Sortition has progressed, it seems, into the ridicule phase

As Mahatma Gandhi didn’t say:

First they ignore you. Then they ridicule you. And then they attack you and want to burn you. And then they build monuments to you.

The fondness of the Macron administration for allotted bodies has prompted the following piece by the satirical site Francheinfo. Marlène Schiappa is Macron’s assistant minister in charge of citizenship.

Marlène Schiappa is going to allot 15 citizens for a free Brazilian hair straightening

Democracy above all else, like in ancient Greece, Marlène Schiappa has chosen to use sortition in order to select 15 citizens of all origins, religions and hair types as winners of Brazilian hair straightening at the Ans Brazil salon.

“Under current conditions, we must allow the French people to enjoy soft and silky hair, such as mine, all for a reasonable price as offered at Ans Brasil. This is first of all a matter of social justice. Whether one lives at Aulnay or at Poissy sur Brie, we must allow French people’s hair to be nourished from its tips to its roots, with a sufficient dose of keratin so that it does not become brittle,” explained the minister for citizenship and for the hair-growing areas of the skin.

28 Responses

  1. Unfortunately, the high incidence of poorly-designed implementations of sortition make it likely we will never move beyond the ridicule phase.

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  2. I’m more optimistic about its prospects. The high incidence of poorly-designed implementations of electoral democracy in the early modern to modern period didn’t stop its rise to dominance.

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  3. But, if Manin is to be believed, they were underwritten by a coherent rationale — the Natural Right theory of consent, according to which people get to choose who their rulers are. The corresponding rationale for sortition is descriptive representation and Macron’s teeny-weeny citizen panels are not representative in any meaningful sense of the word. As such they invite ridicule.

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  4. The corresponding rationale for sortition doesn’t have to be descriptive representation, but anti-elitism. That an allotted panel is temporarily, technically an ‘elite’ isn’t that important compared to the fact that its members are not entrenched members of elite institutions. In terms of what sortitional arrangments are best, I’m on the same page as you, as you know – I just don’t think the coherency of the rationale is as important as its emotional narratives when it comes to public uptake of an idea.

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  5. Besides which, Macron is not leading here so much as trying to produce half-arsed compromises. The public aren’t so stupid that they can’t spot the ways in which his model is compromised.

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  6. Media comments on the climate assembly have suggested that its members have become an unaccountable cognitive elite. Elected officials are subject to ex-post accountability, whereas allotted persons benefit from the harlot’s prerogative (power without responsibility).

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  7. > trying to produce half-arsed compromises.

    And in the process the sortition movement is discredited — especially as bodies like the Sortition Foundation are happy to take their thirty pieces of silver to administer these initiatives.

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  8. The idea of sortition is separate from the sortition movement, and will survive the latter’s becoming discredited. Bodies like the Sortition Foundation, that aspire to sell the idea to elites through TED talks and lobbying, were always going to wind up in bed with people like Macron. That doesn’t mean that people’s response will be to go back to the old ways; I’d wager that many people will look at it and go ‘clearly this didn’t go far enough because it was compromised by elites’.

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  9. I hope you’re right Oliver, but most of the key hits for “sortition” on google go to the Sortition Foundation, whereas we’re still lingering on page 5. The irony is that Brett Hennig’s rhetoric and published work is explicitly anti-elitist but the money does not reflect the position of his mouth (whereas I’ve been character-assassinated as an establishment lickspittle).

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  10. > aspire to sell the idea to elites through TED talks and lobbying

    This is a description of almost the entire activity around sortition. Almost everybody, from academics to activists, address themselves to the established power and advance the idea that it would be useful to elites to use sortition-based devices. The notion that instituting meaningful (i.e., democratic) sortition-based political power would require mass mobilization to counter determined resistance by the established elites is hardly ever considered.

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  11. *** Quotation by Keith Sutherland : “First they ignore you. Then they ridicule you. And then they attack you and want to burn you. And then they build monuments to you.”
    *** For men, maybe. But for a new and dangerous idea the sequence is rather this one. First they ignore it. Then they ridicule it. And then, when ridicule appears not efficient enough, they have to choose: either to attack it savagely, or to consider how it can be used (throwing out its venom as much as possible).
    *** The neo-polyarchic use of sortition is in the middle of the political field now in France. Rosanvallon’s article indicating the way was 2011, with a significant name “A Reflection on Populism”. We had to wait no much time for the implementation. Macron, given his big political problems, his intellectual training and his kind of character, was the man to dare.
    *** In France the step of ridicule is over, and I don’t think possible to come back. The criticisms are plenty, but often with good rationales; often they accept the idea of mini-populus, and even when they reject the idea itself they feel necessary to offer an articulate discourse. Few rely on ridicule, contempt, or werewolf branding (as when fifteen years ago, the sortition proposal of Ségolène Royal was equated with Robespierre Terror and Mao Cultural Revolution).
    *** Jokes about an idea does not mean it is kept in the ridicule circle.
    *** In France, I think sortition cannot be easily put back in the ridicule circle. But I am afraid the dubious uses of sortition in France may be used in some other countries to keep the idea in this circle.

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  12. Yoram:> The notion that instituting meaningful (i.e., democratic) sortition-based political power would require mass mobilization to counter determined resistance by the established elites is hardly ever considered.

    A more realistic alternative (the left having realised that “mass mobilisation” was an impossible dream half a century ago) is to accept that elites will always be with us and to play them at their own game. Political elites will seek to use sortition as a means of legitimising their own policies. Fair enough, but the cognitive elite that understands the theory and practice of sortition (yes, that’s us folks) need to retain their integrity and condemn sortition experiments that fail to live up to their claims (principally the notion of a representative sample). A body with the august-sounding name The Sortition Foundation should be self funded. The Council should be restricted to those with a PhD or peer-reviewed publication in sortition and the leadership either elected or selected by lot from the Council (two alternative forms of balloting). If bodies like the Sortition Foundation have to depend on selling their services to government and commercial organisations then our movement will fall into disrepute. Yves Sintomer has organised a workshop on sortition for French speaking scholars the week after next and it will be interesting to hear their remarks on M. Macron’s little projects.

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  13. > “The notion that instituting meaningful (i.e., democratic) sortition-based political power would require mass mobilization to counter determined resistance by the established elites is hardly ever considered”

    > “A more realistic alternative (the left having realised that “mass mobilisation” was an impossible dream half a century ago) is to accept that elites will always be with us and to play them at their own game”

    This is a false dichotomy to a certain extent. It’s absolutely possible for insurgent parties and movements to upend existing elites, but those parties and movements will, in the process, develop their own elites. The key, as I see it, is to ensure that those nascent elites present a deal to their constituents that allows them to overthrow the existing elites in exchange for instituting sortitional democracy. The elites get power as a prize, but less power than existing elites have. This is why I’m working to get the Northern Independence Party to endorse a heavily sortitional-democratic constitution sooner rather than later – while the party is still a rag-tag band of idealists rather than a machine for gaining and keeping power. If the goal and the brand is about instituting sortitional constitutional measures right from the start, the organisation stands a chance of being forced to stick to that commitment.

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  14. Isn’t a rag-tag band of idealists an elite in the sense of a vanguard party? The problem is getting any interest from the masses (who would much rather go shopping).

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  15. It’s an ‘elite’ in the sense that it’s a group of especially interested, active, and informed people. It’s not an ‘elite’ in the sense that it doesn’t have any power, at least to start with. It becomes the latter sense of ‘elite’ as it builds up power, of whatever kind.

    As for getting interest from the masses, that’s a perennial problem, but very far from impossible. Quite apart from the fact that the NIP’s game plan is to win enough elections to become a small kingmaking group in Parliament and get a referendum out of that, none of which requires mass revolutionary mobilisation – genuine revolutions do happen. There’s one going on right now in Belarus, and another incipient in Russia. The West does not have some special, essential apathy that prevents people rising up and governments falling. The ‘vanguard party’ just has to be in the right place at the right time to catch the wave of discontent and direct it appropriately.

    Of course, an unfortunate aspect of our times is that the rightwing media is well-funded and effective at directing potentially productive discontent in fascistic directions, joining it to reactionary cultural grievances too corrosive to be any use to us. But the course of history is chaotic and unpredictable, so we may as well take our chances.

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  16. That’s true in the (C.Wright Mills) sociological sense. I’m more disposed to the dictionary definition:

    a select group that is superior in terms of ability or qualities to the rest of a group or society

    Note there’s no reference to power. As for the problem with well-funded right-wing media, they would retort that they are the necessary corrective to the long march through the institutions of the Gramscian left and that they have a closer affinity to the beliefs and preferences of the “masses” than woke culture warriors.

    > reactionary cultural grievances too corrosive to be any use to us

    Who, pray, is “us”. The sortition movement? If so then I guess that would put an unreconstructed reactionary like me in an uncomfortable place. The nice thing about sortition is that you don’t need to be a progressive to find it attractive. If the people came to rule via sortition I think you would have to put up with a lot of reactionary cultural grievances!

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  17. On that definition of ‘elite’, then, the NIP approach is an example of ‘playing elites at their own game’, and the dichotomy you presented is not as false as I thought! ‘Superior in terms of ability or qualities’ seems too narrow, though – I think we’d both refer to the Russian kleptocracy (say) as an ‘elite’, but not attribute to them superior ability or qualities.

    “Us” in context was supposed to indicate the NIP, although on rereading I didn’t make that clear. The NIP is a socialist party and firmly on the side of trans people, immigrants, Travellers, and so on. The ‘reactionary cultural grievances’ that are ‘useless’ to us are the ‘I don’t like hearing people speak Polish on the bus/people shouldn’t get upset when I tell racist jokes’ kind (which I presume you don’t subscribe to!) – they’re anathema to our values, and we shouldn’t give them ground. Hopefully, though, by proposing a sortitional-pluralist system, we can bring people who hold views like that on board with our political project, and in time sway them away from those views – it’s the grievances that we object to, not the people!

    > “If the people came to rule via sortition I think you would have to put up with a lot of reactionary cultural grievances!”

    I don’t doubt it! Part of the point of the constitution we’re working on, though, is to dampen down culture wars by bringing elite institutions closer to the people – not just ‘political’ institutions, but the media and the universities. Culture wars are products of a number of factors, some of which can’t really be ameliorated (such as the offence taken by people accustomed to deference when their erstwhile social inferiors stop giving it to them), but some of which can – specifically, the decay of trust in epistemic elites. Address that through heightened productive contact and inclusion of ordinary people in epistemic institutions, and cultural conflict ought to ease off.

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  18. Of course mass mobilization happens. Indeed, we are supposed to wish for it and admire it when its objective is the downfall of the West’s enemies. It only becomes a childish dream or a Fascist nightmare when it is in the context of disenchantment with Western electoralism.

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  19. It is fine to advocate particular strategies to advance sortition democracy, but we should generally hold our tongues about attacking different strategies. I think it was the right-wing economist, Milton Friedman, who said that in times of crisis, people may take up those ideas that happen to be “lying around.” In a number of countries democratic lotteries have reached that threshold of being an idea that could be taken up at some critical juncture. We also don’t need to make any sharp distinction between sortition’s advance through mass movement vs. existing governmental elites. Both avenues are worth pursuing. Cleisthenes significantly advanced democracy in Athens as a means to increase his elite power over competing elites. Democracy eventually took on its own life and outlived the use he intended for it.

    On another point raised above… Keith, you are almost exclusively interested in the statistical representativeness potential of sortition (and I share that interest), but you must accept that sortition has other powerful benefits for society, including anti-corruption (rotating ordinary people into short duration power), and anti POWER elite (against the “political class”), as well as the classic blind-break equality. Some mini-publics may be far to small or poorly implemented to achieve statistical sampling legitimacy, yet still serve a positive public purpose of removing a corrupt political class from their monopoly position of power.

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  20. Terry:> you must accept that sortition has other powerful benefits for society

    Sure. The trouble is that the rhetoric used by most of these initiatives is couched in terms of “recruiting a representative sample” and (as this article points out) the tiny samples used by Macron and the useful idiots who provide them for him are small and voluntary so fail the representation test. As such they bring the whole sortition movement into disrepute. Dowlen, Stone, Boyle and the rest of the blind breakers are clear that they are not interested in representation and I have no problem with that — in fact I argued strongly to ensure that the change of subtitle on EbL should not exclude them from the forum. I just want people to be analytically clear (and up-front and honest) about what they are trying to achieve.

    >Some mini-publics may be far to small or poorly implemented to achieve statistical sampling legitimacy, yet still serve a positive public purpose of removing a corrupt political class from their monopoly position of power.

    I don’t think there is much evidence to support that claim (even though that may be the intention of those who promote them).

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  21. About « elite ».
    *** In socio-political analysis, we must not use the word “elite” with a loose meaning as “the superior ones”, but with a more precise social meaning.
    *** “Elite” must be used only (1) when we consider a dimension creating specific material or moral interests, and (2) when there is a discontinuity.
    *** Let’s see the case of 4th century Athens, or similar ancient Cities. The dominant aim of people who are not poor (who have no concerns about getting food) is usually not to accumulate more money possible, but to live “the good life”, to be part of the leisure class: no work, therefore time for athletics, for intellectual and cultural occupations, conferences, private spectacles, courtships, meetings and entertainments with friends, symposia – look to Xenophon’s Symposium, with philosophical and humorous conversations, and ending with an erotic show. That creates an elite phenomenon: the Athenian elite included the citizens with enough money allowing them not to work, allowing them most time leisure.
    *** When Aristotle describes the civic community, and divides it between the common people (various kinds) and the elite, it is the criterion. It is clear when (Politics IV, 4, 21; 1291b-17-26) distinguishing the classes among the common people (dêmos in sociological sense), he enumerates: the farmers, the class dealing with the arts and crafts, the commercial class, the different kinds of seamen, “the hand-working class and the people possessing little substance so that they cannot live a life of leisure” (transl. Rackham). This last class of people, who have some wealth but have to work nevertheless, are not included in the elite (hoi gnorimoi, the distinguished people).
    *** Clearly, there may be some specific cases at the limit. Socrates was not poor, he was a hoplite, he could afford an armor (or did he inherit it from his father?). He is a small renter. He can belong to the elite only because he is frugal and thus may live without working (and I suppose he did not pay for symposia in his rich friends’ homes).
    *** The elite phenomenon occurs when for a dimension there is a discontinuity. Factors of discontinuity are: inescapable facts, social organization, sensitivities.
    *** In France it is unlawful to treat ill people without a State medical degree (I approve). That creates a medical elite. University level education, as organized and as felt, creates an elite. Welfare State and taxes help creating a money elite: the people who are convinced they get less from the State that what they pay in taxes.
    *** There may be a secondary elite phenomenon, inside an elite. In 4th century Athens where taxes were concentrated on very rich people, easy to identify, they were an elite inside the elite.
    *** Belonging to an elite creates a propensity against civic equality, and therefore against dêmokratia. But elitism is only a factor, and there are many others. The Athenian democracy was founded when in archaic Athens a fraction of the elite (an elite different from later times) followed Cleisthenes and his daring endeavor.
    *** Is a citizen jury an elite? When Athenian jurors were asked by Demosthenes to crush the Leptines law about tax exemptions, they had to hear orators of both sides and at the end had superior information about the issue – actually any jury is intended to have cognitive superiority about the decided issue. But this dimension does not give them specific or material interests. Only after their office they will have specific moral interests (for instance a legislative jury may not be happy if another jury crushes their choice as “unconstitutional”). During their office they are not an elite.
    *** The US Senators who will judge former president Trump belong to a political elite, and have specific interests. For instance, not to be substituted by an allotted citizen jury. But such a jury would not be an elite, at least during the impeachment trial.

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  22. Andre:> Is a citizen jury an elite? . . . During their office they are not an elite.

    However,

    1. Given the average take up rate for allotted bodies (4%), they are an elite in your sense of persons having the free time (and interest) to engage in discussion, symposia etc.

    2. If they are empowered to make policy proposals and act as advocates for them then, as mentioned in the report on the CCC, they will become a new (and unaccountable) political elite.

    Even the Athenian juries that you reference were lampooned by the playwrights for the harlot’s prerogative, so small, voluntary full-mandate sortition assemblies cannot escape the charge of elitism. But I agree with you that large quasi-mandatory citizen juries would not constitute an elite.

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  23. > *** “Elite” must be used only (1) when we consider a dimension creating specific material or moral interests, and (2) when there is a discontinuity.

    “Eliteness” has several dimensions, but for our purposes what matters is indeed the issue of world views and interests. Like individuals, groups can be expected to act in ways that represent their own world views and interests. Therefore, if the world view and interests of an empowered group are aligned with those of the public (and it is exactly this property that sortition aims to achieve) then its acts can be expected to be approved by the public.

    Thus, the question of whether a group is an elite group due to the very fact that it is entrusted with great powers is pointless and it is hard to avoid the suspicion that this argument is deliberately manipulative.

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  24. *** Terry Bouricius wrote “Some mini-publics may be far too small or poorly implemented to achieve statistical sampling legitimacy, yet still serve a positive public purpose of removing a corrupt political class from their monopoly position of power.”
    *** I agree wholly. We must distinguish two democratic uses of sortition: the citizen jury may be either a mini-populus, exercising sovereignty, and here it is paramount it mirrors the civic body; or a panel of allotted “magistrates”, which may be not very big and not perfectly “representative”.
    *** Allotted “magistrate” panels are useful, as says Terry, to prevent monopoly of power by a political class, a corrupt one – or simply an oligarchizing one. They are useful likewise to prevent power to be taken by the “deep State” or by activist networks.
    *** The difference was very clear in the Athenian democracy. For the allotted “magistrates” (small panels except the Council), there was, as for elected magistrates, “dokimasia”, a clearance procedure intended to eliminate dubious persons, for instance suspected of anti-democrat leanings. For the big juries, exercising sovereignty, there was nothing like that.
    *** We may remember, likewise, the use of sortition in Switzerland in the 18th century (Antoine Chollet “Un tirage au sort mixte : sur quelques exemples oubliés du XVIe au XVIIIe siècle”). Chollet tells us that sortition was implemented in 18th century in various communities, in oligarchic Bern, in less oligarchic Basel and Schaffhausen, in democratic Glarus, and in the small equalitarian communes of the Grisons (before disappearing everywhere). In oligarchic communities, it was useful to prevent concentration of power in some families. In more democratic ones, to prevent its concentration in an elite. (And, everywhere, to reduce corruption). But, as far as I know, it was always sortition of magistrates, there were no instance of big juries, Athenian-style, exercising sovereignty.

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  25. A bit of a tangent, but I need to vent…. In today’s opening of the Trump impeachment trial Trump’s lead defense attorney, Bruce Castor, revelated a staggering level of ignorance about Athenian democracy (and other things… but I limit myself to that one topic). After repeating the laughable canard that the U.S. Senate is the “greatest deliberative body in the world,” (okay, he needed to suck up to the Senators, so that is excusable), He relayed a strange history lesson that the “Senate” of ancient Athens (yes he repeated a couple of times his claim that Athens had a “Senate”) and the Athenian “republic” fell, not from foreign intrigue (he ignored Macedonia or Sparta), but from internal “partisan” divisiveness. Astonishing!

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  26. I think this is the relevant excerpt from Castor’s speech:

    The last time a body such as the United States Senate sat at the pinnacle of government with the responsibility that it has today, it was happening in Athens and it was happening in Rome. Republicanism, the form of government, republicanism, throughout history, has always and without exception, fallen because of fights from within. Because of partisanship from within. Because of bickering from within and in each one of those examples that I mentioned and there are certainly others probably that are smaller countries that lasted for less time that I don’t know about off the top of my head but each one of them, once there was the vacuum created that the greatest deliberative bodies, the Senate of Greece sitting in Athens, the Senate of Rome, the moment that they devolved into such partisanship, it’s not as though they ceased to exist. They ceased to exist as representative democracy. Both replaced by totalitarianism.

    I wonder if he was referring to the The Council of the Areopagus, or was he just conflating Athens and Rome?

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  27. Andre:> We must distinguish two democratic uses of sortition

    Fair point. But the advocates of small panels of citizen magistrates should stop justifying them by claiming that they are representative institutions. The justifying principle is the Blind Break, not the Invisible Hand.

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  28. About Castor’s speech and Athenian Senate

    *** In 18th century historians and political thinkers, who had strong Latin training, used for Athens (or Sparta) latinizing vocabulary. They used “Senate” for the Areopagus, or, more often in political writings, for the Council of Five Hundred. This use can be found in historians until the 20th century – and nowadays if we look to Merriam-Webster dictionary on line, we find for “prytany” “the presidential office of the Athenian senate held successively during the year by each of the ten sections into which the senate was divided”.
    *** The idea of the death of democracy due to faction strife was a cliché of political (anti-democrat) tradition. We can see it in Madison’s Federalist 10 “a pure democracy […] can admit of no cure for the mischiefs of faction. […] Hence it is that such democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths.”
    *** Castor is only archaizing.

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