Early advocate of sortition in government Robert Dahl has died

Robert Dahl was a prominent political scientist and an early advocate of using sortition in government. He proposed advisory allotted bodies in his 1970 book After the Revolution and made a similar proposal (“mini-populi”) in his 1989 book Democracy and Its Critics.

Democracy and Its Critics presents, among other ideas, a careful and coherent critique of the power of “guardian” bodies like the supreme court. In general, Dahl was noted for being unusually clear in his argumentation in a field whose main occupation is a struggle to explain the advantages of a government system in terms of an ideology which is in plain conflict with it. As an illustration, here is a striking passage from Dahl’s A Preface to Democratic Theory (1956):

The absence of specific meaning for terms like “majority tyranny” and “faction” coupled with the central importance of these concepts in the Madisonian style of thinking has led to a rather tortuous political theory that is explicable genetically rather than logically. Genetically the Madisonian ideology has served as convenient rationalization for every minority that, out of fear of the possible deprivations of some majority, has demanded a political system providing it with an opportunity to veto such policies. [Dahl’s footnote: Calhoun’s transparent defence of the southern slavocracy by his doctrine of concurrent majorities seems to me prone to all the weaknesses of the Madisonian system, which in many respects it parallels.]

At the formation of the Constitution, the Madisonian style of argument provided a satisfying, persuasive, and protecting ideology for the minorities of wealth, status and power who distrusted and feared their bitter enemies – the artisans and farmers of inferior wealth, status, and power, who they thought constituted the “popular majority”. [… W]hatever its defects of logic, definition, and scientific utility, the Madisonian ideology is likely to remain the most prevalent and deeply rooted of all the styles of thought that might properly be labeled “American”. […] Ideologies serve a variety of needs – psychological, socio-economic, political, propagandistic – that transcend the need of pedants for scientific cogency.

[Chapter 1, section XIV]

7 Responses

  1. A real loss. Here’s a pretty interesting interview with Dahl: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oPl4LkLH8_w


  2. Thanks for posting Yoram.
    “..tortuous political theory that is explicable genetically rather than logically” is a rather nice turn of phrase and an interesting point.


  3. Speaking of “Democracy and its Critics,” the chapter on “Is Minority Domination Inevitable?” calls into question the assumption of “elite rule” by making the distinction between inequality and oligarchy.

    It’s remarkable that Dahl’s proposal for a “minipopulus” of about 1000 individuals chosen by lot as a stand-in for the “voice of the demos” is quite close to the proposal you found in the new organization called “Voice of the People.” The coincidence and the timing is quite fitting.


  4. Right. Both proposals seem to be unwilling to confront the existing system and offering instead some sort of a severely diluted representative add-on instead.


  5. But even in their dilution, because they would be seen as the “voice of the people” or the “opinion of an attentive demos” (according to Dahl) they would put pressure on elected officials to “do the right thing.” I do think that reputation and public opinion does matter even today. These proposals would make it much harder for politicians to ignore that public opinion. We have to grant them that.


  6. Actually, I am not sure that this would be a positive step. An allotted body (or an elaborate system of allotted bodies) that are put in a position where they can be easily manipulated by elite could be used to discredit the whole idea of sortition.

    Awareness of such traps is something very important for sortition advocates to have. We should not automatically cheer for any political arrangement that involves randomization of some sort.


  7. I agree with Yoram. If an allotted body is only charged with _advising_ a powerful elected person they have less incentive to really dig in to form an independent assessment of a policy. If the majority of the body happens to like the elected official they will take their cue on policy from that powerful person (and the reverse if they don’t), because they want to make that official look good and enhance the chances that he/she will be re-elected. It is that next election that assigns real power that is important to the participants, rather than any advice.

    Advisory bodies are ignored by elected officials and by the news media. Oregon uses an allotted jury to advise the voters on initiative ballot items, but the media pays little attention, and they are essentially ignored.


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