Critical citizenship at work: the intriguing combination of democratic and epistocratic criticism of representation in French public opinion

Abstract

The crisis of representative democracy has been at the core of extensive research in contemporary political science. However, empirical works have mostly highlighted sceptical attitudes, and few studies have focused on critical citizens’ aspirations. This article explores the combined support for random selection and skills-testing of decision-makers in French public opinion. Drawing on data from the CEVIPOF 2017 French electoral survey, it discusses: (1) the level of concern and support for such institutional changes; (2) the intriguing convergence of both top-down and bottom-up criticism of the representative system; (3) the impact of education and (4) the impact of political preferences on attitudes towards random selection and skills-testing of representatives. We find that education has a negative effect on both variables, and that classical political variables (Left–Right scale) have a nonlinear impact. The stronger impact on variables is provided by critical citizenship types, defined by satisfaction/dissatisfaction with current democracy and aspirations for change.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    The author wishes to thank the other members of the “Democracy and the Citizen” research group at the CEVIPOF (Bruno Cautrès, Janie Pélabay, Bernard Reber and Réjane Sénac), who fuelled stimulating discussions on this article’s topic in the past years. Methodological and technical advice provided by Bruno Cautrès and Flora Chanvril-Ligneel was greatly appreciated, as were the suggestions of Thomas Vitiello and Chantal Barry. Special thanks should also be given to Pavlos Vasilopoulos for his decisive recommendations on the analysis of data.

  2. 2.

    Particularly after the Convention Citoyenne pour le Climat, composed of 150 randomly selected members, was created in 2019.

  3. 3.

    These general conclusions must not hide the diversity of approaches to the issue of critical citizenship within political sociology. Some work has shown that it also includes positive aspects and attitudes (see for instance: Dalton 2007; Muxel 2002, 2018).

  4. 4.

    In this article, all percentages have been rounded up to the nearest whole number.

  5. 5.

    The four other proposals scored as follows: (1) “Groups of ordinary citizens should be consulted more frequently”, 72% replies from 7 to 10 (mean: 7.56); (2) “Leader profiles should reflect the diversity of today’s society”, 63% replies from 7 to 10 (mean: 7.09); (3) “There should be greater recourse to referenda to ensure that citizens have the final say”, 61% replies from 7 to 10 (mean: 7.05); (4) “Voting should be mandatory for all elections”, 51% replies from 7 to 10 (mean: 6.42).

  6. 6.

    The opposition between government by experts and the electoral system appears more explicitly in another item of the CEVIPOF’s Baromètre de la Confiance Politique 2017. Here, respondents were invited to give their opinion on the following proposal: “Our government would work better if decisions were made by unelected and independent experts rather than by politicians or citizens”. However, from a theoretical point of view, this formulation combines an epistocratic conception of government (through the reference to “unelected experts”) with a deliberative conception of decision-making (promotion of “independent” judgement as opposed to partisan ways of settling disputes). Its interpretation within the framework of this article would thus be problematic.

  7. 7.

    Since then, such a measurement has been included in the CEVIPOF’s Baromètre de la Confiance Politique 2017, 2018 and 2019. Overall agreement (fluctuating between 42 and 48%) was measured by the following statement: “Democracy would work better in France if members of parliament were in fact randomly selected citizens”.

  8. 8.

    Clear-cut replies oscillate between 62% for random selection and 76% for the following item: “France would be governed better if we consulted groups of ordinary citizens more frequently”.

  9. 9.

    Interpretations of notions such as the “radicalisation of democracy” or “radical democracy” vary substantially between the different reference authors. However, in the literature of political theory, they all refer to a reinforcement of popular power (of ordinary citizens) within democratic systems. Therein lies a “radicalisation” of democracy in the sense that the people are considered the root, the founding pillar of democracy. Radical democracy therefore appears to be a return to the sources of the democratic regime (Cohen and Fung 2004).

  10. 10.

    On the choice of these labels, and for an in-depth analysis of this question, see the other contribution to this special issue (Pélabay and Sénac 2019).

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Appendix

Appendix

Impact of political and socio-demographic variables on approval of random selection and skills-testing

  Approval of random selection Approval of skills-testing
Coef. Std. Err. Coef. Std. Err.
Left–Right scale (ref: 1/far-left)
 2 − 0.48 *** 0.01 − 0.01 * 0.01
 3 − 0.33 *** 0.01 0.02 ** 0.01
 4 − 0.07 *** 0.01 0.01 0.01
 5 (far-right) − 0.04 *** 0.01 0.06 *** 0.01
Citizen profile (ref: non-critical citizens)
 Demo-reformers 0.09 *** 0.01 0.06 *** 0.01
 Demo-transformers 0.19 *** 0.01 0.11 *** 0.01
 Demo-exiters 0.18 *** 0.01 0.12 *** 0.01
 Interest for politics 0.01 0.01 − 0.02 *** 0.01
Income (ref: less than €1250)
 1250 to €1999 − 0.01 0.01 − 0.01 0.01
 2000 to €2499 − 0.01 0.01 − 0.01 0.01
 2500 to €3499 − 0.01 * 0.01 − 0.01 0.01
 3500 to €5999 − 0.04 *** 0.01 − 0.02 ** 0.01
 €6000 and more − 0.06 *** 0.01 − 0.02 * 0.01
Education − 0.08 *** 0.01 − 0.04 *** 0.01
Age − 0.09 *** 0.01 0.08 *** 0.01
Female 0.02 *** 0.00 0.02 *** 0.00
Religiosity − 0.02 ** 0.01 − 0.03 *** 0.01
Constant 0.57 *** 0.02 0.64 *** 0.01
Observations 16,752    16,752  
R2 0.07    0.06  
  1. ***P < 0.01, **P < 0.05, *P < 0.1

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Copello, D. Critical citizenship at work: the intriguing combination of democratic and epistocratic criticism of representation in French public opinion. Fr Polit 17, 433–450 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1057/s41253-019-00096-4

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Keywords

  • Critical citizenship
  • Random selection
  • Representative democracy
  • Epistocracy
  • Radical democracy
  • Political competence