Sortition in the New Yorker, again

For the second time in less than a year, sortition is mentioned in the New Yorker. Last time, it was merely an off-handed comment. This time, sortition is front and center. Nathan Heller’s article is built around an interview with Hélène Landemore. Alexander Guerrero also gets quoted.

Landemore’s ideal is participative, but she seems to be working with a rather loose concept for her proposals:

What distinguishes Landemore’s ideal from other lottocratic models, such as Guerrero’s, is the breadth of her funnel: the goal is to involve as much of the public organically in as many decisions as possible. Her open-democratic process also builds in crowdsourced feedback loops and occasional referendums (direct public votes on choices) so that people who aren’t currently governing don’t feel shut out.

As evidence that open democracy can work in large[…,] culturally diverse societies, Landemore points to France’s Great National Debate—a vast undertaking involving a vibrant online forum, twenty-one citizens’ assemblies, and more than ten thousand public meetings, held in the wake of the gilets jaunes protests, in 2019—and, this year, to the country’s Citizens’ Convention on Climate Change.


More in this vein from Landemore in a forthcoming book due next year.

[A]sked her about strongly reform-minded candidates in the current Presidential election, [Landemore] dismissed their governmental ideals as “conventional.” “I don’t see it in Sanders or Warren or any of those guys—it’s still about them, their vision, and their leadership. Yes, they want small donors instead of big donors, but—” She gave an unimpressed shrug.

It seems possible to object that a professor in an elite university getting to design a whole new system of government could very well count as being about that professor’s vision and leadership. Another point to consider is whether having such a loose concept of what is proposed can be expected to lead toward democratization or to processes that are more of an exercise in elite manipulation, as many thought the Grand Debat was.

9 Responses

  1. “At forty-three, Landemore is tall, with long blond hair swept back into a ponytail; she wore a checked flannel button-down, jeans, and Ugg boots.”

    Long form padding … sheesh

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  2. Open democracy, she says, is about being represented and representing in turn. . . the goal is to involve as much of the public organically in as many decisions as possible. . . everybody would have an equal chance at being in government and an equal voice once they got there. . . everyone, regardless of whether they are currently in government, would have unmediated contact with the decision-making process.

    I appreciate that New Haven is a small town, but the demographics of large modern states don’t support classical Greek arguments for ruling and being ruled in turn, and it was Aristotle who said that the polis could not extend beyond those who could hear the call of the Assembly cryer. And while it’s true that everyone has an equal (miniscule) chance of being selected by lot, the notion that everyone would have an equal voice once they were in government conflates equality of opportunity and outcome. And exactly how would “everyone else have unmediated contact with the decision-making process”?

    Hélène is a classical deliberative/epistemic democrat and both in her book and in personal correspondence she has stated that she has no interest in representation (statistical or otherwise) and/or democratic legitimacy, whilst she distances her “collective wisdom” (the talking approach) from the CJT and the wisdom of crowds (the counting approach). She also makes the (analytic) assumption that randomly-selected decision makers will always vote for the common weal, rather than their private interests, so I share Christopher Achen’s scepticism regarding open democracy.

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  3. *** Keith Sutherland writes « the demographics of large modern states don’t support classical Greek arguments for ruling and being ruled in turn » ; an implicit quotation of Aristotle which deserves some comment.
    .*** When Aristotle describes the political freedom in the democratic ideology, that does not include only the popular juries, with the use of lot. It includes likewise the general vote in the assembly. The citizen is ruler when he votes a decree in the Assembly, he is ruled when he must obey the decrees. He is ruler when he decides a war in the Assembly, he is ruled when he is conscripted to go to war.
    *** If somebody supposes that « ruling and being ruled in turn » alludes only to sortition, that would mean that political freedom along the Greek democrats does not include the votes in Assembly !
    *** Aristotle is an arch-enemy of democracy but he wants to be a political scientist. He could not describe the democratic ideology in blatantly erroneous words.
    *** But he chooses the color of his sentences.
    *** When Theseus, mythical founder of democracy, describes the second way of popular sovereignty, the allotted juries, he says that through sortition « Ho dêmos anassei » « The People rules » (Suppliant Women). Theseus’ wording has a communitarian color, whereas the Aristotle wording has an individualistic color.
    *** In the ancient Greek City, the communitarian ethos was strong, before even the advent of democracy, whereas the individualistic ethos was suspicious. Aristotle and Plato attack the democracy as too much individualistic, given its valuation of personal autonomy, specially of free speech. Therefore when considering the political freedom democrats are boasting about, Aristotle chooses the individualistic wording.

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  4. Thanks for the clarification André, that certainly makes sense. Classical-era Athens was a direct democracy so voting in the assembly and then obeying the resultant decisions constitutes ruling and being ruled in turn, whereas jury service was more a case of taking turns to participate. But large states are not direct democracies, so the modern parallel would be voting in elections and then obeying the decisions of the representatives that win the election, and the democratic case for political juries is statistical representation rather than participation. if this is the case then the passage that I highlighted from the article — which draws a direct parallel with classical Athens — is disingenuous. If Helene were to accept that political juries were statistically representative rather than participatory bodies then I would have no objection, but as a deliberative/epistemic “democrat” her focus is on persons rather than aggregates.

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  5. *** Keith Sutherland says (March 10) that « voting in elections and then obeying the decisions of the representatives that win the election » is a way for the citizen to be ruler and rulers in turns, a « modern parallel » to the ancient democratic way.
    *** Demosthenes would not have agreed with such an homology. In Demosthenes (20) Against Leptines, we find a beautiful contrast between the Athenian democracy and the Spartan republic :
    [107] « [In Sparta] Whenever a man is elected to the Council of Elders, as they call it, because he showed the relevant qualities, he is absolute master (despotês) of the multitude. For there [in Sparta] the prize of merit is to share with one’s peers the sovereign power on the political system (politeia). With us the people is sovereign (kurios), and there are imprecations, laws and other safeguards to prevent any other to become sovereign (kurios).»
    *** Demosthenes contrasts here the Athenian democracy, where the dêmos is sovereign through general assembly and citizen juries, and the Spartan republic, oligarchically leaning, where the main political body is the council of Elders, whose members are elected. Well, I acknowledge a difference between the Spartan Elders, elected for life, and contemporary parlementarians, elected for some years – but the US Supreme Court members, very powerful, are for life, which lessens the difference.
    *** If a US citizen must obey a Supreme Court ruling, he must think « I was ruler when I (or my father) was among those who voted in the elections of the presidents who put the Judges in their seat, and even if the presidents did not know always the real political leanings of the Judges ». There was no conscription for British citizens in the last Irak war, let’s suppose there was. The conscripted soldier must think « I was a ruler when I was among those who voted in the elections which put Blair as Prime Minister », even if a war in Irak was not in the debated issues during the elections.
    *** Well, I think the parallel is not very convincing.

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  6. Andre:> the Athenian democracy, where the dêmos is sovereign through general assembly and citizen juries

    Sure, but both Athens and Sparta were small poleis in which direct democracy is a possibility; not so in large modern states. So the challenge is the modern (large-scale) homology and I thought we agreed this has to be achieved via a system of representation — electoral in the first instance and statistical in the latter. Landemore is simply not interested in representation, hence her misuse of the historical parallel. Note that the party system that Alex Kovner and myself are proposing would focus on the policy issues, rather than the persons, so would be an improvement on elections as currently practiced, but to suggest a modern version of Athenian governance without elections is to give up on democracy.

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  7. *** Recently the French president decided to hold municipal elections in the beginning of an epidemic. He said he got approval of all the main parties (with parlamentiary groups). He was approved by around 70 % citizens (not me !) – but it was an opinion poll, not a democratic choice following debate. Let ‘s suppose a democratic choice by an alloted jury. With an elected proposal chamber as proposed by Kovner & Sutherland, made from political parties, it is not sure that a proposal against the municipal voting would have been issued.
    *** Isêgoria means that there is no selection among sensible proposals. There was in the Athenian Assembly an informal way of disposing not-sensible proposals : shouting down the speaker. Organizing isêgoria in a modern (ortho-)democracy is a problem, maybe an elected chamber could be part of the solution, but I don’t think it is all the solution. There is a risk of such a chamber excluding some sensible proposals.

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  8. Hi Andre, this is Isegoria Alex’s side of our double act (I’m Isonomia Keith). He’s a bit distracted with other things at the moment, but I’ll ask him if he can find time to respond.

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  9. Andre: “Isegoria means that there is no selection among sensible proposals”

    The system Keith and I are proposing is a hybrid system, using election to generate a proposing “chamber” (the chamber may or may not resemble contemporary legislative chambers). Citizen juries would be employed to make all decisions; that is, to dispose of agenda items from a small set of proposals coming from the proposal chamber.

    This automatically narrows the range of proposals to a manageable number, and guarantees that those who come up with the proposals have a strong incentive to make proposals that are better than those of their competitors. And what do we mean by better? Simply this: favored by a citizen jury, selected at random after all proposals have been submitted and published, with quasi-mandatory service and meaningful compensation.

    Imagine this: we want multiple proposals to come out of the proposing chamber for a given agenda item. For a single proposal, the threshold is 50% + 1, since any number lower than that allows for the possibility of two proposals. For two proposals, the threshold is one-third + 1, for three proposals, one-forth + 1, etc. I prefer sending five proposals to a jury, so my threshold is one-sixth, which is 17 members of a 100 person legislature. And how is the agenda determined? Simple: the agenda is the first item of the legislative session.

    Let’s take a look at how many basic problems this solves:

    The political parties in the chamber are smaller, since they only must meet the proposing threshold to be viable on their own. This allows for greater policy diversity
    The problem of rational ignorance is all but eliminated, as citizen jurors are professionals during their time of service, and are compensated as such. They have access to significant research resources to do their jobs.
    Even though the parties are smaller, they can only pass their preferred policies by internalizing the policy preferences of the general public. A party that only makes maximalist proposals will lose to a party that is more accommodating to the public.
    There is no obstruction. It is hard to overemphasize the importance of this. The agenda will be set as the first item of every legislative session. The only question is which of the five possible agendas will win the favor of the jury. Every item on the agenda will be submitted to a citizen jury, and the jury’s conclusion is binding. Again, the only question is which proposal will win the jury’s favor. A party could refuse to submit a proposal, but that only makes it easier for other parties to win.
    The parties in the prosing chamber have a strong incentive to write simple, logical legislation that appeals to ordinary citizens who have the time and resources to do their jobs properly. Self-dealing, deliberate overcomplexity, and obscurantism are likely to be punished.

    Specifically, this addresses your concern that the proposals faced by a citizen jury will not be sensible. Politicians ultimately want to influence public policy (even if for their own benefit) so political parties that submit bad proposals (as judged by citizen juries) will be punished. Most voters like to “win” in a policy sense, so a party that never gets its proposals through the CJ is likely to lose votes in general elections.

    Andre: “There is a risk of such a chamber excluding some sensible proposals.”

    The issue isn’t whether some sensible proposals will be excluded. There are literally millions of potential solutions that might be viewed as sensible; clearly all of these cannot be considered. Instead, the question is whether the number of proposals is reasonable for a CJ to consider, whether they are written by entities that have the skill to draft legislation well, and whether the proposals reflect the ideological diversity of the population. I think the above system goes a long way to meeting all of these criteria.

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