How can a transition be effected?

A reader of the blog wrote asking whether readers of Equality by Lot have ideas about how a transition toward a system in which sortition plays an important role could be achieved.

The reader, who is an Iranian expat, is specifically interested in the case of Iran, which she describes as follows:

  • There are no political parties in Iran, though there are some syndicates of workers, teachers, …
  • There are some opposition groups out of Iran, but those who are well-known and are professional politicians, are just promoting their own interests, I think.
  • The majority of people who are against the regime are still passive as they don’t know what would happen next. They need an image of the future of Iran.
  • There is so much violence from regime devotees because they are also afraid of the future. Maybe the idea of sortition can soothe them too.

With the appropriate modifications, however, the description applies also to many (possibly all) other countries, specifically including those with the Western-style elections-based systems. Therefore any ideas may very well be relevant for effecting a change in many societies.

The questions then are:

How can a revolution create a deliberative democracy and sortition? What would be a realistic scenario or plan for that? What can international agents/actors, people like you, do to make it possible? Is there any international organization that can help at least us, Iranians who live out of Iran, to have a “citizen assembly based on sortition”, to practice democracy and peer-to-peer conversation between us and to create a feasible image of how could be the democracy like in Iran of future?

And, again, I believe the answers in the context of Iran would not be very different from the answers in other contexts. Sortition activists of all countries should consider these questions in the contexts of their own societies and government systems.

23 Responses

  1. The key issue here is that a revolution tends to install in power some disaffected subfaction of the existing ruling class. They will tend to favour electoral, rather than sortitional, constitutional mechanisms, in order to perpetuate their own power. That means that the most plausible revolutionary route to sortition involves convincing such factions that they need to include a sortitional element in a mixed constitution in order to legitimise their new regime. That means building support on the street for sortition – bringing more radical and disenfranchised factions on board with it as a means to ensure their continued influence after the revolution, for instance, but also making it a common slogan and popular demand among the less-organised majority of activated protesters – and using that to sell the elite moderates on a ‘compromise’ hybrid solution. Once the intermediate step of a mixed sortitional-electoral constitution has been achieved, it becomes much easier to shift power away from the electoral elements and towards the sortitional ones. That’s a very rough sketch of how I think you could potentially get there.

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  2. The paths can be thought of as being of two types: elite-led and popular pressure. In an elite-led path, there is some elite faction that pushes for sortition-based mechanisms despite the fact that there is not much demand for those by the people. A popular pressure path is where popular demand for sortition is what motivates a reluctant elite to adopt this mechanism.

    The academics and related professionals have been trying to convince their readers and clients that elite-led paths make sense. In reality, it seems these have been quite predictably leading nowhere. Despite a lot of papers, articles, and applications, including some fairly high profile ones, the impact of this activity has remained negligible.

    Turning to popular pressure paths, then, the question is how can popular interest in sortition be generated without cooperation, and quite possibly in the face of active resistance, by elites. Based on past experience, it seems that unfortunately, popular takeup of the the idea of sortition is slow and hesitating. While it is of course possible that a tipping point is around the corner, it is just as likely that more of the same – papers, articles, letters to the editor, blogging, and low-powered, or one-off applications – will not have much impact in generating widespread popular interest in sortition in the foreseeable future. Are there any realistic avenues that have not been explored?

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  3. Papers, articles, letters to the editor and blogging are all individual-level approaches. The key is to organise: get involved with radical groups and bring them around on sortition as the best means to their ends. That’s how you reach large numbers of people.

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  4. > The key is to organise: get involved with radical groups and bring them around on sortition as the best means to their ends.

    I am not sure what this actually means. In practical terms, what does “organise” or “get involved” mean? What “radical groups” are we talking about?

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  5. I mean, on the most basic level, get together a group of people that meet regularly and campaign together for a cause – leafletting, attending protests, recruiting new members, etc. Obviously this is much easier in the West, but in Iran organising is still possible to some degree, and some suitably surreptitious campaigning activities are possible. I certainly can’t speak to which existing organisations in particular might be susceptible to the sortitionist message, but leftist and in particular environmentalist groups are the sorts of ‘radical groups’ I have in mind. For instance, I’m involved with the UK’s Northern Independence Party in part for exactly this reason.

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  6. I don’t want to invest any energy into theoretic discussions. Any chance to get in touch with Iranian activists so we don’t talk *about* them but *to* them?

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  7. >I am not sure what this actually means. In practical terms, what does “organise” or “get involved” mean? What “radical groups” are we talking about?

    Organization means concentrating wealth, power, and resources into a group entity. In practical terms in my opinion, it means getting and deploying money and volunteers.

    Recruiting members, organizing protests, is ENORMOUSLY time consuming. Without someone fully funded to do perform this endeavor, well, my volunteer efforts for example are just mediocre.

    As far as ensuring that the organization doesn’t fall back into the iron law of oligarchy, well allegedly sortition is the solution. Therefore sortitionists absolutely MUST organize in order to practice what they preach and demonstrate that their reform actually works.

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  8. As far as creating an organization to do this, well my hope is that at least in America, “Democracy Without Elections” (https://democracywithoutelections.org/) can fulfill this role. It already has the governance structure in place.

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  9. Oliver,

    > leafletting

    So how does this work? Do you have leaflets advocating sortition that you are handing out to passers-by?

    > recruiting new members

    How does this happen?

    John,

    > deploying money and volunteers

    How exactly? How should the money be spent? How should the volunteers spend their time?

    > “Democracy Without Elections”

    How does DWE find new audiences and spread its message?

    BTW, do you know how many members does DWE have?

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  10. Personally, I have a feeling we sortitionists tend to say the same things over and over and hope that at some point people will listen and be won over. On the one hand, this makes sense because we have a specific message that we believe in and that we want everybody to hear. But on the other hand, it seems rather futile. If this message does not resonate well enough for people to retain it and repeat it to others, would simply saying it over and over make a difference? Maybe it would, repetition certainly has its power.

    Maybe, on the other hand, we need some way to regularly reinforce our message which is not simple repetition. I was thinking, for example, of having an ongoing ledger of ways in which the elected and their allies are using their power for their own benefit at the expense of the public. The ledger would enumerate such abuses of power across all parties, so that it is clear that the system itself, rather than this or that party, is corrupt. This could probably be updated with new items on a monthly basis. Such a communication may arouse enough outrage to be shared widely.

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  11. >How exactly? How should the money be spent? How should the volunteers spend their time?

    In my opinion all the money should be spent on marketing, education, outreach. The money should be spent to further advertise sortition, and asking people to join the organization, and asking people to give us money. The organization ought to be run like a democratic pyramid scheme. Its purpose is to accumulate power and wealth into itself. Its purpose is to grow membership and grow the collection of membership dues. What it offers its membership is a *dream* of a better future, a dream that can only be fulfilled if the organization becomes large enough.

    If the organization ever grows to sufficient size, it can then exercise democratically controlled economic and political power. We’re not petitioning the ruling elite to give us democracy. We’re building democratic power from the ground up and then coercing the elite to formalize/enhance power we already have.

    The pitfall against this model is the lack of capital investment to start the organization and the general trend of atomization of individuals as fewer and fewer people want to participate in political parties, unions, clubs, and organizations.

    >How does DWE find new audiences and spread its message?

    It’s all just volunteer efforts and whatever our volunteers want to do. I spent some time on Reddit making posts back when I was unemployed. These efforts are unfortunately by definition, amateur. We need professional community organizers to deploy volunteers effectively.

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  12. I made the choice to use existing organisations who are in support of direct democracy (initiative and referendum) i order to promote sortition. We do see sortition as a democratic instrument but the people stays sovereign and can have the first (agenda setting) and last word (referendum) if they want to. This does not excludes for instance to launch an initiative in order to appoint the federal judges by lot, as is done in Switserland. The initiative did not succeeded but, for a fundamental change like this, this is not uncommon by a first try. For me personally there is no “perfect” system, it has always to be compared with other systems and incorporate balances. As you can see in the comment from Roslyn Fuller (*28 p 16) in the document “Psychology of Direct Democracy” https://www.academia.edu/86490623/The_Psychology_of_Direct_Democracy_edition_sept_2022 not all sortition events are acceptable in his execution. (the referendum at governments initiative is not seen as a democratic instrument, it does not exist in Switserland for example).

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  13. John,

    > In my opinion all the money should be spent on marketing, education, outreach. The money should be spent to further advertise sortition, and asking people to join the organization, and asking people to give us money.

    Again, could you be more specific? Say that you had a modest but not insignificant budget, maybe a few thousand dollars. How exactly would you spend it? Buying online ads?

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  14. > Do you have leaflets advocating sortition that you are handing out to passers-by?
    That’s pretty much how leafletting works, yes. You can also put them through people’s doors. Other standard political campaigning tactics include going door-to-door and liaising with other groups in your local community, such as unions and church groups.
    > recruiting new members – How does this happen?
    You invite people who seem interested to your meetings, and put contact details for your group on your literature. Interested people will get in touch.

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  15. >Again, could you be more specific? Say that you had a modest but not insignificant budget, maybe a few thousand dollars. How exactly would you spend it? Buying online ads?

    If I had the money, I’d pay to spruce up the website to make it look nicer. I’d pay for a good looking logo. I’d outsource the work overseas to reduce costs.

    Then I’d pay for people to produce web and social media content.

    I’d probably create multiple brands and make a subsidiary with a more general “democracy advocacy” tone than the more confrontational “democracy without elections”.

    On the ground, I’d pay for people to door-knock or set up booths at markets to advertise and sell subscriptions.

    I think there’s a good case that this is all quite naive. It seems to me that most fundraisers don’t target the general public but a wealthy niche. If that’s true, if the general public isn’t interested about democracy, I think we’re doomed anyways.

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  16. Oliver and John,

    Thanks very much for your answers.

    I would guess that you share my experience with such activities, i.e., that they rarely generate new sortition advocates. A sizeable part of the people actively reject the message, but that is not the real problem because a non-negligible audience is to some extent sympathetic. The real problem is that even those who are sympathetic almost never become actively engaged with the cause.

    I can think of two related causes for this frustrating state of affairs:

    1. The problem seems too overwhelming and the idea of sortition, even if it seems good, seems a fantastic possibility too remote from the status quo to be taken seriously,

    2. There is no real call to action, other than talking to other people. Talking to other people on abstract political subjects is a niche interest. People are more inclined to focus on activities with immediate impact.

    Do you agree with my view of the problem? What would you offer as possible solutions?

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  17. >The real problem is that even those who are sympathetic almost never become actively engaged with the cause.

    Yoram, we don’t need to get everyone, not even a majority. We “only” need a sizeable minority of around 3% of the public to be aware and actively in support. (https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20190513-it-only-takes-35-of-people-to-change-the-world) That’s of course a huge number of people, literally millions of people, but that means it’s also fine and dandy that 97% of the rest of your country isn’t active.

    Despite the general lack of engagement of the vast majority of the public, DWE for example continues to slowly grow rather than shrink. Moreover it’s far too early to “call it against” sortition. The vast majority of the American public, probably 99%+ of the public, has never even heard of sortition or democratic lottery.

    Let’s imagine we can only attract 0.1% of the American public to for example donate. 0.1% is about 300,000 Americans and about $72 million in revenue assuming a $20 donation per month. This is the best case scenario and $72 mill is plenty to really throw your weight around.

    In other words the movement is about attracting strange, crazy, 1-in-1000 people that are willing to bet on new ideas.

    >There is no real call to action, other than talking to other people. Talking to other people on abstract political subjects is a niche interest. People are more inclined to focus on activities with immediate impact.

    Part of marketing in America is about participating in the referendum and ballot initiative process. You attempt to make a splash in local media by advocating for a ballot initiative. A number of people are doing exactly that in California, attempting to create new citizens assemblies, and people are even starting a likely-to-fail ballot initiative to create a Permanent Citizens’ Assembly and integrate it into the California ballot prop system.

    There will be plenty of calls-to-action available. Many of these calls-to-action will be “for show”. They will fail politically but still serve to publicize the cause.

    Moreover giving money to a sortition-run org is a very real and practical “call to action”. Giving money is a way to prove to yourself and the world that sortition can be trusted with your money. I think it’s extremely important to find out if that trust is warranted before wide-scale implementation.

    Other untapped potential is lobbying unions, worker/consumer cooperatives, credit unions, HOA’s, and other election-run or direct democracy organizations to try sortition out. Such lobbying is massively time expensive, and I don’t think it’s going to happen unless it’s paid to happen.

    But sure I’d agree that right now we have very little to show. In my opinion if you want this to happen you have to be a dreamer. Nobody believes the revolution is going to happen even days before the revolution happens. But it’s crucial that we have *some* kind of organization to lead chaos when chaos comes.

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  18. I think it’s also important to be campaigning for something specific – a particular sortitional reform that you can argue for in concrete terms, rather than the general idea.

    Of course, all of this is much harder in the Iranian context, where the reward of success is adverse police attention. I’m not in a position to say what kinds of strategies are safe or effective in that situation.

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  19. John,

    I certainly do not expect overnight success. I have been involved in this for almost 20 years now and am still very much committed to the cause.

    What I have come to reconsider is the method of writing academic articles, blog posts, or op-ed articles as a way of disseminating the idea of sortition. This have been going on for many years and it seems to me that, outside of elite self-interested circles which are largely insular, the activation rate of this method is considerably less than 3.5% of the audience. (Of course, the 3.5% may very well be activated later as a result of the activation of a much smaller proportion.)

    I am wondering if some other way of phrasing our message would be more effective. Above I suggested one such alternative. Another alternative would be to focus much more on visual media. Some sort of image or set of images that would capture our message that could be easily replicated whenever the context is right.

    > I think it’s extremely important to find out if that trust is warranted before wide-scale implementation.

    I am actually not too enthusiastic about “small-scale experimentation”. I think that sortition is generally unsuited to the small scale. It would make more sense to initially apply sortition to topic-specific decision-making at the large scale such a fighting conflict-of-interests in elected government.

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  20. >I am actually not too enthusiastic about “small-scale experimentation”. I think that sortition is generally unsuited to the small scale.

    I think small scale testing is necessary. I don’t think it’s a reasonable ask to radically transform society without testing. And small scale testing will obviously be the cheapest and most feasible to test. Moreover I don’t think sortition will be that bad in comparison to the alternatives.

    Direct democracy in cooperatives and unions is notoriously corrupt or difficult to scale. The typical rule of thumb is that deliberation becomes inefficient for groups any greater than 10 people. The ideal worker cooperative committee size is less than 15 people. After this point, coops resort to elections and federations to scale. Many coops even refuse to scale up and are adamant in maintaining a small, ~15 person organization. Their refusal to grow means they give up social transformative power.

    I think sortition-like mechanism could be introduced in small-medium-sized organizations of 20-100 people. Imagine the following governance structure:

    Sortition is used to create an election/selection committee to choose the org’s leadership. Even in small cooperatives, people oftentimes vote ignorantly. A likeable and seemingly competent person is elected to an executive role. However there is usually no followup to evaluate job performance. Unlike in national elections, there are no reporters and no news media to provide coverage and information. I’m not exactly sure how electoral accountability is possible in such conditions except for massive screwups, where for example leadership literally bankrupts the organization.

    Sortition is an alternative to construct electoral/evaluation committees. These committees are the de-facto kingmaker of the organization and would therefore wield considerable power. Unlike voters, a committee does not just vote annually. A committee can actively monitor and manage an executive just like how a boss can manage an employee. In a small cooperative of 25 people, an accountability committee of say, 7 people could be formed to manage executives. In order to reduce chaos, supermajority votes could be used to render firing decisions between terms.

    Meetings are also an area that could be improved. In a 50 person worker cooperative, a one-hour meeting takes 50 man-hours. That’s a lot of money wasted. Sortition can be used to form a smaller committee on the Athenian basis of “to rule and be ruled in turns”. Luckily at small scales, the chances of serving are high. So even if the committee at any instance is not “statistically representative”, the committee will be representative in the long run when every member is rotated in and out.

    Imagine if sortition was used to just reduce a 50 person meeting to 25 people. You’ve just saved 25 man hours and hundreds of dollars per hour. Moreover at cooperatives, not everyone is in love with direct democracy. Meetings are a chore, a duty, a burden. They’re long and oftentimes boring. That’s my experience after living 7 years in student cooperatives and now even more years serving in various committees at DWE. Meetings are not fun. They’re work. You’ve saved people from the burden of attending this meeting.

    So anyways though sortition will not be perfect, I think it can bring a lot of good enhancements even to small organizations.

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  21. I do agree with the excellent use of sortition in small scale experiments. Depending on the criteria necessary for the specific use (see Dimitri Courant https://www.academia.edu/37132101/Thinking_Sortition._Modes_of_selection_deliberative_frameworks_and_democratic_principles ) a small number of participants might be sufficient. It is when “representativeness” becomes important that the problems start. Look at the well known judicial use (6 to 12 participants in most cases). Also the appointment of experts to hear is solved in an acceptable matter in that case.

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  22. John,

    Having an allotted (or rotated) body in a cooperative of 20-100 people may be a good idea (depending on the context), but it really has very little to do with having an allotted body in a country or in a union of many thousands of people. There is little that can be extrapolated from the experience of the former to the experience of the latter.

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  23. Small scale and local sortition has a learning and awareness impact that is essential before most people will consider sortition on a fundamental societal level. Here is a short article I wrote on co-op governance exactly along the lines that John discussed above.
    https://blog.p2pfoundation.net/a-better-co-op-democracy-without-elections/2017/04/19

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