How sortition points beyond all that sound and fury that signifies nothing

Back in the day, (which is to say for most of the 20th century until things began changing in the 1980s), each of the major political parties had a few percentage points of the population as members. In addition to the intrinsic rewards of being part of one’s country’s social and political fabric, the ultimate point of membership was to influence your party’s political platform and through that to influence government policy.

Correspondingly, mass movements such as the civil rights movement would pare back their platforms to the specific issue they wished to highlight. It took Martin Luther King most of the 1960s to come out against America’s involvement in Vietnam because widening his movements platform was seen to compromise the size of the civil rights coalition. 

Since then politics has famously been ‘hollowed out’. The membership of mainstream political parties has plummeted with those left tending to be careerists, the stooges they attract to stack branches and occasional naïve blow-ins. Political parties still go through some of the motions of members determining policy, but senior party professionals understand themselves as a fighting force which will need to improvise its way through the news cycles through to the next election and that makes member determined policy a potential liability.

And something similar has occurred in mass movements. Their campaigning is increasingly focused on people’s expressive side. And policies are increasingly seen through that lens. Thus Black Lives Matter wants to defund the police or says it does. This is a ridiculous slogan, but one treated with great toleration by our media and commentators. Brexit might mean Brexit, but defund doesn’t really mean defund. It means … well something else – reallocating funds to community building and all that stuff. Likewise, the BLM platform plans to overthrow capitalism and all the rest of it. And it turns out that next to none of the coverage that BLM gets is about its policies. So its policies can be aimed at expression rather than the outcomes that those policies might produce.  

I began writing a post on this back in the days of France’s Yellow Vests. They knew they were pissed off, and, for all I know they were right to be pissed off. They knew they didn’t like certain taxes which they felt targeted them. But what did they like? What policy changes were they after? That was less clear. 

Now we have the apotheosis of this in the American kayfabe insurrection, where a motley crew of Trump supporters turned up without a platform to take back ‘their house’. Looking at the videos, there was one thing more common than MAGA caps and flags for Trump and the USA. Almost no step was taken by anyone without their smartphones pointed in outstretched arms to catch every last act of the mob and the unfolding selfie within it.

Here’s the description of the riot in a recent ProPublica piece, which used the thousands of videos posted to Parler before it went down. 

Inside the Capitol, in a stately, high-ceilinged office suite, marauders mill around, grabbing things off the desks, knocking things over. “Don’t break stuff!” a young woman hollers at them. “Stop! That’s not why we’re here.” But why are they there?

The more videos one watches, the more overwhelmed one is by the variety of motivations and profiles. Seen one way, this is one of the most homogenous large crowds one could ever find in America 2021, so heavily white is it. Seen another way, it is a hodgepodge, a cross-section of America that includes hardcore white supremacists and people you might run into at a mall or a country club.

It is mostly men, but there are also many women. There are young women who look like they could have come straight from a college campus, in puffy jackets and pompom hats. One, watching the invaders scale the lower Capitol walls on the west side, tells her friends: “They are climbing the walls! I mean, I wish I could, but I didn’t bring the shoes for it.

”There are many middle-aged and older women, too. Some keep warm by wrapping themselves in the Stars and Stripes …. Others are draped in wool scarves and nice blankets, presenting a far more conventional and even upper-class vibe than the viral images of young men costumed with animal horns and pelts. Some of these women even enter the building.

There are so many older men. Some of them are walking with canes or in wheelchairs or scooters. And some of them are at the front lines. … There are men, older and younger, who slide gleefully into war-reenactor mode, tossing off battle lingo as if they are at Antietam or the Ardennes. … There are so many flags — mostly American, but also Confederate, Gadsden, Canadian, Israeli, Romanian. …

There are many … snatches of fellowship in the videos: strangers advising each other on how to get the pepper spray out of their eyes, or sharing news updates from the Electoral College proceedings inside the Senate, before the senators fled to safety. Watching these moments of cooperation and social warmth, the same thought crossed my mind as did in watching last year’s mass protests over the police killing of George Floyd: that these events were grounded in political anger but intensified by the social dislocation of a pandemic and its associated lockdowns, which had left so many hungering for human contact and stimulation more than they themselves probably even realized. 

This disastrous situation provides us with yet another area in which the other way to represent the people – via sortition or selection by lot rather than election – comes into its own. Elections as currently practiced prise people apart as politicians demonise each other, and win elections by making promises they can’t keep.

This saves voters the burden of considering difficult trade-offs. They just pick a side and barrack and politics becomes increasingly like a sport. As this process has become optimised over the decades politics has become fast-foodified. And it’s getting worse and worse. Between 1968 and 1988 the length of Presidential sound bites on US Network news went from 43 to 9 seconds. Now turbocharged by social media, electoral politics is increasingly dominated by fantastic, post-truth claims. It’s not as bad here as it’s become in the US, but I still remember how Labor’s carbon tax was going to make a roast cost over $100.  

It doesn’t have to be this way. It’s hard to believe from what we’ve made of electoral politics,  but human beings have a natural capacity to see each others’ point of view and to compromise. In fact it was the only way we survived on the African savannah. By evolving into the ape that solves problems in groups. 

Citizens’ assemblies could provide a counterweight to elections that plays to those inherent strengths. In a citizens’ assembly, people get the time to think and deliberate with their peers about the social trade-offs they want to make. 

New York Governor Mario Cuomo once said that politicians campaign in poetry but govern in prose. Since then, electoral politics has been transformed into non-stop campaigning. In the last few years the 24/7 campaigning has started to be done not so much in poetry as in fantasy. 

Enough already.

4 Responses

  1. The more videos one watches, the more overwhelmed one is by the variety of motivations and profiles. . . a cross-section of America that includes hardcore white supremacists and people you might run into at a mall or a country club.

    It’s interesting to learn that ultra-Trumpism is far more diverse than its portrayal in the media. But to use this to segue straight into the case for sortition runs the risk of being lampooned (as we saw in the French example). The US elections have left nearly half of all voters believing that they are now unrepresented (as the liberals now control the Presidency, the House and the Senate). Alex’s Superminority Principle (combined with allotted juries) would mean that citizens would no longer be disenfranchised, irrespective of whether or not their tribe won the latest contest. Thinking that these tribes will disappear with the abolition of election is akin to believing that the state will wither away with the onset of socialism.

    To use Pitkin’s terminology, the diversity of large modern states needs to be represented both “descriptively” (through large quasi-mandatory juries) and “actively” (through a more proportional form of representative isegoria). A structural perspective on Trumpism would recommend a plurality of competing voices rather than focusing on the psychopathology of of a narcissist megalomaniac and the needs and aspirations of the basket of deplorables. The more Trumps the merrier! (so long as the system ensures that there is never a single “winner”).

    Liked by 2 people

  2. *** The Yellow Vests had no spectacular program of a new social order. When asked about their grievances, they gave long lists of “small” injustices. The sparkle of rebellion was the “climate tax” on motorcar oil (“oil we use to go to work, whereas there is no climate tax on kerosene”), but many other grievances were added, the victims of which were diverse (for instance grievances by women alone with children – women were an unusual part of the movement).
    *** The one spectacular proposal was political – for direct democracy through referenda (interest towards the minipopulus formula was found only among some – but that included the woman who initiated the petition against the “taxes on essential goods”, Priscillia Ludosky).
    *** We can find a logical link: “ordinary people, without social power, are victims of many unfairness in their life, whereas they have much theoretical political power in a democracy; that means the electoral-representative democracy is not a real democracy”.
    *** Given this logical link, the Yellow Vests movement cannot be seen only as an “expressive” one, or as “sound and fury which signifies nothing”.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. > the Yellow Vests movement cannot be seen only as an “expressive” one, or as “sound and fury which signifies nothing”.

    Ditto with the US elections, where 74,000,000 people are effectively disenfranchised. “Winner takes all” is the rule in warfare and sport, but I don’t see why it should to decisions as to how we organise our everyday life.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. > Ditto with the US elections, where 74,000,000 people are effectively disenfranchised.

    Yes that’s true enough, except that it of course very much understates the level of disenfranchisement. The majority views of Americans on a range of topics are represented by neither Trump nor by Biden meaning that no matter which way they voted most Americans are effectively disenfranchised, at least on those topics. Also, quite possibly the public’s informed views would be even less represented by either Trump or Biden. Also, in a sense all Americans are disenfranchised by the deciding of laws by politicians, except for the small oligarchy of politicians in power, and the donor class that they primarily serve.

    We of course agree that the power to decide laws should be transferred to legislative juries, and that one blessing of that would be to end “winner takes all” party politics.


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