“Sortition Academy” and the Revitalizing Democracy Conference

The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard College in NY is holding a (pandemic-delayed) hybrid in-person / webinar conference on sorition in a couple of weeks. The center is also home to the BIRDS, “Bard Institute for the Revival of Democracy through Sortition,” which has existed for a couple of years but has mostly held online events until now. Registration is still open for the webinar portion of the conference, and I believe in-person attendance is limited to a small number.

REVITALIZING DEMOCRACY:
Sortition, Citizen Power, and Spaces of Freedom

The conference website is called sortition.academy and features three short video introductions to the topic of sorition, averaging 10 minutes each–“What is sortition?” “Greek democracy” and “The story of sortition”–all presented by the Hannah Arendt’s center director Roger Berkowitz. I found these videos quite good for a general audience. Especially intersting was the last video that ends with two segments, “The erasure of sorition,” and “The return of sortition.” Readers of this blog will already know what he is refering to.

Speakers at the conference include many familiar faces in the world of Sortinistas–Van Reybrouck, Landemore, Suiter–but also some surprising old faces and many new faces including young activits and academics. I have registered to attend.

I am curious what Kleroterians and Sortinistas think of the videos and Berkowitz’s take on the role sorition can play under the anti-institutionalism anti-elitism of our time.

9 Responses

  1. Hi Ahmed,

    I found those videos to be of inconsistent quality – and indeed sometimes just inconsistent. There are some good an important points, like the centrality of sortition to the Athenian system, and how the importance of the Assembly is overplayed in the conventional description.

    A central weakness of the treatment, which is quite common in presentations for sortition and even in advocacy for sortition, is an insistence on calling the electoralist system “democratic”. This is quite confusing and self-contradictory and makes the rest of the discussion muddled and ineffective (and is of course also just wrong).

    Other, related, points of weakness are:

    1. The repetition of Manin’s narrative about how sortition was pushed aside by the theory of consent. It would have been much simpler to assert that sortition was ignored because it is democratic rather than republican. Berkowitz does mention that the founding father were aiming for a republic and not a democracy – why then would they be interested in sortition?

    2. Avoiding any mention of the horrible outcomes of the existing system and the fact that those outcomes are serving those in power at the expense of the rest of the population, and toeing the let’s-all-get-together-and-hear-other-out “deliberative democracy” line.

    Two side comments:

    1. I was impressed by Berkowitz’s admission that he did not know what sortition was until 5 years ago and that he learned about it from an undergraduate student.

    2. Did I mishear or did Berkowitz really say Baron Von-Montesqueieu?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I agree very much that calling elections “one way to do democracy” is inconsistent and self-defeating. The clearest, and more historically accurate, approach should be to emphasie that EVEN AFTER successive expansions of the franchise beginnig in the 19th century and even after the word “democratic” became a way to express approval, elections alone still COULD NOT and CANNOT amount to any sort of meanigful rule of the many, which Berkowitz does imply.

    Regarding consent, to my knowledge B does not say that consent theory did away with sortition, but that it happened to dovetail well with electoral politics. It could make sense that the governed consented when they voted for their betters or when they did not rebel.

    Regarding your second point, I would add that referencing disaffection and estrangement from the political system without mentioning the material causes, leaves open the possibility that it is some kind of passing sentiment of some “deplorables,” rather than the indigination of people who do not just “feel” unheard but whose interests really ARE ignored or dismissed. In my own summary I inadvertently reinforced this myth, when I wrote “anti-elitism.” Well, that is just democracy tout court. Democracy cannot be anything less than anti-elite. It cannot be “our time” that makes it so.

    In Roger’s defense, I would say that his Arendtian approach would be not to emphasize material outcomes but rather the alienation from an inherent HUMAN NEED to be part in creating or shaping the common world that would still be there EVEN IF elites had NOT been robbing the general population for the last several decades in those countries now experiencing “Politikverdrossenheit” and loss of trust in institutions.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. > alienation from an inherent HUMAN NEED to be part in creating or shaping the common world that would still be there EVEN IF elites had NOT been robbing the general population

    This may be tangential to the discussion here, but it is a rather interesting issue that has been touched upon here in the past.

    What would count as “taking part in crating or shaping” the world?

    For better or for worse, it seems that history shows – specifically the history of the Western system in decades following WWII and the history of contemporary China – that most people are quite content to approve of a system whose outcomes they approve of, whether or not they “take part” in shaping those outcomes in a direct way. It seems to me, therefore, that it is that – approving of the system’s outcomes, feeling that these represent one’s interests and values – rather than any specific institutional or procedural arrangements – that is the ultimate test of a democracy. Institutional and procedural arrangements are at best means toward that end.

    Like

  4. One more point: “Revitalizing Democracy” is again one of those bromides that is rather counterproductive.

    Like

  5. Yoram:> It seems to me, therefore, that it is that – approving of the system’s outcomes, feeling that these represent one’s interests and values – rather than any specific institutional or procedural arrangements – that is the ultimate test of a democracy.

    It may “seem like” that to you, but you are still in a minority of one, irrespective of how many times you repeat this claim.

    Like

  6. Yoram,
    Yes outcomes of government that most people think are good and in their interests is a goal we hope can be achieved by democracy, but nobody but you thinks it should be the definition. Even if we think it unlikely, it is possible that a benevolent dictator may achieve this goal. In the future an impartial artificial intelligence running a government might achieve this goal. These might be good and legitimate systems of ruling, but they would not be rule OF, BY, and FOR the people, which is the definition of democracy (which the electoralists distort into rule with the consent of the people as revealed through election results.) Yoram’s definition only cares about FOR the people.

    Like

  7. Terry,

    We’ve made this point many, many times before but you’re banging your head against a brick wall; pissing into the wind (choose your preferred metaphor). Yoram’s view could equally well be posted on a blog for Islamic theocracy, Chinese governance, AI etc — it has no necessary connection with sortition at all, so it undermines the purpose of this blog (and he’s in a minority of one in believing it). And given the etymology of the word democracy it’s just plain silly.

    Like

  8. Terry,

    > OF, BY, and FOR the people

    “Of the people” is a meaningless rhetorical formula, as far as I can tell.

    “For the people” is a truism, since essentially every form of government claims to be “for the people”.

    What distinguishes democracy is the “by the people” assertion then. But what does “by the people” mean? We have been indoctrinated to believe this means that people get to elect rulers. Yet, it is by now clear that this is a very poor interpretation of “by the people”. We can offer the interpretation that democracy is a sortition-based system. But others will doubt that. How do we prove us right? In any case, it is clear that not any system that uses sortition to select legislators is a democracy – this is at best a necessary but insufficient condition. Just making assertions about various institutional arrangements is useless.

    In the operationalization I am offering, “by the people” means “as judged by the people”. Thus, unlike in other forms of government, in a democracy it is the people themselves who decide that the system is working for them. The question whether a system is a democracy is not, cannot, be answered political scientists or some other elite group. The people must decide *by* themselves that they live in a democracy (or that they do not).

    It seems to me that this is the only operationalization that is not a useless tautology. It is an operationalization that, instead of starting out by assuming we already know the answers, allows us to start with an open mind and discover – by applying theory and experimentation – what institutional arrangements produce a democracy.

    Like

  9. Yoram:> In the operationalization I am offering, “by the people” means “as judged by the people”. Thus, unlike in other forms of government, in a democracy it is the people themselves who decide that the system is working for them.

    A much better operationalisation is available from a sortition perspective. Democracy means “the people” has power. Ideally this would be all citizens all of the time, but that’s not possible in large modern states, so different samples of the people have to exercise power some of the time. So all that is needed is to ensure that the decision output of each sample is invariant (on a given issue and at a given time and to an acceptable margin of error) and that can easily be operationalised with multiple concurrent samples. We might want to speculate as to what factors (sample size, mandate etc) will lead to invariance but that can all be confirmed empirically.

    Putting Yoram’s definition into practice, the CCP are one of the world’s leading users of public opinion sampling and the results generally indicate that “the people” are happy with CCP rule, so this would mean that China is an advanced democracy (and Taiwan is not). The same could be said of the Islamic Republic of Iran in its early days, as the Khomeini dictatorship was greeted with wild enthusiasm (ditto the toppling of Saddam and Gaddafi), and Nazi party rule was extremely popular in Germany during the 1930s.

    Yoram (rightly) points out that plebiscitary democracy (where all citizens have the chance to decide major issues) is open to manipulation (and it has serious epistemic problems), yet implies that public opinion polling does not suffer from the same flaws. Would you trust a North Korean public opinion poll? If one were conducted in Afghanistan right now the demographic divide between rural and city areas might well lead to the conclusion that the Islamic Emirate is a democracy. And if polling in electoral regimes indicated majority approval for government policies would this make them democratic? The Pew Research Centre is sceptical as to the accuracy of public opinion polls, so how do you get round this problem? https://www.pewresearch.org/our-methods/ And none of this has any connection with sortition, so suggest Yoram opens another blog to exercise his pet hobbyhorse.

    Like

Leave a Reply

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

WordPress.com Logo

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

Google photo

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

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter 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: