Radio Podcast Series “Democracy in Crisis” on Democracy and Sortition

Last month, with WORT FM in Madison, Wisconsin, I helped organize a three-part radio podcast series “Democracy in Crisis,” that asked what’s wrong with elections and explored alternatives such as assemblies and juries. Thanks very much to those who took part. Additional thanks to Chris Forman, Yoram Gat, Adam Cronkright, Keith Sutherland, and Manuel Arriaga for suggestions and introductions.

We aimed to include differing approaches and points of views in each round-table discussion, and largely succeeded, imho. My own view—that in modern mass politics, characterized by polarization and geographical and intellectual self-sorting, minipublics function as exceptional, pluralistic spaces for the formation of citizenship—was nowhere represented; so, that gives me at least one motive for a follow-up program.

Below are links to the episodes, also found in most podcast applications under the program “8 O’clock Buzz,” published on Aug 27, 28, 29.

Democracy In Crisis, Part 1: What’s Wrong With Elections?
Across the globe, electoral fraud, corruption, disenfranchisement of minorities and the specter of fascism now seem the rule rather than the exception. In 2017, the London-based Economist Democracy Index hit its lowest score ever, including the downgrading of the United States from a “Full Democracy” to a “Flawed Democracy.” Today, we start a three-part series, Democracy in Crisis, which will explore the failures of our current electoral system and perhaps, provide some hope for an alternative model.
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Wang Shaoguang: Representative and Representational Democracy, Part 3/3

Part one, part two.

Wang’s skeptical evaluation of the Western conception of democracy and of the arguments for elections as a democratic tool are in fact merely a segue to his main topic which is the “Mass Line”. According to Wang, the Mass Line is the basis for decision making by the Chinese system of government. Wang describes the Mass Line as an ongoing process by which decision makers interact with the population in order to become informed and shape public policy. Wang quotes Mao Zedong as follows:

In every aspect of my party’s practical work, if leadership is to be correct it must come from the masses and go to the masses. This is to say, we must collect the views of the masses (disparate and un-systematic views) and, through study, turn them into collective and systematic views, and then we must go back to the masses to disseminate and explain them, turning them into the masses’ own views, enabling the masses to persevere, and to see these views implemented in practice. From the practice of the masses we must conduct examinations to determine whether these views are correct. We then must once again collect the views of the masses, and once again go back to the masses and persevere. This endless cycle will each time be more correct than the last, richer and more vivid than the last. This is the epistemology of Marxism.

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Sortition in the Executive

Much of the sortition discussion revolves around the legislative branch, but historically, it was often the random selection of magistrates that signaled a true democracy. I would like to start a discussion of how executive officers can be selected by lot in a modern state. This is crucially important, because while the legislature may be the traditional home of sovereignty in a democracy, the executive branch is what most citizens experience as the state.

My first post deals with a structure that I call a coordination hierarchy, which I believe should be the standard way to organize the political layer of the executive branch. In future posts, I will discuss criticisms and challenges to this structure, as well as fleshing out some other requirements to make this system work in practice. My ultimate goal is to describe a way in which the political layer can be populated by a political service: a professional corps of public servants who are responsive to the public through citizen juries, but which operates under a set of constraints that make it look more like the civil service.

Leydet: Which conception of political equality do deliberative mini-publics promote?

A 2016 paper by Dominique Leydet from the department of philosophy at the University of Québec at Montréal:

Which conception of political equality do deliberative mini-publics promote?

My objective in this article is to achieve a clearer understanding of the conception of political equality that informs at least some of these democratic designs in relation to equality of opportunity, but also in relation to agency, both individual and collective.

To do so, I will focus, in the first section, on the methods of participant selection advocated to secure equal presence. According to what principle is participation distributed? If it is according to the equal chance or equal probability principle, rather than equal opportunity, what difference does this make in terms of the underlying conception of political equality? Is ‘equal presence’ conceived strictly in individualist terms or is it related to groups? And, if so, how?

In the second section, I consider the issue of voice. Achieving equality in this context is conceived in terms of equalizing opportunities for influence among participants (Smith 2009: 21-22; Fishkin 2009: 100-101; Fung 2003: 348). I intend to clarify the conditions the designs establish to achieve this objective despite the existence of background inequalities. How is the political agency of participants understood and facilitated in this respect? And what does this say about the underlying conception of political equality?

Citizens allotted for drawing electoral districts in Michigan

Back in January it was reported that Michigan has sent out invitations to voters to apply to serve on the Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission. 13 citizens have now been selected to serve on the commission “charged with drawing new district lines for members of the state House and Senate”.

The commission is being assembled as a result of a November 2018 ballot proposal, Proposal 2 which passed with support from 61% of voters. Redistricting was previously handled by the Michigan legislature and approved by the governor, which, Proposal 2 supporters pointed out, allowed politicians to set their own district lines.

Despite the rather limited purview of the commission, it has two important characteristics that set it as an independent source of political power and thus lend it importance. First, the body was constituted through a ballot measure. Thus it was legitimated and mandated directly by the citizens. Second, the body’s function is to supervise, and indeed to limit the power of, the elected officials.

Information about the allotment is available on the state government website. Some of the skews in the applications demographics are quite interesting.

The benevolent dictator

The concept of the “benevolent dictator” occasionally plays a role in political discussion of democracy. The general thrust of the “benevolent dictator” argument is that democracy cannot be defined in terms of its outcomes because “a benevolent dictatorship” can produce any given outcomes, while still, by assumption, being anti-democratic.

Ober (2006), for example, says this:

Democracy is shown to be a non-instrumental good-in-itself (as well as an instrument in securing other goods) by extrapolation from the Aristotelian premise that humans are political animals. Because humans are by nature language-using, as well as sociable and common-end-seeking beings, the capacity to associate in public decisions is constitutive of the human being-kind. Association in decision is necessary (although insufficient) for happiness in the sense of eudaimonia. A benevolent dictator who satisfied all other conditions of justice, harms her subjects by denying them opportunity to associate in the decisions by which their community is governed.

This line of argument – the participative conception of democracy, or Schumpeter’s “classical doctrine” – sounds very high minded. Beyond the policy objective, political participation enriches the participators and ennobles them. As an argument against sortition, or against an outcomes-based conception of democracy it is, however, less than convincing.
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Wang Shaoguang: Representative and Representational Democracy, Part 2

Part one is here.

A useful part of Wang Shaoguang’s article “Representative and Representational Democracy” (2014) is his critique of the arguments for elections as a democratic mechanism (and in fact as the most fundamental component of democracy). The whole matter of the justification for elections in terms of their expected outcomes is usually avoided by electoralist dogma. Instead the discussion is framed using formalisms: elections are judged as being “legitimate” because they follow some supposed principles of “representativity”. The issue of how those principles themselves can be justified other than in terms of system outcomes is not addressed.

On the rare occasions when the expected outcomes of elections are addressed, two mechanisms are offered as connecting elections with desirable outcomes – Wang refers to these as the “authorization theory” and the “accountability theory”. These arguments go at least as far back as the Federalist papers. Wang first presents and critiques the authorization theory:

According to authorization theory, during elections each political party puts forth its policy positions and promotes its candidates, while the people have the right to choose to support whichever party or candidate they want, and they will vote for the party and candidates of their choice. In the sense that those who are elected start governing only after they have been invested with the authority of the people, this system is of course democratic.
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MeRA25 and sortition

MeRA25 is a Greek party headed by former Syriza finance minister Yanis Varoufakis. MeRA25 has recently made two moves pushing sortition forward in the Greek political agenda.

First, in July MeRA25 tabled a bill proposing that senior public servants would be elected by an allotted committee. The bill calls for

Establishment of a new, autonomous General Secretariat for Public Revenue, whose General Secretary will be selected by neither the government nor the lenders. Instead, they will be elected by a Social Committe for Selection of Senior Personnel, 1/3 of which is comprised of parliamentarians, 1/3 by judges selected by sortition and 1/3 by tax professionals – accountants selected by sortition.

Secondly, MeRA25 is selecting its own central committee members with some of them selected by election, some by appointment and some by sortition:

The 1st Central Committee is comprised of the members of the current Extended Political Secretariat, 15 members chosen by sortition amongst all MeRA25 members (who are also DiEM25 members), 2 members from every Administrative Region (excluding Attica) put forward by the Secretary in concert with the Committee for the Organisation of the Congress and Movement Outreach, and 1 member from every electoral district, selected by the members of that district through e-voting.

Community Cooperative in Australia Conspicuously Selects Board via Sortition

The Kyneton and District Town Square Co-op set up as an umbrella organization of community groups to democratically manage a historic school building / town square in Australia has a constitution that requires some board members be chosen by sortition.

Scroll down on their home page to see a video of Nivek Thompson speak about sortition and pick five board members out of a hat. Also, several of the activists pose with a placard “Lottery Democracy Lunch” and a sign reads “Lottery democracy arrives in Kyneton.”

Deliberation seminar

What happens once a congress, a regional legislature or a citizens’ assembly is created with sortition? Some (many?) feel that deliberation should be the guiding principle behind operating the resulting body.

The US Chapter of the Sortition Foundation and the Deliberation Gateway Network are co-hosting the first of a series of seminars called “Unlocking Deliberation” to help individuals and groups learn how to bring the wide range of modern deliberative techniques to bear on the collective problems that confront them. This first event is titled “Why Deliberate?” and is online this Sunday at 5pm Pacific, 8pm Eastern US time. More information and registration can be found at here