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.

  • Roslyn Fuller (author, In Defense of Democracy, director, Solonian Democracy Institute)
  • Lawrence Lessig (author, The Don’t Represent Us, founder Equal Citizens, Prof. Harvard Law)
  • Alex Kovner (author, The Jurga System)
  • Brett Hennig (author, The End of Politicians, director, Sortition Foundation)

Democracy In Crisis Part 2: Mini-Publics, Citizens’ Assemblies And Juries
In our first episode, we heard from global experts about how and why electoral, representative government seems to be failing the promise of democracy. Today, we explore some alternatives to electoral politics that may get us closer to the ideal of “government of, by and for the people.”

  • Linn Davis (program manager, Healthy Democracy)
  • Jane Suiter (founding member, We the Citizens, Assoc. Prof. Dublin City University)
  • Lyn Carson (research director, New Democracy Foundation)
  • Hans-Liudger Dienel (co-founder Nexus Institute, Prof. TU Berlin)
  • Adam Cronkright (co-founder Democracy in Practice, Of by For)

Democracy In Crisis Part 3: Alternatives To Elections
In our previous two episodes, we’ve heard about how representative democracies around the globe are failing to live up to their promise and some innovative ideas to get citizens involved in their own government. Today, we explore the promise and challenges of citizen juries and assemblies — government by random selection, otherwise known as “sortition.”

  • Paul Cartledge (author, Democracy a Life, Emeritus Prof. Cambridge)
  • Hélène Landemore (author, Open Democracy, Assoc. Prof. Yale)
  • Terry Bouricius (outreach advisor, FairVote, former local and state politician)
  • Madeline McCaren (biostatistician, Veterans Affairs, active in League of Women Voters)

18 Responses

  1. Let’s start with the Supreme Court justices: 9 year terms each year a qualified judge is randomly selected.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Thanks, Ahmed!

    I just finished listening to the first episode. Roslyn Fuller certainly contributed a lot of energy and turned what would probably have been a rather low-key discussion into something more lively.

    Fuller presented a standard “participative” position, complete with “get off your knees” outrage. As usual, this is essentially sloganeering. As Brett Hennig pointed out, “let everybody participate” in no way results in equality of political power.

    More generally, I think Hennig was the most convincing speaker, hitting many important points (e.g., democracy is not breaking down, because we never had a democracy to begin with) and avoiding the well-hashed U.S.-centric complaints and fixes offered by Lawrence Lessig – who played the standard liberal US reformer – and by Alex Kovner – who played the technocratic professional analyst. Both those roles have been played so many times, they serve no useful function anymore (not even as a distraction, I hope).

    But even Hennig fell into a couple of traps that should have been avoided. The first is the useless distinction between self-interest and morality. As Lessig pointed out, pursuing self-interest is a form of morality. But also vice-versa: self-interest involves a moral view. “Self-interest” is not an obvious well-defined position. Ideas about self-interest are derived from a world view, a view which must include moral positions. Arguing whether we should base our politics on self-interest or morality is thus not productive.

    The other trap that should have been avoided was the emphasis on deliberation as a way to change opinions on given issues. This misses the main democratic function of an allotted chambers: as a tool for agenda setting. Having allotted chambers with an up or down vote on an agenda set by an elite process completely eliminates this crucial function and is at best a small fix where a fundamental change is needed.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Yoram:> This misses the main democratic function of an allotted chambers: as a tool for agenda setting.

    In what sense are the speech acts of a subset of a tiny number of randomly-selected volunteers “democratic”. With electoral systems all citizens get to pick their preferred oligarch. This is why there are no historical examples of allotted bodies with an agenda-setting role (the boule being merely the administrative secretariat of the assembly).

    >Alex Kovner – who played the technocratic professional analyst. Both those roles have been played so many times, they serve no useful function anymore (not even as a distraction, I hope).

    I agree with Ahmed Teleb, who organised the event, that Alex’s presentation was the most persuasive.


  4. Keith,

    No matter how many times you repeat your assertion that the randomly selected Council of 500 (boule) was “merely the administrative secretariat of the assembly,” that does not make it true. Please acknowledge that nobody today knows how much deliberation, policy refinement, and agenda generation they performed. It IS known that many decrees brought before the Assembly were identified as products of the Council of 500 (not named individual citizens). The “speech acts” within this random body were arguably the MOST significant democratic feature of Athenian democracy (since many city states that were universally deemed NOT to be democratic had assemblies). Athenian scholars like Ober argue that it was this democratic control of the agenda by a random body that was the defining essence of democracy.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Terry,

    > Athenian scholars like Ober argue that it was this democratic control of the agenda by a random body that was the defining essence of democracy.

    That makes a lot of sense to me, and this also seems to have been the conventional wisdom in antiquity. However, I was not aware that Ober makes a clear statement in favor of this idea. In Mass and Elite in Democratic Athens Ober says that the Council had “an empowering function”:

    If the Council, with its popular base, had not set the agenda, the assembly would be relatively powerless: those who did gain control of the agenda could have stopped any move that threatened their institutional position, simply by assuring that threatening proposals never came before the people. [P. 78.]

    Is there a more explicit statement by Ober on the essential role of the allotted boule in the Athenian democratic system?

    P.S. Alas, there is little hope that Sutherland will break his habit of intellectual (and personal) dishonesty. Mid-way in an exchange about this very topic a couple of years ago, Sutherland makes an abrupt turn around, and admits that the boule had considerable political influence through its agenda setting power. But, of course, here we are now: Sutherland, having forgotten his about-face, is again peddling his endlessly repeated (and endlessly refuted) baseless, transparently ideologically motivated, assertions.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. My impression of the second episode: Prof. Dienel and his proposals seem like the epitome of all the is objectionable about the “deliberative democracy” milieu, where serving the status quo is the paramount concern. The other participants were much better and each made some good points. I still found a disturbing lack of urgency in terms of the oppressive policies of the electoralist system.

    One point that seemed odd: on the one hand there was praise for the permanent allotted body in the German-speaking community in Belgium. On the other hand there seemed to be an agreement that allotted bodies must be single-issue and short-lived. How do those fit together?


  7. Yoram’s quotation from Ober’s book puts him in line with the regular scholarly perspective on the role of the council in protecting the sovereign assembly from subversion by factional or elite interests. Given the lack of historical record of council proceedings it’s easy for modern theorists (and activists) to impose their own perspective, but it’s hard to understand how a group of 500 persons could do anything much more than listen to proposals and then vote on whether to put them on the assembly agenda. It would be a mistake to view council sessions as some sort of brainstorming forum from which legislative proposals emerged, as the maximum size for this sort of deliberative group is reckoned to be a couple of dozen.


  8. In the third episode, Madeline McCaren was very enthusiastic about how during deliberations people “moved toward the center”. This is a horrible talking point, appealing to the sensibilities of the elites who are satisfied with the status quo. The notion that citizen juries should deal with issues (like healthcare in the US) where politicians want to do the right thing but are afraid to do so and need “political cover” is also part of this line of thinking.

    McCaren was also enthusiastic about having a sample of the “public service oriented” section of citizens. Again, a horrible idea, indicating that some people, more deserving, would have more power to set policy.

    The general pushback on the idea of electoral accountability was good to hear, though. Again, despite agreeing with much of what was said, the conversation seemed much too relaxed for what is a matter of life and death for very many people around the world. I wish there was more urgency about the devastating outcomes of the current system and thus the need for replacing it with a democratic system.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Regarding Episode 3, I see McCaren’s response as a product of the format of Fishkin’s America in One Room: It was set up to achieve such a result. While I agree that expressions like “moving towards the center”–not to mention “finding common ground,’ perhaps a more pernicious version of the same idea–are problematic and status quo reproducing, she is not a political theorist, and I do not scrutinize her choice of words too closely.
    Again, it is Fishkin’s Delib Polls–the backbone of America in One Room–that reinforces the myth of the “reasonable center.” What McCaren’s comments do suggest, however, is that everyday citizens ARE NOT polarized NOR are they hateful towards people who might vote for a different party. Rather, it is a particular party-cum-media system and its elites who benefit from and MANUFACTURE polarization. In the US we have “red” media outlets and “blue” media outlets, each that de facto function as arms of their respective parties. It is not even a divide between conservative and progressive, but between actions of parties. Anything Trump says is automatically evil on MSNBC, CNN; anything Pelosi and clan say is automatically evil on Fox, in New York Post. None of these are ideologically consistent. There is no critical engagement with issues.

    I also agree about the lack of urgency, especially in that Episode; however I see this series as a way to introduce the idea of democracy beyond elections and sortition. IMHO, sortition is such a powerful idea, that once it reaches a critical mass of awareness, it will have its own legs. It has not quite gotten there yet in the US–hopefully this show moves us a step towards it.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Keith, it is much harder to believe that the Ecclesia/Assembly of 5,000 + could set an agenda.


  11. I would characterize Dienel’s approach differently. As a provider of a citizen panel and citizens’ assembly service [he co-founded Nexus Institut], he is MOST concerned with the neutrality and integrity of the process. He often turns the conversation to standardization and trust in the process. Yes, that is a technico-rational approach, but so be it.

    Similarly, Mehr Demokratie / Buergerrat Demokratie’s takes a pragmatic approach of finding issues of political DEADLOCK, or issues with long time horizons, so they can sell it to political parties as “win/win” or low stakes for them. My guess is that these “baby steps” are meant to give “Buergerbeteiligung” participatory democracy a chance and a public forum. But I think they do a good job of selling these processes to participants as an alternative to business as usual and the status quo. They already have an ear in Schaeuble–the equivalent of Pelosi in Congress in the German Bundestag–and they are using it to put on another Citizens’ Assembly. There are, in addition, representatives in the German parliament that are familiar with and advocate for more deliberative and participatory democracy. Dienel and these groups are leveraging that awareness and openness to experiment. I which there was more in DC of what there is in Berlin.


  12. I also found this first episode was the liveliest and had the most contestation. I think Fuller’s point is that sortition cannot completely replace mass participation–however defined. She uses Athenian practice to support her point that at the end democracy must be about the mass of the people approving or taking part in decision making. It is quite reasonable to think, ok, allotted bodies–of whatever type–are fine but whatever they decide or recommend must still be adopted by the majority of all citizens.

    Kovner, imho, provided the most original and interesting idea–one shared by Sutherland, I believe–that at issue are not only the pathologies of elections themselves but also the conflicts of interest in a system in which the same group of people control the agenda, propose possible policy solutions, and decide which to implement. This is not “tehcnocratic”; it is a refreshing and intelligent take, whether or not one agrees that the best solution is to turn politicians into “pure policy advocates” and citizens into deciders via one off policy juries. Alex’s idea of making “political service” something like “civil service” makes a lot of sense to me. In fact, a similar thing happens in many of these citizens’ assemblies, but the “political service” is provided by civil society activists and experts who are supposed to present facts and various perspectives on the issue. Kovner said, let politicians play the role of advocates for these various perspectives instead; citizen policy juries play the role of judge/jury deciding which of the various policy solutions to take.

    This is a compelling idea, even if I still another function for assemblies/juries–that function being providing an exceptional political space for everyday people to confront difference and be political.

    There is a lot more overlap between Terry’s and Alex’s approaches than at first glance. To me this is a sign of some real progress, beyond the cliches regarding deliberation.


  13. Rod

    > Let’s start with the Supreme Court justices: 9 year terms each year a qualified judge is randomly selected

    Why would we want the Supreme Court to be a representative sample of qualified judges? Even if we did, nine is too small to be a representative sample.

    Just because a sample represents qualified judges does not mean it is representative of or reflects the interests and views of the public.

    There are two ways I can think of to get a judiciary (including a Supreme Court) that reflects the interests and views of the public, and that reflects the principle of rule by the people and the consent of the governed.

    1) Let juries choose judges, as I propose here:

    2) Make juries a bigger part of the judiciary than they are now, for example by letting “judicial juries” decide split decisions of the Supreme Court and of the state supreme courts. Such judicial juries could number several hundred citizens. If one or more of the justices dissent, the matter is referred to a judicial jury which decides which opinion of the judges goes into effect, after a fair hearing of the different opinions.


  14. Ahmed:> Keith, it is much harder to believe that the Ecclesia/Assembly of 5,000 + could set an agenda.

    Agreed. Agenda items are proposed by individual persons [in modern times, political parties and think tanks] and (according to Finley), proposers and their rhetorical advocates were generally members of the elite. The principal function of the Council was to ensure that the agenda was not hijacked by elite factions and to preserve the principle of ho boulomenos. But it’s clearly a mistake to view a randomly-selected group of 500 persons as a deliberative group to generate policies in the sense favoured by modern deliberative democrats.

    I enjoyed the third session and was particularly pleased when the presenter revisited the proposer/disposer distinction that Alex introduced during the first debate. And there seems to have been widespread agreement that a voluntary “sample” (Madeleine suggested the general uptake was only around 5%) was not representative, and I agree with Yoram that a system that privileges public service oriented citizens is undemocratic. Terry acknowledged that he was working on a “200 year project”, and that’s a long time, so if there is a lack of urgency then it would be better to focus on the things we mostly agree on. So why not go for the proposer/disposer distinction and the suitability of large quasi-mandatory juries for the latter role (I know Fishkin is also keen on this). By contrast the role of randomly-selected deliberative bodies in generating proposals is highly disputed, so let’s come together on the things we can agree about (or at least most of us).


  15. Ahmed:> Rather, it is a particular party-cum-media system and its elites who benefit from and MANUFACTURE polarization.

    This is certainly true, but this very tactic is made possible by an assembly structure that does not guarantee that every agenda item will reach a satisfactory procedural conclusion. Basically, the very fact that negotiations can (and usually do) break down becomes the fulcrum upon which wars of negative partisanship hinge. This is solved (to some degree) in parliamentary systems because the majority always gets its way, but of course that has its own problems.

    Nothing in episode 3 really dealt with that issue. The interlocutors just assumed that ordinary citizens will not engage in obstructionism. But the America in One Room example is a low-stakes academic exercise with volunteers. Besides, reaching consensus is hard, even when everyone acts in good faith.

    The test of a good system is whether it can resolve political questions even when society is polarized (whether on its own or by deliberate disinformation campaigns). To do this, the system must guarantee that every agenda item will get an affirmative resolution from a citizen jury.


  16. Alex:> The test of a good system is whether it can resolve political questions even when society is polarized (whether on its own or by deliberate disinformation campaigns).

    Agree. It’s better to start from where we are now. The assumption of underlying consensus (absent the influence of political parties) is as naive as the neoconservative faith in the polar opposite (replace dictators by elections and everything will come up smelling of roses).


  17. Terry,

    I just happened to come back to Ober’s “What the Ancient Greeks Can Tell Us About Democracy” (2007). The following sentence from that paper is indeed a strong assertion of the centrality of the Boule (“linchpin”, “Council-centered constitution”), validating your description of his position:

    A.W. Gomme (1951) accurately described the Council of 500 as a “linchpin” institution; it is not hard to see why the democrats of Eretria so easily identified democracy with a Council-centered constitution, and contrasted that constitution with oligarchy and tyranny.


  18. Yoram,

    It was the linchpin in that it protected the sovereign assembly from being undermined by aristocratic factions. Note that a linchpin is a pin passed through the end of an axle to keep a wheel in position — the only purpose of the pin is to stop the wheel from dropping off, so the parallel between the assembly/council and wheel/linchpin is an exact one. What Terry and yourself seem to be claiming is a parallel between the council and the driver of the vehicle and that is certainly not Gomme’s intention.


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