-considered judgments of a small number, and not of all citizens, citizen assemblies do not allow the latter to recognize themselves as authors of the law. Giving them decision-making power would, on the contrary, imply that citizens blindly trust the opinion of a small number of them whom they have not chosen, who will in all likelihood not be perfectly representative (in the sense description of the term), and over which they can practically exercise no control. However, the voice of a mini-public is not that of the maxi-public – and this is what makes deliberative citizen assemblies interesting. Relying on this shortcut to political decision-making therefore means renouncing the principles of self-government.

Because of these reluctances, it is not clear where to draw the line between legitimate and illegitimate uses of the draw. The suggestion that citizens’ assemblies should not influence political decision-making at all (p. 136) seems excessive. A large number of unelected actors, including civil society associations, influence political decisions without this necessarily appearing illegitimate. On the basis of the author’s arguments, one could object to the drawing of lots replacing the election, or to the ultimate decision-making power being entrusted to an assembly drawn by lot. But if these assemblies have a role to play in shaping public opinion, it is appropriate to give them the public visibility that only permanent institutionalization can provide.

In this regard, C. Lafont’s position remains somewhat undefined. Would she oppose, for example, a form of hybrid bicameralism in which a drawn chamber would be subordinate to an elected chamber? To the German-speaking Belgian model in which a permanent citizens’ council convenes citizens’ assemblies submitting their recommendations to Parliament? Such practices do not require blind trust in an enlightened mini-public. Since these assemblies do not have ultimate power, we do not place our collective fate in their hands. On the other hand, we could have reasons to hope that they exercise a real influence on the process of constructing political decisions. These reasons could, for example, be based on the quality of the deliberations in these assemblies, or on the numerous limits of electoral representation, which we would also be wrong to trust blindly.