Can sortition help fend off the threat of “broader prosperity and rising wellbeing”?

“Democracy Rules”, a recently published book by Jan-Werner Müller, Roger Williams Straus Professor of Social Sciences at Princeton University, is another contribution to the “democratic crisis” genre:

They do not all look the same; plenty of differences are obvious. But group them together and they clearly make up one political family: Orbán, Erdogan, Kaczynski, Modi, undoubtedly ex-president Trump, perhaps Netanyahu, but Brazil’s president Jair Bolsonaro for sure. It is imperative to understand what is often described as a global trend in authoritarianism.

According to a review of the book in Financial Times, Müller is concerned about “performance legitimacy”:

As exemplified by China, that is the undemocratic bargain in which illiberal, one-party control is put up with in return for broader prosperity and rising wellbeing. Its appeal stirs fears that there are other attractive norms on offer and that history may not be cheering liberal democracy on.

Müller’s […] looks hard at how liberal democracy is going wrong in its historic core, Europe and the US. To judge that rightly, he sensibly insists, we need to be clear about what is valuable in liberal democracy and how well we should reasonably expect it to work.

If the review is to be believed, Müller thinks that the troubles of the Western system are due to failings of the “critical infrastructure” of democracy which is made of parties and media that criticises and mediates. Müller sticks to the beaten path by focusing his attention on campaign finance and social media:

How these vital organs are failing forms the core of the book. Key examples include the ease of forming but the difficulty of financing and sustaining new small parties. These can break the smothering effect of big party alternation and answer the cry that voters are not heard. For the press’s part, social media spreads unchecked, unedited content. The collapse of local papers robs people of a watching eye on government action that touches them most directly on matters they know most about.

He also offers rather well known remedies:

Having surveyed such flaws, Müller assesses recent academic work on how government might be made more “accessible, autonomous and assessable”. Ideas canvassed include universal vouchers for making campaign donations, picking certain officeholders by lot and advisory citizens’ assemblies, as tried with some success nationally in France and Ireland.

The review notes that economic disparities are mentioned as a problem, but are somehow not addresssed in the proposed remedies. Presumably those will be taken care of when the “democratic infrastructure” starts to function again?

Sortition – in a vaguely specified form, but clearly not as an independent center of political power – has become, like campaign finance reform, its seems, one of the standard remedies that are to be offered to those among the elite who are worried about the stability of the Western system.

For those who are more interested in policy outcomes than in procedural tweaking it seems that the choice is rather stark: elections or “broader prosperity and rising wellbeing”? Choose one.

5 Responses

  1. Yoram, based on what you say, this book is an another example of the continuing and quite remarkable inability or refusal of political scientists to make fairly obvious extrapolations about sortition from Athens, trial juries and the various citizens’ assemblies and deliberative polls that have happened so far. And to generally ignore those who have.

    I suppose the the clueless reform proposals in books like this are an incentive for us to get on with our work on democratic reform.

    Universal vouchers for campaign finance (an idea you say the book endorses) will be “spent” in a poorly informed way by very unrepresentative portions of the public in the context of a heavily skewed playing field. In Seattle city elections where they have been used, those using them have predictably been a tiny portion of the public, with upper income citizens, older citizens and white people being hugely over-represented among those using their vouchers, and poorer citizens, young citizens and poc being hugely under-represented. The “vote of the vouchers” suffers from the same problems popular vote does, and in fact even more so, as was obvious before it was used in Seattle, including obvious to you and me.

    I take it, based on what you say, that although the authors are concerned about misinformation and I assume tribalization on social media, they do not think this is a serious problem with corporate media, even though it is a very serious problem in the US, and elsewhere.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Simon,

    My report is based on the excerpt available online and on the review in the FT. That said, yes, I agree that this book does seem to fit with the prevalent pattern of rather remarkable dogma-induced blindness among political science professionals to both reality itself and to the utter failure of mainstream theory to provide a consistent framework to describe this reality.

    As for media: presumably there is nostalgia to the glorious past when the elites had tighter control of the public conversation. The way the narrative has shifted from singing the praises of social media as “technology of democracy” to screaming about how it is the tool with which Putin can control the minds of Western voters is rather comical.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. The title of this thread is hilarious, as most people would conclude that broader prosperity and rising wellbeing is a laudable political goals. The old (Marxist) left certainly saw it as a threat as the masses could be seduced from playing the role that history had assigned to them (rising up and overthrowing capitalism). Mrs Thatcher was delighted that Mondeo Man was more interested in driving a nice car and owning his own home and agreed with Oscar Wild that socialism required too many evenings. Are we to assume that sortition will mean a return of the class struggle?


  4. […] Mueller, Professor of Politics at Princeton University and author of the recent book “Democracy Rules”, wrote an article in which he reviews Hélène Landemore’s book […]


  5. […] was proposed as a way to create a governing body for the Internet, as tool to counter the allure of the Chinese system, as a way to save the UK and to stop popular but […]


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: