Pomper: The concept of elections in political theory

In a 1967 paper, “The concept of elections in political theory”, Gerald M. Pomper briefly mentions “election by lot”.

The paper begins with an assertion:

Popular elections are generally assumed to be the crucial element of democratic governments, but the significance of elections is so widely assumed that it is rarely examined. Although studies of voting behavior abound, there are relatively few theoretical or empirical investigations of the effects of voting on the total political system.

This is an overstatement. Schumpeterian theory was well known and widely discussed at least as late as the 1950’s (e.g., Dahl’s A Preface to Democratic Theory) and a part of that theory is an analysis of the function of elections – an analysis that attacks the “classical doctrine of democracy”. Pomper seems to mean that there is little work attempting to defend the “classical doctrine”. His own defense is to a large extent a capitulation. He gives up on the hope of a representative government and is satisfied with the claim that elections “give the voters a means of protection, a method of intervention in politics when their vital interests were being threatened.” Of course, even this modest claim is not obvious and Pomper doesn’t offer a theoretical argument for its plausibility.

Pomper mentions sortition off-handedly in the section called “The Benefits of Elections”. The section generally rehashes the 18th century democratic doctrine, ignoring the modern theoretical criticism of the doctrine, but mentioning briefly a similar criticism made by Melancton Smith in the 18th century:

Elections also serve as a check on power because of the “sympathy” between representative and their constituents. This quality does not refer to the personal feelings of the legislator, but to the similarity between his social position and that of the voters. A representative would sympathize with his constituents because he would be of the same geographical area, occupation, and status. For this reason, Aristotle characterized election by lot as the most democratic method. The principle survives today in the militant Negro demand for “black power.”

Protection becomes more complex when society is seen as comprising many different and divergent interests. The representative no longer can be the embodiment of the whole community, but is likely to be more aware of some interests than others. With a variety of groups, conflicts between interests become likely. Government is no longer the only threat; it is also a means by which a group  can advance and achieve its demands.

In this situation, elections serve a different function from negative protection. They may also be the positive means by which groups seek their particular goals. That representatives would promote specialized interests has been widely accepted. Most of the controversies over suffrage in American history have been based on the tacit or explicit recognition that legislators would advance the special interests of their electors.

The advancement of particular interests, however, could also be dangerous. When representatives are no longer a “random sample” of the population, some groups may be forgotten. Menlacton Smith warned of an oligarchy: “A substantial yeoman of sense and discernment, will hardly ever be chosen. From these remarks it appears that the government will fall into the hands of the few and the great.” If the representative is no longer identified with the community, “sympathy” becomes less of a control, which must come largely from the “dependence” on the voters. Important interests, perhaps essential to the common good, might be disregarded in the electoral process. There are dangers as well as benefits in the electoral process.

A few notable points:

  1. Pomper attributes to Aristotle an argument in favor of sortition that (I believe) is nowhere explicated in Aristotle or in any other ancient source.
  2. Pomper seems to misunderstand, or at least not to fully comprehend, the function of sortition, believing that it only provides “protection” rather than “control”, and that it would only be useful when the society is not “complex”. This may be the reason that sortition is not mentioned again in the paper.
  3. Despite mentioning sortition and Smith’s argument, the following discussion of “The Dangers of Elections” – which covers the theorists up until J.S. Mill – focuses on Plato-esque claims that the elected are incompetent and Madison-esque concerns about the “tyranny of the majority”. The question of whether elected government is representative of the majority is ignored.

4 Responses

  1. Melancton Smith was one of the more eloquent defenders of the anti-federalist viewpoint at the US Constitutional Convention. The antifederalists argued the case for descriptive representation: ‘the farmer, merchant, mecanick and other various orders of people, ought to be represented according to their respective weight and numbers’; the puzzle being why they failed to advocate sortition as the obvious way to bring this about.

    According to Bernard Manin this was on account of the natural right theory of consent that was prevalent at the time: ‘However lot is interpreted, whatever its other properties, it cannot possibly be perceived as an expression of consent’ (Manin, 1997, pp.84-5). But I’m not convinced, as I wonder how many American farmers would have been familiar with the philosophical works of John Locke. It strikes me that sortition was ignored by the antifederalists for three reasons:

    1) Sortition was associated with classical democracy, which was still a despised system of government (until the word was hijacked by the “Democratic Republicans” in the first decades of the nineteenth century.

    2) Collective lot-drawing ceremonies would have been distasteful to North American protestant sensibilities, whereas election would have been favoured as the way that the individual discerned the will of God via communion with his conscience. (The shared etymology of ‘election’ and the Calvinist notion of ‘the elect’ is no coincidence). Although the notion of the religious origin of the lot has been discredited, nevertheless it remains the case that sortition survived in Mediterranean Europe, where it fitted in with Catholic sensibilities.

    3) Sortition (and its public lot-drawing ceremonies) would have been impractical in widely-dispersed agricultural settlements, that’s why it has always been associated with small and compact city states. Of course it’s easy to implement sortition in large states with the aid of modern communications technology.

    In sum, the reason that antifederalists like Melancton Smith failed to advocate sortition was a combination of geography and religion, not Lockean philosophy. Geography and religion need no longer be an impediment; democracy is no longer a dirty word and Locke’s archaic theory of consent and associated hypothetical notions of implicit social contracts aren’t worth the paper that they’re not written on. (I won’t go into how the theory of consent is archaic as it would need a full post to do that).


  2. PS: Regarding the religious connection, Smith was home-schooled by presbyterian parents and his first name was derived from the Reformation theologian Philipp Melanchthon. Madison’s tutor at Princeton was the Scottish Presbyterian cleric John Witherspoon. The one thing federalists and antifederalists agreed on was religion, so they would all have preferred the revelation of “the elect” via election as opposed to “Catholic” public ceremonials associated with sortition.


  3. > Sortition was associated with classical democracy, which was still a despised system of government

    That is the crux of it: sortition means democracy which was to be avoided.

    > Sortition (and its public lot-drawing ceremonies) would have been impractical in widely-dispersed agricultural settlements

    That is entirely untrue, and Athens (which of course encompassed all of Attica) provides a counterexample. At any level of technology, casting lots is not more difficult, and often much easier, than voting.


  4. “That is entirely untrue, and Athens (which of course encompassed all of Attica) provides a counterexample. At any level of technology, casting lots is not more difficult, and often much easier, than voting.”

    That depends on whether or not it’s a public ceremony (as in the Italian city states), the implication being that everyone should be present. I suppose not being present at the count in an election requires a measure of confidence in the integrity of the count, but it seems to me that being present when the lots are drawn is more important. I would imagine more people watch the National Lottery live on TV than the general election count, the point being with sortition (as in the UK National Lottery advertising campaign) — “it could be you”, whereas in an election it’s always going to be somebody else.

    But I don’t want to make so much of an issue of it as the religious and democratic argument. And I think we agree that it had nothing to do with the “natural right theory of consent”.


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