Abizadeh: Representation, Bicameralism, Political Equality, and Sortition

A paper by Arash Abizadeh.

Representation, Bicameralism, Political Equality, and Sortition: Reconstituting the Second Chamber as a Randomly Selected Assembly

Perspectives on Politics, 2020

Abstract

The two traditional justifications for bicameralism are that a second legislative chamber serves a legislative-review function (enhancing the quality of legislation) and a balancing function (checking concentrated power and protecting minorities). I furnish here a third justification for bicameralism, with one elected chamber and the second selected by lot, as an institutional compromise between contradictory imperatives facing representative democracy: elections are a mechanism of people’s political agency and of accountability, but run counter to political equality and impartiality, and are insufficient for satisfactory responsiveness; sortition is a mechanism for equality and impartiality, and of enhancing responsiveness, but not of people’s political agency or of holding representatives accountable. Whereas the two traditional justifications initially grew out of anti-egalitarian premises (about the need for elite wisdom and to protect the elite few against the many), the justification advanced here is grounded in egalitarian premises about the need to protect state institutions from capture by the powerful few and to treat all subjects as political equals. Reflecting the “political” turn in political theory, I embed this general argument within the institutional context of Canadian parliamentary federalism, arguing that Canada’s Senate ought to be reconstituted as a randomly selected citizen assembly.

4 Responses

  1. sortition is a mechanism for equality and impartiality, and of enhancing responsiveness, but not of people’s political agency or of holding representatives accountable

    That depends what you mean by “agency”. This is how Pitkin put the limitations of descriptive representation:

    If the contemplated action is voting, then presumably (but not obviously) it means that the [descriptively-mandated] representative must vote as a majority of his constituents would. But any activities other than voting are less easy to deal with. Is he really literally to deliberate as if he were several hundred thousand people? To bargain that way? To speak that way? And if not that way, then how? (Pitkin, 1967, pp. 144-145)

    This would suggest that the “agency” of an allotted chamber would be limited to voting — i.e. deciding the outcome of proposals originating in the elected chamber. This would only become a substantive form of agency if the options presented by the elected chamber adequately reflected the preferences of the target population. That can be achieved, in theory, by the cybernetic principle outlined by Harrington’s example of two girls dividing a cake equally, whereby the divider would be constrained to cooperate with the chooser by cutting the cake in a way that the chooser would find equitable:

    For example, two of them have a cake yet undivided, which was given between them: that each of them therefore might have that which is due, ‘Divide’, says one to the other, ‘and I will choose; or let me divide, and you shall choose’. If this be but once agreed upon, it is enough: for the divident, dividing unequally, loses, in regard that the other takes the better half; wherefore she divides equally, and so both have right. (Harrington, 1992, p. 22)

    In practice this would require the sort of institutional reforms to the proposing chamber suggested by Alex Kovner’s Superminority Principle.

    Like

  2. There are numerous problems with this argument. Most obvious is the assertion that “elections are a mechanism of people’s political agency and of accountability.” This is the mythology of elections, but I defy anyone to give actual evidence that this works. Achen and Bartels in their book, “Democracy for Realists: Why Elections Do Not Produce Responsive Government,” give a pretty air tight proof that mass elections among partisan candidates historically have not, and CANNOT provide accountability. The notion that a voter, as one of millions of voters, has exercised meaningful “agency” on policy matters is merely laughable. I am not sure the author actually agrees with this shibboleth. He may have simply decided to pick his fights and so limit the size of the paper to a more manageable length.

    But the another flaw in a combined hybrid election and sortition bicameral legislative system is the partisan committee process, leadership and psychology involved. the author wisely suggests building a firewall to protect the allotted chamber members from lobbyists and partisan influence from the elected members of the other chamber. But even if the allotted chamber maintains its independence, there is still an huge problem. One body is full of temporary recruits with no career stake nor perceived expertise. The other body is filled almost exclusively with ego-driven careerists who are expert at public relations. What happens if the two bodies disagree on a bill? Do you think the politicians would effectively discredit these “hair dressers and store clerks,” and claim to be exercising their electoral mandate to “protect their constituents back home?” Even if an allotted chamber were created, I fear that if an elected chamber were also maintained, it would quickly destroy the allotted chamber as soon as it seemed necessary to protect their power.

    In some OTHER form (such as the Kovner/Sutherland model), it might be possible to have both elections and sortition for a brief time, but I think that even in that scheme the elected chamber would quickly destroy the allotted one. This is why I favor the peeling away transition strategy… removing one policy domain at a time from the elected chamber, and vesting it completely in a sortition process. The strategy is to avoid direct head-butting on individual bills between elected and allotted representatives. My vision is that the elected chamber would go the way of European monarchies… still exist but become eventyually figureheads only.

    Like

  3. > mass elections among partisan candidates historically have not, and CANNOT provide accountability. The notion that a voter, as one of millions of voters, has exercised meaningful “agency” on policy matters is merely laughable

    It is indeed pathetic that the mainstream academic discussion of Anglophone political science has not moved beyond these superficial and patently false cliches.

    Like

  4. Terry:> mass elections among partisan candidates historically have not, and CANNOT provide accountability.

    It may not be optimal but just imagine if the incumbent governing party never had to face voters for re-election. And since the time of Aristophanes’ The Wasps we’ve known that jurors are possessed of the harlot’s prerogative (power without responsibility). So what’s your proposal for accountability?

    >The notion that a voter, as one of millions of voters, has exercised meaningful “agency” on policy matters is merely laughable.

    Who is making the claim that voters in large states have individual agency? In my first response to this post I showed how allotted juries could possess (collective) agency.

    >In some OTHER form (such as the Kovner/Sutherland model), it might be possible to have both elections and sortition for a brief time, but I think that even in that scheme the elected chamber would quickly destroy the allotted one.

    You are ignoring the separation of powers that is at the core of Alex and my proposal. The power of the (revised) electoral chamber is limited to proposing and the power of the allotted chamber is limited to disposing. The latter has the whip hand (for the Harringtonian reasons that I outline above) as it obliges the elected chamber to come up with proposals that the disposers would select. How can the former “destroy” the latter? That would only be the case if they operated identical powers in parallel. Terry, we all respect your invaluable hands-on experience as an elected legislator, but that’s no reason to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

    Yoram:> It is indeed pathetic that the mainstream academic discussion of Anglophone political science . . .

    Arash is an excellent scholar and these ad hominem attacks only serve to undermine the credibility of this forum.

    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: