Modern citizen assemblies are an affront to Athenian democracy

The burgeoning media interest in citizens’ assemblies (it was the lead discussion on the BBC R4 Today programme last Saturday) prompted me to contribute my own article to The Spectator, explaining some of the underlying political theory and the (spurious) claims for their origins in the fourth-century Athenian nomothetai. Again it’s a short article so best to read it on the Spectator blog. It will be interesting to read the comments.

6 Responses

  1. >> “…political decisions by randomly selected bodies…its modern reincarnation started with a throwaway suggestion by political scientist Robert Dahl in 1989”

    Keith, why do you neglect citing “A Citizen Legislature” by Callenbach & Philips, 1985 … the book that you paired (in 2008) with your own “A People’s Parliament”?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Previous comment (…’why do you neglect) by me, David Grant, of Common Lot Productions.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. David – Very good point.

    While Sutherland will no doubt give you a long and convoluted answer, the real answer is simple: Sutherland is an elitist who abhors anything that smacks of democracy. C&P are therefore twice to be shunned: once for the democratic content of their proposal and once for them being despised activists rather than establishment-recognized academics.


  4. Good point David. I had a message from Jim Fishkin yesterday saying he liked the post and confirming his connection with Dahl. I’ll ask him if either of them had read the C&P book.

    Yoram:> Sutherland is an elitist who abhors anything that smacks of democracy

    I stick by my Spectator claim that small, sortition-only bodies are anti-democratic. Judging by the online comments, the vast majority of readers agree — if you can’t read the comments I’ll copy them to this blog. But I think this should be a warning to Pure Sortitionists that inhabitants of the real world think they have been parachuted in from planet Zog.


  5. Sutherland,

    While I would not want to stand in your way as you continue making a fool of yourself by inventing a false history of the idea of sortition and asking silly questions, I will remind you that in fact Dahl proposed using advisory allotted bodies back in 1970, and moreover gave this idea more space in his 1970 book than in his 1989 book.

    > I stick by my Spectator claim that small, sortition-only bodies are anti-democratic.

    You stick to a lot of things, some of which even happen to be valid propositions. This in no way changes your self-admitted hostility to democracy. Anyone reading your arguments would do well to keep that in mind (as well as the fact that you are also a self-admitted habitual liar).


  6. Yoram,

    Thanks for reminding us of Dahl’s earlier book. The difference (as Terry pointed out at the time) was that his 1989 book argued that minipopuli should have formal legislative powers. (I’m waiting to hear from Fishkin whether either of them were aware at the time of Callenbach and Phillips’ comparable proposal).

    Remember also that it was in the 1970 book that Dahl cautioned against Jacobinism:

    Perhaps the greatest error in thinking about democratic authority is to believe that ideas about democracy and authority are simple and must lead to simple prescriptions . . . The error of thinking about democracy as a single form has led to catastrophe in the past; I fear it will lead to disaster in the future. (Dahl, 1970, p. 73)

    I’m glad also to see that you were less hostile to my views in 2010:

    In that sense, policy juries (i.e., allotted groups that pick between alternatives designed by elites) along the lines suggested by Keith Sutherland or by Ethan Leib are a better small-step change toward sortition.


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