The Paradox of Democratic Selection: Is Sortition Better than Voting?

A draft book chapter by Anthoula Malkopoulou:

Sortition, or the selection of political officers by lot, has its antecedent in the direct democratic tradition of ancient Athens. Its transfer into a modern context of representative democracy poses rightful scepticism not only about the practical difficulties, but more so about the theoretical inconsistencies that arise. Modern systems of political representation are based on the aristocratic idea of ‘government by the best’, who are to be selected through a competitive call for candidates (Manin 1997). Sortition, on the other hand, replaces this aristocratic criterion of competition and evaluative election with the democratic mechanics of direct and equal distribution of political office by chance. Hence, the very expression ‘democratic (s)election’ includes a paradoxical contradiction in terms, between the democratic concept of equal access to public office and the aristocratic idea of government by the (s)elected best.

My aim in this chapter is to shed some light into this contradiction by critically discussing the benefits and pitfalls of using sortition today, comparing it throughout the chapter with voting and the general effects of electoral representation. More specifically, my arguments are divided in four sections. I begin by addressing the reasons that drive klerotarians away from electoral representation (1). Next, I consider alternative modes of political ‘outsourcing’, such as the inclusion of civil society actors or the use of quotas (2). I continue by discussing the democratic legitimacy of sortition by dividing the subject in two questions: (a) political equality and (b) political participation (3). Last, I focus on the type of political representation that the lot produces, viewed from the perspectives of descriptiveness, authorization and accountability (4). In conclusion, I suggest that lotteries may offer valuable improvement to current practices of democratic selection, but only if special measures are taken to compensate for the limitations they entail.

Full text (uncorrected draft: not for citation).

26 Responses

  1. One of many interesting points that Anthoula makes is that sortition will lead to a reduction in participation levels in political activities by the general public. My publishing company is soon to launch the Journal of Deliberative and Participatory Democracy; Carole Pateman is on the editorial board and she told me that she anticipated deliberative papers would outnumber participatory papers by a large margin. Sortition is generally aligned with deliberation and, even in the case of Terry’s multiple sortition bodies, the proportion of citizens directly participating would be small. To my mind this is another reason why sortition could only ever be one element in a mixed constitution.


  2. “Participation” in politics is a catch-all term encompassing both meaningful and trivial activities – particularly when it comes to participating in electoral politics in campaigns (not something most “participatory democrats” tout, but something electoralists might bemoan the loss of with the replacement of elections by sortition.)

    I remember working on election campaigns doing all sorts of mind-numbing “participation.” For example one time at a city clerk’s office I was copying down phone numbers from voter registration forms into a campaign database (because the phone numbers of new voters were not included in the electronic data released by the city clerk to protect voters from tele-marketers, and the like, though the phone data was technically “public.”) While I was copying down new voter phone numbers so the campaign I was supporting could call these newly registered voters, a campaign worker for the opposing campaign was doing the same thing at a table a few feet away. Each campaign was hoping to have more volunteer labor power to copy down more numbers, quicker than the opposing campaign and thus get an edge in the election outreach efforts. I remember thinking how idiotic the whole process was…if I had copied down numbers from the January folder, and the other campaign worker from the opponents had done the February folder, and then we shared our data we would both be done in half the time…but the imperatives of the campaign kept us both “participating” for more time, doing mindless clerical work to gain an advantage. We weren’t engaging in issue discussion, comparing ideas, or building community… we were doing “participatory” politics as it exists in America. The less of THAT kind of participation, the better.

    My point is that “participation” is not always “democratic.”

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  3. Terry,

    It’s always good to debate with someone with hands-on experience! My concern is less the opportunities for political activists to participate (always a small minority in any political system other than the ancient republics), it’s that a sortition-only system would mean that the vast majority of citizens would become passive subjects, as they would no longer be motivated even to inform themselves on a cursory or heuristic basis before going to the polling station. This would be a dangerous development, so I think it would always be essential to maintain a combination of election and sortition (leavened with a pinch or two of direct democracy). Anthoula’s argument supports Carole Pateman’s suggestion to me that deliberative (sortition-based or otherwise) and participatory forms of democracy are antithetical. Naomi has also made the point several times that it’s vital for people to feel involved, even if public-choice economists view this as irrational,** and it’s one reason why Rousseau insisted that all citizens should attend the sovereign assembly, even though a representative sample would have been perfectly capable of determining the general will.

    ** I imagine this is why some of the post-Marxists on this forum view electoralism as the opium of the people, bread and circuses etc.


  4. Unfortunately, this chapter covers old ground adding little to previous discussions.

    A preference for elections over sortition because sortition is not a form of mass participation is like a preference for soft drinks over water because water is not a type of food. Elections allow citizens to participate in government to the same extent that soft drinks are a source of nutrition. (And just like water can be easily consumed with a healthy meal, so sortition-based system allows the introduction of meaningful political participation.)


  5. Yoram, political science is an empirical discipline that has long moved beyond argument by analogy and logical syllogism. It would be much helpful to confront the arguments directly — otherwise the author has nothing to respond to. And it’s not going to encourage new people into this field if all you can say is that their work just “covers old ground”. I hope this isn’t a deliberate attempt to put off people who don’t share your own idiosyncratic definition of democracy.


  6. Yoram,

    PS Did you actually read the paper? The participation issue was merely a passing caveat (it does not appear in the conclusion). The paper concludes that sortition may well be a) “a more democratic way for selecting public officials than elections”; b) a valuable alternative to quotas and “unstructured representative claims”; and c) a channel of republican education. The principal caveat in the conclusion is the need for mandatory participation by those selected by lot, in order to ensure accurate statistical representativity — a point that has been made several times on this forum (although you disagree with it).


  7. Keith,
    Three points on participation in a sortition system…

    1. My ideal system would have so many short-duration mini-publics being called (one for every separate national, state, regional, and local policy proposal), that every citizen would likely be called many times during a lifetime … meaning far MORE participation… and MEANINGFUL participation… than under an electoral scheme. This is not the case for designs that simply replace a single all-purpose elected legislature with an all-purpose allotted one, however…. even if the legislative term is only a year.

    2. A good sortition system should also have a means for the general public to play an active role, even if not selected for a mini-public…this could be writing letters, attending rallies, drafting proposals, giving testimony, etc. The difference is that participation would be more policy-oriented, and less rah-rah partisan team supporting.

    3.. Finallyr, it isn’t necessarily true that the pseudo-participation of electoral systems (which may prompt people to follow the news and pick sides in partisan battles and vote every year or two) has any benefit at all for the citizen, the society or good decision-making.

    Researchers have found that people who follow the news regularly or consider themselves politically informed, are LESS able to absorb new information that does not agree with their prior beliefs than people who have not followed the news. In other words, when suddenly thrust into a mini-public decision-making role it might be BETTER for society (in terms of making better decisions) if people are open-minded and have not already formed biased opinions from informing themselves through biased sources.


  8. Terry,

    That’s very interesting. Have you actually done any number crunching to establish that every citizen would be called many times in a life-time? My gut feeling is that it would make for an awful lot of lawmaking, but you have far more experience of these matters than anyone else on this forum! And I share Yoram’s scepticism as to whether participation in what will mostly be very minor decisions can make up for a lack of involvement in important macroeconomic, social and foreign policy decisions. Won’t this mean that some animals will be a lot more equal than others?

    I agree with your arguments regarding the poor epistemic value of a superficial engagement with news media; my concern is really the point that Naomi has made several times — the need to feel that one has participated in voting and thereby consent to the outcome, notwithstanding the fact that one’s own vote has negligible causal value. The problem with the sort of sortition-only system that you propose is that the vast majority of citizens will have no involvement at all in major public policy decisions. That’s why I agree with Naomi and Anthoula that sortition could only ever be one element in a mixed constitution.


  9. It’s perfectly plausible that most people could end up being selected repeatedly for local service. If I remember correctly, there are about 20,000 municipalities in the US. That works out to 15,000 people per municipality on average.

    But what good does participation at that level do? I’d rather have one vote out of a million on something I care about over one vote out of a hundred on something that bores me. Local governments handle the least controversial decisions, so the legitimization aspect (I can’t very well argue against the legitimacy of a decision I made myself) is probably of minimal benefit. Likewise we probably need civic education on controversial national-level issues the most.

    I suppose it would educate people about the value of the process. They may then be more content with it being used at higher levels. It may create a sense of involvement. But is this not an illusion? Only a few people will ever actually get to participate at the levels I (and probably the large majority of people) actually care about.

    In any case, this is a great problem with sortition. It overcomes rational ignorance and results in greater education for a small number of people only. More reasonable decisions come at the cost of de-incentivizing the self-education of the public at large. Say what you will about elections, everyone gets a vote and those votes add up. There are genuine policy differences between candidates and people give those differences consideration. They may not give them the full consideration they deserve, but they surely give them more consideration than they would if they had no say whatsoever.


  10. Naomi,

    1. Many people care far more about their local issues than national issues. A LOCAL zoning law limiting the heights of buildings in your neighborhood, or the budget of your area school may matter more to you than the NATIONAL issue of whether postal workers can carry over sick days into the next year. All kinds of issues at the LOCAL and NATIONAL level are compelling and all kinds of issues at the LOCAL and NATIONAL level are boring.

    2. Under my sort of sortition scheme many many times more people would be making NATIONAL decisions than currently. Currently just 535 members of Congress make such legislative decisions…. Voting for members of Congress (mostly safe-seat incumbents with no chance of losing) is not inherently valuable, nor meaningful participation. I know you are focusing on a GOOD election scheme, rather than the existing American one, but even so, mass elections are always prime for manipulation, rather than being a model of participation.


  11. Terry,

    We all acknowledge that elections can be manipulated and that voters are poorly informed, so you don’t really need to remind us. But is that a good reason to give up completely on electoral democracy and replace it with a system that arrogates all major political decisions to a tiny group of randomly-chosen citizens with the agenda set by activists? This would effectively mean that the vast majority of citizens would be reduced to the status of subjects (apart from deciding local and relatively trivial issues). Do you seriously believe that such a monumental change could ever receive popular consent? It strikes me that it would require one of two things:

    1. Acceptance of the Callenbach and Phillips thesis that a microcosm that “looks like America” would automatically act like America. As Peter Stone points out in the introduction to the second edition of A Citizen Legislature, C&P simply assume this to be the case, and provide no supporting arguments. Yoram, with his interests-based approach, attempts to demonstrate that this is true via a three-part logical syllogism, building from the interests of an individual, via the interests of a small group, to deduce that the interests of the microcosm would automatically reflect the interests of the macrocosm that it “describes”. But, as I’ve pointed out several times, political science is an empirical discipline that has little regard for the tools of deductive logic. And, as we discovered in the Ron Prestage thread, Yoram is working to a definition of democracy which nobody else (including yourself) shares.

    2. Acceptance of your purely epistemic (problem-solving) perspective on political decision making. But, as you pointed out some time ago, this presupposes that the big “political” decisions would have already been resolved (by an unspecified mechanism), thereby ruling out a sortition-only approach. I think you owe it to us all to explain how we get from our current situation, in which there are fundamental disagreements between the followers of the party of progress and the party of stability (these are Nancy Rosenblum’s terms, and they refer to general political psychology rather than empirical political parties). Are you suggesting a new social contract that resolves these issues once and for all? In not, then the democratic way of deciding them on an ongoing basis is election, even though such a process will be adversely affected by manipulation and rational ignorance. It’s not perfect but, as Jack Nicholson put it, it’s about as good as it gets.

    Accepting this sort of messy compromise was difficult for me, as it meant abjuring the simple-minded dogmas of my first book, The Party’s Over. The journey for me was facilitated by my return to university and the conversations on this forum. Given your own provenance on the hard left, I think it would be even more difficult for you, but you have never shirked from engaging in an open-minded way with your intellectual sparring partners and I would warmly encourage you to give up on your old certainties and join us in the real world, even though this would require eating the same sort of humble pie that I had to digest.

    If I might end with just one question. By what mechanism would you resolve the “political” questions in order to make possible your epistemic approach to problem-solving the issues of day-to-day governance? Are you suggesting that purely by depriving existing elites of their ability to influence the agenda, existing political differences will simple wither away? That without the generals the opposing armies will happily melt down their swords and mould them into ploughshares? That sortition will lead to the end of politics and that this will be a purely benign process? If so then I think historically-minded political scientists might well disagree.

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  12. Keith,

    It is hard to know what percentage of political strife is inherent in ANY society, and what percentage is fomented by the mobilization imperative of partisans in a struggle for power by political elites. Right now in the U.S. many conservative voters in the Canadian border state of New
    Hampshire are all worked up about the Mexican border illegal immigrant issue, even though it has no measurable impact on them. This is because of the nature of the partisan power struggle in the Republican primary, and not because of some inevitable political reality. At one time the hottest issue that divided this nation was whether Silver should be added to Gold as a basis for money, and that issue is 100% forgotten today. In Yugoslavia, before the fracturing, Bosnians and Serbs got married without a thought of the difference, but power struggles among elites prompted the whipping up of all but forgotten ancient ethnic rivalries. I can imagine a sortition democracy in which there are only a relatively small number of genuinely fundamental emotional issues, and most of political decision making is routine and relatively boring. Of course, this can’t be proved or even tested, but the elimination of concentrated power, and the structural impossibility of amassing concentrated power I believe would fundamentally soften political struggle.

    However, people would need to buy into the idea that they are jettisoning forever the notion that a charismatic father figure on the white horse will come and lead them to glory. This may or may not be possible, but I think it has almost been achieved in a number of nations already. It also requires that people embrace democratic decision-making and learn to accept that they may be wrong about their own deeply held beliefs about the world. That may be the hardest leap to achieve.

    I don’t have a blueprint for getting from here to there, (it would take generations) but believe that demonstrations of the efficacy of mini-public decision-making is an absolute necessary step along the way. I also think that some sort of initial referendum to authorize replacing an election with sortition would probably be a necessary step to provide legitimacy…. and indeed there may be a need for periodic referendums to reaffirm or reject the continued reliance on mini-publics. So I do see SOME role for mass elections, simply because of their HISTORY as a means of establishing legitimacy.


  13. Terry,

    It’s undeniably the case that politicians manufacture artificial cleavages and then exploit them to electoral advantage — the evidence for this is overwhelming. But there are other cleavages that are (arguably) endemic and more poisonous. Your example of the ethnic rivalries in the former Yugoslavia are a good example — my understanding being that this is an indigenous problem that was suppressed by Tito (a man on a white horse). Similar examples are available from the Middle East — I’m not aware of any serious claim that the Sunni/Shia conflict is the consequence of “electoralism”, most scholars arguing that the modern incarnation was caused by the popular revolution in Iran and the resulting Iran-Iraq war. I don’t think the conflict in Rwanda can be attributed to electoralism, and countless other examples are available.

    I’ve just finished reading Nancy Rosenblum’s On the Side of the Angels: An appreciation of parties and partisanship which makes a convincing case for political parties as a civilising influence as they cut across endemic cleavages and (particularly in a two-party context) oblige politicians to compromise in their pursuit of the hallowed middle ground (this is particularly the case in the UK, less so in the US). Northern Ireland since the establishment of the Stormont parliament is an excellent example of how ignoring Madison’s advice (competitive elections in large constituencies) can exacerbate pre-political sectarian cleavages. If there had been no Stormont parliament, then the standard Westminster parties would have straddles the sectarian divide, and the Troubles might not have happened.

    I’m not a comparative political scientist so I can’t claim any specialist knowledge of this field, but I think the evidence for the moderating effect of political parties (jaw jaw, not war war) outweighs the evidence that they manufacture or exacerbate cleavages. The current state of the US parties is, if anything, the exception that proves the rule in terms of convergence on the centre ground. The next UK general election may well be a good test case of this thesis, assuming Jeremy Corbyn is still leader of the Labour Party.

    Regarding your various hopes and aspirations for the elimination of concentrated power, the jettisoning of the need for charismatic father figures, and the need for epistemic humility, I think there are too many leaps of faith required, especially as we have no idea how to get from here to there. Much better therefore to keep our aspirations modest and build on the experiments in mini-publics to establish the value of stochation. But if you insist on The Full Monty you will end up alienating all those who, whilst sympathetic to our arguments, would not accept that we should replace election by sortition. So let’s focus on what we agree on and park all the “pure sortition” stuff for the time being. You’ve spent most of your life in practical politics so you know all about the need for compromise.


  14. Terry,

    Your use of words like “imagine” and “believe” in your post indicates its origins in utopian discourse. These verbs are more the currency of idealism (religious or secular), or popular music — John Lennon’s “imagine all the people living for today” is not that far removed from your “I can imagine a sortition democracy in which there are only a relatively small number of genuinely fundamental emotional issues”.

    The trouble is that there are a wide variety of competing visions. Your own vision is not dissimilar to that of the tiny group of secular activists who ushered in the Arab Spring (although you differ in your analysis of the institutional changes necessary). But the vision of Tahrir Square was soon drowned out by the competing vision of the world-wide Islamic Ummah. The resulting chaos is better understood by reference to Hobbes than standard elite theory. In the past I’ve commented on the similarity between the neoconservative and kleroterian visions — dethrone the Leviathan and then the people will self-organise spontaneously — but anyone who thinks that the removal of the Damascus elite will lead to all the people living life in peace should take a good hard look at Libya. I’m sure your vision is not intended for immediate application to the Middle East and other highly-divided societies but if it’s the case that the current political divide in the US is the distant relic of the Civil War then some degree of caution is in order, as political parties and competitive elections have helped to civilise the deep cleavages between competing visions.

    As I’ve said before I salute your willingness to engage in an open-minded manner with those whose views you disagree with fundamentally and to resist the temptation to demonise them as trolls and/or liars, but I do think that if we are going to make any serious progress then we need to leave our visions and beliefs outside in the parking lot before entering the deliberative forum. This is particularly true if we want to recruit the support of existing political elites — the last thing we need to do is to publish academic papers and blog posts intent on putting them out of a job.


  15. *** Keith Sutherland is afraid that in a democracy-through-minipublics “the vast majority of citizens would become passive subjects, as they would no longer be motivated even to inform themselves on a cursory or heuristic basis before going to the polling station”.
    *** First, we must distinguish between political activity and motivation for political information.
    *** The citizens of a country are motivated to inform themselves because they are subjects of the political decisions. Europeans are interested by US elections because USA is a super-power, and Washington decisions may be relevant to them. Let’s consider voters of a rather leftish leaning in an area where the constituency is overwhelmingly conservative, they know their vote will have probably no effect, but I think most of them do not lack totally interest in politics.
    *** Keith considers mass elections are necessary to enhance political consciousness of citizens. But referendums would have the same effect. Probably more. In France at least the one political events which generate a high level of involvement are the presidential elections and the referendums. Maybe, following Keith idea, many citizens would be upset by their immediate substitution by stochation. But I doubt it will be the case for national or European parliamentary elections.
    *** The participation at the national level would be low in a system where the one national mini-public would be a stochated Parliament. But if minipublics are used for national judicial cases (including judicial review), for the direction of public agencies with wide devolution of power, and for the auditing of administrative networks, it will not mean a small political work. Actually the amount of the political work will depend on the institutional organization.


  16. *** Most of the strife-torn contemporary States are States-without-nation. Yugoslavia is not a “nation which committed suicide”, because it was never a nation. The “Republic of Iraq” is not the State of an Iraqi nation, but includes in its boundaries Kurds, Sunni Arabs and Shia Arabs. Clearly, an Iraqi dêmokratia is not possible, because there is no Iraqi dêmos. But the electoralism does not work very well in Iraq, it seems. Keith Sutherland says he is not “aware of any serious claim that the Sunni/Shia conflict is the consequence of “electoralism” “. OK, but electoralism will not help, because election in such a State is first a census.
    *** I agree that even in a real Nation-State may exist a “cold civil war”, and especially in societies in transition to modernity; and “cold civil war” does not allow a dêmokratia. But in such situations any standard theoretical model, including the polyarchic one, may have bad effects. It is necessary to establish an ad hoc provisional system, waiting for a psychic peace in the citizenry.
    *** Leaving apart such a “cold civil war situation”, I agree with Keith Sutherland that political disagreements may be based on “deep cleavages between competing visions”. But do really the electoral competitions tend to soften these “cleavages”? Keith, who likes to appeal to empirical political science, does not give empirical data to support his thesis as a general rule. The electoral competition may lead to a “convergence on the centre ground”? It may be often the case, but only because there are a sizeable amount of “centrist” citizens, who are not part of the “extreme” sides dominated by strongly antagonist “visions”. In the mini-publics of a modern dêmokratia, these citizens would be pivotal, and a part of the “deep political believers” could join them after deliberations able to give them some independence of thought, whereas in elections their votes will be more expression of “ideological identity” (and this “expression of identity” may actually lead them to support political actors whose practical choices are very different of the practical choices they would make).


  17. André:

    >Keith considers mass elections are necessary to enhance political consciousness of citizens. But referendums would have the same effect.

    My understanding is that sortition fundamentalists are opposed in principle to any form of mass democracy, including elections, plebiscites and citizen initiatives. Terry’s case for the referendum is limited to the need for a new social contract to mandate the adoption of a sortition-only constitution. The argument that Naomi, Anthoula and myself are making is that a system of governance that disenfranchises the vast majority of citizens will not have the consent of those losing the vote, hence the ongoing need for elections, referendums and direct-democratic initiatives. As in 4th Century Athens, everyone should have an equal vote in determining which policy proposals should be considered in depth by a legislative jury — this is the optimal combination of mass participation and deliberative judgment that Naomi and myself advocate.

    >Let’s consider voters of a rather leftish leaning in an area where the constituency is overwhelmingly conservative, they know their vote will have probably no effect, but I think most of them do not lack totally interest in politics.

    True, but the fact that the chance of winning the recent Powerball lottery was 292 million to one did not prevent $1.8 million worth of ticket sales per minute. Voters, like lotto players, are not rational creatures — we all need to feel that we are part of the game, hence the ongoing need for some form of mass democracy. And those participating in the democratic game (whether US voters or European observers) for the most part trust the system, hence the agonising over the hanging chads on both sides of the Atlantic. Europeans are not just interested in US politics on account of the global outreach of American policy, it’s because we feel the decisions are being made by people like us and in a manner that we understand and have confidence in. This explains why there is zero public interest in Chinese politics, even though when Beijing/Shanghai sneezes we all catch a cold.

    >I agree with Keith Sutherland that political disagreements may be based on “deep cleavages between competing visions”.

    I’m glad that we both agree that there are many other sources of political cleavages than the electoral system (Terry is surely optimistic when he said that he “can imagine a sortition democracy in which there are only a relatively small number of genuinely fundamental emotional issues”). I don’t provide empirical data to support my view that elections can soften these cleavages because I’m not an empirical political scientist, and I don’t want to be guilty of cherry-picking. I’m relying on Nancy Rosenblum’s book, which I warmly recommend as a potent antidote to sortition fundamentalism.

    >The electoral competition may lead to a “convergence on the centre ground”? It may be often the case, but only because there are a sizeable amount of “centrist” citizens, who are not part of the “extreme” sides dominated by strongly antagonist “visions”.

    This is certainly the case in the UK, which has a political system that encourages moderation (no partisan primaries, cap on election funding, ban on TV advertising etc). You would be hard pressed to find a UK psephologist who argues against the median voter theorem. Assuming Jeremy Corbyn retains the leadership of the Labour Party, the 2020 general election will provide the test case. And even in the US, once the primaries are over and the candidates selected they will all rush towards the middle ground, as elections in large states cannot be won through the votes of extremists alone. Republican bigwigs are particularly aware of this, hence their fervent wish that Trump and Cruz would disappear in a puff of smoke.


  18. Terry,

    What is your response to Jefferson on the intrinsic nature of political cleavages: “Men have differed in opinion, and been divided into parties by these opinions, from the first origin of societies, and in all governments where they have been permitted freely to think and to speak, the terms whig and tory belong to natural as well as to civil history” (letter to John Adams, June 27, 1813). And to Samuel Johnson the first whig was the devil — so the problem you are seeking to abolish is not so much the consequence of electoralism as original sin. Prohibition doesn’t work, much better to rely on moderation (ie electoral reform to address the excessive power of money and influence).


  19. Terry:> a sortition democracy in which there are only a relatively small number of genuinely fundamental emotional issues

    Why do you refer to political differences as “emotional issues” as opposed to Jefferson’s “opinions”? In my experience most liberal and conservative democrats agree vaguely on the goal (a society in which as many people as possible can flourish) but have very different strategies as to how best to get from a to b — conservatives relying more on market mechanisms and liberals on redistribution (I’m using “conservative” and “liberal” in the modern American sense, as opposed to the original meaning of these terms).


  20. Andre:

    I don’t remember which thread we were discussing this on, but I was intrigued to see that Dahl shares my misreading of Rousseau’s throw-away remark on spatial rotation:

    ‘It is hard to know whether Rousseau really thought he has a way to get the genie back into the bottle. A few chapters earlier (Ch. XIII), he ways that if it is impossible to reduce a state to small enough limits, the solution is to move the capital alternatively from one village to another. Thus the people of each village would be “sovereign” in turn. It is curious that he does not balk at this arbitrary solution when he so strongly objects to the selection of representatives by election or lot.’ Dahl, After the Revolution, 1990, p. 139 (footnote 10 to Chapter 2)

    Although I think your reading of the Social Contract is more literal, I share Dahl’s puzzlement, as it could be read as a plea for spatial rotation (that’s how I saw it before your intervention).


  21. *** The model of Keith Sutherland seems a society divided between rightism and leftism, both based on deep impulses, with a moderate center that the politicians court; the electoral-representative process pushes the politicians to “the center”, and lead them to make the political choices which would be the choice of “the median voter” should this one rule.
    *** First, we must distinguish the “primary opinion” of this “median voter”, and the “secondary opinion” after deliberation, which would be decisive in a democracy-though-minipublics.
    *** Second, it is not true the politicians choose always to follow the primary opinion of the median voter. Polls seem to assure us that the US “median voter” agrees with some level of gun control, at least background checks before acquiring a gun; and it is not the general law. A majority of French citizens voted against the “European Constitution” and thus we must think the median voter was displeased with “Europeism” as it worked; but the Parliament voted practically the same text. Yes, the politicians take into account the “median voter” sensitivity, but not to follow it. If the polyarchic “parallelogram of forces” leads to political decisions contrary to this sensitivity, the politicians will try to make cosmetic adjustments, or to speak about another subject, or to describe as “extremist” even a view which is the preference of the average citizen, linking it to unpleasant groups, or to bungle the issues, or to explain their policy is not a choice but a necessity of the world as it is, or to send the responsibility to unaccountable judges, etc etc.
    *** If we accept Sutherland’s model, minipublics will lead to the same policies as our electoral-representative “democracies”, and a “kleroterian revolution” will have no practical effect, nothing better, nothing worse. An US democracy-through-stochation will have practically the same policy about gun control, immigration, health, taxes and their use, internal economy, free trade, etc, than the current US polyarchy. I doubt. Many people doubt, actually, and are afraid there would be changes they don’t like. With, depending on their personality, two choices: either to throw anathema on the idea of minipublics, or to accept them as auxiliary, consultative etc, anything except giving sovereignty.


  22. Answer to Keith Sutherland about Rousseau’s idea of rotating political center.
    *** I don’t believe there is doubt about the meaning of Rousseau’s text. Dahl and you are a little too modern, whereas Rousseau lived in the world of ancient Cities-States.
    *** In the ancient Athenian City-State, citizens who lived in Marathon had a long way to go to the Assembly, as know modern marathon runners. It meant less frequent attendance, and therefore less political power than the urban citizens. Rousseau’s proposal of rotating political center would avoid any geographic inequality (which may often imply a social inequality).


  23. Andre,

    We seem to be moving a long way from the topic of this thread — the need for all citizens to have some kind of ongoing involvement in the political process, rather than being mere subjects of a kleristocratic elite. My comments on the median voter theorem (entirely uncontroversial amongst UK political scientists) were based on UK political experience and are not central to this thread. I’m a little alarmed that you feel that the kleroterian revolution will lead to substantively “better” policies on gun control, immigration etc as if there were some external standard by which such policies can be judged. All that one can say is that the policies would benefit from the considered judgment of the representative sample of the demos. As to whether or not the resulting policies would be to the taste of liberals and progressives is an entirely different matter.

    I’m sure you’re right on Rousseau but, as a self-acknowledged grave-robber, it suits my practical purposes to go along with the anachronistic interpretation, relying on the Dahl citation as an “argument from authority”, and can only hope that my PhD examiner is not a Rousseau expert. Perhaps Rousseau would have gone along with it if he had been born in the twentieth century. I’m sure this will only confirm Yoram’s view that I am an irredeemable scoundrel.


  24. Keith,

    I don’t think Andre suggested mini-publics would necessarily result in “better” policies… merely more democratic (let the chips fall where they may).

    I agree with Andre that the “median voter” theory is predicated on a left right spectrum, which I argue is largely an artifact of electoral partisan battle rather than inherent in society. There are deep divisions to be sure, but they criss cross in all sorts of ways along countless axes.

    I think I can summarize a major distinction between Keith’s (and perhaps Naomi’s) analysis and some others of us…

    View A. Electoral politics tends towards the wishes of the median opinion (median voter), BUT the median voter is ill-informed and hasn’t digested nor considered the facts and arguments for an against…
    So stochation allows politics to instead gravitate towards the median considered judgment of the citizenry.

    View B. Electoral politics tends towards the wishes of the median opinion on a few high-visibility issues where powerful interests are agnostic, but tend towards the interests of powerful elites the rest of the time….
    So stocahtion allows polciy to instead gravitate towards the median considered judgment of the citizenry.

    So both views see the same happy end point, but solving different interpretations of the current problem.


  25. Terry,
    I largely agree with both views. Or I would, if “interests of the powerful elites” were changed to “preferences of the politicians themselves” in View B. These preferences may well be the result of self-interest. Other times they may be due to ignorance, or out of a genuine desire to do some good that most people might not agree with if only because the average person is poorly informed. I’d prefer to remain agnostic on their personal motivations. Anyway, it’s reasonable to expect that if the people themselves don’t have strong feelings on a matter and if the media is already saturated with more pressing issues the result would be policies which are less… electorally minded.

    I don’t see why median voter theory depends on a left-right split. We’ve all seen the 2D political spectrum with a vertical axis. There’s still a midpoint. You can add as many dimensions as you’d like. Even the political equivalent of an 8D hypercube has a midpoint.

    As far as other deviations from the median voter theory… politicians must—in addition to pursuing the hallowed middle ground—get their lukewarm supporters out to the polls. So naturally policy bundles are going to include things not necessarily popular with the median voter. Proposed policy bundles are then paired with the need to punish or reward politicians based on their behavior. Over the long arc of history we can expect things to largely average out. This is true. But not all things can be undone and the combination of happenstance and inertia is a remarkable force.


  26. Naomi,

    If you ever get bored playing with your chemistry set, you should get a job in a university politics department. Your last comment was the best attempt I’ve yet seen to reconcile the warring tribes of Downsian economists, Dahlian pluralists and post-Marxist elite theorists that I’ve seen in a long time. Each camp is partially right but (as with political parties) each claims to be on the side of the angels, while the other guys are just paddling up s*** creek. No doubt some neuroscientist will come along soon and prove that each perspective is determined by an innate brain signature . . .

    Liked by 1 person

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