Rasmussen: 43% Say Random Choices From Phone Book Better Than Current Congress

Rasumussen has results for a new round of their occasional survey measuring support for sortition (they don’t quite phrase it this way):

With positive ratings for Congress at an all-time low, it may come as no surprise that a plurality of voters nationwide believes a group of people randomly selected from a telephone book would do a better job than the current legislators.

The latest Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey of Likely U.S. Voters shows that 43% believe a group of people randomly selected from the phone book would do a better job than the current Congress. Thirty-eight percent (38%) disagree with that assessment, while another 19% are not sure.

These results are about the same as they were in 2010.

16 Responses

  1. The question was asked with a tone implying derision, rather than as a genuine question. However, when framed more seriously, the support for sortition grows to a large majority (assuming attitudes have not changed dramatically since 1999). the Center on Policy Attitudes, associated with the University of Maryland, conducted a scientific poll on exactly this question in 1999. When asked whether Congress or a representative sample of 500 Americans, given information and opportunities for discussion, would make better policy decisions, 66% said the random sample of Americans would do better, while only 15% picked Congress.

    It was mentioned on this Blog last year:


  2. I agree re: derision. I think that’s the usual tone for questions like this. I am very sure it’s the tone William F. Buckley adopted when he quipped that he’d rather be governed by the first 500 names in the Boston telephone directory than the 500 members of the Harvard faculty. This makes it hard to get at people’s real thoughts about sortition.


  3. Yes it will take a lot of hard work in both social science experiments and political theory before sortition is accepted as a valuable part of the political process. This is particularly the case when vested interests are involved so, even in the unlikely event that historical materialism (political theory is just an epiphenomenon of power relations) were right, we should restrain from full-frontal attacks on the political class for strategic reason. We certainly shouldn’t become complacent on account of public opinion data like this.


  4. As Terry pointed out, the only case we have in which people were asked directly and unambiguously about the idea of sortition, it garnered support by a large majority.

    Theory has nothing to do with acceptance of ideas – neither by elites, nor by masses.

    Sortition will make gains if, and only if, a wide grass root movement grows which demands and struggles for sortition.


  5. Yoram: “if, a wide grass root movement grows which demands and struggles . . .”

    Hmm, I would say where I’ve heard that trope before, were it not for Peter’s prohibition on name-calling.


  6. Keith,

    That quip reminds me of politicians who attack their opponents for engaging in negative campaign tactics, as a way of smearing that opponent. You may have had a humorous twinkle in your eye as you typed that, but without that visual cue, anyone could easily take that as nastier than you intended. I would urge Yoram not to take the bait by responding.


  7. Sure, but there is a serious issue at stake here — is the best way to implement sortition by careful experiments and theoretical arguments, or (as Yoram suggests) a popular struggle? The last time activists predicted the latter they were disappointed, as the masses decided to go shopping instead. Perhaps it will require all three, but that’s all the more reason to respect the efforts of everyone working in the field, rather than to deride Fishkin’s experiments as impotent and the political theory debate as epiphenomenal froth that makes absolutely no difference as outcomes are decided by interests alone. Call me an idealist if you like, but I do genuinely believe that theory has an important role to play in the design of political institutions and that individuals are motivated by other factors in addition to class interests (the relevant categories being elite and masses, or so we are repeatedly told).


  8. > I would say where I’ve heard that trope before, were it not for Peter’s prohibition on name-calling.

    Since the issue of ad-hominem was recently raised, I think it is interesting to note that Keith’s red-baiting (for which the current instance is far from being the first one) is a textbook example of an ad-hominem.

    For Keith, attaching the label “Marxist” (which I presume is what he implies by “name calling”) is an effective way to deal with an argument, and is a substitute for dealing with its substance.


  9. As for the substance of things, I think the idea that an elite ever gave up any of its power because of theoretical arguments is ridiculously naive (and rather self-important when coming from someone whose occupation is political theory). Any evidence to contrary would be very interesting. A plausible suggested mechanism by which theory exerts its power would be interesting as well.

    Popular struggle, on the other hand, has made an impact in many cases. The civil rights movement in the US in the 60s and the Indian anti-colonial struggle against the British occupation are two well known (if somewhat cliched) examples.


  10. Yoram, much, or even most, of the discussion in politics departments is on issues of equality and social justice, Rawls having taken up the throne that Marx vacated a few decades ago. I don’t know how it is in the US, but in the UK a good proportion of senior politicians are Oxbridge PPEs or equivalent. Added to this, think tanks have a disproportionate influence on public policy issues and policy wonks come from a similar social science background. What exact space on the political continuum Rawlsians inhabit is hard to say but, broadly speaking, it’s at the left-liberal end, so much of the egalitarian and social justice policies of modern governments does have its origin in political theory.

    While those positioned further to the left might claim Rawlsian liberalism isn’t a form of equality or social justice worth having, nevertheless if you assume that there is some sort of homogeneous socio-political governing elite there is some evidence that this elite does not always act on the basis of class interests and that this may well be under the influence of political theory. I admit that as a political theorist I have a vested interest in political theory, but I don’t earn any money or influence through this interest (in fact it’s a rather expensive and time-consuming hobby), so I suppose my very involvement in the subject is proof of the fact that people do not always act on the basis of material interests alone. I write what I write because I believe it to be true and I see no reason not to offer a similarly charitable interpretation to the behaviour of my peers (including yourself).


  11. Does anyone know of a poll that asked people about descriptive representation — something like “Do you believe that the legislature should look more like the whole people than it does now?” I suspect that the idea of “a portrait in miniature” is in the back of a lot of people’s minds, at least here in the US.


  12. David,

    “Look like the people” is usually interpreted as representation for racial/ethnic/gender groups which – taken in isolation, as it is usually is – is very problematic concept. It is usually translated to co-opting elite members of the groups “being represented”.


  13. My impression is that public opinion is ambivalent on this: on the one hand people don’t like the unrepresentative elitist nature of legislatures; on the other hand they are sceptical about the potential of ordinary people to perform political duties. This is on account of the confused and hybrid nature of politics, caused by the conflation of government and legislative functions. That’s why Rousseau’s radical separation between the physical and moral aspects is so helpful — while not everyone may have the necessary diplomatic and administrative skills we all have a sense of what is right.


  14. Keith,

    When you talk about “the conflation of government and legislative functions,” are you defining government functions as more or less the work of an executive branch — as in “carrying out the intent of laws decided by the legislative branch?”


  15. Yes, exactly. There are a series of matching dualities that need to be segregated: government/legislature, particular/general, physical/moral, prince/sovereign, (as Rousseau put it). The former is a delegated function and may be constituted by election, aristocracy, heredity or appointment, whereas the latter is an inalianable right of all citizens.

    The question is whether a legislature constituted by sortition is compatible with the inalianability requirement (I argue on the Rousseau thread that it is). Of course “carrying out the intent of laws decided by the legislative branch” might well slip into areas of sovereign will but then the legislature can always fire government officers caught trespassing.


  16. At the risk of stirring the cauldron on this issue, I must say I don’t see any contradiction between wanting careful experiments and popular struggle. We want to know as much about sortition as we can, and that warrants lots of experiments as well as theoretical analysis. But we also want the results of our investigations to be implemented, and that seems of necessity to require a social movement. I must agree with Yoram here–it seems naive to believe that existing political elites will give up power because they are shown studies about what a good job sortition does.

    Incidentally, I was just at Tulane University for a talk given by Archon Fung (more on that when I have the time). He was arguing that the internet was not a panacea for democracy. In particular, he was arguing that there’s a critical difference between the development of new technologies in commerce and in politics. In the realm of commerce, the major players (Apple, Google, Facebook, etc.) have major incentives to achieve technological innovation; it means more customers, more money, etc. But the major players in politics do not have major incentives to achieve political innovation; such innovation might achieve greater popular participation, empower citizens, etc., but those things do not benefit the politicos in any obvious way. I think similar things could be said about political innovations in the non-technological realm.


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