Benet Brandreth proposes selecting the legislature by lot

In a 13 minute speech on BBC Channel 4 radio,

Benet Brandreth argues that our current political discourse is bankrupt, so he proposes a novel solution: a legislature by lot.

Below is my summarized transcript of Brandreth’s talk:

  1. Important things are difficult to understand. They can’t be debated using Facebook comments. They require thought, consideration, research.
  2. Political rhetoric is no longer about persuasion or debate of the issues but cheerleading. This is a symptom and a cause of a fundamental failing of our system of democracy.
  3. The politician doesn’t wish to persuade people but to say something that is pleasing.
  4. Continue reading

Belgiorno-Nettis: Forget democracy, we need a new way to govern

Luca Belgiorno-Nettis writes in The Age against elections. Here is an excerpt:

[S]uggesting elections are the problem is tantamount to sacrilege. In all the theatre of our media-driven, political drama, we’ve lost sight of the original and true genius of democratia: the jury. Today, we worship a seducer and an impostor – “a poll dancer” – twisting and teasing, writhing and squeezing.

In 2005, James Spigelman, the then chief justice of NSW, had this to say about elections and the jury: “The jury is a profoundly democratic and egalitarian institution. Selection by lot has two distinct advantages. First, it operates on the principle that all persons to be selected are fundamentally equal and that, in the relevant circumstances, it is invidious to say that one person is more qualified than another. Secondly, selection by lot prevents corruption of the system.”

With the help of research colleagues, we have been investigating better models of government: all based on the jury. The jury, in our view, is more representative, more deliberative and, surprisingly, more effective. We’ve done several projects that prove this over the last few years.

The Warm, Fuzzy Side of Sortition: When Deliberation Goes Right

Has anyone read Tom Atlee’s Empowering Public Wisdom: A Practical Vision of Citizen-Led Politics? Chapter 5 is called “Citizenship and Randomly Selected Ad Hoc Mini-Publics.”

Tom’s been an advocate of sortition for decades and it seems there hasn’t yet been a discussion of his thought on Equality by Lot. Beyond being a long-time advocate of “Citizen Deliberative Councils” and other sorts of minipublics, he has deep insights into group dynamics—the conditions under which groups go beyond simple bargaining and reach something closer to creative wisdom.

In my humble opinion, there’s an inadvertent academic bias on this blog that leaves out significant work from activists and non-academic writers like Tom. I think it would serve us well to do otherwise.

To that end I will list some brilliant ideas I’ve gleaned from his latest book, Empowering Public Wisdom (2012), and from reading some of his blog.
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Democratic accountability, part 1

“Democratic accountability” seems to be an invention of the last 50 years.


It is one more ideological maneuver in the centuries old intellectual effort of aligning an ideology propounding political equality with support for the oligarchical practice of elections.
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Sortition Here?

Is anyone familiar with John Rachel’s An Unlikely Truth? I haven’t read it, but I’m told the author is some sort of sortition fan.

Commentary on Gilens and Page, “Average citizens have no political influence”

This is an interesting paper, that brings admiral clarity to the competing theoretical models that address the problem, ‘Who governs? Who really rules?’ (Gilens and Page. 2014, p.3). However I’m skeptical as to whether the authors’ dataset provides unequivocal support for the general equation between ‘electoralism’ and oligarchical rule claimed by Yoram Gat in his open letter to Professor Gilens, for the following reasons:

1. Dataset
It’s surprising that a total of 1,932 cases yielded as many as 1,779 instances demonstrating a clear relationship between public preferences and policy change (p.10). Most legislative outcomes involve messy compromises involving trade-offs between the preferences and interests of the various parties involved. What criteria were employed by Gilens’s ‘small army of research assistants’ in order to decide that these 1,779 instances involved a ‘clear, as opposed to partial or ambiguous, actual presence or absence of policy change’ (ibid.)? Are public preferences really as unambiguous as the authors claim? An influential work by Benjamin Page’s frequent collaborator Robert Shapiro used the examples of Bill Clinton’s (failed) healthcare reforms and Newt Gingrich’s ‘Contract with America’ as examples of elite- and partisan-driven policy initiatives (Jacobs and Shapiro, 2000). However in the former case survey evidence was ambiguous: a Gallup Poll conducted in early August 1991 indicated that 91 percent of the public felt there was a ‘crisis in healthcare’ (Gallup, 1991, p. 4) and a large majority (75% of adults polled) wanted the government to provide healthcare (Times, 1992). But it was not clear what the public wanted done about health care, being torn between the desire for comprehensive provision and the deep-seated American aversion to big government: ‘different polls and even successive questions in the same polls turn up seemingly contradictory responses’ (Kosterlitz, 1991, p. 2806). In any event, Clinton’s healthcare reforms were defeated: ‘the policy outcome turned, in the end, on the response of the relatively few centrist legislators to – exactly – the median national opinion as measured by polls’ (Quirk, 2009, p. 6, my emphasis). Similarly the GoP ‘Contract with America’ was entirely driven by the median-voter strategy:

The issues that garnered very favourable ratings with the public were included in the contract and those that did not were left off. There was little discussion about how these policies fit together, rather the concern was maximizing popularity. (Geer, 1996, pp. 34-5, my emphasis).

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A letter to Prof. Martin Gilens

Dear Prof. Gilens,

My name is Yoram Gat.

I recently became aware of your new paper “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens ” expanding on your previous work (“Inequality and democratic responsiveness”, 2005).

I see the findings of this work, as I presume you do, as confirming the widespread public sentiment, consistently measured in many opinion polls and expressed for example in the 2011 “Occupy” protests, that the American system does not represent the majority of Americans (“the 99%”). I also presume that the American system is not unique in this respect: 2011 has seen protest around the world reflecting similar sentiments in other societies governed by similar systems.
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Gilens and Page: Average citizens have no political influence

Keith McDonnell and Terry Bouricius wrote to point out the following.

Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page have a new paper titled “Testing theories of American politics: elites, interest Groups, and average citizens”. The paper continues the work of Gilens analyzing the correlation between public opinion and policy (see his 2005 paper “Inequality and democratic responsiveness” and a book on the same theme, Affluence and Influence: Economic Inequality and Political Power in America).

The previous work found that any correlation between public sentiments and policy is completely mediated by elite opinion (where “elite” is defined as top decile of income). The new paper adds to the analysis the position of interest groups and again finds that elites dominate policy making. The abstract is as follows:


Each of four theoretical traditions in the study of American politics – which can be characterized as theories of Majoritarian Electoral Democracy, Economic Elite Domination, and two types of interest group pluralism, Majoritarian Pluralism and Biased Pluralism – offers different predictions about which sets of actors have how much influence over public policy: average citizens; economic elites; and organized interest groups, mass-based or business-oriented.

A great deal of empirical research speaks to the policy influence of one or another set of actors, but until recently it has not been possible to test these contrasting theoretical predictions against each other within a single statistical model. This paper reports on an effort to do so, using a unique data set that includes measures of the key variables for 1,779 policy issues.

Multivariate analysis indicates that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence. The results provide substantial support for theories of Economic Elite Domination and for theories of Biased Pluralism, but not for theories of Majoritarian Electoral Democracy or Majoritarian Pluralism.

Serve with pride


Sortition Coming to Washington State?

I was reading Dan Savage’s blog this morning, and stumbled upon the following posting:

What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

Posted by Dan Savage on Wed, Apr 9, 2014 at 4:57 PM

We couldn’t do worse than Rodney Tom, right?

That led me to find the ballot initiative itself. It appears to be real, and was only recently filed with the State of Washington. Continue reading