Levinson likes Sortition

Noted American Constitutional scholar Sanford Levinson seems to have recently read David Van Reybrouck’s Against Elections. He is full of praise for the book and for sortition in general. His main concern about elections is apparently about rational ignorance, so he focuses on the idea of elections by jury. Displaying an interesting mix of elitist and democratic sentiments, Levinson makes the following comments:

We could obviously discuss at length the degree to which the restricted list generates truly “representative” candidates, given the role played by money or well-located interest groups. That’s the subject for other postings. Rather, let’s assume for the moment that the candidate-selection process is acceptable, and we’re concerned only with how we should structure the choice by the citizenry of who should occupy the offices in question.

I am assuming that any and all trained social scientists would agree that a well-chosen representative sample will produce more “representative” outcomes, whether one is testing the distribution of public opinion or, as in the hypothetical case the selection of a president, than does the baroque process by which we conduct elections. The laity, on the other hand, I suspect would be appalled at this suggestion because we have built up over the years a true mystique about elections per se. Instead of a truly serious discussion about what a “republican form of government” requires of all of us, we instead have sacralized the particular process as a form of social communion. WE all believe that we’re better citizens because we get up early and stand in long lines or stand in long lines at the end of a days work, perhaps with children in tow who are told that this is the very essence of “American democracy.” That is an epic piece of false consciousness, with extraordinarily important consequences for the actual reality of what we ideologically label “American democracy.”

There is a perhaps paradoxical connection between van Reybrouck’s (and Fishkin’s) arguments and some of those that originally justified the electoral college. (There are no good arguments that justify the current operation of the electoral college.) That is, it was thought desirable to place selection in the hands of a group of people who would presumably exercise better and more informed choices than the people at large. The difference is that this defense of the electoral college is elitist through and through. There is nothing elitist in Fishkin’s and van Reybroucks arguments, however. A random sample, a “national citizen jury” in effect, would be full of the hoi polloi. There would obviously be some elites within the overall sample, but they would play no special role. It would truly be a one-person/one-vote system where the voting pool would be, of course, a minuscule percentage of the national population. For me that is no problem. I suspect that many of you would find it a fatal defect. But the question is why.

2 Responses

  1. In a response to Levinson, Ilya Somin reprises some arguments about sortition that he made in his book and which I discussed here.


  2. Sanford Levinson has been a sortition fan for over ten years:

    The legitimacy arises from both the equal probability that any given person (discounting for minimal baseline qualifications) might have been chosen and the perception by those not chosen that the system of lottery selection assures the relative ‘representativeness’ of the sample chosen. To adopt the language of Bill Clinton, the deliberative assembly will look sufficiently ‘like America’ to provide necessary reassurance that one’s own views are not absent from the assembly. (Levinson, 2010, p. 66)

    He anticipates that the response from politicians to sortition will be a bit like turkeys voting for Christmas as, quoting John P. Roche’ riff on Acton: “power corrupts, and the possibility of losing power corrupts absolutely.” (ibid.)

    Levinson, S. (2010), Democracy and the Extended Republic: Reflections on the Fishkinian Project, Good Society, 19, pp. 63-67.


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