Report Back from the Hannah Arendt Center Conference on Sortition, part 3/3

Shmuel Lederman: “Representative Democracy”

Lederman’s intervention began with a theme quite familiar to this forum but one that still surprises the general public, probably due to our prevailing Whiggish and/or mythological approach to teaching political history—at least in the US.

Until the 19th century, elections were considered “an anti-democratic or aristocratic form of government.” It was assumed that winners of elections would be powerful or celebrity-like figures, Lederman underscored. The question that he attempts to answer is, “how did elections come to be associated with ‘democracy’ beginning in the early 1800s?” In an upcoming APSR [I think] article he argues that European Imperialism and Colonialism had to do with the recognition of elections as “democratic.” Lederman reasons that one cannot separate—as Western political theorists have—John Stuart Mill’s thoughts on the proper form of government for India (and other “barbarian and semi-barbarian” parts of the world)–tutelage or “enlightened despotism”–from his thoughts on “the only rational form of government” (for civilized Europeans) generally. You “cannot take out the East India Co.” from Mill’s thought and be left with something democratic, insists Lederman.

Rather, Lederman explained, there is a common thread between the “civilizing” trope in regard to the “backward” places on Earth in the 19th century and the “meritocracy” myth behind today’s electoral representative government. “Enlightened despotism” and “representative government” were and remain mutually reinforcing ideas.

Lederman underscores that there were democratic alternatives to representative government at the beginning of the 19th century (and earlier). There were, for example, among workers’ movements schemes for pyramidal council systems that would involve the population as a whole in decision making. The very fact that Mill, like the American founders and French republicans, had to make a case for representative government reflects the fact those alternatives were seen as a threat. [One might add that perhaps humans are not by nature simply willing to let others rule over them; but that might get this blog censored for being “populist.”] Evidence that the council system and freedom as self-government, the themes of Arendt’s On Revolution, were not mere aberrations in her political thinking, Lederman adds, can be found in her letters to her long-time friend and mentor Karl Jaspers. In the letter Arendt expresses her pleasure that the book earned his “approval,” because “every word you wrote strikes at the very heart of what I mean to say… Heinrich’s experience, of councils, to the experience of America.”

[NB: Heinrich Bluecher, Arendt’s husband, had extensive early experiences with radical grassroots political organizations (Spartacists and anti-Stalinist Communists among them) and worker’s councils in Germany before he fled the Nazi regime.] In his letter, Jasper called Greece Arendt’s spiritual “homeland” and found that this was evident in this book, taken together with her earlier writings, which makes the case for citizen councils as away to provide a genuine space for politics and collective action. [We can probably conclude that Jaspers was referring to the Athenian Assembly or Boule.]

Provocatively, Lederman summarized the inherent problem with “representative government”: “Representative government is not ‘in crisis’; it is the crisis. Representative government disappears us.” In response to a question from the moderator Yasemin Sari, whether councils as Arendt imagined could “normalize plurality,” Lederman suggested that one could go further. “It is not that there is no [pre-political] ‘we’; she would say ‘there is no I’,” because we are not masters of our own destiny but we shape that destiny in relation to and in concert with others.

Commentary: In a sense today’s taken-for-granted “benevolent” anti-democracy of the American mainstream (but even outside of the US) goes even further than Mill. The self-evident political agoraphobia dominating political science and regulating the common-sense of the professional managerial class, can best be described as an enlightened, woke, censorship-loving, “meritocratic” despotism—enlightened in the art of deciding who are the worthy victims and who the unworthy “deplorables.” The dominant logic within political “science” departments and beloved by the media is that the sheer number of “deplorables” necessarily implies that actual democracy, letting ordinary people determine their own fate, must be avoided. For them, and the American “center,” Trump proved the point of “woke” anti-democrats and enlightened elites that national and social media must be censored and that people must be PREVENTED from choosing their own leaders — via greater party control over candidates — let alone deciding policy. Just read any “respectable” media take on Trump/Brexit/AfD/Urban. The “good people” cannot believe that the “rabble” could think on their own and choose a path divergent from that constantly exhorted by their betters and respectable media. Or they are only too happy to use these as justification for censorship and more top-down control over political institutions.

Peter McLeod: “Citizen Assemblies: Democracy’s Second Act” – Citizens Are a Resource Not a Risk [Mass LBP in Canada]

Since 2007 more than 42 different Reference Panels and Citizens’ Assemblies have taken place in Canada, mostly at the local level, began McLeod. To date, one in thirty-eight Canadian households has received an invitation to a long-term deliberative process. For this reason, he agrees that, as a recent OECD report put it, we are truly in the midst of a “deliberative wave.”

With this growth of experience, he believes they are reaching a stage of “standardization” in Canada given all the data points and lessons learned. The attraction of critics, then, should be taken as a sign of success.

McLeod went on to make a typology of deliberative processes: Constitutional, Parliamentary, and Regulatory. He sees the bulk of the growth in Canada in the last type, citizen panels in the space of the “regulatory state,” replacing or supplementing what would typically be the work of an executive agency. He implied that we should not disparage these “less sexy” forms because they give ordinary people opportunities to genuinely deliberate and make concrete decisions affecting their communities. In the fever over “polarization” and Trump, McLeod predicts a surge of American philanthropic dollars towards citizens’ assemblies and panels at the State and municipal levels.

McLeod mentioned that some countries are using technology to simplify invitations to citizen engagements. For example, in Norway and Denmark text messaging has recently been used to invite citizens to take part in sortition-based panels, dramatically reducing organizational costs and set up time. During a round of questions at the end of his talk, McLeod underscored that such an approach works only where citizens trust the security of the national network infrastructure enough to take SMS messages from authorities seriously. Such an approach would not work in countries where SPAM and phishing attacks happened over SMS.

In summary, McLeod ended on a positive note that he claims comes from the nearly two decades of organizing these citizen engagements. “We have been asking far too little of people.” Using John Dewey’s definition, a public is simply “a group of people who recognize a problem effecting them” and then try to solve it, continued McLeod. In his estimation, “We disparage the public far too much… [when in fact] the vast majority of people are decent, pro-social, and civic minded.

His message was: “Citizens are a resource not a risk.”

Commentary: My take away / interpretation of McLeod’s intervention, “citizens are a resource not a risk,” captures it all but not as a statement of fact. It seems to me that this suggested attitude towards citizens follows from one’s attitude towards democracy. If “the only rational form of government” is electoral representative government, then citizens are per se a threat to be pacified or restrained by their betters. Unfortunately, I do not see a way out of this in the United States at the moment, where citizens are overwhelmingly considered a threat by their “betters” in the professional managerial class and by the party duopoly that claims to “represent” them. As for McLeod’s prediction that a wave of philanthropic dollars is about to fuel a surge in deliberative processes in the US, this should be cause for reflection rather than cheerleading. Beyond the recent scandals at “philanthropies” like the Gates and Walton Family Foundations — caught using their resources to further the economic interests and pet ideologies of their founders — one might wonder whether a flood of money would indeed be an unadulterated good or whether “philanthropy” might not de-legitimize the reputation of an otherwise empowering mechanism of citizen participation. Philanthropy-lead (rather than financed) interventions are apt to frame the issues at stake along their favorite ideology, along existing partisan lines, existing agoraphobic mythology, or even all three. A recent attempt, “America Talks Infrastructure,” illustrated exactly how not to do citizens’ assemblies, an “assembly” conducted via online self selection which forced participants to self-identify within one of only TWO possibilities. It uncritically took for granted the partisan framing in Congress and reproduced by the media. In summary, McLeod may be painting too rosy a picture of citizens’ deliberation to come, at least in the American context. On the other hand, if efforts come from local and grass roots initiatives—and not philanthropy or party politics—then there is some hope that citizens could begin to be considered “resources” or even full-fledged human adults, as they also begin to see each other that way, rather than adopt the framework of their “betters” who prefer to make one group view the other as an existential threat at worst, as a sack of “deplorables” at best.

Day 2

Helene Landemore: Open Democracy: the Case of the French Climate Assembly

Landemore summarized the organization, workings, and the aftermath of the French Citizens Climate Assembly (Convention Citoyenne pour le Climat) that she already discusses extensively in her recent book. As her book has been discussed in detail over several posts, I will not get into it here.

What is new is that to date, less than 15% of the proposals from the French CCC has been implemented by the government, although President Macron had promised the Citizens’ Assembly to fully support its recommendations “without filter.” Landemore said that part of the issue is that Macron did not have the full backing of the elected Assemblee Nationale; so in a sense he was delegating a power he did not have to the citizens’ assembly. Landemore praised the CCC as a “test case” proving that ordinary citizens can write proposals concrete enough to be immediately translated into law or official policy. She sees it as virtually unique in this aspect. Rather than giving broad recommendations that could then be interpreted in various ways by elected law makers, the CCC’s 149 proposals published in June, 2020 were specific, targeted and in response to a concrete question, “how to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in France by 40% from 1990 level by the year 2030.”

In Landemore’s estimation, citizens showed a more than moderate amount of independence from the expert witnesses. While there seemed to be a push from the experts for a CO2 tax, citizens rejected it by a wide margin. They also rejected experts’ implicit push for “Maastricht rule” on the budget, the creation of a “council of experts” to implement their recommendations, and a few other suggestions that seemed to be expert preferences.

Nontransparent, and problematic in Landemore’s view, was the so-called “Governing Council” of the citizens’ assembly whose meetings were not open to citizens or researchers. After some protest from the citizens’ themselves, two randomly selected citizen participants were added. In response to a question regarding the possibility of a conflict of interests between organizers of citizens’ assemblies and democracy, Landemore replied that there could very well be. Organizers of these engagements have a “client” who pays them, in this case the French government, who want to see a “product” delivered. It could very well be that the genuinely democratic answer cannot be “produced” within the time or the framework given. [This is another reason, we could surmise, transparency at all phases of the process from commission to conclusion is important.]

Responding to a [in my view wrong-headed and meaningless] question on whether citizens by the end of a deliberative process are no longer “representative” of the public, Landemore mentioned something that I would call a reflection of “generalized demophobia” or “generalized political agoraphobia.” Landemore qualified as a “sad moment” and a reflection of “fear of fellow citizens,” the CCC’s decision to only put one of their recommendations to a national referendum—the one calling for a constitutional change. She partly blamed the organizers / Governing Council who INTENTIONALLY withheld information regarding polling results on the various recommendations under consideration. For example. the Citizens’ Assembly was under the impression that their recommendation to upgrade housing standards to reduce CO2 emission would be unpopular; but organizers knew that that policy actually enjoyed overwhelming support with the public at 74%.

There were a few more exchanges with the moderator and Landemore regarding the details of the CCC deliberations that were not particularly interesting or revealing. But one that stood out as a CRUCIAL question concerned the balance of the expert testimony. There was an enormous disparity between the speaking and discussion time allotted to grass roots NGOs and politicians. For example, an NGO that favored “de-growth” was given five minutes to make its case, while a politician was given fifty. The ten fold difference between time given to experts favored by the organizer or client and experts considered radical or fringe cannot be thought inconsequential. Another are where “experts” may have affected the outcome was on the decision regarding referenda. Sometimes when a suggestion came from a citizen a legal or political expert would answer, “that has no precedence in France.” In this case, a citizen suggested that a referendum with multiple questions be put on the ballot, and the “no precedent” answer shut down the discussion prematurely. Perhaps the highlight of Landemore’s intervention was her response to Eva Rover’s question on whether “collective intelligence” was not used to its fullest extent. Landemore replied that required perfection from citizens’ assemblies but NOT requiring perfection from elected parliaments reflects prejudice not reason.

“Why are we forbidding citizens from [possibly] making mistakes, when we tolerate CONSTANT mistakes from politicians?” As evidence that CCC participants deliberated, and not just voted, was the fact that while at the beginning a small majority was for a CO2 tax, they became against it once they spoke to their fellow participants who were against it. This could also reflect degree of preferences. Through discussion degrees of preference or conviction—luke-warm versus strong leanings—are revealed, affecting the collective decision. David Van Reybrouck made a comment as a member of the audience. “Citizens’ assemblies are not about realizing heaven on earth; they are about avoiding hell.” [A comment he has made in previous talks that I think captures the same sentiment as the double standard that reformers are often met with. Every possible imperfection of a new practice is cited by those benefiting from the status quo; but the same standard is not applied to current electoral practices.] Van Reybrouck also suggested that “preferenda” which give citizens a choice between a variety of alternatives may be the better alternative to referenda that by definition offer only a binary choice.

Landemore agreed, that when a “referendum” poses multiple questions at the same time or multiple alternatives, it will also be seen less as a “plebiscitary” motion on the current government and more of a genuine policy choice. In response to a question regarding what pushed the government to hold the CCC, Landemore said that a combination of the Yellow Vest protests, the success (from the point of view of the government) of the Grand Debat, and the presence of activists and practitioners made the CCC possible. She pointed to the fact that David Van Reybrouck had met Macron before the CCC and given him a copy of his book.

Mayor Kamal Johnson, Supervisor Robert McKeon, and Supervisor Darrah Cloud:

[Future] Local Sortition Experiments [in New York] with David Van Reybrouck and Bard students enrolled in his course “Beyond Elections: Revitalizing Democracy through Citizens’ Assemblies”

David Van Reybrouck started this segment with another “sortition in the news” announcement. In a joint statement outlining the framework around which the so-called “traffic light coalition” in Germany—the most likely ruling coalition after the elections at the end of September, consisting of the Social Democrats, Greens, and [libertarian-conservative] Free Democrats– citizen participation via mini-publics (Buergerraete) was included as a key component of political reform. [I confirm that this is indeed the case, although I caution that the final coalition agreement is still a few weeks away, and that even then, the agreement may not reflect what the Parliament will implement over the course of the following four years.]

Van Reybrouck taught a four-week, seminar to a restricted number of undergraduates at Bard College, “Beyond Elections: Revitalizing Democracy through Citizens’ Assemblies,” that brought together students and mayors/town supervisors from three nearby towns in upstate New York. The exercise was for the students to work in teams to first listen to what these town executives described as the problem or challenge facing their individual communities and then to design a process involving residents to help solve the problem or overcome the challenge. First, each local executive talked about their community and the issue they would like help with. Then, each student team presented a solution they had elaborated over the course of the seminar. Lastly, each major/supervisor responded to the student proposals. All three had attended at least one or several seminar sessions with Van Reybrouck and his students. Mayor Kamal Johnson named Hudson’s community-police issues. Johnson, elected in 2019, is the youngest, and first African American, mayor of the town. He emphasized that he is not the typical mayor of a small town, being a former activist and only one of four children in his family not to spend some time in prison. The issue revolves around mistrust between residents, especially Black residents, and police officers, most of whom are white males who do not live in the community.

Robert McKeon has been Supervisor of Red Hoo, which includes the campus of Bard College, for some time. He said the town faces the challenge of an increasing number of newcomers (mostly from the City) that is raising prices and threatening to change the character of the area. Residents do not want a rapid influx of residents and money to turn the town into a suburb that looks and feels like any other. Darriah Cloud a playwright, actress, and activist before becoming supervisor of Pine Plains. The tiny town has one spotlight and, to date, no sewer system. The issue she faces is getting “main street” residents and others on board with building a costly sewer system that is necessary to bring expanding local businesses to state code. The number of directly affected buildings is only thirty two but the size of the town means that the cost per resident will be significant.

To all three students recommended citizens’ assemblies or panels fully or partly selected by lot. To Hudson, students recommended dialogue sessions between residents and police officers in small groups, in addition to the community review board that the Mayor had been contemplating. These dialogues should take place over several months and join about one officer per group of five or six residents. For Red Hook, a citizens’ assembly over several months would involve residents old and new in envisioning futures for the town. For Pine Plains, students recommended a citizens’ assembly to include all 32 downtown buildings plus a random selection of others, since the 32 would be most immediately and directly affected by the proposed change. Darrah Cloud, Pine Plain’s supervisor, said that rather than just being an exercise over a few weekends, she thinks that the town could use a PERMANENT citizens’ assembly that meets monthly with participants selected by lot.

Van Reybrouck ended the session with the announcement that after East Belgium and Paris, the town of Pine Plains, NY could very well be the third jurisdiction in modern times to institute a permanent sortition-based assembly.

42 Responses

  1. Ahmed,

    Irrespective of whether they called it a republic or a democracy, the founding voters preferred the Federalist vision to the little platoons of their opponents. This was on account of geographical and commercial considerations, rather than Madison’s misunderstanding of Athenian democracy. As for Mill’s influence, the die was cast at the time of the foundation, well before America had an empire to worry about. Political theorists exaggerate the influence of their peers and predecessors — far more Americans were familiar with the writings of John Calvin than John Locke.

    Interesting that you castigate the benign dictatorship of the political class in favour of the populist alternative. If so it would be interesting to see how that might cash out over issues like climate change (rather than the positioning of traffic lights). My hunch is that a sortitionist America would be a long way to the right of the current incumbents. Yet many sortition initiatives — e.g. the French CCC and the UK Brexit CA — were establishment attempts to neutralise the influence of the basket of deplorables, so it is essential to ensure that any future initiatives truly represent the views of their target population (unenlightened despotism, in your parlance).


  2. What was the objective of the conference? What have we – the public – gained from it?

    If the objective goes beyond a theoretical inquiry into sortition, elections and the history of governance in the West, if it is also about the promotion of sortition as a tool for democracy, then did the conference serve this purpose well? Has sortition been promoted, or are we now in a better position to promote it? Or have we heard from the luminaries and now we, and they, are going back to doing whatever it was we were doing before?

    It seems to me that if promotion was an objective, then a discussion was missing about how can sortition as a tool of democracy best be promoted – what specific, practical steps can people be engaged in in order to advance the adoption (or at least the serious consideration) of sortition as a democratic mechanism for selecting political decision makers. I think such a discussion – hopefully with some derived action items for the audience as well as for the panel – would have been more useful than yet another iteration of “lessons learned from the CCC”, for example.


  3. *** Keith Sutherland includes the French CCC among “establishment attempts to neutralise the influence of the basket of deplorables”.
    *** That analysis is too simple.
    Yes the anti-populist use of allotted bodies is present in creative polyarchic minds, as Rosanvallon, who approved the CCC idea. See Rosanvallon’s article « A Reflection on Populism ». The summary says « As a counterbalance to the simplistic temptations of the populism that is currently spreading within European democracies, Pierre Rosanvallon invites us to complicate our notion of democracy and make it polyphonic, because the people do not all speak with one voice. »
    But we cannot think the same about Helene Landemore, who (, 10 février 2020) dared to see in the CCC the forerunning of a “new form of democracy”, of the “lottocratic” kind.
    Priscillia Ludovsky, one of the main speakers of the Yellow Vests, and who actually by her petition was the sparkle initiating the movement, was a strong supporter of the CCC and of sortition.
    As for president Macron, I think it was mostly a way to get out of a very difficult political situation, using an idea alive in the French intellectual debate.
    *** Actually, if a true dêmokratia (ortho-democracy) appears in 21st century it will be probably the result of a converging of this kind.
    *** The birth of the Athenian democracy was probably the result of the converging of various factors : the fear in the elite of a populist tyranny (of the Pisistratic kind), ideas of some advanced intellectuals (the Cleisthenes reforms aiming to melt the civic community are a peak of social engineering by a rationalist intellectual), popular pushes towards civic equality and collective sovereignty, linked to the economic and cultural evolution of the Athenian society, feuds between the elite noble families… As most other revolutions or political mutations, it was multifactorial.

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  4. Yoram,
    You asked what the “purpose” of the conference was. It was simply an academic sharing by some advocates of sortition and many who had no knowledge of sortition, and others who knew about sortition in were not fans of it – all touching various concepts in some way related to the theme of how democracy might be “revitalized.” It seems that a few years ago some supporters of sortition managed to shoehorn the topic into the existing Hannah Arendt organization, though Arendt seems to have had no knowledge or interest in sortition. She was a big advocate of the pyramiding of elected councils (which are still based in the principle of distinction). In short… it was just an academic get-together to broaden connections and awareness among a set of academics (and a few others).


  5. Dear Sortinistas/Kleroterians, why are we not celebrating that Paris just instituted a permenent citizens’ assemly of 100 randomly selected citizens to serve 1 year terms? Why are we not celebrating that three small towns in upstate New York are either considering using citizen assemblies/panels/juries or about to implement them? Why are we not celebrating that a grass roots racial and economic justice organization in Mississippi came to the conlusion that a only a citizen jury selected by lot would be able to serve as a genuine review board of city and police behavior?


  6. Terry, did you attend most of the session? Would you share your impressions or highlights?


  7. @ Keith, “the founding voters?” Who was allowed to vote at the time Keith? Do you think those excluded accept their second class or even enslaved class status happily?
    In so far as we can talk about the founders, we can only evaluate THEIR arguments not presume that their getting their way meant that those arguments were in any way persusavie to those they excluded, disenfranchises, or dehumanized.


  8. I’m not an expert on US constitutional history, so I don’t know by what margin the Federalists prevailed. I believe that the southern (agrarian) states were more attracted to the Antifederalist alternative — the big landowners preferred the small platoons to the federal model but acknowledged the difficulty of scaling it up on the continental level. As to the extent of the franchise this would have varied from state to state, but to dismiss the result because the franchise did not comply with modern norms is as anachronistic as dismissing the Athenian demokratia because of its exclusion of slaves and women. BTW, Helene Landemore’s first paper on descriptive representation was on the federalist/antifederalist debate — I think we discussed it on this forum around 10 years ago.

    >why are we not celebrating that Paris just instituted a permanent citizens’ assembly of 100 randomly selected citizens to serve 1 year terms?

    Because it breaches the descriptive representation principle on at least three counts. Would you have a permanent jury try all criminal cases? It sounds more like the Committee of Public Safety.


  9. You made the point about voters not me. It’s irrelevant


  10. Terry,

    > simply an academic sharing by some advocates of sortition

    That does not seem to fit the facts. If this were really just an academic event, then why were quite a few of the speakers non-academics? And why was there a workshop involving politicians? Why were applications of sortition being celebrated during the conference?


  11. > why are we not celebrating

    I am not sure that celebration is in order. Low-powered, elite-managed applications of sortition have been around by the hundreds for years. It is not clear that this is leading us to a more democratic future.


  12. Ahmed,

    I attended around 60% of the presentations. the talks by sortition advocates (such as David Van Reybrouck, Helene Landmore) were good, and perhaps some Bard College students were introduced to a new approach to democracy, but other presenters were unaware of sortition and seemed to be invited for inclusiveness, so that the event as a whole was not my cup of tea.


  13. Who do you think was off topic? Strong and Gassen?

    What did you think of Lederman’s critique of rep gov? Or of Akuno’s talk?



  14. The assembly is meant to set the agenda like the Ostbelgien model. I have no idea what you are talking about.



  15. Thanks for brining some fact-based discussion here. Multifaceted as is the reason behind the FR CCC and the new Assemblee Citoyenne;. not simple “elite capture” or a progressive ideology of some political actors, but some combination of pressure with political opportunism, and actually some few leaders thinking that bringing people in would actually be consistent with some democratic ideals that drive them.



  16. Ahmed,

    As you know, I’m not persuaded of the democratic legitimacy of randomly-selected agenda setting assemblies (for reasons that we have discussed at length on this forum).


  17. The object was just to make an otherwise “obscure” idea more familiar. That it achieved.

    There were “break out sessions” in person and via zoom on both days. I can only say that on day 2, the online session was too short and unorganised to do anything like discuss the use of sortition as a democratic tool generally. There was however NETWORKING between people working on different projects related to making citizen assemblies or juries happen in the US



  18. Ahmed,

    I’m sorry to be such a party pooper, glass-half-full sort of guy, but what worries me is if sortition is being promoted for things that it is fundamentally unsuited for then it will lose credibility in the long run.


  19. @Keith, care to be more specific, about “unsuited?” Let me guess, given what you’ve previously argued.
    “Anything other than mere deciding (disposition), WITHOUT deliberation would be a waste of time for a citizen jury/assembly. Citizens are suited to coming up with solutions, nor are they capable of actualy deliberaiton.”
    Does that sum it up?

    Even if we were to agree that disposition by citizen juries would be an ideal, it does not follow that alotted assemblies create a political space for political learning, discussion, and elaboration even of one’s own views–a space that is OTHERWISE ABSENT in our mass electoral societies.


  20. *citizens are NOT suited for coming up…


  21. It’s nothing to do with the suitability or capability of “citizens”, it’s to do with Dahl’s requirement that the demos should have complete control of the agenda setting process. In large demoi this requires statistical representation, and the law of large numbers does not apply to the speech acts of small groups, however they are selected. My objection is on account of democratic, rather than epistemic considerations. Whilst it’s true that deliberative groups offer learning opportunities for their members, this has no bearing on democratic representation, so it’s something that should be reserved for civil society. Alex has outlined a democratic alternative for agenda setting (The Superminority Principle) in his posts on this blog.


  22. Popular control of agenda setting is, of course, fundamental to democracy. The number of useful and reasonable agenda items (setting aside the silly ones) approaches infinity. While it is certainly possible to allow ANY citizen to propose an agenda item, it is necessary to have a means of winnowing them down to a manageable number for the coming period of time. This can be done by a relatively homogeneous political class, using electoral partisanship and vilification steeped in confirmation bias and tribalism (Keith’s plan). Alternatively, this can be done both more democratically and in an epistemically superior manner by repeatedly pulling together randomly selected diverse assemblies of roughly (though never perfectly) representative bodies of citizens, that can consult experts, engage in deliberation and even seek win-win solutions (which is anathema to politicians). There is no such thing as one absolutely CORRECT democratic agenda… only a vast set of reasonable democratic agendas, and also a huge array of of categorically UNdemocratic elite agendas. Sortition can deliver the former and any system based in elections delivers the latter.


  23. >electoral partisanship and vilification steeped in confirmation bias and tribalism (Keith’s plan)

    It’s interesting that a committed deliberative democrat like Bernard Manin is now embracing this agonistic approach. According to the Argumentative Theory of Reasoning (which was brought to my attention by Helene Landemore), confirmation bias is a cognitive asset for proposal makers. Whilst we might enjoy the conceit that we have moved beyond tribalism, evolutionary psychology would suggest otherwise.

    >a huge array of of categorically UNdemocratic elite agendas

    If the array is large enough, and the popular chamber has the casting vote, then the successful proposal will be the one that best fits popular preferences. That is the democratic route, not pandering to the whims of a tiny aleatory oligarchy.


  24. Keith’s description of numerous diverse, and roughly representative randomly selected mini-publics as “a tiny aleatory oligarchy,” seems to be intentionally mischaracterizing the concept. An elected political class that has duration may be described as oligarchic (indeed HAS been described that way by political theorists for over two thousand years). But rotation of ordinary citizens in roughly representative mini-publics for setting agendas with no likelihood of serving a second term is (and has been described by political theorists for over two thousand years as being) democratic. To overcome rational ignorance and allow informed decision making in the interests of the general population it is necessary to have smaller subsets of the population focusing on the matters at hand, Whether this subset is elected or randomly selected, it will be “tiny” in comparison to the whole population. These subsets can be elected and oligarchic, or selected by lot and democratic.

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  25. Terry,

    My hyperbole was a response to your own ” electoral partisanship and vilification steeped in confirmation bias and tribalism”. You have acknowledged that the citizens likely to serve on your minipublics are anything other than average. The current rate of acceptance from the initial sortition is around 3% — not that far removed from David Graeber’s definition of an elite (1%). The only justification for your claim that an aleatory oligarchy is democratic is a remark by Aristotle that referred to the political life of a tiny homogeneous polis 2,500 years ago. Constant pointed out the distinction between ancient and modern liberty, and democracy in the latter case requires robust principles of representation, rather than anachronistic throwbacks. We both agree that the verdict of large quasi-mandatory juries is a robust form of representation, all we disagree on is how best to set the agenda — Alex and I opting for a procedure (the Superminority Principle) that is democratic in a large modern state.


  26. *** Keith says: “The current rate of acceptance from the initial sortition is around 3% — not that far removed from David Graeber’s definition of an elite (1%).” We must consider the case of the Convention Citoyenne pour le Climat : the initial acceptance was around 1/3.
    *** That said, I wholly agree that mandatory mini-populus service is necessary, if only given the leaning in the lower classes of contemporary societies toward self-disempowerment. And it is possible, given telecommunication (it was not possible for peasants of Marathon countryside, 40 km far from the Town, when at a peak of agricultural work, or for sailors on a ship in the Aegean sea).

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  27. *** Keith Sutherland answers to Terry Bouricius that his “claim that an aleatory oligarchy is democratic is a remark by Aristotle that referred to the political life of a tiny homogeneous polis 2,500 years ago”. This short sentence includes many debatable points.
    *** Speaking of “aleatory oligarchy” for a citizen jury of whatever size is confusing. I think that even a sound argument would give a flawed discourse with such bad lexicon.
    *** Aristotle’s discourse on the democratic character of citizen allotted bodies is not a specific idea of this (anti-democrat) philosopher. It was the common democratic discourse, as can be seen in Euripides’ Suppliant Women or in the orators speeches, both directed to ordinary citizens (and already in Herodotus).
    *** Greek Cities were ”tiny” compared to modern Nation-States. OK. But Keith forgets the telecommunication technology which cancels this difference. The debate about COVID in France is as strong as could be a political debate in an ancient City, even if made through TV and Internet.The ‘communication size” of contemporary France is nearer of Athens’ size that of Benjamin Constant’s France size ; actually it is smaller than Athens’ size.
    *** Dahl included the use of telecommunication when proposing the mini-populus idea.
    *** Greek Cities were “homogeneous”, believes Keith. Which kind of homogeneity he is thinking about ? And which degree he is supposing? “Melting” – using Aristotle’s word, anameixai (Const. Ath., XXI, 2) – was the target of Cleisthenes (or parallel statesmen) democratic social engineering; maybe it was more difficult in colonial Cities with different ethnic stocks.

    Liked by 1 person

  28. Andre,

    I agree that the CCC seems to have been the exception to the rule, and would be intrigued to learn how the original sortition pool was constituted. The 3% figure appears to be more common (according to the Sortition Foundation) and (e.g.) the British Columbia citizens assembly.

    I agree that citizen juries were democratic in Athens, but most citizens served at least once on the Council and the 6,000 strong jury pool was a substantial proportion of the citizen body. No large modern state could get anywhere near these numbers. I can see the value of TV and internet for mass participation in a direct democracy, but what is its relevance for the sort of small voluntary allotted panels that Terry is advocating? The issue is not one of convenience/accessibility it is the (peculiar?) kind of citizens who want to commit to this sort of thing, and the variance in the perlocutionary force of their speech acts (or lack of them).

    For a study of the homogeneity of Athenian culture I recommend Moshe Berent,‘The Greek Invention of Politics’, History of Political
    , XIX, No. 3, pp. 331-362. Jeff Miller’s forthcoming book Democracy in Crisis: Lessons from Ancient Athens also emphasises the vast cultural gap between classical republican and modern liberal thought.


  29. The city of Euge Oregon held a lot-based 6 month-long online Panel on Affordable Housing to implement a new state mandate on promoting affordable housing via municipal efforts. They had a much higher rate of acceptance (29 citizen panelists) than you mentioned. I will look for the figure.


  30. OK, and we also need to know the size of the pool and stratification details.


  31. The rate of participation (uptake) is much more complicated than this discussion suggests.

    First off, however, recent experience with rates of uptake is not instructive at all. Participation will certainly depend on, whether the panel will have real power, or merely be advisory; whether there are adequate pay and support (child care, etc.), vs. token stipends; whether there is significant honor and pride of service; whether civic education when young stressed the importance of this democratic function, or if nobody has ever even heard of such mini-publics; etc., etc. We have no idea what rate of uptake would exist in a mature sortition democracy.

    But there is a deeper analysis needed. When a city holds a municipal election and there is 15% voter turnout or “uptake” (and it is often much lower in the U.S.), it is accepted as “legitimate,” “representative,” and “democratic” by everybody but us sortitionists. As long as there were no barriers that created systematic bias about what sort of people could vote, and the vote count is transparent and observed, it doesn’t seem to matter in terms of public acceptance regardless of the rate of voter “uptake” (voter participation).

    If there is a lottery and there are no barriers to service, Isn’t it representative even if people choose to decline? Aren’t those who decline accurately representing *by refraining) other people like them in the population who would ALSO decline if called? Democracy CANNOT mean that ALL people participate in ALL decisions. In some sense democracy has to be of those willing to play the game. If some sorts of people refrain (and the sample that is called matches the population, including citizens who would decline if called), is this democratic? The danger is if certain sorts of people are enculturated to refrain (disempowered minorities, women, less educated, et. al.). This last concern is why I favor quasi-mandatory service for final decision juries within our existing unequal societies, though not for various preparatory mini-publics.

    Liked by 1 person

  32. Well said. Why demand perfect participation rates from Sortition processes that we don’t demand of the electoral process? This goes to aspects beyond response rate. Why demand perfect outcomes from citizens that we don’t demand from elected politicians? If a lot-based process is better many respects, why demand it be perfect? The answer is status quo bias, or election fetishism: believing there is some magical or spiritual powers in the ballot box.

    ~ A


  33. Ahmed Teleb asks :
    “Why demand perfect participation rates from Sortition processes that we don’t demand of the electoral process?”. Some answers.
    *** Low participation in electoral events may come from self-disempowerment of some sectors, especially the lower classes. Not a problem for polyarchy, especially when this system is more or less discarding the democracy myth. A problem for true democracy – what I name ortho-democracy.
    *** True democracy will be a new system, without historical legitimacy, and therefore needs very strong theoretical legitimacy. The minipopulus must mirror the civic body.
    *** If participation is much lower in a minipopulus than in a referendum about the same subject, the results will be strongly different. It will be easy to claim that the difference does not come from better information of minipopulus, but of some tricks in the debate (biased information for instance).
    *** If participation is not mandatory, it will be different between different mini-publics about more or less salient issues. Some groups will be more represented in some mini-publics. The different mini-publics will have different political sensitivities, and it will be more difficult to get coherent policies.
    *** To vote in polyarchy is a light task. To be allotted in (ortho-)democracy would give much heavier task, and it is fair that all citizens get equal share of the work. Rousseau wrote something like that, and it is said that it was the historical reason the English criminal jurors were allotted instead of being chosen by the sheriff.


  34. Have you been to a jury selection? The combination of lawyer strategy to influence jury composition and juror tricks to AVOID duty mean that a jury is in all likelihood no less perfectly representative as a citizen panel by lot.


  35. Building on Andre’s points, comparing participation in elections with allotment take-up is apples and pears. In a direct or elective democracy every citizen is invited to participate, whereas the franchise in an allotted democracy is limited to the tiny number who are invited to participate. An aleatory democracy disenfranchises the overwhelming majority of citizens.

    Added to this there is every reason to believe that voluntarism is a politically-significant population parameter. If Twitter is anything to go by, the tiny number of people who choose to get involved in politico-cultural debates are entirely unrepresentative of the overall citizen body. So Terry’s claim that his long-term review panels are “roughly representative” is unproven. Echoing Andre, the only way for such bodies to be representative is if the policy outcome is coherent between different samples.

    >True democracy will be a new system, without historical legitimacy, and therefore needs very strong theoretical legitimacy. The minipopulus must mirror the civic body.

    And not just in theory. The mirroring hypothesis needs to be empirically tested — stratification to produce an approximate representation will not suffice.


  36. Ahmed,

    The role of trial and legislative juries is completely different — the former being charged with discovering the facts of the matter and the latter with reflecting the informed preferences of the target population. There is no way that twelve jurors can mirror the target population, so the principal criterion is that the selection process is impartial. And we want to make sure that the shenanigans of the law courts do not take place with legislative juries, hence the need for quasi-mandatory participation.


  37. I am almost always persuaded by André… and am here again… mostly.

    One point I think is in error is the notion that “If participation is not mandatory, it will be different between different mini-publics…” There is no reason to suppose so. If the sampling method is the same, then each mini-public will have the same mix of sorts of people.

    There are still two concerns, however.
    1. Each and every non-mandatory parallel mini-public, even if matching each other, may be different than a fully mandatory mini-public. So is democracy self rule by those citizens willing to rule, or is it legitimate to FORCE unwilling citizens to participate?
    2. Keith’s oft-repeated concern that “speech acts” in a defined group will vary between groups so cannot be deemed “representative.” I agree with this only in so far as final yes/no decisions of a final jury. Final decisions should be based on hearing pro and con arguments with only clarifying questions allowed… so that ANY well-drawn jury would be very likely to take the same final action.

    But when it comes to developing agendas, crafting proposals, refining and amending proposals, sharing information and arguments, discussion is essential, and there is no need for each parallel random group to behave exactly the same. We only need to know that assemblies (or parallel assemblies) are free from outside manipulation or control… knowing that there are countless acceptable democratic proposals that might be generated for a final (mandatory) jury to vote on.


  38. Terry,

    Sorry to keep playing the Dahl card, but he does insist that demos has complete control of the proposal, as well as the decision, process. I’m afraid that agenda setting by small self-selecting samples of citizens does not fulfil this criterion. Considerable deliberation takes place within political parties and, given the Superminority Principle, the parties will be motivated to appeal to the informed beliefs and preferences of the average citizen (win-win in your parlance). And the system has epistemic merit because, over time, parties will be punished for making proposals that were unworkable in practice.

    As there is so much that we all agree on it’s a shame we keep falling out. But I think this will be the case while you continue to insist that sortition does all the work. The nice thing about Jeff Miller’s new book (and he is a man of the left) is that he claims there are many things that we can adopt from Athenian practice as well as sortition.

    >is it legitimate to FORCE unwilling citizens to participate?

    Yes it is (or at least to strongly encourage), so long as this is for only short-term decision juries. The nomothetai sessions only lasted one day, though a modern legislative trial might take a little longer. But if citizens are not obliged to participate it will no longer be a representative sample. Jeff points out that one of the problems of modern liberal states is the focus on rights, rather than duties.


  39. > *** If participation is not mandatory, it will be different between different mini-publics about more or less salient issues. Some groups will be more represented in some mini-publics. The different mini-publics will have different political sensitivities, and it will be more difficult to get coherent policies.

    To the extent non-participation is truly indicative of informed indifference, then it is not a problem. Such indifference may stem from confidence in others and in the system as a whole.

    That said, high levels of refusal to participate in allotted bodies could very well be an indication that the design of the sortition-based system is flawed. Obviously it could indicate that there are barriers for participation. It could also indicate that the bodies are widely viewed as being powerless and no more than political theater.

    In any case, when seats in allotted chambers are refused, they should remain vacant – giving a clear indication that a refusal occurred – rather than be papered over by employing substitutes. If 10% of the seats are vacant this may still appear acceptable, but if 90% of the seats are vacant, then the mere sight of the nearly empty chamber should provide a warning that something very wrong is going on.


  40. *** Keith Sutherland writes (16 November) about the homogeneity of the Athenian culture. Not all elite Athenians thought like that. See the Old Oligarch (pseudo-Xenophon) and his contempt of low classes
    lacking education and culture. And we may think the culture gap underlies the strong words of Aristotle (Politics, III, 11,5 ; 1281b19-20): “what difference is there, practically, between some multitudes and animals?”- not a strong sense of homogeneity.
    *** In Athens only the moneyed classes could give their sons a school education higher than elementary (Plato, Protagoras, 326c). The intellectual life described by Plato was only for leisured people.
    *** If there was some homogeneity, it was the result of the democratic institutions. The intellectual debates were brought to the theater – a communitarian institution. The orator speeches included intellectual points – specially maybe when there were trials about laws indicted as contrary to basic values.
    *** Keith mentions Moshe Berent’s article “Stasis, or the Greek Invention of politics” , where Berent writes “the horizontal lines of cultural cleavage between the high culture of the ruling classes and the low culture of the mass producers, which characterized the agro-literate polity, were absent in Greek society.” Excessive wording, but Berent could write such things because he was comparing the classical Greek City to “agro-literate” societies as the casted India or the feudal West, with very literate clerics, illiterate peasants and half-way nobles. The gap was, sure, much lesser in classical Athens, but was very strong for a society where low classes claimed moral and political equality. The culture gap was probably the weakest point of Athenian democracy.
    *** The subject is not only of antiquarian interest. I am afraid that in contemporary advanced societies many feel a gap between those with university degrees and those lacking any university schooling. That could create a culture gap and a subsequent elitism very dangerous for a modern dêmokratia.


  41. Andre:> I am afraid that in contemporary advanced societies many feel a gap between those with university degrees and those lacking any university schooling. That could create a culture gap and a subsequent elitism very dangerous for a modern dêmokratia.

    Indeed, and there is a danger that voluntarist sortition might privilege the former. Although this can be addressed via stratification, there is still a likelihood that the sort of person who would be prepared to offer their services will be atypical. Unlike the Athenians, we no longer have a public service ethos which disparages those who choose not to participate, as modern liberal societies are more concerned about rights than duties.


  42. And one is tempted to think that the enthusiasm for small, voluntary citizen assemblies by XR and other activists is on account of this potential bias.


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