The Party’s Over: Metamorphoses of Democratic Government

Abstract: The contrast between ancient Greek democracy as direct rule by the people, and modern democracy as indirect rule by elected representatives is in need of modification (Hansen, 2013). (Lane, 2012) has characterized Aristotle’s ideal democracy as ‘proto-Schumpeterian’ and (Hansen, 1999) has described the 4th-century Athenian development of randomly-selected legislative courts as a conservative reaction against the direct rule of the assembly. In a new paper (Hansen, 2013) outlines the change of democratic emphasis over three centuries in Athens: elective (sixth century), direct (fifth century), and sortive, viz. selection by lot (fourth century).

(Manin, 1997) has suggested that modern representative government has also evolved over three stages: parliamentary democracy, party democracy and finally ‘audience’ democracy, in which politicians appeal directly to the public in a similar manner to stage actors (and where the audience writes the script in real time). In audience democracy, as with direct democracy, political parties are superfluous. In this paper I argue that both the classical (direct) and modern (audience) models of democracy are inherently unstable and suggest that modern democracy may well parallel ancient democracy in evolving to a ‘sortive’ stage, where citizen juries, selected by lot, play a key role in the determination of legislative outcomes, and the role of political parties is limited to innovation and advocacy.

This is the abstract for my paper for the Political Studies Association annual conference, The Party’s Over (March 2013). I’d greatly appreciate any feedback, full text available here.

18 Responses

  1. I will be presenting there as well a paper describing the use of direct voting by mobile phone on budgetary issues. I see lot and direct voting by the population as complementary.


  2. Thanks Paul, I’ll be interested to see your paper when it’s ready. Do you view direct voting as having binding or advisory powers? If the latter then how do you ensure that all those who vote are properly informed? Hansen argues that the 4th-century transfer of legislative powers to randomly-selected juries was because votes in the assembly were poorly informed, and there’s a danger that the modern equivalent could suffer from the same problems.


  3. Paul,

    Do you address in the paper the matter of the informational burden a plebiscite-system puts on the citizenry? How would the citizenry become well-informed enough to be any more than puppets controlled by the strings of mass media?

    See the following report for an alternative – a better one in my opinion: American Public Shows How it Would Cut the Budget Deficit.


  4. The transition can also be summarized as:
    (1) Popular ill-informed passion.
    (2) Negotiation among the connected.
    (3) Disinterested deliberation.

    The main remaining element is screening for deliberative talent and lack of bias. This is done for trial juries with the voir dire process, and by historical examples of successful sortition systems by alternating random selection with selection of the best qualified by or from among the randonly selected, as in the Venetian system. A well-designed multi-stage process is likely to work better than a one-step sortition from among the entire population, especially when much of the entire population is lacking in talent or virtue.


  5. In response to an offline comment from John Burnheim:

    JB> “Rational, productive, constructive decisions are what people in their sober moments want. They would like to be able to trust public affairs to a group of wise, disinterested and honourable people who would arrive at an optimal balance between the conflicting interests involved in those decisions by a perspicuous process of deliberation. I think they are right, and my stratified process of advancement to the higher levels of the polity is designed to produce and select such people.”

    KS: This is a similar breed of “natural aristocrats” to that which Plato, Madison and Burke sought to empower. Two problems:

    1. Do they exist?
    2. If they do, then how do we discover them?

    Dealing with the first point, undoubtedly some people are better informed and more public-spirited/altruistic than others. But are these the qualities that we are looking for in legislators? The problem is that well-intended (liberals) tend to assume that everyone is like themselves or would become like themselves given the right environment. In your book you use the example of penal reform to contrast the enlightened attitudes of the well-informed with the hang’em and flog’em attitude of the hoi polloi. Your demarchic committees are likely to be overpopulated by the former, whereas conservatives (like me) will more likely agree with the latter. So I suppose at heart our disagreement is a partisan one — but I have the advantage in that my proposal is a democratic one, whereas yours is entirely aristocratic.

    Moving to the second point, Madison claimed that his electoral system would lead to government by wise, disinterested and honourable people (the professional classes) whereas you claim that demarchy — stratified sampling from a pool of volunteers — is a better candidate. Madison was clearly wrong and I think you are as well. I’m all for volunteering in church groups, sports and social clubs etc., but from my experience of the above, I wouldn’t want to leave decision-making in the hands of well-intended volunteers, I’d rather elect officials and leave the ratification of decisions to a general meeting (or, in the case of larger organisations, an allotted sample). If politics is, as Oakeshott claimed, “the activity of attending to the general arrangements of a set of people whom chance or choice has brought together” then those people (or at least a statistically-representative sample thereof) should decide what those general arrangements should be. This is not to deny the essential policy-advocacy role of self-appointed and well-informed aristoi, but the decision should be left to the people themselves. That’s what we normally mean by democracy; demarchy is a form of aristocracy.

    Headlam concludes that “the Athenian democracy was [also] an aristocracy” as “it made the assumption that each citizen had the time and ability to undertake public duties” (1891, p.181). This is not possible in large modern states but it might just be possible for those selected by lot to assume “aristocratic” qualities (wise and disinterested judgment) for the period that they hold office, although I admit this is based on little more than wishful thinking on my part. If it were possible then the constitutional settlement that I am proposing would also be a democratic aristocracy, if not then at least preference aggregation would be better informed than it is at present.


  6. Sounds fascinating! Can’t wait to have a look.


  7. Message from John Burnheim:

    I am very averse to the sort of moralistic universalism that says everybody must take an active interest in all matters of public power.
    Each person contributes to the public good in various ways, and many of us are not well equipped to make sound decisions about many matters that are not well suited to being decided on the basis of the information and value considerations that we are equipped to handle. We want matters of economic policy, of law and order, peace and war to be decided by people who are seriously concerned about how those decisions affect us and understand their consequences in terms of our interests.

    My scheme is one in which people volunteer for public service, are chosen for a particular role on the basis of sharing the concrete (not ideological) interests of some group of those directly affected by the decisions of the body in question, and are nominated on the judgement of those who have served with them to a panel from which people to serve on higher-order bodies are chosen by lot. That should ensure that people who are genuinely interested and competent are chosen. If at every stage the proceedings are publicly debated and public trust in it is sustained, it would assure democratic legitimacy.
    People think it is totally impracticable in our political traditions, but that is because they think of it as something like most political structures that would have to be introduced by some revolutionary decision. That is indeed impossible. One of the great merits of demarchy in my eyes is that it can be introduced piecemeal in particular areas where people are generally dissatisfied with present structures, gradually nibbling away at state centralism. We live in a world order that consists of specialised networks in every field of human activity, most of which are completely self-regulating, but many of which require explicit decision-making that should as far as possible respect the specificity of the scale, modus operandi and problems of that activity. Centralised omni-competent authorities are inefficient and often repressive.

    In Sydney we now have a small foundation, New Democracy, devoted to beginning this process, financed by a major industrialist and supported by two former State Premiers, one Liberal and one Labor. I cherish some hopes that the Communist party in China may find concessions to this proposal a way of giving force to demands for democracy without introducing mass party politics, which could well be an unmitigated disaster. Already there have been successful initiatives in isolated areas.

    The alternative in the era of mass communications is the contemporary version of the cult of the leader, populism, with all its perils.


  8. > In Sydney we now have a small foundation, New Democracy, devoted to beginning this process, financed by a major industrialist and supported by two former State Premiers, one Liberal and one Labor.

    We have followed some of the activities of NewDemocracy here. I am quite suspicious about the elitist nature of this enterprise. I don’t think real change is likely to come this way.


  9. John,

    I’m puzzled as to why sampling from a pool of volunteers would lead to wise and disinterested decision making, especially when controversial issues are involved. Take, for example, immigration — in all likelihood groups with an axe to grind, such as the BNP, UKIP, Migration Watch and the TUC and on the other hand the TUC and CBI would flood the pool with “volunteers” and you would end up with a highly polarized sample (ditto for a demarchic committee dealing with Britain’s relations with the EU). A committee on gay marriage would be dominated by the equal rights lobby slugging it out with fundamental Christians. In the US a committee on fiscal policy would end up nearly 100% composed of followers of the Tea Party. The Average Joe, on the other hand, has a much more nuanced view on these issues, but would be unlikely to volunteer. So demarchy looks to me like a recipe for confrontation and government by lobby groups and extremists.


  10. Jon Roland> “A well-designed multi-stage process is likely to work better than a one-step sortition from among the entire population, especially when much of the entire population is lacking in talent or virtue.”

    I’m not sure how we measure virtue, but I would agree with Aristotle that although not everyone has the talent to design or build a house, we are all capable of choosing the sort of house that we would like to live in (from a number of “off the peg” options). This is how Athenian democracy worked — only a small political elite proposed new laws, but everyone had a role in deciding whether or not the proposals should be enacted.


  11. Sorry, meant IoD, not TUC as a group committed to high levels of immigration.


  12. JB> “I cherish some hopes that the Communist party in China may find concessions to this proposal a way of giving force to demands for democracy without introducing mass party politics, which could well be an unmitigated disaster. Already there have been successful initiatives in isolated areas.”

    The only Chinese initiative that I’m aware of has been Fishkin’s DPs — these were certainly more successful from an implementation perspective than DPs in western democracies. Have there also been demarchic experiments? It seems unlikely, as this would suggest an alternative power structure to the Communist Party (in the Zeguo DP, the local CP reserved all the policy initiation rights to itself.)


  13. Now, I am no expert on ancient Athens nor modern England. That said, the paper leaves me asking a few questions.

    What’s the same or different about political developments in ancient Athens and modern England? Why are you drawing the parallel in the first place?

    Realizing this may only be an outline of your paper, the connections between the sections of the paper could be more explicit; moreover, some of your clarifications in the comments above could help delineate the parallel or explain the motivation of the paper in the first place.

    As for the style, my personal preference is a more direct, less academic style. But then again, this is an academic paper.


  14. Thanks. As for my motivation, hopefully it’s historical rather than just wishful thinking! As to the parallels, it’s increasingly clear that democracy in both cases started out as the election of political officers (6th century Athens / 18th century UK). This was in order to wrest control from a hereditary aristocracy but in both cases it took around a century to achieve this. It’s then clear that Athenian democracy took a “direct” turn during the 5th century; but my claim that modern democracy has followed the same path is more controversial as it depends on a functional (Bagehotian) as opposed to institutional analysis. As for the 4th century developments, Hansen is clear that the establishment of the allotted legislative courts was a central factor and that this was in order to improve on the unstable, manipulated and rationally-ignorant decisions of the assembly. Regarding the modern parallel, my claim is not that this is already happening, but that it would be a necessary development to ensure the stability of the system.

    In both the ancient and modern examples the move to legislation by the deliberative exchange of reasons before an allotted jury is a conservative reaction against (effectively) direct democracy. I think this is important as sortition is normally viewed as a radical development, but this is clearly not the case against a background of direct democracy. What I would really appreciate is a focus on the section of the paper that claims modern democracy is, from a functional perspective, direct, as modern representatives seek to second-guess public opinion via focus groups, Twitter feeds, opinion polls etc. If this is true then what we have is direct democracy by proxy as opposed to representative democracy in either the Burkean or party-political sense (according to Manin we have already moved from the age of parliamentary- via party- to audience democracy). I’d really appreciate someone challenging this part of the paper, to prepare me for the likely brickbats from the Cardiff audience.

    PS the full paper is available by clicking the “here” link underneath the outline at the top of the post.


  15. Keith,

    I finally read your paper. It has some interesting points, but I don’t find the idea that “audience democracy” is similar to direct democracy by proxy very convincing. While they may share some of the failings of superficiality…unconsidered public opinion, I think elected politicians only defer to such knee-jerk opinions on a handful of high-visibility issues (often of their own choosing and framing), while MOST policy is relatively hidden and completely without regard and contrary to what public opinion might be (and what direct democracy would decide).


  16. Fair point, I’ve probably taken the argument too far although I think it’s fair to say that the options available to elected politicians are heavily constrained by real-time public opinion (as opposed to 4-5 year retroactive accountability). I think it’s also true that this has become increasingly the case recently, so modern democracy is a lot more “direct” than a few decades ago. Take, for example, the behaviour of republican congressmen regarding the fiscal cliff — much of their intransigence can be put down to the fact that their Tea Party constituents are dictating the agenda. And I don’t think this is just a minority pressure group, seeing as the overwhelming (?) majority of non-Hispanic/coloured Americans voted for the Republican candidate.

    One of the Classics profs at Exeter has just drawn my attention to a paper arguing that Athenian court behaviour was very much a case of actors playing to the audience. I’ve just added this paragraph to the paper:

    “In some respects the Athenian law courts were a form of ‘audience’ democracy, in that the courts were ‘similar to the Theatre of Dionysos’ and litigants were ‘delivering lines written for them by logographers’ (Lanni, 1997, p. 183) . The juries were not just judging the merits of the case in hand – in political trials the judgment was on the persona of the elite politician. The court was a public stage for the social elite to compete for prestige . . . a forum for ongoing communication between elite litigants and mass jurors’ (ibid.) ‘in a context which made explicit the power of the masses to judge the actions and behavior of elite individuals’ (Ober, 1989, p. 145). But, unlike modern audience democracies, Athenian jurors were obliged to listen to a balanced debate as opposed to selective and one-sided sound-bites (as in the assembly) and were sworn to judge the case impartially.”

    So if modern audience democracy is still a case of government by representatives (with their own agenda), rather than direct democracy by proxy, the case to move to an Athenian-style audience democracy is still appealing.


  17. Keith, thanks for replying to my comment–a long time ago! For some reason, notification of your reply was in my spam-box, and I only noticed it by change.

    Yes, I did read the pdf and my comment was regarding it.

    Viewing sortition as a “conservative move” against direct democracy sounds brilliant, because it gets to an advantage of sortition beyond representativeness. For me, it is a move towards “deliberation” and away from “mob rule,” but that’s perhaps the same thing.

    As far as whether new technology, instant opinion polls, Twitter feeds etc, are “direct democracy by proxy,” I find that a stretch; but that doesn’t mean it’s not true. It just means that there is a bigger argument to make.

    Many people, including myself, consider the root of dis-function in today’s Western republics–we should be explicit that the word “democracy” strictly speaking refers to ‘direct’ voting on issues–that information is filtered through profit-seeking media and contribution-dependent political parties and their proxies. The problem is not information about voters’ opinions being manipulated by parties, in effect turning government into a “sound-bite democracy”, but a dearth of quality information about issues and candidates that makes this possible in the first place. Deliberation by non-politicians (not seeking re-election, contributions, or other gains from office) would achieve better results, more equitable policy etc..


  18. The covert direct democracy thesis presupposes a functional approach (who is ultimately determining the agenda — elected politicians or the media and the public?) as opposed to focusing on the formal political institutions, which are indirect in most modern democracies. In Bagehot’s language this is the distinction between the ‘efficient’ and ‘dignified’ aspects of the constitution and my argument is that parliament has now clearly moved to the dignified side.

    As for the “true meaning of democracy” we need to beware of cherry-picking those aspects of ancient practice which suit our own agenda. Athenian democracy was a mixture of election, direct voting and sortition and the emphasis shifted over three centuries.


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