Nicholas Gruen wants to give a citizen jury a “very, very small power”

Nicholas Gruen, an occasional contributor to this blog, has appeared on the Australian radio show Overnight with Michael McLaren and talked to Luke Grant about using sortition to add “a whole new part to Australian democracy”.

Like quite a few other prominent advocates for sortition, Gruen’s rhetoric tends to minimize the oppressive outcomes of the current system, and in doing so becomes incoherent. On the one hand, Gruen argues rather forcefully that the electoral system is non-representative and is really about promoting the interests of powerful organizations and people and of certain sectors in the population. However, at the same time, Gruen never tires of iterating his commitment to keeping essentially that same system – which he insists on calling a “democracy” – and emphasizing that his goal is simply “moderating the worst” of this system using citizen juries in one way or another.

11 Responses

  1. I would suspect it’s because Gruen understands that a well-functioning electoral democracy works better than any other system which has been tried before in a large-scale political system. Granted, most electoral democracies in the world today are not functioning very well, but that’s why Gruen et al. talk about how these systems might either be mended or improved upon. Apocalyptic rhetoric about electoral democracy does not help matters–as I’ve said before, it suggests you can’t draw a meaningful distinction between Biden’s U.S. and Putin’s Russia, and that’s kinda important right now.


  2. Hi Peter,

    Since you seem to be reprising a recent comment of yours, I’ll reprise my reply.

    Leaving aside the matter of the veracity of the rather dogmatic and unscientific confident assertions about the “huge honking difference” between “us” and “them”, the point is that they are completely beside the point. The proposal of sortition advocates is not to adopt, say, the Chinese system but rather to create a sortition-based system that would be, unlike the electoralist systems, democratic. How then is the question of whether our system is “better” than that of our enemies relevant?

    What matters for sortition advocates is rather that the electoralist system is anti-democratic by design and its outcomes reflect its anti-democratic structure. Until this fact is widely recognized it would be hard to mobilize people behind the idea of sortition. Thus it is important to kick the “this is a democracy!” habit ourselves and to keep pushing others to kick this habit as well.


  3. Yoram, I ignored your previous comment, but if you really want a response–can you possibly be serious? Permit me to remind you of this, but I’ve been working in political science for over 20 years now. I had been teaching political science for years when this blog was still a gleam in your eye. And any respectable political scientist will tell you the same thing here. By any sensible measure of system performance–economic productivity, rule of law, protection of civil and political liberties, you name it–the top performers are the United States, Western Europe, Japan, Australia…all electoral democracies. You can count the number of high-performing systems that are not electoral democracies on one finger–Singapore. To be sure, there are pathological cases of electoral democracies–nobody denies that–but the past 200 years paints a pretty clear picture: if you want a well-performing system, you want that kind of political system.

    Are electoral democracies struggling these days? Clearly. Can one improve upon their successes using sortition? Obviously–I am a fan of sortition, you know. But if you really don’t think there’s any “huge honking difference” between “us” and “them,” I respectfully suggest you take an introductory political science module. And then kindly refrain from giving me patronizing lectures. Thank you.


  4. *** Polyarchy and (ortho-)democracy are different systems but they belong to a same class defined by two parameters: systems without a body monopolizing power, and with enough freedom for an ideological opponent of the system not to fear jail. In the same class belong the ancient Roman republic, many republics of the West before modernity, and Britain at least after the “Glorious revolution”. Which name must be given to this class, I don’t know. “Free systems”, maybe. But to give the name “democracy” for this class is confusing. And to use this word for polyarchy is comforting a myth, that it is an “indirect democracy” where the dêmos exercises “indirectly” the sovereign power.
    *** Democracy in strict sense – I propose ortho-democracy to avoid any confusion -belongs to this class but, too, to another class: system where sovereignty is concentrated in a body. Other elements of this class are absolute monarchy and aristocracy.
    *** (Ortho-)democracy is therefore at the intersection of two classes.
    *** Other systems may belong to none of these classes as the totalitarisms and autocracies.
    *** It is impossible to put all the models of political system on a line.
    *** Let’s imagine a time traveler coming from Demosthenes’ Athens to Macron’s France or Johnson’s Britain ; he will not be surprised that ideological opponents of the system are not fearful about their safety; people saying anything on Internet, including stupid things, will remind him of the Agora. But that decisions as strong as the ones about COVID could be issued neither by general vote nor by an allotted body in a system called “democracy” would be difficult to understand for him.


  5. Peter Stone still misses Yoram’s point. Here is an analogy:

    Burning fossil fuels is bad for climate change.

    Someone says we should switch from coal and natural gas to solar power because it is climate-friendly.

    A second person says “But there is a huge honking difference between coal and natural gas. Natural gas is relatively climate friendly.”

    The first person, says “No, natural gas is not climate friendly.”

    The second person says, “By implication, you are favoring coal then. I have been studying and teaching about the climate impact of fossil fuels for decades, and am an expert. There really is a huge honking difference between coal and natural gas.”

    A third person says, “Natural gas may be less bad, but it isn’t climate friendly. We want ortho-climate friendly, which is solar.”

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Terry, I think your response is quite helpful. So let me see if I can say something else that will move the conversation in a productive direction.

    Let’s say most political systems throughout history (monarchies, etc.) are like burning coal. Then electoral democracy comes along. That’s a change, but what kind of change is it? Is it like a switch from coal to natural gas, or like a change from coal to (say) hydroelectric power? If it’s like a change from coal to natural gas, it might reflect a small change for the better, but not one that’s all that important, and it’s rather imperative we get away from it as soon as we can. If it’s like a change from coal to hydroelectric power, then it’s definitely a big change, but hardly one that solves all problems. Hydroelectric dams, for example, can have extremely damaging environmental effects (just ask China). We’d still want to move beyond such a system–perhaps relying more on solar and wind power–but the need is not as urgent, and we probably wouldn’t want to give up on hydroelectric power entirely.

    As you can probably guess, I think elections are more like hydroelectric power–a significant positive step, but one that hardly solves all problems, and one where we have definite ways to make improvements right now. And I worry about this a lot because there are still a lot of political leaders–from Putin to Trump–who are perfectly happy to see us all run straight back to coal, politically speaking. And so I get very nervous when anyone downplays the significance of the step electoral democracy represents. By all means let’s talk about moving beyond electoral democracy. But let’s also not understate the difference between the electoral democracies and the systems that preceded it. That’s not helpful either.


  7. I really don’t see how “understat[ing] the difference between the electoral democracies [sic] and the systems that preceded it [sic]” is unhelpful, considering that those differences are largely beside the point. To the contrary, obsessing over those differences (real or imagined) is completely counter-productive since it derails the substantive and productive discussion about the nature of the electoralist system, about the sources of its defects and about how it can be democratized into the jingoistic and ritualistic affirmations about how we are better than others (mostly our contemporary enemies, btw, rather than historical societies).


  8. Hi Yoram

    Your reading of what I’m doing is insufficiently curious. You want me to have a ‘position’. I’ve made it clear that my ‘position’ is built from these propositions
    * Democracy, as currently practised, is in a dire state.
    * Sortition could make major contributions, in many ways, to addressing many of its maladies.

    The rest is footnotes.

    I think I’m as radical as anyone on this site as far as how bad I think the problem is, and for how long I’ve thought this.

    Then the question arises of what to do about it. I don’t think I should set out some fully specified revolutionary solution to our problems. I don’t take a God’s eye view here. This is because I’m not God. I start from the position of a person. That is because

    1) my knowledge of what to do is puny — like yours and
    2) even if it was godlike, I have next to no power — like you.


  9. Hi Nicholas,

    > Democracy, as currently practised, is in a dire state

    Again, I think using the term “democracy” to describe the current practice is both theoretically erroneous and politically counter-productive.

    > The rest is footnotes.

    Ok, but the footnotes take up most of the airtime, and they do matter.

    > 1) my knowledge of what to do is puny — like yours and
    > 2) even if it was godlike, I have next to no power — like you.

    Acknowledging these limitations, we always have to do with whatever knowledge we have and we always have to exercise whatever power we do have to promote what we, with our limited knowledge, see as leading to the best outcome. Presumably this is what both you and I are trying to do.


  10. Thanks for your advice about vocabulary that is and is not counterproductive in speaking with a specific demographic on an overnight radio program in Australia. I’ll keep it in mind.

    But for now I doubt I’ll act on it. Reason? It looks like it goes against my distaste for God’s eye views of things — including bids to impose an acceptable vocabulary.


  11. […] year on Equality-by-Lot included items from South Africa, the UK: 1, 2, the US: 1, 2 3, 4, 5, 6, Australia, Malaysia, Texas, US, France, Ireland, Utah, US, California, US, Pakistan, Pennsylvania, US, and […]


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