Bagg: Citizen oversight juries

Samuel Bagg is a democratic theorist, soon to be at the University of South Carolina. In 2019 he co-wrote with Michael Schulson an article about sortition in Dissent magazine. In a paper just published in the American Journal of Political Science Bagg elaborates on the ideas in Dissent magazine. The elitist notions that were hinted at in the 2019 article (and that are unfortunately standard among academics who discuss sortition) are now full fledged as Bagg offers a proposal for a strictly curtailed role for allotted bodies. The proposal seems very much along the lines the proposal made by Ethan Leib almost 20 years ago (of which Bagg seems unaware), but with a more limited range of application.

The paper’s abstract is as follows:

Sortition as Anti-Corruption: Popular Oversight against Elite Capture

Random selection for political office—or “sortition”—is increasingly seen as a promising tool for democratic renewal. Critics worry, however, that replacing elected and appointed officials with randomly selected citizens would only exacerbate elite manipulation of political processes. This article argues that sortition can contribute to democratic renewal, but that its genuine promise is obscured by the excessive ambition and misplaced focus of prevailing models. Casting random selection as a route to accurate representation of the popular will, most contemporary proposals require randomly selected citizens to perform legislative tasks, whose open-endedness grants substantial discretion to elite agenda setters and facilitators. The real democratic promise of sortition-based reforms, I argue, lies in obstructing elite capture at critical junctures: a narrower task of oversight that creates fewer opportunities for elite manipulation. In such contexts, the benefits of empowering ordinary people—resulting from their immunity to certain distorting influences on career officials—plausibly outweigh the risks.

The notion of oversight is rather broad and could imply bodies with wide anti-corruption purview that could create a real source of independent political power by drawing and enforcing radical rules about the connections decision makers (and in particular, elected officials) may or may not have with the powerful bodies in society and politics. However, this is not at all what Bagg has in mind.

COJs [Citizen Oversight Juries] would be convened over the course of a few days or weeks at most, and participants drawn randomly from the population would be required to serve for the entire process, so as to minimize the distortions of self-selection. As in civil and criminal trials, crucially, the role of jurors would be to make a judgment about a narrow, binary question, whose parameters are fixed in advance, after hearing arguments from designated adversarial representatives on both sides.

Thus, just like Leib’s proposal, Bagg’s proposal is for ad-hoc, short-term bodies, whose rules, agenda and information are dictated by elite bodies. It is only within the framework of these restrictions that Bagg feels that “citizen oversight bodies could plausibly make use of those advantages [of sortition] without incurring excessive risks”.

9 Responses

  1. This kind of thing would represent a start. Regardless of whether people like Bagg think it’s the logical endpoint of sortition or not, implementing systems like this would be a strategic step forward towards a more thoroughgoing sortitional democracy in the future.

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  2. The anti-corruption use of sortition has been overshadowed by the representational potential of sortition. This tool can be good for BOTH functions. A clear example of a binary decision could be, “Has the chief executive officer performed competently and honestly, or should this person be removed from office and replaced?” Every government’s executive should face such a jury annually. Ideally the replacement would be recruited and hired by a follow-on hiring jury, but at the very least, the power of removal should rest with a jury.

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  3. Oliver,

    I am not sure that low-powered applications of sortition lead toward high-powered applications. Low powered applications have been around for decades. They remain relatively unknown and do not mobilize public interest and pressure – which is really what matters. In the worst case, such applications can be manipulated to present the whole sortition mechanism is a bad light.

    Terry,

    Yes – this kind of power is exactly what I had in mind when I wrote that “oversight” could mean bodies with real power and visibility. Of course, for Bagg and most other academics, such applications would be too “excessively risky”.

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  4. I think there is still a fair amount we would disagree about, Yoram, but I wanted to clarify that there is certainly scope on my account for more expansive forms of oversight — including at least some, as you suggest, where citizens would enforce “rules about the connections decision makers (and in particular, elected officials) may or may not have with the powerful bodies in society and politics,” as well as those suggested by Terry in his comment, which would ask “Has the chief executive officer performed competently and honestly, or should this person be removed from office and replaced?”

    In the article, I focus most of my attention on elaborating and defending the narrowest, most limited example of sortition as anti-corruption (COJs). In a general political science audience, there are still many skeptics of sortition, and one of my main aims was to demonstrate a proof of concept to this audience. I tried to be clear, though, that the general model of sortition as anti-corruption could be applied in many other ways. Towards the end, for instance, I write the following:

    “A longer-term citizen oversight body could scrutinize an entire agency, for instance, over a period of several months. As Melissa Lane (2020) points out, indeed, one notable function of randomly selected citizens in ancient Athens was to audit certain officeholders upon exiting power. The same principle could be applied to others with vast private power—as, for instance, in Gordon Arlen’s (2021) proposal for empowering citizen tax juries that would investigate and sanction tax avoidance by extremely wealthy actors. At the municipal level, meanwhile, sortition-based councils could review decisions about public contracts, tax incentives, or police departments (Táíwò 2020). Sortition-based reforms could also help protect the integrity of elections—reviewing districting decisions and other changes to election law (Delannoi, Dowlen, and Stone 2013), for instance, or scrutinizing interactions between lobbyists and elected officials (Dowlen 2017). If the task given to randomly selected citizens can be sufficiently narrowed, finally, oversight councils could even be used to loosen the grip of elite donors and cross-party “cartels” (Katz and Mair 2018) on the political agenda (see Bagg and Bhatia 2021)—perhaps by evaluating a series of concrete agenda items raised by external groups.”

    All of these ideas give a more expansive role to randomly-selected citizens than COJs. Lane’s proposal is much like Terry’s, for instance, and Dowlen’s sounds much like yours.

    I am, of course, still skeptical of randomly selected legislative bodies. But it is unfair to reduce my argument against them to elitist prejudice against the idea of giving ordinary citizens genuinely independent political power. My aim is precisely to *maximize* the genuinely independent political power ordinary citizens wield. My worry is that randomly selected ordinary citizens who are given legislative authority would end up with *less* independence, for the reasons I give in the first two sections of the piece. Thus, it is precisely because the oversight task is limited that participants would be able to retain their independence on the anti-corruption model.

    So let’s be clear about where our disagreement lies: my view is that the most promising way to maximize the independent political power of ordinary citizens lies in the anti-corruption model, while it seems you think there are more promising ways of doing so.

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  5. Hi Samuel,

    Thanks for responding.

    > there are still many skeptics of sortition, and one of my main aims was to demonstrate a proof of concept to this audience

    > But it is unfair to reduce my argument against them to elitist prejudice against the idea of giving ordinary citizens genuinely independent political power. My aim is precisely to *maximize* the genuinely independent political power ordinary citizens wield.

    I see this perception of your argument and your aim as being much more of a reflection of your prejudice than a realistic description of the situation. The main thrust of your argument – as you yourself present it – is that you are offering a corrective against “excessively ambitious models favored by contemporary proponents”. It is not against the sortition-skeptics that you are pitting yourself, but against the supposed ambition of sortition-advocates.

    To understand the context for your argument, it is not unimportant to note, moreover, that the body of ambitious sortition-advocates which you are supposedly refuting is largely non-existent, while “modest” proposals for the application of sortition that are not much different in tone and outlook as well as substance from yours are quite common in the literature where they are supported by arguments that are not much different from yours.

    As for your point that you “tried to be clear, though, that the general model of sortition as anti-corruption could be applied in many other ways” – this is hardly supported by your text. A single, very tentative paragraph about “somewhat broader mandates” is no match for the general tone of your article. Your defense of “the narrowest most limited example of sortition as anti-corruption” serves not as a way to establish an initial foothold or a proof-of-concept for sortition, but as a model for low-powered applications. (Low powered applications that have been around for many years that, again, are common in the literature.)

    All of this, unfortunately, is sort of a meta discussion (that may deserve separate treatment). It may appear personal and non-substantive (although I believe it is not, and is in fact rather important) and I apologize if it seems offensive (which it is certainly not intended to be). If you are up to it, I’d be delighted to go over your claims and arguments in detail. I think such a discussion could be much more illuminating and fruitful than much of the literature had been so far.

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  6. Samuel

    Most members of this blog would distance themselves from Yoram’s accusation regarding your “prejudice” — it is language like this that made me vote with my feet after battling in vain for over ten years to ensure that his over-ambitious claims (along with a highly idiosyncratic definition of “democracy”) should bring the sortition movement into disrepute. I’m afraid the only serious debate on sortition takes place on venues like Academia.edu, for example https://www.academia.edu/44790587/Some_Problems_of_Citizens_Assemblies

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  7. Samuel,

    For many of us, Yoram’s idiosyncratic views and vituperative style are part of what makes this blog an interesting place! Please don’t be put off by it or take it personally – it’s just his way, and the payoff for putting up with it is that he brings to the table many original critiques and obscure resources. Keith is correct that the debate on Academia.edu is more collegial, but in my opinion it’s worth engaging here, too, if you’re willing to endure the slings and arrows of Yoram’s rhetoric. It’s not for everybody, though, and (unlike Keith) I have never faced a sustained campaign of rhetorical aggression from him.

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  8. Yoram,
    I think you make a mistake when you lump a variety of very different sortition proposals into a catch-all of “low powered applications.” There is a significant difference between the plethora of ADVISORY citizens’ assemblies in the deliberative democracy vein on one hand, and a decisive decision about such things as rejecting a public contract, removing a police chief, etc. in the anti-corruption vein. While a tone that accepts and endorses the establishment assumptions about the limited value (narrow role) of sortition is frustrating, I think that real-world implementations of anti-corruption sortition would be very beneficial for the “proof of concept” that ordinary citizens can wield real power MORE responsibly than electeds.

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  9. […] Micah Erfan is an economics freshman at the University of Houston. He writes at the The Cougar, “the official student-run news organization of the university”. Nicely assertive, Erfan draws a direct link from the oligarchical nature of the elections-based system to the deaths of hundreds of citizens in a climate disaster. This is the kind of things one cannot do after having managed to climb a few rungs of the academic ladder. […]

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