Burnheim and Gruen on the path toward sortition

An exchange between John Burnheim and Nicholas Gruen on the way to introduce sortition into contemporary political systems.


Scrap attempts to reforming politics as a whole. From a practical point of view attempts to do so by legal constitutional change have no possibility of succeeding from a theoretical point of view, it is folly to assume that if we agree broadly about principle and are motivated to act we will reach a practical agreement. As soon as you analyse the range of possibilities that emerge once one envisages ways of putting all those abstract principles into practice, the more one runs into a host of incompatible proposals.

IIUC, Burnheim argues that the political system either fails to recognize “known and recognised needs” or fails to recognize that established policy does not address those needs. Bodies that are supposed to recognize and address the needs “operate primarily in the interests of those who have power […] rather than the public interest”.

My view is that while it’s no panacea, [there] is likely to be a very effective role for specialised committees of citizens chosen by sortition. I also think that sortition for very specialised tasks is the way forward for many public activities. Don’t concentrate on what juries can’t do, but on instances where they are likely to do something useful.


There are three ‘poles’ of democracy. Direct democracy is one way to do democracy – but it’s both impractical and ill-advised even as an ideal in my view. This leaves representative democracy and I can think of two very different ways of selecting representatives. Competitively through elections and via sortition.

My entire program revolves around finding whatever ways might be possible to inject the latter into a system dominated by the former – whether those ways are large or small.

I don’t believe there is one true way to do this. It might be possible for me to identify wrong ways of doing it if I saw them, but I’m not in pursuit of a right way. I’m only in pursuit of opportunities which seem promising.

1. I want representation by sortition to come into collision with electoral representation so that it can directly challenge it. A great many advocates of sortition seem to me to be caught up in the process of seeking support from those holding the existing reins of power. This is one strategy which I don’t deprecate, but I think there’s now scope for some to be more ambitious.

2. There is no singular right way to do things, one can do them on any scale.

It follows from 2 that there might be things one can do on a large scale. The main thing I’m interested in is in establishing a citizens’ assembly. This is NOT a constitutional one, but one that would be funded philanthropically. I expect as people saw it operating that it could be funded by crowdfunding. Such an assembly could be either a standing one – with personnel rotated as it was in the Athenian Boule and similar bodies.

As you may know I’ve also tried to represent citizens’ juries as means of generating insight into the considered opinion of the people and to try to send it into battle against the existing system[.]

[T]he sociology of knowledge that’s implied in your approach seems to me to come from an earlier time – when it was possible. It proposes that expertise can slowly emerge from expert and lay dialogue. Today this idea has been ‘overtaken by events’ as they say. It is barely a player in the production of knowledge – at least it isn’t recognised by the commanding heights which are dissolving the autonomy of such systems in favour of a new scholasticism. Even in schools and child care centres, those trying to do their jobs are harried by managerial regimes that obliterate the lifeworld and smash it into metrics.

So people can beaver away in the kind of groups that I think you envisage (though I would be interested to hear detailed examples of what you have in mind). […] It’s also conceivable that a few of them could, over a long period of time, build some tradition and become efficacious in some way. But I find it very hard to believe that they could withstand the first contact with a bit of political or commercial grapeshot.

10 Responses

  1. An interesting discussion. I like the focus on scale; in particular, creating ways to use ordinary citizens at any level of government, great or small.

    I am always surprised in these exchanges, however, that the consensus-based assembly goes unquestioned. There are far better ways to create proposals. A consensus-based assembly is always a game of chicken, because one side can just threaten to abandon the effort entirely. Even if it never happens, the possibility of it dominates the dynamic, as more aggressive assembly members use the implicit threat of failure to bully others. Selecting the assembly by lot does not change this dynamic.

    Instead, why not have entities with real agency write laws? To make it work democratically, you need multiple entities writing multiple proposals. But that’s all to the good: the media and the general public get multiple options to chew on. Then a citizen jury can decide among the options.

    Another important issue that this deals with is bandwidth. Around the world, legislatures give up their authority to courts and the executive branch. Legislatures do this because they do not have the bandwidth to make anywhere near as many decisions as they need to make. This lack of bandwidth is directly attributable to the consensus structure of the assembly. The need for a consensus in drafting proposals (as opposed to making final decisions) means the legislature can handle only a small number of issues, while court systems with hundreds of judges can weed through thousands of cases, making policy on a much broader scale. Similarly, the executive can make policy on a mass scale through its hundreds of agencies and bureaus.

    Of course I want to see politicians supplanted by ordinary citizens as much as possible. But that’s not the only benefit of sortition. Restructuring the way decisions are made can dramatically increase the bandwidth of the legislature, taking back territory ceded to other branches. It can also radically transform the public debate, by forcing the creation of multiple proposals for every agenda item. The press will then have real policy to cover, and it will be embedded in a contest, meaning they will have a real incentive to do blow-by-blow coverage of substantive policy issues, rather than just personalities.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Alex:> I am always surprised in these exchanges, however, that the consensus-based assembly goes unquestioned.

    I think the social philosophy underlying consensus is that there is such a thing as the “general good”, and that if people get to “deliberate” for long enough and sinister influences are somehow or other excluded then we can all rally round the consensus. Liberals (in the original sense of the word) realise this is all hogwash. I don’t know about Nick Gruen, but the political views of John Burnheim and Jurgen Habermas (they are a similar age) share a common provenance and there is nothing liberal about it.


  3. Thanks Alex, Your thoughts are very interesting and persuasive. Then the question becomes how to move towards it. My own enthusiasm for what you call the ‘consensus’ model is that, as I wrote it seems to me to illustrate a point of maximum leverage to get another way of thinking about democracy some trial runs and a stage on which the public can see it in action.

    Rory Stewart was interested in my ideas in running for Mayor of London but when he ‘focus grouped’ the idea of establishing a citizen council, it didn’t fare well. People wanted a leader, not more talk. To take the kind of two-stage process into the public arena and propose it would fare even worse as you can imagine.

    It does seem to be the case that when you can get some interest in sortition from the powers that be – as in East Belgium for instance – the idea of the blind break can get in there, but in citizen activism, it’s a stretch.

    Any thoughts on ‘selling’ the blind break to the electorate?


  4. Keith, I’d be most surprised if John had a view as crude as the one you’re attributing to him. He’s anything but crude in his ideas in my interactions with him.

    Can you be more specific about the ‘provenance’ of the ideas you’ve critiqued of the great 90 somethings in our midst and how “there’s nothing liberal about it”?


  5. Nick,

    I was referring to their common Marxist background — Habermas’s split with the Frankfurt School is well documented and John discusses his Marxist roots in his autobiography. I know him quite well (we published his last book and he came down to see us last time he was in England). Both Burnheim and Habermas are Apostles of the Republic of Reasons — believing that if everyone sits around deliberating for long enough there will be a consensus around the common good. He is right to call his demarchic groups “committees” and the expression “smoke-filled rooms” might have been coined for him. Despite his early interest in sortition, he has never seen it as a representational mechanism and his last book only mentions it in passing.

    By “liberal” I meant the freedom to disagree, and to devise democratic mechanisms to represent the disagreement in a way that is a) public and b) ensures that the majority position predominates (but allows for a good range of alternatives). The liberal perspective is agonistic and is world’s away from the consensual vision of deliberative and epistemic “democrats”, which have more in common with the Marxist perspective of “real” or “true” democracy (as opposed to the liberal/capitalist alternative).


  6. Hi Nicholas,

    > I’d be most surprised if John had a view as crude as the one you’re attributing to him.

    It could be useful to reiterate my periodic reminder that Sutherland is a confessed, unrepentant, habitual liar. His assertions of facts in general, and in particular in regards to the views of others, should be given absolutely no weight.


  7. Yoram:> [Sutherland’s] assertions of facts in general, and in particular in regards to the views of others, should be given absolutely no weight.

    Even when they are based on long conversations with the other person (in person and over email) and a careful reading of his autobiography?


  8. Nicholas,

    Having disposed with the PSA above, let’s move to something more substantive:

    > funded philanthropically

    This seems like a fairly big problem. Philanthropists have their own interests just as much as businesses and governments do. Thus, the mechanism you propose is selective, where issues upon which the philanthropists hope to garner the support of the allotted (and let’s assume for the purpose of this discussion that the allotted really do represent the considered and informed opinion of the population) are discussed, and issues where they do not need such support or have no hope of getting such support are not discussed. The Brexit jury is surely a good example. It seems quite unlikely that you would have gotten much interest among philanthropists to set up a jury discussing the Brexit issue if the majority in the referendum had voted “remain”. No?

    Don’t you think that having such a selective mechanism for setting up policy juries is a sure way to discredit the entire idea?


  9. Nick:> “Any thoughts on ‘selling’ the blind break to the electorate?”

    This is a deep question, though it might seem superficial. I have generally presented my ideas in abstract, philosophical terms, but those sorts of concerns are generally confined to nerds like you and me (and probably anyone else reading this blog). The general public doesn’t care about such things, and why should they? What they want to know is, how does this transform politics from my perspective.

    My answer is this: “put up or shut up”. The blind break forces politicians to declare their intentions publicly in concrete policy terms. They must write actual legislation for every agenda item; i.e., an actual bill that has a meaningful chance of becoming law at the time it is written. The blind break doesn’t eliminate leadership, it clarifies it, by creating a space for policy in which there is nowhere to hide.

    One group that should be easily sold is the public policy press. Right now, reporters cover politicians the way paparazzi cover celebrities: as a breathless series of “inside scoops”. That’s what you’d expect in an oligarchy, because in an oligarchy, all that really matters is the intrigues among oligarchs. There is, of course, a genuine policy-oriented media, but it is marginal compared to the horse race, soap opera style political press. In my system, the policy-oriented media moves front and center, because the political process is a series of policy contests with multiple, real proposals.

    That transformation of the media filters down to the general public, as they get to see coverage of politicians as policy makers. It is remarkable how little that is the case now. Instead, they are covered as tacticians, making moves and countermoves in a sort of shadow puppet display. Amendments to a bill in Congress? Probably an attempt to poison the entire bill, or perhaps an attempt to embarrass some particularly vulnerable representative in the next election. Parliamentary procedure, which is nominally a tool for writing policy, ends up as little more than a bag of dirty tricks.

    The blind break puts all those tactics into the dustbin. “Put up or shut up” doesn’t eliminate leadership, it transforms it into a tool for policy making. The entities that make proposals (political parties in my system, though there are other ways to do it) can still have charismatic leaders and activist firebrands. It’s just that the policy underlying the leadership can no longer be faked.

    It’s probably better to bring up the “put up or shut up” line in the context of negative politics; i.e. what it does to political opponents. More folks on the left will be interested in forcing right wing politicians to declare their real policy intentions instead of just railing against “big gummint”. People on the right will want to mine their opponents proposals for rage-inducing provisions like “death panels” (though, to be fair, the non-existence of death panels didn’t stop right wing demagogues during the Obamacare debate).

    What do voters complain about? Broken promises, lies, and the dysfunctional blame game. But almost by definition, you cannot lie in a bill that will be advanced to a citizen jury. What you put in that bill is by definition your true policy intention. There is also no obstruction in this system. Once an agenda item is advanced (there are many ways to do this, happy to address in another post) it will be carried to completion, no ifs, ands, or buts. There is nowhere to hide, politicians must put up or shut up.

    Another import piece in my system, which maybe I haven’t emphasized enough, is the need for cohort voting. In other words, elections shouldn’t be held on a particular date, but should be continuous, with the population subdivided into cohorts that vote at different times throughout the year. I imagine 24 cohorts, i.e. two per month. This cannot be done if voting directly for candidates, but it is possible if voting for parties. In the context of “put up or shut up”, this means that the parties are getting instant feedback. This feedback is not just from a poll that has no direct effect, but in the form of an actual change in their political strength.

    I actually don’t think this system is hard to sell. But you have to sell the right part of it. You’re not selling the blind break, or even the citizen jury. Your selling fair competition. People understand sports. In any fair sport, the competitors don’t make up the rules, nor do they determine the victory condition. The referees are independent, and all competitions take place when scheduled—well, unless there’s a global pandemic or something. The blind break and the citizen jury create the conditions for a fair competition, but the heart of the system is the competition, not those pieces. Do we admire our sports heroes less because they have to play games even when they are tired, or because the referees can call fouls against them? Of course not, we admire them more because of these conditions, and those conditions are missing now. Do we expect even top athletes to win every single game? Of course not, we wouldn’t bother to play the games if that were true. Citizens in my system will relate political leaders as they relate to athletes: as people to be admired, but also as people whose quality has to be proven separately in each competition.

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  10. […] system itself. As those reading this blog with any attentiveness will know, this is part of my own approach to sortition as one of a number of ‘hacks’ that can help unpick some of the pathologies of […]


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