Sortition on

If you think democracy is broken, here’s an idea: let’s replace politicians with randomly selected people… My TEDxDanubia talk has been promoted to the front page of – it should be the featured talk for the next 6 hours or so…

To celebrate, my publisher, Unbound, has cut the price of the e-book edition of The End of Politicians: Time for a Real Democracy.

14 Responses

  1. Congratulations Brett – it’s great that a whole new tranche of people will get to learn about the idea of sortition.

    I understand that EBLotters have their binary concerns about 1 or 0, elections or sortition, and their points are legitimate and important. I also share them in my particular way.

    There is something in blending to be done here, though, which is related to the idea of accepting difference between the individual, say me, and everyone else in the world who will, inevitably, have more or less different ideas to me with regard to how to change our systems of government to make their impacts more socially progressive.

    For we who consider sortition in all its manifestations, I see that specifically as coming down to different versions of sortition versus the different versions of electoral government, not least elected politicians, their parties and the governments that they may periodically be part of.

    All a bit blah, blah abstract – so let’s make it concrete.

    In Ireland, David Farrell and his collaborators planted the deliberation seed into public thinking in response the financial crisis and the damage it had done to public confidence in existing political structures there.

    They ran a privately funded deliberative event. They inspired the constitutional convention. They inspired the citizens’ assembly.

    It is possible to criticise each of these iterations and to worry that they may not be perfect manifestations of sortition nirvana.

    It is also possible to distrust elected politicians at every stage of this process, to somehow want to exclude or at least drastically minimise at every opportunity their influence on the policy process.

    Both the criticism and the distrust may or may not be legitimate, people have different views on that.

    What’s important is not to let either inhibit the process of experimentation and innovation from proceeding.

    It is also important to share the basic notions of what constitutes public deliberation to as wide an audience as possible.

    This is a challenging process – one I find requires me to be constantly checking in with my own prejudices, as best I can, to see whether I am managing to avoid demagoguery.

    Systems change – which is what we’re about here – the only question we may differ on is scale – is massively difficult.

    I recently came across this great document by the Finance Innovation Lab – It contains a huge amount of valuable material that could help the process we are engaged with here.


  2. Patrick:> how to change our systems of government to make their impacts more socially progressive.

    That’s worrying — my understanding was that sortition was a form of democratic decision making, designed to privilege informed public opinion. Whilst the outcomes might be “socially progressive” they may equally well be reactionary. I’m particularly concerned to hear that the outcome of the Irish referendum has its origins with “David Farrell and his collaborators”, who presumably share these “progressive” goals. I’m sceptical of the view that the public is ahead of the political class in this respect — an alternative explanation is that politicians are often members of the cultural elite, but are constrained by the electoral impact of their decisions on conservative voters. The Irish convention was (effectively) composed of volunteers and that would suggest a higher proportion of activists and politically engaged than the general public and this had a strong influence on the final referendum vote. There is a danger that sortition will be seen as a Trojan Horse for the progressive agenda, especially in the light of Patrick’s comments and Nick’s proposal for sortition panels to overturn Brexit and Trump. This is all decidedly anti-democratic.


  3. While Keith and I have very different political preferences, I agree with him that sortition should not be thought of as a means of promoting a progressive agenda. It will simply advance the considered preferences of the majority, which in some cases may be left and others right. I, like many others, tend to believe that if ordinary people had all the facts, and necessary time to deliberate, they would likely agree with my view on policies… And I suspect that those on the other end of the political spectrum would have the same expectation for THEIR issues. Until we have a functioning democracy, we really won’t know for sure (probably some of each).

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I think I have maybe misused, or been unclear with, the term “progressive”. For me, progressive would be to have politics happen in a way that is more in line with the considered opinion of a randomly selected, suitably sized group of citizens – aka sortition.

    I don’t carry a torch for Trump/Clinton or Brexit/Remain, to take two examples of very divisive political questions right now. Both sides in both debates are fiercely partisan and very closed to the views of the other side.

    “Progressive” would be to have mechanisms that enhance the chances of the two sides hearing what the other has to say and to be heard by the other side.

    It’s that simple.

    Left versus right is a dying notion for me.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Sorry Patrick, I don’t buy that. Your argument was for “socially progressive” outcomes and, as an Anglophone journalist, you know exactly what that means. Women’s reproductive rights (the Irish referendum) falls into that category, and both Trump and Brexit are widely viewed as reactionary developments. As Terry has pointed out, it is essential that sortition advocacy is not associated with a “socially progressive” agenda, with all its partisan implications. This is particularly important given the cultural turn in neo-Marxist thinking. Whether you consider that a phenomenon of the left or the right is unimportant, the key thing is that we shouldn’t use loaded terms like “socially progressive” on a forum devoted to the reform of balloting methods. Otherwise people will conclude we have a hidden agenda.


  6. Ha! It appears Sutherland has exposed you and your hidden agendas, Patrick “neo-Marxist” Chalmers!

    Sutherland, the representative of all that is good and decent (and apparently the self-appointed speech policeman of this forum), has decreed that promoting “socially progressive” ideas is unacceptable on this forum. We must all be strong and proper enough to hide our little partisan agenda in favor of the greater good of “the reform of balloting methods” (whatever that means). (That said, the occasional anti-Corbyn frothing is acceptable.)


  7. Yoram:> “the reform of balloting methods” (whatever that means)

    Look it up in a dictionary, (for example)

    The interest of this forum being:

    1.3 A lottery held to decide the allocation of tickets, shares, or other things among a number of applicants.

    The adoption of a lottery may or may not lead to socially progressive outcomes.


  8. Hi Keith – feel free not to “buy it”, as you say. You are completely entitled to your opinions about what it is that you think I think.

    I, with some sort of awareness about my own delusions and cognitive biases, am probably in a better position to know what I think than are you or anyone else – and vice versa, of course.

    For me – I choose to define socially progressive as being systems of government that better represent what their host societies want to do politically than do our current systems of government by election – something that requires us to cultivate more skill, and humility, to get any sort of handle on.

    I found the Irish story extremely challenging to unpick as a reporter – being very aware of my status as a male, 52-year-old British person (and former colonial power) weighing in on a subject that included questions of Irish women’s reproductive health versus the rights of the Irish unborn, and the implications of that Irish debate for questions of abortion worldwide.

    It is a fiendishly difficult ethical and moral topic.

    I was also aware that as an agnostic, or atheist, I’m never quite sure which, that I should proceed with a spirit of trying to respect other people’s religious or spiritual positions while remaining true to my own, Buddhist-inspired moral compass.

    This is not a place to tread heavily or to be too sure of your position. One year on from the start of my deeper mental engagement in Ireland’s particular manifestation of sortition – I feel moved to be less dogmatic in my position taking and more prone to listening to views that differ from my own – and not just on abortion. It’s not an easy task.

    That’s also why I’m taking the time to respond at length to your comment – even though I find the way you often express yourself to be quite hostile.

    For me, sterile left/right schisms are delusional, divisive and prone to lead to dead ends, intellectually and politically. I’m not interested in pursuing that approach, even though it’s probably a learned habit that I have thanks to my education and culture.

    I read this piece about Mormons supporting Trump this morning – it’s very interesting and food for thought beyond the usual treatment of Trump supporters by those who would call them “deplorables”.

    I also listened recently to this podcast between the UK comedian/commentator/not-sure-what Russell Brand (for some he’s seen as being of the decadent far left) and the alt-right celebrated Canadian psychology professor Jordan Peterson.

    In the latter, both men are thoughtful and thought provoking at the same time as being respectful and attentive of the other party. Peterson is usually very provocative by nature, an approach I don’t like much and think has its limits, but he makes some very valuable points.

    What is useful in both pieces, for me, is to entertain the idea of listening to people I might initially think I disagree with, with the objective of understanding their perspective and point of view, to see where I actually share common ground with them. It’s surprising to discover how often there is significant shared ground between apparently opposing sides – something we’d do well to focus on when thinking politics, political solutions and how to bring them into being.

    That is the essence of sortition as I understand it – for participants to be exposed to people from different backgrounds who’s views and perspectives they may not agree with, or even they’ve never heard raised, so that everyone’s perspectives can become richer, more nuanced and more inclusive of the society of which they are a part.

    That applies to all of us, everyday, and not just in formally constituted bodies.

    Fail to do that and I am condemned to live in my own silo/echo chamber for life, convinced of my own rightness but managing to help nothing and nobody with the social progress – yes, it’s that idea again – that I think is essential for the well being of our own species (no left/right there), other living beings and the planet itself.

    Our societal definitions and understandings are in extraordinary flux right now, there is a great deal of intellectual fluidity in the air, not least with people who are younger than me.

    That is very emotionally and intellectually unsettling but, I think, also a sign of potentially healthy change being in the making.

    You may think that’s all garbage – which is fine by me, of course.

    In any case, I hope you have a lovely day.



    Liked by 1 person

  9. Patrick:> I choose to define socially progressive as being systems of government that better represent what their host societies want to do politically than do our current systems of government

    OK, but that’s not how everyone else uses the term (especially in the context of the Irish referendum), and there is no way of knowing a priori whether a sortition-based system would better represent what the host society wants than our current system. All we can say is that a well-designed sortition-based system would (under very exacting constraints) represent informed public preferences.

    >the essence of sortition as I understand it – for participants to be exposed to people from different backgrounds

    That’s all very well for the participants, but if our objective is a working system of democratic representation, our overriding concern should be the vast majority of people who don’t get to participate. Of course this is not the way deliberative democrats look at the problem as they are not, on the whole, interested in representation. Sorry to keep banging on but this is largely because “deliberative democracy, when properly conceived, is the rightful heir of the early Frankfurt School” [of cultural Marxism]’ (Scheuerman, 2006, pp. 86). Deliberative democrats want to transform, rather than represent preferences as deliberative democracy adopts a “critical approach to the liberal state and its political economy [capitalism]” (Dryzek, 2000, p. 89)

    Dryzek, J. S. (2000). Deliberative Democracy and Beyond: Liberals, Critics, Contestations. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Scheuerman, W. E. (2006). Critical Theory Beyond Habermas. In B. Honig, J. S. Dryzek & A. Phillips (Eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Political Theory (pp. 84-105). Oxford: Oxford University Press.


  10. Hi Keith

    Thanks for those references – I hear your point about participants versus wider society – very important to bear that in mind – so yes, I’ve got it.

    I wonder what your thoughts are on getting from where we are today – sortition as being experimented with in various different ways in various different countries as versions of mini publics – to what you describe above in your most recent post.

    Not theoretical or academic ideas but cool-eyed strategy based in today’s political realities.

    To do anything like that requires either the hope that somehow we will do some sort of societal phase change/quantum leap from one to the other or that some sort of deliberate strategy for systemic change is required – which is fiendishly difficult.

    I referenced this document during the Sortition Foundation strategy meeting on Sunday – I find it to have very well-thought-through ideas about how to tackle systemic dysfunction in the global financial system (

    Interesting that the authors’ theory of change involves different actors from different parts of the financial system universe – insiders and outsiders as it were.

    My point to them would be to ask how to introduce exactly the public deliberation element that gets us all so excited on this blog.

    Answers on a post card please.




  11. Patrick:> I wonder what your thoughts are on getting from where we are today?

    I think the best opportunity are controversial single issues that offer little electoral payback. The Irish convention (if it had been done properly) was a good example; as would have been Brexit:

    But it’s too late for that now, so we’ll have to wait for something else to come up. Voluntary euthanasia and the legalisation of drugs are possibilities.


  12. Hi Keith – “controversial single issues that offer little electoral payback” – quite a lot to unpack there!


  13. Patrick:> quite a lot to unpack there!

    Why so? It’s very simple — if political parties saw there was a potential to increase their support at elections and so long as the policies didn’t alienate their core supporters (and donors) then they would already have adopted them (this is bog-standard democratic theory). That isn’t the case with examples that I gave, so they would be strong possibilities for sortition-based solutions.


  14. […] Hennig’s TED talk about sortition was featured by TED on their main page, generating a spike of interest in the idea, including by Beppe Grillo, […]


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: