Report Back from the Hannah Arendt Center Conference on Sortition, part 2

Reporting from Bard College’s Hannah Arendt Center Annual Conference by Ahmed R. Teleb

The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard College recently hosted a two-day in-person and live webcast conference on sortition on Oct 14-15, which I attended online. Each day of the conference also included a midday break-out small group discussions in person and online. Estimated participants came to about four hundred, who, in my estimation, demonstrated enthusiasm for participatory democracy through sortition, but also a dose of critical awareness of, among other things, organizational and economic/structural difficulties with participation via sortition and in general.

I share here my impressions of the panels I attended and my most significant take-aways. This Conference marks an important step, because the Arendtian perspective on mini-publics and citizen councils has long been missing from the discussion of sortition. As it happens, this is also my area of research. From this perspective, “The meaning of politics is freedom,” as David Van Reybrouck quoted Arendt during his intervention, and not just “better” policy or results. Of course, I see these as going hand in hand. Freedom of people to actively shape the world they live in tends also to create better results from a public perspective but it is a by-product rather than the basis. As Shmuel Lederman put it, “benevolent dictatorship” and “representative government” follow the same logic that has roots in 19th century European colonialism.

P.S. The word sortition was a non-issue for the activists, practitioners, and members of the public who attended—the exception being Peter McLeod who used “civic lottery.” As a nice surprise, the three mayors/managers of the small NY towns who participated in Van Reybrouck’s class all plan to (attempt to) implement some kind of citizen assembly or citizen jury to tackle the issue that each brought to the class as one needing an innovative solution. One, whose town has exactly one traffic light, promised on the spot that she can get a PERMANENT citizens’ assembly approved by the city council and that funding the project would be a non-issue.

Opening Address by Roger Berkowitz: Revitalizing Democracy, Sortition, and Citizen Power

The American Founders, remarked Berkowitz, were “scared of democracy,” at least those identifying themselves as Federalists. He went on to quote from Federalist papers that stressed the instability of “ancient democracies” and “petty republics of Greece,” Fed # 9, 10. They emphasized the importance designing a system in which elites run the government, via an “elective system”. Moreover, they feared “factions,” and thought that an “extended republic” would be THE preventative measure against them, Fed 10, 51, since imposing a unity of will was not practical. Madison thought, we could “replace virtue with size.”

So far, well-known territory, although a bit different than the mythologized version taught in middle and high schools in the U.S. Berkowitz replied that for Arendt, factions are the very reflection of the basic human condition of plurality. He then went on to summarize Hannah Arendt’s assessment of the American system as articulated in her book On Revolution and the “Crisis of the Republic.” But Arendt did praise, for example, the “federal principle,” because its discovery, “was partly based upon an experience, upon the intimate knowledge of political bodies whose internal structure predetermined them, as it were, and conditioned its members for a constant enlargement whose principle was neither expansion nor conquest but the further combination of powers.” This kind of local-based power from the bottom up, Arendt saw as analogous to the council system or the town-hall system, one that permitted just about anyone to appear and act in public.

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