Report Back from the Hannah Arendt Center Conference on Sortition, part 1

On October 14-15 Wayne Liebman and I (and we presume many other followers and contributors to EbL) attended (online) the HAC’s Annual Conference: “Revitalizing Democracy: Sortition, Citizen Power, and Spaces of Freedom.” We each independently wrote our impressions and comments. Below is Wayne’s overview. Subsequent parts contain more detailed summary and commentary on what I considered the most important of the presentations, where I also attempted to add some US context for international readers, or other context for those not immersed in the world of Arendt studies. That appears in brackets or under the heading “commentary.”

We invite anyone else who attended to correct or complement what we have below. I am sure each of us came from a different perspective and took note of different aspects of the event. And we hope this provokes some discussion of some familiar and new themes. Throughout, I use the word citizen in a POLITICAL not a legal sense, as I believe most speakers do. [P.S. Subjectively, the highlights of the conference for me were the interventions from Akuno and Lederman]. ~ AT

Revitalizing Democracy, Hannah Arendt Center, Bard College

“Representative government is in crisis today, partly because it has lost, in the course of time, all institutions that permitted the citizens’ actual participation, and partly because it is now gravely affected by the disease from which the party system suffers: bureaucratization and the two parties’ tendency to represent nobody except the party machines.”

(Hannah Arendt, Crises of the Republic, 1970)

If you missed the livestream of this year’s Revitalizing Democracy Conference, you can watch the videos online HERE. My subjective (activism oriented) highlights follow.

Roger Berkowitz‘s illuminating introductory remarks traced the development of our jeopardy, beginning with the Federalist Papers, extending through de Tocqueville, and ending with Hannah Arendt. Berkowitz argued (capsule summary here) that although Arendt never spoke about sortition, she prepared the way for its resurgence by her observations that the Constitution “provided public space only for representatives of the people, and not for the people themselves” leading to lethargy and inattention among the citizenry. (Arendt, On Revolution). Much to think on

David Van Reybrouck‘s talk “Is It Too Late to Revitalize Democracy?” followed. (Short answer: maybe not.) Van Reybrouck, a Belgian cultural historian, published his argument Against Elections in 2016. He’s become an essential figure in the sortition space, deservedly so. One of his take-homes: deliberation is not about resolving conflict, it’s about managing conflict. I’m sure his remarks are carefully prepared, but his considered intellect gives his observations the appearance of being freshly derived as he speaks. The effect is you hang on every word. (This was also said of Lincoln.)

Peter MacLeod (Mass LBP) spoke on “Citizen Assemblies: Democracy’s Second Act.” MacLeod has long, deep experience convening citizens’ assemblies in Canada, making his perspective invaluable. Among his many reflections: the advancement of sortition in the U.S. will likely depend on more philanthropy.

Author/essayist Masha Gessen (Surviving Autocracy) gave a talk with the enigmatic title, “The Parallel Polis,” which traced the development of “as if” radical political thinking in Europe during the interval between the Velvet Revolution (1968) in Czechoslovakia and the Solidarity movement (1981) in Poland. Instead of confronting autocracy head on, the radicals (Vaclav Havel, Adam Michnik, Lech Wałęsa, etc.) simply acted as if the world they envisioned was already in place.

What has this to do with sortition? I’d sum it up this way: To the extent democratic lottery confronts or threatens entrenched power, the contest does not resemble an ordinary political battle, or even a political revolution. The difference is that a lottery-selected body does not have a political program. Rather it embodies the values of increased civic participation and deliberative decision making. Participants in citizen assemblies do not address themselves to political leaders or parties, but to each other. They exist at a table outside, in spite of, or simply aside from politics, where usual political structures—debate, power, conflict, authority—don’t operate. The panel creates its own authority and areas of competence as required by the issues at hand. It stands, quietly, in the new life.

Tracy Strong‘s presentation felt too fast for a review–the subject is so huge–no less than the development of the American political project. Many of his ideas are to be found in such works as A People’s History of the United States (Howard Zinn) or Harvey Wasserman’s History of the United States or the writing of Eugene Debs, etc. But the salient points Strong touched on are important to making the argument for sortition. For example, the fact that politics was not a career in the 19th century. It was only in the 20th century that we observe the rise of professional politicians. We tend to focus on the malign effect of special interest money, but it goes hand in hand with political careerism. Politicians are not experts in policy–their staffs are–politicians are experts in getting re-elected, to the peril of good policy.

As this is overlong, let me just mention two other presentations worth your attention: Helene Landemore‘s pointed remarks on the Paris Climate Assembly, and the final hour on “Local Sortition Experiments”, moderated by Van Reybrouck, who taught a class on sortition at Bard and then loosed his students on local communities.

13 Responses

  1. I was a student of Hannah Arendt’s at Northwestern University (USA) in the early 1960s. She taught in the Department of Political Science there for a semester. She never let on about her personal views about Athenian democracy and the bias of Socrates against it. She focused, instead on two different versions of “the Republic” by Socrates, a devoted enemy of Athenian democray. I am surprised to learn of this Center for Sortition in her name. She was a great person, a great woman, and a great thinker. I am glad that some lend her name to the kind of democracy I’ve been advocating in my writings and teachings for over 60 years now. Congratulations. Too bad the world is going in the directly opposite direction. Dr. Ted Becker.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Building on Ted’s scepticism on the link between Arendt and sortition:

    [Arendt] prepared the way for its resurgence by her observations that the Constitution “provided public space only for representatives of the people, and not for the people themselves” leading to lethargy and inattention among the citizenry.

    In what sense does sortition allow “the people themselves” to participate in governance? That is only true for the tiny number selected by lot, so it could lead to an increase in lethargy and inattention. A couple of years ago Carole Pateman told me that she saw no connection between deliberative and participatory democracy (the latter being her speciality). We need to be clear that sortition just follows a different model of representation, it doesn’t enable the demos to participate directly (as was the case in Classical Athens, Arendt’s political ideal). I’m also glad to hear that van Reybrouck claims that “deliberation is not about resolving conflict, it’s about managing conflict.” This is also the view of Bernard Manin, whose 1987 paper helped kickstart the modern deliberative democracy movement.


  3. Before considering the substance of the comments by the speakers, I think it is useful to consider the format itself. It seems to me that to a large extent this format is inherently anti-democratic and in particular runs against the ideas embodied in the mechanism of sortition.

    To put it bluntly, by its very conception and structure this conference is inherently elitist. The large majority of those involved must remain silent while a distinctive, unrepresentative elite – people who have amassed enough social capital to stand out – get to express themselves at length and in this way dominate – or at least disproportionately influence – current ideas.

    I find this situation a-priori offensive and it seems to me that the naturalness, the unconsciousness acquiescence, in which this situation is accepted is a major problem for any would-be democratic movement. The fact that selection of speakers by sortition has not been seriously discussed (or even fleetingly considered, as far as I know) is rather jarring for a conference which is nominally devoted to promoting democracy via sortition.


  4. Yoram:> people who have amassed enough social capital to stand out

    The capital involved is intellectual rather than social. The principal speakers will have invested heavily in reading and writing on the topic and the other participants will be eager to engage with them. This is the standard procedure for an academic conference and the fact that the topic is random selection is of no relevance. Nobody would book tickets for a rock concert where the performers were selected at random and the same applies to academic conferences.


  5. I think Yoram is being ironic. Regarding how the speakers were selected, you would have to ask Roger Berkowitz. My guess is that they tried to select a variety of people from academics to activistst to practitioners to give a “plurality” of perspectives on sortition and citizens’ assemblies.

    As for the content of the conference, I will hold my comments until the publication of Part 2, which includes my summary of most of the presentations and some commentary.


  6. I think you’re missing the point, which maybe comes better from the conference as a whole, that those advocating for the use of citizen assemblies want to see them PROLIFERATE so that on the larger scale a very large number of willing people participate on a somewhat regular basis. Arendt’s “Council System” as people interpret her remakrs in On Revolution and elswhere would be a series of overlapping jurisdictions where at the widest level anyone can participate. The implication of the Conference is that the wide spread use of sortition in assemblies and juries would in essence embody somehting like a Council System or Jefferson’s Ward System.


  7. >those advocating for the use of citizen assemblies want to see them PROLIFERATE so that on the larger scale a very large number of willing people participate on a somewhat regular basis.

    Sure, and the more people participate, the less power they have over things that actually matter. I think we need to distinguish between participation as a normative project and demokratia, whereby the people rule. And Yoram doesn’t do irony.


  8. PS Arendt admired Athens because the people ruled via participation. That’s not possible in large modern state, so we need to be clear that sortition is an alternative form of representation.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Ahmed,

    I am meant what I wrote. What I think is ironic is that elitist practices and structures are unreflexively perpetuated by a group with a supposedly democratic agenda.


  10. The suggestion to choose speakers at random is an interesting one. It parallels the problem of choosing by lot administrators who require expertise. There are two solutions I’m aware of. The first is to set requirements for expertise to participate in the lottery. The second is to create a panel by lot which can choose from applicants.


  11. Hi Wayne,

    Thanks for responding substantively and open-mindedly.

    I think however that both of your proposals are problematic. Establishing requirements for entering the allotment pool will inevitably favor those with established power – professors, journalists, famous authors, etc. In other words, we will hear again from the same people we always hear from (and the same people who in fact got to speak in the conference). Similarly, a panel would also, inevitably, favor well known names and those with establishment credentials to their names.

    If we must avoid allotment among all those who wish to speak (which still seems clearly the democratic way to go, and I am still wondering why we are so afraid of that), I would suggest convening an allotted panel and having them choose among anonymous submissions. This still gives some advantage to those who have honed their writing skills, but at least the advantage to those with established status is more indirect.


  12. >If we must avoid allotment among all those who wish to speak (which still seems clearly the democratic way to go, and I am still wondering why we are so afraid of that).

    Because you wouldn’t then get 400 participants. Academic conferences combine invited plenary speakers (to attract a decent size audience) and then use double-blind peer review for submitted panel papers. For those of us who live in the real world, the bums on seats principle trumps egalitarian dogma. You can’t abolish the principle of distinction by fiat.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. For once I agree with Keith here. If you have about 10 spots to fill (five per day) how would you ensure not just sufficient knowledge of or familiarity with the topic but also requisite diversity to make the conference interesting and wide-ranging?

    On the other hand, if the question was “what should we / might we do as a public to use sortition to refrom/complement/democratize X Y or Z?” then organizing an assembly using sortition would be the way to do it. This was an open academic conference, not for experts, but for a limited audience who are people associated with or interested in the HAC. Why it marks an important milestone for sortition is that it did reach a general educated audience in the “humanities” broadly speaking.


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