The Democratic Diarchy

Alex Kovner and myself have been banging on for some time about the ongoing necessity for political parties (albeit in a heavily-modified form) for policy proposal and advocacy in a well-functioning democracy (the disposal role being reserved for randomly-selected juries) and this has not gone down particularly well on this forum. We’re presenting a short paper on it at the Association for Political Thought conference at Oxford in January and would greatly appreciate feedback before we go. It’s very short and we’ve put a lot of effort into refining and clarifying the necessary distinctions. The full paper is on, here’s the abstract:

Isegoria (equal speech) and isonomia (equal law), the two norms that constituted classical Athenian democracy, were implemented respectively by the right of every citizen to propose (or argue against) new laws (isegoria), and equal voting rights over their implementation (isonomia). In the fourth century the latter (disposal) function was entrusted to large, randomly-selected juries (nomothetai) that could be viewed as descriptively-representative microcosms of the citizen body. Isegoria rights were restricted to the five citizens elected by the assembly.

Most current models for ‘citizens’ assemblies’, although claiming Athenian provenance, more closely resemble modern parliaments in that the proposal and disposal functions are conflated, the only difference being that citizens’ assemblies are not constituted by preference election. This paper argues that such models result from a conceptual confusion, have no historical precedent and are vulnerable to corruption and domination by the very hegemonic forces that they seek to counter. The paper argues that, whilst the democratic argument for legislative decision-making (disposal) by a large ad hoc representative jury is persuasive, sortition can have no role to play in the proposal function and such sortition-based bodies can only be part of a mixed constitution in which political parties (albeit of a radically different form to their current incarnation) are required in order to implement ‘representative isegoria’.

And here’s details of the conference panel:

‘The Circumstances of Sortition’

  • David Owen (University of Southampton), ‘The Uses of Sortition’
  • Yves Sintomer (Université de Paris 8), ‘The Contrasted Models of Democracy in Sortition-Based Innovations’
  • Alex Kovner; and Keith Sutherland (University of Exeter), ‘Isegoria and Isonomia: Election by Lot and the Democratic Diarchy’
  • Peter Stone (Trinity College Dublin), ‘The Paradox of Sortition’

8 Responses

  1. Keith and Alex,

    Your paper is very good in terms of the need to separate distinct lawmaking tasks (as performing one task makes those people less fit to perform certain other tasks.) The paper actually closely follows the logic I set out in my 2013 paper on multi-body sortition

    The key weakness is the plan to rely on elections and political parties to select who gets to make proposals (although admittedly, since these parties are not competing for majority power – having no final decision-making role, they would be very different than current parties). There is no logical reason to limit drafting proposals to this tiny elite group. (In reality, they would likely farm out drafting to lobbyists and special interests any way). elections have a very deleterious effect on society and even on those people who win elections – making them also unfit for proposing.

    Rather than inventing a self-contradictory concept of “representative isegoria” (since isegoria means anyone who wishes may propose). We simply need to allow anyone who wishes to join with other citizens to draft proposals. (I agree that sortition is not optimal for selecting drafters of proposals). We can use any of a wide variety of winnowing procedures to reduce to a manageable number of final proposals on each agenda item to present to the mini-public. I like using a SEPARATE mini-public as part of this review process, but some crowdsourcing method might also work. The ley is that the final decision is by a separate short-duration fully representative mini-public. The importance of their weighing as opposed to debating is also widely ignored in the broader sortition community.

    If your proportional party system WERE used for proposing, it would be essential that the disposing mini-public not know which party had proposed which proposal (they might need to be sequestered), since the members of this jury would have VOTED for one of these parties, and would thus be biased – psychologically tending to confirm their earlier election decision.

    One edit is needed on page 2 (which footnote 6 does not correct) … since the “plurality of American voters” chose Clinton, rather than Trump. Trump received the majority of electors in the electoral college in sharp contradiction to the popular vote.


  2. Some people had difficulty downloading the full text from, so Alex has put it on his own website — here’s the download link:

    Terry:> isegoria means anyone who wishes may propose

    Not so — what you are referring to is ho boulomenos (“he who wishes”) not isegoria (“equal speech”). Both isegoria and isonomia were originally aristocratic concepts that were subsequently democratised.

    We need to draw a distinction between the meaning of a concept and its historical instantiation. In small poleis like 5th century Athens it was possible for anyone who wished to make proposals, and all votes counted equally when determining the outcome of the assembly debate. In the 4th century voting rights on new laws were arrogated to large randomly-selected juries and most sortitionists accept that this marked a transition to “representative isonomia”. At the same time speech rights were restricted to the five citizens elected by their peers in the assembly. (Alex’s preference for five proposal-making parties is a happy coincidence.)

    Alex and I are trying to adopt this principle for large modern multicultural states, hence our concept of “representative isegoria”, whereby all citizens get to elect those whose voices they believe (rightly or wrongly) best represent their own beliefs and preferences. I’ll leave it to him to respond to your comments on how this might work out in practice.


  3. Keith,

    As you yourself have noted, we shouldn’t lock modern democracy design into the model of Athens, nor claim purity by noting a link between our design and the Athenian model. But as a historical point… isegoria and isonomia meant more than the shorthand translations you use. Isonomia was a principle of political equality that included equality before the law (one’s social status gave one no advantage or disadvantage when enforcing the law) … not just equal votes in assembly. Isegoria meant equal right to speak in the assembly, or even within society generally, but it meant more than just this. Sparta had an assembly of citizens as well, in which it may be that citizens could speak freely…. BUT the proposals they debated and were allowed to vote on could ONLY come from the aristocrats. Sparta did NOT have isegoria (nor democracy). The right of ANY citizen to offer a proposal to the demos was an essential aspect of isegoria.

    But setting historical arguments aside… My view is that using competitive elections to narrow WHO is allowed to make proposals is simply bad, undemocratic (elite) design. Due to rational ignorance (few voters will devote enough attention to party platforms), media manipulation, public relations techniques, ramping up of tribalism, vilfication of opponents, the simple fact that parties must cobble together a mix or policies such that many voters will find NO party that encompasses their particular preferences, etc., etc. elections will not “represent” voters’ interests, and will generate a very undesirable set of proposers. I still contend that “representative isegoria” through elections is a dead end in terms of democracy.


  4. Terry, in my thesis I acknowledge that the concept of isonomia covers other domains than lawmaking, but you can’t cover everything in a short article. I’ll leave it to Alex to respond on the substantive issues.


  5. Terry, in my thesis I acknowledge that isonomia covers more than law making, but you can’t deal with everything in a short article. I’ll leave it to asked to respond to the praxis issues.


  6. Terry,

    I’m not a classicist, so I really don’t care whether or not “representative isegoria” is an affront to the ancients. We mean by it that people delegate an inherent, equal right to propose to some sort of organization on a representative basis.

    This dichotomy, between proposing and deciding, is not only a functional aspect of our political system, it is a psycho-social property of the electorate. Psychologically, people wish to participate in politics both in a tribal or partisan manner, and in the manner of impartial jurors. The current system meets only one of these desires.

    We seek to allow citizens to participate in politics in both ways. But perhaps even more important than introducing citizen juries is stripping parties of the disposal power. This is a giant step, and will undoubtedly be bitterly opposed by those who profit from that control. I appreciate your acknowledgement that political parties are very different if they only propose; for me that is the core reform that will transform politics.

    Our paper is an attempt to introduce that reform in the least disruptive way possible. Once we firmly establish the principle that only randomly chosen single-use juries can exercise the disposal function, a whole host of reforms can proceed to the proposing side. Different states in the U.S., for example, could try out different mechanisms, some of which would look more like conventional political parties, others of which might look more like citizens’ assemblies.

    I personally think that party-based structures are more likely, because they vindicate the proposing rights of people who are not activists. But I could be wrong about that. If I am wrong, then the system we are proposing is still an important step on the way to a more democratic end state. Prying the power of disposal from the grasping fingers of professional politicians is the key reform without which nothing else is possible.


  7. Alex,
    Yes, I agree that separating proposing from disposing is a huge beneficial step (the authors of a proposal are inherently ill-suited to also judge their product). I also accept that your design is a reasonable step in the direction of democracy. So if an opportunity to implement some key aspect of this design, I would certainly be enthusiastic.

    I suggest that the most plausible path forward as a transition step is peeling off a single issue area (e.g. healthcare or energy policy) and transferring authority in that specific area completely away from the elected legislature, and giving it to a multi-body sortition system (with separate proposers and disposers). I can easier imagine Macron letting a sortition process tackle climate change, and giving up power in that ONE area, than imagining giving up power on all policy areas at once.


  8. Terry:> I suggest that the most plausible path forward as a transition step is peeling off a single issue area…

    I couldn’t agree more. I wrote a blog post suggesting that the minimum wage would be a good candidate. Issues like health care and energy have a lot of moving parts; the minimum wage has only one moving part. Also, it doesn’t even require proposals. Members of the citizen assembly just submit the wage they believe to be best; the result is just the average. Some limit should be placed on values, such as plus/minus 10% from the previous year.

    If we did this, the minimum wage would never exist as a political issue again. It would just be a number that gets adjusted yearly. A single, persistent success like this could really change attitudes about sortition.


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: