Bellon: The sortition pandemic

A column by André Bellon, July 7th, 2020.

This is not the first time that I opine on sortition, but addressing this matter seems to me more and more necessary in view of the avalanche of commentary which has accompanied the celebrated “Citizen Convention for the Climate”.

If the advocates of sortition were able to appear for a while like dreamers, they are now showing their toxicity. They are now are now no longer merely asking us for a convention aimed to enlighten public decision making. They are now demanding an allotted parliament. Considering, with much justice, that the elected do not represent the voters any more, they are not trying to redefine the mandate of the elected. They are proposing to suppress the voters.

An so, Jacques Testart conjures up an allotted constitutional assembly. Just that! The legal expert Dominique Rousseau, who constantly criticizes universal suffrage – which he falsely associates with abbé Sieyès – asks for a new deliberative assembly formed by sortition. To justify his request, he declares: “The nation has its chamber, then national assembly. The territories have theirs, the senate. The citizens, who are everything in society but nothing in its institutions, should have their chamber as well”. Beyond this far-fetched argument, Rousseau feels that in order to be truly represented, the citizens should no longer be voters. To be consistent, he opposes the popular initiative process (référendum d’initiative citoyenne) because it could “ask about the reestablishment of the death penalty, citizen preference or the preventative detention of sexual deviants?”.

It is therefore clear that in his eyes the voter is dangerous and that Citizen Conventions show, by their nature, the right way. It is therefore no wonder that the system proposed by these sorcerer’s apprentices rests on the role of experts who must guide the lucky allotted few. So limited to the few, reason is no longer today the most universal characteristic, as Decartes had thought.

Some, advocates of “citizen conventions” explain that the experts will have divergent opinions. A nice joke, when we look at the experts assembled for the Climate Convention. Some have formerly declared that unpopular measures would be necessary, implying that without them the citizens are incompetent and are susceptible to demagoguery. The spirit of contradiction did not seem to really animate the convention experts who were ultimately able to forge overwhelming majorities which would have done the Soviet Union proud!

In can we have not yet understood, the press comes to the aid the sortition advocates. Stéphane Foucart, a journalist at Le Monde, says that “what was produced at this event is, in miniature, more or less, what should have been produced by society if deliberation functioned according to its ideal… The convention proved that what tears society apart the most become rather consensual once we make the effort of having a factual discussion without prejudice”. Let’s note in passing the naïveté of the reference to a “factual discussion”, because who selects the facts which serve as the basis for the discussion? More profoundly, the idea of consensus is very revelatory. By appealing to consensus Foucart denies that democracy is designed in order to resolve conflicts, which implies that allowing everybody to express themselves freely and without violence, and in particular conflicts of ideas and visions of what may be the general interest. Foucart even asserts that in fact there are no conflicts because the “facts” speak for themselves… Where does this assertion come from? Maybe he should be wondering about the question posed to the citizens. It is true that when we ask the members of the convention “how to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 40% by 2030 while respecting social justice?” we have limited conflicts because we have largely provided the response. Moreover, if there was a doubt, the experts are there to resolve it. I imagine naively, along the same lines, a convention faced with the question “how can we have a budget without a deficit and which repays the national debt?”.

We all agree that the elected no longer represent the citizens, or in any case represent them less and less. Is this a reason to suppress the voters and universal suffrage? Some respond by saying that voting will not be eliminated but instead there will be a new body. Let’s be serious. One cannot be “somewhat” in favor of universal suffrage any more than one can be “somewhat” for Human Rights. Universal suffrage is the expression of a vision of the equality between citizen and the confidence in their competence, when given the means to express themselves, to collectively resolve problems through a free and reasoned debate. The idea of a representation based in an authoritarian manner on social-professional categories constitutes a dangerous regression because it reduces citizens to their social situation. A statistical representation was never a political representation. And if we wish, what is in fact necessary, that each can exercise their power regardless of their social situation, the question is rather of giving each the means to exercise it.

Dominique Rousseau proposes several forms of legitimization of public decisions by having a co-existence of universal suffrage and the expert-ocracy of sortition. Co-existence of two legitimizations never lasts. I recognize there, allowing for some changes, the method of Jean Monnet for European construction, known at the ratchet effect, each step preparing the ground for the next. Citizen conventions, in a way that is thinly veiled, attack the voters, presenting them as being moved by objectionable passions and controled by lobbies.

These risks exist in each individual, no matter their situation, including the experts. The only question is the value of all the citizens and of their collective expression. Universal suffrage allows the expression of each citizen and if these days it is marked by widespread abstention it is because the institutions do not provide citizens with real choice. When there is really something at stake and when there is real debate (as in the May 29th, 2005 referendum), the phenomenon of abstention disappears.

Sortition suppresses the citizens because they can participate only at random, and suppresses the people because it only selects a few of them. It pretends that citizens are interchangeable. It is furthermore a technocratic dream to manipulate without much resistance both the allotted citizens and the questions posed.

In any case, democracy is the right of all to participate in public life rather than of the few, whatever is the method of their selection. In this sense, sortition is like exclusive suffrage, which was desired by Sieyès. Democracy is not the search for tranquility but the solution for the joint and contentious construction of the social contract which is our common good.

Using the pretext of the political crisis and the farce of contemporary democracy in order to question universal suffrage cannot but help in reinforcing personal power. Instead it is necessary to recreate the debate between citizens at the level which is the closest to their daily life. It is necessary to allow the citizen to elect, starting at the localities and neighborhoods, those who will carry their grievances and their hopes, who will assemble all their wills within an elected constituent assembly, on the basis of political projects allowing the citizens to control their delegates so elected and reconstitute in this way, around this objective, the citizens and the people of which they are members.

7 Responses

  1. A most entertaining screed. Unintentionally entertaining.

    Glad to see an opponent of rule by the people through sortition (Bellon, the article’s author) is concerned the idea might be catching on.

    Bellon:> We all agree that the elected no longer represent the citizens, or in any case represent them less and less. Is this a reason to suppress the voters and universal suffrage?

    Contrary to Bellon, the fact the popularly elected do not “represent the citizens” actually is a good reason why laws should be decided by the citizens rather than by elected politicians. And Bellon knows it, that’s why he wrote the article.

    Rule by popularly elected politicians excludes and disenfranchises the people from deciding laws. It does not just “suppress” the people (who are not reducible to mere election voters), it excludes them from rule.

    Bellon:> In any case, democracy is the right of all to participate in public life rather than of the few, whatever is the method of their selection.

    Apparently it escapes Bellon that rule by popularly elected politicians is rule by the few, and that it denies the people the right to rule.

    Contrary to Bellon, democracy is not merely the “right of all to participate in public life.” Democracy is rule by the people; and it is the political equality of citizens, something which is contrary to being ruled by political and economic elites.

    Bellon’s use of the word “participate” gives away the game. Under electoral democracy, as it is called, the people have the right to “participate,” but not to rule, and not to political equality of a kind inconsistent with elite rule.

    In the former Soviet Bloc the people also had the right to “participate,” including the right to vote in elections, and to attend political events such as the annual May Day parades. And they also had political equality with regard to all having the same equal right to vote in elections and to attend such things as the annual May Day parade. What they did not have was rule by the people. And what they also did not have was political equality of a kind inconsistent with elite rule.

    If the Climate Convention has helped to further dispel the absurd idea that democracy means rule by popularly elected politicians, that is a further public service it has performed.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. “Democracy is rule by the people”

    According to this ancient (1680) French dictionary by Pierre Richelet, commonly known as “le Richelet”, democracy is the form of government where charges are given by lot:

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Simon,

    Your comments regarding participation in the USSR hit the nail on the head. “Participation” is a meaningless platitude. It is rather sad that this catchword is the best the the enlightened Left has to offer.

    It is interesting to realize how, despite being drilled our entire lives that “one party bad, two parties good”, so little effort is ever spent explaining how the leap from one party to two parties (or to a multi-party system) really makes that much of a difference.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Arturo,

    This is a really interesting factoid, worthy of its own post.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. […] to Arturo Iniguez for noting this historical […]


  6. […] of the experts on the proposals of the body naturally emerged. These too were widely voiced by […]


  7. […] 6 months. In fact one commentator was alarmed that discussion of sortition in France has reached pandemic […]


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