Sortition vs. Russia

Nicholas Ross Smith, Assistant Professor of International Studies at the University of Nottingham, has a column in The Conversation which offers sortition as the antidote to the evil machinations of Russia. Those reading carefully, however, will realize that Russia is just a lure: Smith makes the very valid point that Russia has not done and is not doing anything unusual.

The Mueller Report in the US, for instance, found that Russia’s lobbying tactics “consisted of business connections, offers of assistance to the campaign, invitations for candidate Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin to meet in person, invitations for campaign officials and representatives of the Russian government to meet, and policy positions seeking improved US-Russian relations.”

In addition to lobbying, Russia has arguably also sought to promote anti-establishment sentiments in the West by positioning itself as a traditional and conservative power. Through its RT news network, Russia has seemingly had some success in fanning the flames of discontent in Europe, especially with regards to topics like the EU, the refugee crisis, and Islamic terrorism.

The problem here is that elections naturally encourage populism and demagoguery as winning the majority of votes is the aim of the game. If Russia is able to find fertile ground for its anti-establishment message among Western publics, it can then indirectly influence a state through its own democracy.

All of this has existed for some time, however, and it certainly isn’t uniquely a Russian tactic. Powerful states – including powerful democracies – have promoted their regime preferences in foreign countries for centuries. One early instance was when the French interfered with the 1796 US presidential election to help its favoured candidate, Thomas Jefferson.

Russophobia aside, Smith’s advocacy for sortition is pretty well argued:

However, the EU needs to be wise and see Russia as a symptom, not a cause of its democratic failings. Improving its democratic mechanisms is one way the EU can insulate itself from external interference.

Former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis has taken up this challenge with his DiEM25 movement. DiEM25 aims to “transform Europe (by 2025) into a full-fledged democracy with a sovereign parliament”. However, for all its lofty goals (which are commendable), the DiEM25 movement fails to consciously detach itself from a reliance on elections as the main mechanism of democracy.

The answer might nevertheless still be found in Greece. Not from Varoufakis and his ideas but from Classical Athens. The Athenians were well aware of the negative effect of elections – which they saw as a conduit to oligarchy – and rather emphasised the role of citizens in the everyday running of the state.

One Response

  1. This is the section of the paper that deals with sortition:

    To maximise citizen input, the Athenians used a lottery system called sortition to randomly select citizens from the Ekklesia (an assembly open to all citizens) to sit on the Boule (the council) and the Heliaea (the court). Elections were used only to select magistrates who presided over military, economic and societal affairs, and these positions were strongly scrutinised by the Boule and Heliaea.

    There are significant democratic advantages of a system based on the deliberation and decision making of ordinary citizens randomly selected by lotteries. It is fairer than voting because it removes the privilege of those with power, status, and money and produces an unbiased cross-section of society (it does not discriminate against gender, ethnicity or sexuality). And with no specific candidates to target, interest groups and foreign governments would lose some influence.

    The European Parliament is an ideal institution to try such a radical idea because it cannot sink any lower in terms of popular legitimacy. After all, one of the key roles the European Parliament is designed to perform is the democraticoversight of the other institutions of the EU. So, what better way of doing that than using a random selection of ordinary citizens from the EU’s member states? If people were more involved, the institution would be stronger.

    Something as seemingly crazy as selecting the European Parliament via sortition would not only offer a radical solution that could have real positive democratic effects but it would help safeguard from any potential external interference (not to mention internal interference). It could also turn the EU from a punchline to an inspiration; a force for reinvigorating democracy on the European continent.

    The only thing I’d take issue with is:

    [sortition] produces an unbiased cross-section of society (it does not discriminate against gender, ethnicity or sexuality).

    This relies on the New Left notion of identity politics (that arguably has it’s foundation in feminist tracts like Ann Phillips’ The Politics of Presence: The Political Representation of Gender, Ethnicity and Race and thereby overlooks more subtle forms of bias that would be generated by small-sized voluntary bodies established by sortition. This is particularly problematic as the European Commission has experimented with ‘societal representation’ (a civil society alternative to elections) which is designed to ‘foster a perception of participatory governance to increase the likelihood that policies will be regarded as legitimate’ (Bellamy and Castiglione, 2011, p. 117). Given that next week’s EU Parliament elections might even lead to a majority of nationalistic populist MEPs, we need to beware of attempts by the EU bureaucracy (and Council of Ministers) to sideline the European parliament.


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