Interview with Yves Sintomer, part 2 of 2: With sortition, the scale is immaterial

This is the second part of a translation of an interview with Yves Syntomer. The first part is here, the original in French is here.

Does the end of the 20th century mark the return of a desire to experiment with sortition?

We witnessed in the 1980’s and 1990’s an explosion of experiments applying sortition, a “first wave” where the reference to Athens was very significant. There are however big differences. We aim to obtain a representative sample of the population by allotment, where the Athenians did not have this mathematical notion and resorted to pure luck. The second big difference is that we wish to use sortition to create an Assembly which is going to debate in nearly ideal conditions, following the ideas of ­Jürgen ­Habermas, according to which a decision is not legitimate unless it is preceded by a well-formed discussion.

The third difference is that sortition is introduced at the margins of the political system and that the mini-publics so constituted are merely consultative. This first wave allowed to show that with discussions among ordinary citizens, non-specialists, once they have sufficient information and have the opportunities to examine things, where opportunity to speak has been equally apportioned, in a general assembly or in small groups, high-quality conversation is attained. It is impressive to see that the exchanges between ordinary citizens put to shame those that take place in parliaments.

We are now seeing the emergence of a second wave. Sortition is now invoked by social movements in France, including Nuit Debout and some among the Gilets Jaunes. Ireland has recently offered us a paradigmatic example of this second wave. We had two allotted assemblies (one in its entirety, the other in its majority) convened first to discuss marriage for all and then abortion and to propose constitutional reforms which were then submitted to the people who have ratified those propositions by referenda.

Iceland is another significant example. The country was in a bad state at the moment of the subprime crisis… Two citizen assemblies were allotted (one in its entirety, the other in its majority) in order to propose how to reconstruct the country. That was followed by an election of a constituante committee where professional politicians could not be members, a proposal of a new constitution, a validation of the proposal by a consultative referendum… It was finally buried by an obstruction by a majority in Parliament, which refused to adopt the text.

It may be objected that those are two small countries…

With sortition, the scale is immaterial: it may be used at the level of a city or a country in quite similar ways.

The recall which we are seeing spreading around the world can be one way to control the elected. It is a tool aimed at specific individuals with a significant plebiscitary dimension (for or against a certain person). The popular initiative allows to legislate and concentrates on a topic rather than on a person.

Then there was this idea of multi-level self-government: the assembly of assembly. A first meeting has taken place, but the response was much less powerful than that of self-proclaimed Gilets Jaunes “leaders”. The proposal, in short, is to use the “soviet pyramid” that historically was based on the workplace, and base it at the roundabouts and the localities. This plurality of forms responds to a variety of logics.

It seems to me that there is tension between on the one hand a vision of democracy where there would no longer be intermediaries, without organizational structuring, but rather there are only citizens who regularly and directly take decisions, and on the other hand the idea that there should be counterweights which do not abolish the rest of the representative system but allow a re-dynamization of the political process by giving power again to those who today have none. It is this second vision that to me appears to predominate.

In your book, A short history of the democratic experiment (La Découverte, 2011), you have proposed the creation of an allotted “third chamber”, in addition to the National Assembly and the Senate. What chamber would this be and what powers would it have?

We must not minimize the force and importance of social movements with their spontaneous democracy, but at the same time, if we want durable change, it seems to me that it is fundamental to move toward institutionalization. This is just as true for sortition: if we allow arbitrary power to convene allotted assemblies from time to time with no obligation or constraint as to whether to respect the decisions taken, then there is little chance that society or politics would change.

It remains to consider the form that that could take. British colleagues made the following proposal that seems convincing to me: create a chamber that is like the Heliaia, the Athenian court, that is, allot 6000 people for at least a year and then for each case allot among them a jury in order to study and take a decision on a particular issue. That would avoid transforming those people into all-powerful representatives like those in the other chambers. These people would not be particularly competent and therefore if we want them to have a discussion and reach a high-quality decision, it is necessary that they would be able to concentrate on a question without sidetracking. That would also limit the ability of lobbies to corrupt, directly or indirectly, this new type of representatives because they would not be able to know who will deal with what.

Finally, it would allow to “shuffle the cards” each time and prevent the formation of factions that would persevere across sessions, becoming “mini-parties” based on affinity groups. These people would have not only to be paid like elected officials but also to be guaranteed to be able to go back to their workplaces once their terms are complete. The sortition would be among the citizens and even among all residents of the French territory. Of course, it should be possible to be recused for a valid reason.

What would be the powers of this chamber?

It could discuss extremely divisive proposals, and its decisions would go up for ratification by referendum, in order to break an impasse. The example of Ireland is paradigmatic, and today, to conclude the “grand debate” called by the government, an assembly of this type could handle several topics, submitting proposals to a referendum so that all the citizens can decide. Then this chamber could hold political officeholders in judgement, serving as a judicial court for the elected.

There could also be the possibility of a veto on parliament approved-laws at least on “long-term” issues. It seems to me that one of the big challenges of representative governments is that future generations and non-humans do not vote although they have interests, values and rights to represent. Conferring on allotted citizens the task of representing those is not a perfect solution but it is doubtless the least imperfect one for giving weight to the long term. I also believe that this chamber should decide the rules of the electoral competition rather than the parties.

Aren’t we risking the creation, with a third chamber, of a cacophony or even a conflict of legitimity between the elected chambers and the allotted chamber? Which one is the more legitimate in the equation? The elected person or the allotted one? And what is the legitimacy of the President versus this chamber?

It is necessary to do away with the figure of sovereignty, even a democratic one. Sovereignty is a concept whose origin is theological: God is sovereign, then we have a pyramid with the pope, the Church, the kings, etc. The notion of sovereignty was afterwards refashioned on Earth with the absolute monarchs, and then was transferred to the people at the moment of the Revolution.

What does sovereignty mean? It is the situation where it a unique willful actor who, in the final analysis, takes the decisions. In the Middle Ages, there was a completely different political conception which reseted on juridical plurality: lawmaking was partly contradictory, intersecting, and so there was no single source of legitimacy but several. It seems to me that we are now again in this situation again.

Admittedly, we have a system which, at a national level, gives the appearance of sovereignty, but in reality a good part of the key decisions are taken by unelected bodies, bureaucracies of experts, rating agencies which influence the actions of citizens in deep ways… The larger part of the decisions are taken by an entanglement of public levels: local, regional, national, European, even international. We are living in a polytheistic world, if you want. It will be necessary of course to resolve conflicts of legitimacy, but the monarchist French system is an illusion.

A more direct democracy could be interesting in two ways. First, to end the feeling of disempowerment with regards to globalization by placing part of the decision-making in the hands of ordinary people in order to create a link between power and the people. Secondly, we will no longer be able to be merely demand good behavior from the elected and blame representation as the source of all our troubles. As a result, if things do not work out well, it would no longer be the fault of people but of a system. That would therefore in a way “re-politicize” politics. What are your thoughts on this?

I agree with you on those two points. The nuance that I would add is that the bottom line of direct democracy, if we find it a compelling idea, is that ordinary citizens exercise power. But if we have a realistic conception of this idea, we note that for referenda, for example, collecting signatures requires time, and winning a referendum requires very costly campaigns. So organized interests (companies, interest groups, associations, parties) are going to play a significant role in such a direct democracy.

And if we think about direct democracy as using an assembly model, an aggregative model, there too there would be groups, or at least people, who would be more influential than others. The idea of a society governed by the ordinary citizens, in its various variations, seems to me to be an illusion. That does not contradict the fact that the development of direct democracy, understood in a realist way, would mean a real transformation of society. And we should be worried about the future of our society if fundamental changes do not take place.

One Response

  1. I recommend fetura, a variant of sortation, in which random selection alternates with election of the next higher assembly (or the chief executive at the top). This is scalable to large communities, and is able to deliberate on many complex issues, without having to submit them all to referenda. The process might begin at the local level and ascend to larger containing polities. The highest
    level assembly would be the parliament (or diet) for a country.
    All this is presented in my novel, Wayward World, available on


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