Short refutations of common arguments for sortition (part 3)

Part 1 Part 2.

The arguments below make a case for sortition that is based on a general, rather vague sense of a need for change.

6. Elections are an 18th century technology. We need to modernize democracy by adopting new, modern ideas and institutions. Sortition is one such new idea and is enabled by new technologies.

This argument is obviously false factually. Sortition was practiced in Athens some 2,500 years ago. Drawing lots could easily have been implemented at the end of the 18th century instead or in addition to tallying votes. Furthermore, this perpetuates the standard distortion of the historical record regarding the ideology and the objectives of the creators of the Western system. Elections were not an 18th century democratic technology, but rather an age old oligarchical mechanism. They were deliberately adopted in the 18th century for this reason. Thus there is no democracy to be modernized. There is an elections-based oligarchy that needs to be replaced by a sortition-based democracy.

7. Democratic fatigue: voters have grown tired of the elections. New institutions we need to be introduced in order to revitalize democracy.

A prominent spokesman of this argument is David Van Reybrouck:

Countless western societies are currently afflicted by what we might call “democratic fatigue syndrome”. Symptoms may include referendum fever, declining party membership, and low voter turnout. Or government impotence and political paralysis – under relentless media scrutiny, widespread public distrust, and populist upheavals.

But democratic fatigue syndrome is not so much caused by the people, the politicians or the parties – it is caused by the procedure. Democracy is not the problem. Voting is the problem.

Van Reybrouck explains that “the fundamental cause of democratic fatigue syndrome lies in the fact that we have all become electoral fundamentalists, venerating elections but despising the people who are elected”. This is a wholly unsatisfactory “fundamental cause”. Why are elections producing such poor despised officials? Why and when have we “become electoral fundamentalists”? What was the situation before that?

As an argument for sortition this is also rather weak. Why sortition rather than any other alternative to elections? Maybe elections can be fixed? If they used to work in the past, maybe they can be made to work again? Maybe we can have sortition together with elections? And/or together with many other new institutions? How do we know which institutions can be expected to work? If “relentless media scrutiny” is a problem, why would sortition fare any better than elections?

8. Government has become ossified. Fresh thinking and fresh people are needed in government.

Like the previous argument, this one does not offer a mechanism explaining the problem with the current system. Is the problem merely that the system is old? Why is this a problem? Do we just want innovation for its own sake? And, again like the previous argument this does not provide good motivation for adopting sortition rather than any other institutional reform. Unlike the previous argument, this one does not even specifically find fault with elections. The notion that personnel in government should be shuffled more often has been used to motivate the introduction of electoral term limits. Would that serve as well?

9. “Bring the people in”: sortition is needed to give people – especially marginalized groups – a voice in government.

The notion that people – and especially marginalized groups – should “have a voice in government” is sensible. In fact, it seems like this should be implied by the notion of “democracy”. But then – because it is so common-sensical – this argument is too vague to be of much use. What does it mean “to give people a voice”? Standard theory asserts that voting does give people a voice. Supposedly we all have a vote – why don’t the marginalized groups use their voting power to have their voice heard? Without an explanation of why the voting mechanism does not provide a voice for the marginalized, or for the people in general, it is hard to know what governance mechanism would. What are the criteria for a system that can be considered as giving “people” “a voice”? Do “public consultations” of various kinds count? What about the claim that only mass participation can count as having a voice?

9 Responses

  1. For me the rejection of the actual political system (an electoral aristocracy with some democratic elements, freedom of speech, universal suffrage, separation of powers,..) originates in a frustrating powerlessness for the citizens themselves. Be it in putting a subject on the political agenda or deciding / rejecting legislation.

    Se réclamant de la « démocratie » – sans toutefois donner plus de pouvoir au démos –, les représentants de nos systèmes politiques n’ont pas seulement piégé le peuple qu’ils prétendaient servir, c’est la langue elle-même qu’ils ont trahie : comment désormais mettre à jour l’anti-démocratisme des discours, des pratiques, des systèmes et des hommes politiques rangés sous l’étiquette de « démocrates » ? Le glissement de sens qu’a connu le mot « démocratie » constitue sans doute le principal coup de maître de la propagande politique moderne.

    automatic translation F/E : Claiming to be “democracy” – without however giving more power to the demos – the representatives of our political systems have not only betrayed the people they claimed to serve, it is the language itself that they have. betrayed: how now to understand the anti-democratism of speeches, practices, systems and politicians classified under the label of “democrats”? The shift in meaning experienced by the word “democracy” is arguably the major coup in modern political propaganda

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Paul,

    While I agree with your points (except for one minor point – see below), I think two important points are missing for this to be an effective argument for sortition:

    1. What about the existing system produces the oligarchical effects? (That is, what is wrong about the standard dogma of electoralism?)

    2. What are the concrete negative outcomes of the existing system? “Powerlessness” is too abstract to serve as a good motivator for a radical reform, IMO.

    Minor point of disagreement: I don’t see why “separation of powers” (as it is commonly understood) should be considered a democratic element.


  3. All of this is just more talk. Talk, talk, talk. But not much progress. There is a constitutional convention going on in Chile, initiated by young people who want a more equal distribution of wealth and serious steps taken to help heal the environment. Plus a new government run by a coalition of Socialists, communists, environmentalists and feminists. Let us start a movement online to awaken them to the NECESSITY of sortition solutions to their governmental problems. It’s now or never. D Ted Becker


  4. Hi Ted,

    Any practical ideas about how to proceed would be welcome.


  5. Ted:> a new government run by a coalition of Socialists, communists, environmentalists and feminists

    Are you suggesting that sortition should/would underwrite such an initiative? If so this will provide ammunition to those who claim that sortition is an antidemocratic procedure.


  6. Hi Ted, I had some contacts with David Altman in the past. Professor of Political Science at the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, he is well known here in Europe for his work about democracy. If democracy is what the movement is aiming for (apart from the issues you mention). May be the Icelandic experiment with sortition and constitutional reform can give any ideas.


  7. Keith,

    Sortitional procedures’ providing support for socialist, communist, environmentalist and feminist initiatives would only ‘provide ammunition to those who claim that sortition is an antidemocratic procedure’ if those opponents also held that socialist, communist, environmentalist and feminist initiatives were inherently antidemocratic. But that would vitiate any claim those opponents of sortition could make to being genuine democrats. ‘It’s only democracy if it produces conservative outcomes’ – or, similarly, ‘if the Left are in power it’s no longer real democracy’ – is a fascist rhetorical stance, not a good-faith democratic claim, and the people who hold to it can be expected to make the same claim about electoral polyarchic systems.


  8. Oliver,

    In practice, democracy means that either the majority or a plurality of the people has power, and this is true whether popular sensibilities are conservative or “progressive”.** The reason I called out Ted’s comment was because socialist, communist, environmentalist and feminist initiatives all fall into the latter category and the implication appears to be that sortition would be supportive of these endeavours. Couple this with a tolerant perspective on voluntarism and there is a genuine risk that socialist, communist, environmentalist and feminist activists would be overrepresented in the 3-5% of those selected by lot who choose to participate in sortition initiatives, compared to people who are less disposed towards a disruption of the status quo. Democrats need to start counting the spoons when the public fora are infiltrated by “isms” — progressive or otherwise.

    ** The reason I employ scare quotes for the term “progressive” is to highlight the Whiggery-pokery at work. And would someone please respond to the serious problems raised by the Nature paper on self-selection bias.


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