The principles of representative government and the French sortitionists

A fun paper paper by Samuel Hayat, “La carrière militante de la référence à Bernard Manin dans les mouvements français pour le tirage au sort”, Participations 2019/HS (Hors Série) [original in French, abstract in English], tells the story of how Bernard Manin’s book The principles of representative government came to play a role in the sortitionist movement in France. The bottom line, according to Hayat’s telling, is that it is all Etienne Chouard’s doing. Hayat also claims that Manin’s book was not the source of the reformists’ interest in sortition but rather that they, and in fact mostly Chouard himself, used the book, with its impeccable academic credentials, as a legitimating force for their position.

Hayat’s paper seems to serve as the starting point for Antoine Chollet (“Les postérités inattendues de Principes du gouvernement représentatif : une discussion avec Bernard Manin” by
Antoine Chollet and Bernard Manin, Participations 2019/1 (N° 23)”, [original in French, abstract in English]) and for his claim that Manin’s book was misunderstood by both activists and scholars as a polemic in favor of sortition, when in fact Manin is pretty happy with elections, which he sees as mixing democratic and aristocratic elements.

The evidence that Chollet presents for his thesis of misinterpretation seems rather unconvincing to me. In an interview with Hayat Chouard does admit to having been surprised to discover Manin’s loyalty to elections, but Chollet’s quote from Van Reybrouck, for example, does not betray any misapprehension on his part.

It seems to me that Manin was quite successful in achieving his goal (described in the second part of the paper) of problematizing elections and the electoralist system (what is commonly referred to these days as “democracy”) during a period when electoral triumphalism was quite rampant among Western elites. It seems to me that that is indeed the message Manin’s book imparted to most readers.

Anyway, by-and-by Chollet gives Equality-by-Lot a favorable mention:

It would not be difficult to amass more examples of this misuse of The Principles of Representative Government, maybe more so in France than in other countries (Hayat, 2019), although the title does figure prominently in the list of books on the blog of the “Klerotarians” [The address of this well-known blog, where Keith Sutherland and Peter Stone take part regularly, and so does, more sporadically, John Burnheim, is as follows: (accessed on March 26, 2019).]. The evidence shows however that these references by sortition activists, relying on and praising The Principles, are based on a misreading of the book.

21 Responses

  1. Yoram:> Manin’s book was misunderstood by both activists and scholars as a polemic in favor of sortition.

    That’s true for activists, less so for scholars. Manin claims that sortition “vanished without trace” on account of the natural right theory of consent that was dominant at the time of the birth of representative government (p.79). For a refutation of Manin’s argument see

    Antoine Chollet is right to criticise sortition activists (on this blog and elsewhere) for not studying the primary texts — Pitkin’s and Manin’s books really are essential reading.


  2. *** If some supporters of democracy-through-minipopulus believed Manin was a fellow supporter, that means they read his book too quickly.
    *** Manin’s book had many convincing points, and, among them, some were interesting for « sortition democrats ». Especially : before the end of 18th century the Western political thought interested by the democratic idea linked it to sortition ; the election has always an intrinsic elitist side.
    *** Supporters of « sortition democracy » – who did not always read Manin’s book too quickly ! – were perfectly entitled to use historical facts and some historical interpretations of Manin. This is not « misuse ». A political speculative thinker is entitled to use data from an historian even if the historian has a different political complexion. As he is entitled to use any scientific research.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. *** One of the less convincing point in Manin’s book is the supposed strength of the « idea of consent » in the discourse against sortition, and its deciding effect.
    *** I agree wholly with Sutherland’s doubt about this point.
    *** I will add some historical data. Manin said that the French revolutionary assemblies did never take seriously into account the use of sortition. Sure, he is right. But that does not mean the idea was « dead » at this time, and against it we see revolutionary or counter-revolutionary minds using the argument of the unequal abilities rather than consent.
    *** A quotation from the counter-revolutionary Burke (Reflections on The Revolution in France, 1790)
    « Everything ought to be open, but not indifferently, to every man. No rotation; no appointment by lot; no mode of election operating in the spirit of sortition or rotation can be generally good in a government conversant in extensive objects. Because they have no tendency, direct or indirect, to select the man with a view to the duty or to accommodate. »
    *** Another quotation, 1792, from the French revolutionary Lanthenas (deputy in the Convention).The author explains that the problem is choosing “a method of electing, which, leaving to each citizen the greatest opportunity to be appointed and elected, nevertheless assures, for the REPUBLIC, that the election will always fall on the most virtuous citizen and the more enlightened. To want that lot decides is choosing at random his own food; it is to believe that one will meet precisely those who are suited to one’s health in the midst of the infinite variety of substances which nature offers. Laziness, no doubt, and the sight of the imperfections of our modes of election and the abuses they are teeming with, even more than a misunderstood love of equality, have, at first glance, been able to win for this system many partisans. But I do not doubt that a little reflection will bring them back to the true principles.”
    *** In both texts, it is clear that the discourse against sortition is not about consent, but about the inequality of men and the necessity of selection.

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  4. André,

    I am curious about the contemporary quote that the defects of elections in the 1790’s “been able to win for this system [sortition] many partisans…”

    Who were these sortitionists? They either weren’t writers, or their writing has been buried or lost. At least, I haven’t come across it. Does anybody know of any contemporary writing ADVOCATING sortition during the French revolution? Or perhaps he is just focusing on ROTATION, because that principle was clearly popular, and instituted.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Terry,
    *** I am curious, likewise.
    *** A deputy to the Convention, Bois-Guilbert, is said to have been a sortitionist writer. I am looking for the writing.
    *** We must distinguish famous writers, and the other ones. There was no famous writer advocating democratic sortition during the revolutionary times, but there were very numerous political writings which are now in public libraries and I am afraid nobody went across them from a sortitionist point of view.
    *** Lanthenas discourse is clearly against democratic lot, and he says democratic lot has « many partisans ». Maybe it is rhetorical exaggeration. But at least that means the sortition idea was not dead.
    The time was not so far from Montesquieu and Rousseau, their works were alive for the most educated revolutionaries ; and there was a strong ideological drive towards equality, which might lead to sortition through « a misunderstood love a equality », as says Lanthenas. Therefore sortition could be an idea for some revolutionaries, in some circles, even if in the revolutionary elite it was not considered seriously.
    *** I think the sortition idea was dying in revolutionary times, but yet alive in some minds.
    *** Note that Burke, in his anti-equalitarian discourse, is mentioning the sortition idea, which means it was not dead. In 19th century, I don’t know any reactionary thinker using the sortition in his discourse, it was dead. I remember Charles Maurras finding the idea in Herodotus : he did not use it to ridicule political equality, he put a « ? » – it was so strange !
    *** In the French 1968 events, I remember some proposals of sortition ; among the « revolutionaries » (Vidal-Naquet) and among Gaullists (I forgot the name). It is difficult to see something about it in history books about these events, sortition was somewhat underground, but it was the beginning of the new life of sortition – the opposite of the 1790s situation.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. The only positive mention I’ve seen of lottery at the founding of the United States were from Thomas Paine and James Wilson (of the Constitutional Convention). But both of their lottery proposals were more akin to the use in Venice, as an anti-manipulation tool among elites … Wilson offered an amendment to the Constitution to form the electoral college to select the chief executive by drawing lots among the elected representatives.

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  7. *** In French Revolution, we can find examples of use of lottery, in proposals, or in actual institutions : during the Directoire, one Director, chosen by lot, was replaced each year. Therefore chance was accepted, but inside chosen ones.
    *** Lanthenas himself did accept lottery among selected persons. What he rejected strongly was lottery without selection.


  8. Andre,

    So this was the sanitizing effect of the lottery (the Blind Break), rather than as a form of political representation (either taking turns or via sampling). Perhaps that’s why Manin ignored it, as it’s tangential to his thesis. It’s worth noting of course that the distinction within the latter is just diachronic vs synchronic, the (representation) principle is the same.


  9. Andre:> Manin said that the French revolutionary assemblies did never take seriously into account the use of sortition. Sure, he is right. But that does not mean the idea was « dead » at this time.

    Manin’s general claims are very strong:

    The idea of attributing public functions by lot had vanished almost without trace. Never was it seriously considered during the American and French revolutions . . . the total absence of debate in the early years of representative government about the use of lot . . . it simply did not occur to anyone

    (pp. 79-81)

    And yet we have the citation from Burke and Lanthenas’ reference to “many partisans” for sortition. From the context they would appear to be referring to contemporary debates, if so then there is a PhD opportunity for someone to dig out these references and prove Manin doubly wrong!


  10. *** Keith says Manin’s general claims about the sortition in the time of the Atlantic Revolutions are very strong: “almost without trace” “never it was seriously considered”.
    *** Yes, a little too strong. But not really untrue. Burke was an exceptional high intellectual, and his comment does not refer to a contemporary debate; Lanthenas was somewhat eccentric, the people he describes as sortitionists seems to be revolutionary circles outside the main Jacobin elites. The sortition idea was only “traces” which the historians of Revolution could neglect.
    *** I am digging a little, from curiosity. Maybe there is a PhD opportunity to study more thoroughly. But I doubt such a study could really controvert Manin’s basic picture of the sortition gone to the Limbo. (Much more debatable is the probably exaggerated role of the consent idea).
    *** The sortitionist posterity of Manin is a curious phenomenon. But we must remember (as he reminds us) that he issued his book in 1995 , in a time (first Fukuyama essay 1989 “The End of History?”) where polyarchy could be seen without serious enemy left, before it was under attack in the name of its own democratic myth.
    *** I do not suspect Manin’s scientific integrity; I suppose that even aware of his possible sortitionist posterity he would have maintained his views – but maybe the presentation would have been a little different ….

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  11. Andre,

    > Much more debatable is the probably exaggerated role of the consent idea

    I very much agree. The claim that sortition has lost ground because of the ascent of the idea of consent is so naive that the fact that Manin offers it seriously cannot be dissociated from his less-than-democratic commitments.

    > polyarchy could be seen without serious enemy left

    There was a tradition of criticism of polyarchy (Communists, Anarchists, Feminists). Yes, these were not (and are not) serious forces, but of course Manin didn’t really unleash a great anti-polyarchy force either. The great value of Manin’s book is that in discussing sortition he actually had a conceivable (even if unheard-of) alternative to elections – the linchpin of polyarchy – something that none of the aforementioned critics had.

    Another unique characteristic of Manin’s work was that he was a sympathetic critic of polyarchy, not a hostile one. This probably gave his work a more tolerant reading, and therefore a larger audience, than hostile criticism would have gotten.


  12. I don’t think Manin’s book is at all critical of polyarchy — in the chapter on the metamorphoses of representative government he views “audience democracy” as just as valid a system as its predecessors. However, as Andre put it, the book was written at the time of the “end of history” and Manin confessed to us a few years ago at one of the Paris sortition workshops (and after a few beers) that, like Pitkin, he is now less sanguine about electoral institutions than he was at the time. Although I wouldn’t describe him as a convert, Manin (along with Hansen) has a reasonably sympathetic attitude to the neo-sortition movement.


  13. *** I wrote that when Manin published his book « polyarchy could be seen without serious enemy left ». Yoram critizes this comment, and it was actually akward. Since 1990s the polyarchy had not been in the eve of fall in any North Atlantic country.
    *** But it has clearly problems, with the rise of « populist » movements, the cases of referenda revealing the wide discrepancy between the supposed « representative parliaments » and the supposed « direct voice of the People », and phenomena as the Gilets Jaunes getting approval of the majority of citizens against the legal ruler (and asking for referenda).
    *** In its first phase polyarchy had to fight against reactionary forces linked to ancient monarchic/aristocratic regimes (and incidentally against Jacobin-style revolutionaries). In a second phase it had to fight against totalitarian movements, brown and red. And we are in a third phase, where it is subject to subversive phenomena which are using against the polyarchic model the democratic myth (sovereignty of the People) which was an efficient weapon against its former ennemies.
    Thus, very quickly after the supposed « end of History », the polyarchic model is no more triumphant and quiet. The interest for sortition is to be considered with this background.

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  14. *** In the text I quoted, Burke wrote : « No rotation; no appointment by lot; no mode of election operating in the spirit of sortition or rotation can be generally good in a government conversant in extensive objects »
    *** He seemed to accept sortition about « not extensive » objects.
    *** If I am right, « extensive » has two meanings : 1 covering a wide range of objects 2 important. I am not sure what Burke was thinking about. About judicial juries ?

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  15. Ah – yes, that makes sense. Since sortition for judicial juries was practiced, some way to justify why the same cannot be done with parliament had to be devised. “Extensive” serves exactly that purpose.


  16. Yoram,

    I need to double check my old research, but I am fairly certain jury selection was NOT random in Burke’s time… not until fairly recently. A sheriff might hand pick particular “peers” of the accused, who he believed were upstanding and had first hand knowledge of the accused or the crime. It is only in modern times that semi-random selection has been implemented in UK or American juries. In short our modern jury system is not inherited from Ancient Greece at all…. it is a case of reinvention of the wheel.


  17. Hi Terry,

    The description here makes the system appear to have been geared toward picking indiscriminately from the list of qualified people (pp. 26-27).

    (The fact that the same jury sat for multiple cases rules out the possibility that jurists were supposed to have particular knowledge of the accused or the crime.)

    JOHN H. LANGBEIN The English Criminal Trial Jury on the Eve of the French Revolution


  18. *** Yoram Gat says « the ascent of the idea of consent is so naive that the fact that Manin offers it seriously cannot be dissociated from his less-than-democratic commitments ».
    *** Maybe, but I am not sure. In the disparition of political lot there were many factors, and Manin may have exaggerated the one belonging to his own field, the history of political philosophy


  19. *** The Langbein study Yoram quotes shows that for criminal juries the social selection was not very strong (p 25, or else even polemists could not have written that they “usually consist of low and ignorant country people”, with horrific stories of drunk jurors. Likewise in the empaneling of a trial jury there was a final step of sortition (p 48). Sure, the resulting jury was not a democratic one, but the procedure was not founded on a strong “principle of distinction”, as the one advocated by Burke for high political functions. We can think either Burke was convinced of a necessary distinction between high political functions and judicial ones (at least for criminal trials), or he did not want to weaken his discourse by attacking an institution belonging to a traditional system with wide approval.
    *** Following Langbein, the criminal juries softened the repression of crimes against property as established by the laws of the gentlemen in the Parliament, for instance by downgrading offenses with death penalty to offenses with transportation penalty (p 37). We see how even judicial bodies with limited powers may actually have an « extensive » effect. They were a part of the political system. Maybe Burke did not want to think too much about that.

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  20. Andre,

    > In the disparition of political lot there were many factors

    The process in which the sortition was dissociated from democracy seems very straightforward to me.

    As long as the consensus (among all those who mattered) was that democracy is bad, there was no problem associating sortition with democracy – both were considered as obviously bad ideas.

    The electoral system was explicitly instituted as being oligarchical (or, euphemistically, republican).

    However, the electoral system is self-contradictory. On the one hand it is oligarchical in practice, but on the other hand it incessantly promotes democratic ideology. Thus gradually the system that was originally presented explicitly as oligarchical had to be rebranded as conforming to democratic ideas. Obviously this required eliminating the competing idea that democracy requires sortition.

    Thus, the dissociation of sortition from democracy, exactly at the time that democracy was becoming the dominant ideology, was not an accident, or a secondary effect of some the rise of some new concept. It was a deliberate move by the elites that was made in order to maintain their oligarchical electoral system in the face of the newly dominant democratic ideology.


  21. Yoram:> The process in which the sortition was dissociated from democracy seems very straightforward to me.

    It must make for an easy life to view everything in terms of simple binaries — perhaps it’s a consequence of your professional background. Those of us who have studied the humanities, especially history, know that there are many shades of grey and no single causes.


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