What If We Made Democracy… More Democratic?

In These Times Editors on 4 Jan.:

When politicians seem increasingly out of touch with the average person, perhaps the average person should make decisions instead.

sor•ti•tion

noun

  1. the appointment of political positions by lottery, rather than election

Aren’t elections kind of what ​“make” democracy, though?

Not according to the ancient Athenians. In fact, these early democrats worried elections would inevitably favor the wealthy and powerful sound familiar? The city-state functioned instead by having citizens randomly selected annually to serve in public office, with duties ranging from monitoring public finances to deciding foreign policy and participating as one (of 6000) jurors on the People’s Court. Women and enslaved people, among others, were excluded, so Athens might not be the best example of a full-fledged democracy; still, they had a point about elections. In the United States, wealthy donors have more impact on policy than public opinion, and Congress is far whiter, richer, older and more male than the overall population.

You can read the rest of this short editorial here.

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.”

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Report Back from the Hannah Arendt Center Conference on Sortition, part 2

Reporting from Bard College’s Hannah Arendt Center Annual Conference by Ahmed R. Teleb

The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard College recently hosted a two-day in-person and live webcast conference on sortition on Oct 14-15, which I attended online. Each day of the conference also included a midday break-out small group discussions in person and online. Estimated participants came to about four hundred, who, in my estimation, demonstrated enthusiasm for participatory democracy through sortition, but also a dose of critical awareness of, among other things, organizational and economic/structural difficulties with participation via sortition and in general.

I share here my impressions of the panels I attended and my most significant take-aways. This Conference marks an important step, because the Arendtian perspective on mini-publics and citizen councils has long been missing from the discussion of sortition. As it happens, this is also my area of research. From this perspective, “The meaning of politics is freedom,” as David Van Reybrouck quoted Arendt during his intervention, and not just “better” policy or results. Of course, I see these as going hand in hand. Freedom of people to actively shape the world they live in tends also to create better results from a public perspective but it is a by-product rather than the basis. As Shmuel Lederman put it, “benevolent dictatorship” and “representative government” follow the same logic that has roots in 19th century European colonialism.

P.S. The word sortition was a non-issue for the activists, practitioners, and members of the public who attended—the exception being Peter McLeod who used “civic lottery.” As a nice surprise, the three mayors/managers of the small NY towns who participated in Van Reybrouck’s class all plan to (attempt to) implement some kind of citizen assembly or citizen jury to tackle the issue that each brought to the class as one needing an innovative solution. One, whose town has exactly one traffic light, promised on the spot that she can get a PERMANENT citizens’ assembly approved by the city council and that funding the project would be a non-issue.

Opening Address by Roger Berkowitz: Revitalizing Democracy, Sortition, and Citizen Power

The American Founders, remarked Berkowitz, were “scared of democracy,” at least those identifying themselves as Federalists. He went on to quote from Federalist papers that stressed the instability of “ancient democracies” and “petty republics of Greece,” Fed # 9, 10. They emphasized the importance designing a system in which elites run the government, via an “elective system”. Moreover, they feared “factions,” and thought that an “extended republic” would be THE preventative measure against them, Fed 10, 51, since imposing a unity of will was not practical. Madison thought, we could “replace virtue with size.”

So far, well-known territory, although a bit different than the mythologized version taught in middle and high schools in the U.S. Berkowitz replied that for Arendt, factions are the very reflection of the basic human condition of plurality. He then went on to summarize Hannah Arendt’s assessment of the American system as articulated in her book On Revolution and the “Crisis of the Republic.” But Arendt did praise, for example, the “federal principle,” because its discovery, “was partly based upon an experience, upon the intimate knowledge of political bodies whose internal structure predetermined them, as it were, and conditioned its members for a constant enlargement whose principle was neither expansion nor conquest but the further combination of powers.” This kind of local-based power from the bottom up, Arendt saw as analogous to the council system or the town-hall system, one that permitted just about anyone to appear and act in public.

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Report Back from the Hannah Arendt Center Conference on Sortition, part 1

On October 14-15 Wayne Liebman and I (and we presume many other followers and contributors to EbL) attended (online) the HAC’s Annual Conference: “Revitalizing Democracy: Sortition, Citizen Power, and Spaces of Freedom.” We each independently wrote our impressions and comments. Below is Wayne’s overview. Subsequent parts contain more detailed summary and commentary on what I considered the most important of the presentations, where I also attempted to add some US context for international readers, or other context for those not immersed in the world of Arendt studies. That appears in brackets or under the heading “commentary.”

We invite anyone else who attended to correct or complement what we have below. I am sure each of us came from a different perspective and took note of different aspects of the event. And we hope this provokes some discussion of some familiar and new themes. Throughout, I use the word citizen in a POLITICAL not a legal sense, as I believe most speakers do. [P.S. Subjectively, the highlights of the conference for me were the interventions from Akuno and Lederman]. ~ AT

NOTES FROM THE CONFERENCE by Wayne Liebman
Revitalizing Democracy, Hannah Arendt Center, Bard College

“Representative government is in crisis today, partly because it has lost, in the course of time, all institutions that permitted the citizens’ actual participation, and partly because it is now gravely affected by the disease from which the party system suffers: bureaucratization and the two parties’ tendency to represent nobody except the party machines.”

(Hannah Arendt, Crises of the Republic, 1970)

If you missed the livestream of this year’s Revitalizing Democracy Conference, you can watch the videos online HERE. My subjective (activism oriented) highlights follow.

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“Sortition Academy” and the Revitalizing Democracy Conference

The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard College in NY is holding a (pandemic-delayed) hybrid in-person / webinar conference on sorition in a couple of weeks. The center is also home to the BIRDS, “Bard Institute for the Revival of Democracy through Sortition,” which has existed for a couple of years but has mostly held online events until now. Registration is still open for the webinar portion of the conference, and I believe in-person attendance is limited to a small number.

REVITALIZING DEMOCRACY:
Sortition, Citizen Power, and Spaces of Freedom

The conference website is called sortition.academy and features three short video introductions to the topic of sorition, averaging 10 minutes each–“What is sortition?” “Greek democracy” and “The story of sortition”–all presented by the Hannah Arendt’s center director Roger Berkowitz. I found these videos quite good for a general audience. Especially intersting was the last video that ends with two segments, “The erasure of sorition,” and “The return of sortition.” Readers of this blog will already know what he is refering to.

Speakers at the conference include many familiar faces in the world of Sortinistas–Van Reybrouck, Landemore, Suiter–but also some surprising old faces and many new faces including young activits and academics. I have registered to attend.

I am curious what Kleroterians and Sortinistas think of the videos and Berkowitz’s take on the role sorition can play under the anti-institutionalism anti-elitism of our time.

An in-depth study of the “Irish Model” by Dimitri Courant

In “Citizens’ Assemblies for Referendums and Constitutional Reforms: Is There an “Irish Model” for Deliberative Democracy?” Dimitri Courant analyzes the recent Irish citizens’ and constituional assemblies in a nuanced and contexuatlized way. This must be one the better treatments of the subject for anyone intersted in the “trans-localization” of the model itself and for those intersted in the design issues for citizens’ assemblies. To me it is a sober evaluation of the “Irish case” and gives us much food for thought on what might happen going forward.

Among democratic innovations, deliberative mini-publics, that is panels of randomly selected citizens tasked to make recommendations about public policies, have been increasingly used. In this regard, Ireland stands out as a truly unique case because, on the one hand, it held four consecutive randomly selected citizens’ assemblies, and on the other hand, some of those processes produced major political outcomes through three successful referendums; no other country shows such as record. This led many actors to claim that the “Irish model” was replicable in other countries and that it should lead to political “success.” But is this true? Relying on a qualitative empirical case-study, this article analyses different aspects to answer this question: First, the international context in which the Irish deliberative process took place; second, the differences between the various Irish citizens’ assemblies; third, their limitations and issues linked to a contrasted institutionalization; and finally, what “institutional model” emerges from Ireland and whether it can be transferred elsewhere.

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Documentary: “Citizen Power: More Direct Democracy?”

Last week, a German documentary about their citizens’ assembly on “improving representative democracy,” which took place in Leipzig over two weekends in Sept. 2019, aired on MDR in Saxony and will air in other regions later. Bürger. Macht. – Mehr direkte Demokratie? is also available on YouTube in its entirety.

The film crew recorded the four days of deliberation at one of the 23 small group tables (table #20 I believe) in addition to the plenaries and the presentation of the “citizens’ recommendations” to parliamentary representatives two months later. The documentary profiled about half a dozen participants from different walks of life, interviewing them in their homes in the weeks following the Assembly. The facilitator at the table filmed was definitely one of the most experienced and probably one of the most effective, from my own observation of the event. That said, the particular group at each particular table was changed via lottery at the beginning of each day.

The style of the documentary is rather understated, and it does not take a position on the future role of CA’s, lotteries, or direct democracy–rather the polar opposite of a heavy handed Michael Moore film.

Of interest to Kleroterians might be the short “tutorial” about Athenian democracy at minute 19:00, a warning about the abuse of referenda during the NS era at 52:00, and the summary of the Irish Assembly at 1:03:30. A journalist hyper skeptical of citizens’ assemblies, lotteries, and “more participation” generally appears at 43:00 along with most of the talk he gave to the “Buergerrat” assembly. At 1:16:00, find drone footage of the installation art / performance “Democracy for Future” which took place on November 15, 2019 outside the Reichstag, shortly before participants from the Leipzig assembly (lot-based) and the regional conferences (self selected) met representatives from the six major parties in the Bundestag along with the Bundestag’s President in a half-day event.

As of now, I don’t know of subtitles other than in German, but will post here if that comes to my attention. Overall, I think the documentary does captures the overall mood of the assembly and what one of the better table discussions looked like.

Does anyone know of a similar documentary about either the Irish Assembly or the French Climate Convention, or any other recent CA for that matter?

Today German Bundestag Live Committee Discussion of “Citizen Engagement” via Sortition

With the title, “A New Form of Citizen Participation,” a special subcommittee of the German Parliament [of the Bundestag or popular assembly] convenes a “technical discussion” of experts on October 6 at noon Berlin time on the upcoming citizens’ assembly on “the role of Germany in the world.” It will be live-streamed at http://www.bundestag.de.

“A lot-based Citizens Council will produce a report on Germany’s role in the world. This project will be implemented as an independent undertaking of the More Democracy association [Mehr Demokratie e. V.] under the patronage of the President of the Bundestag,” reads the announcement of the Bundestag.

It continues that this kind of participation has been practiced in Ireland since 2012 as “Citizens’ Assembly.” The ambassador of Ireland will be a special guest of the committee to report on the Irish experience with “citizens’ councils.” [In Germany the term Buergerrat or “citizen council” has come to mean an allotted body of either the size of a panel or an assembly; it seems, the literal translation of assembly has the connotation of an Ekklesia or gathering of all.]

  • Dr. Nicholas O’Brien, Ambassador from Ireland
  • Roman Huber, Executive Director, Mehr Demokratie e. V. [More Democracy]
  • Dr. Siri Hummel, Acting Director, Maecenata Institute for Philanthropy and Civil Society
  • Dr. Ansgar Klein, Managing Policy Director, Federal Network for Citizen Engagement, [Bundesnetzwerk Bürgerschaftliches Engagement (BBE)] Advisory Board of Bürgerrat Demokratie [the organization which organized the CA on democratic reform in 2019]
  • Univ.-Prof. Dr. Roland Lhotta, Helmut-Schmidt-Universität Hamburg, Professor, Political Science, specializing in the German Federal System

https://www.bundestag.de/dokumente/textarchiv/2020/kw41-pa-buergerschaftliches-engagement-793926

More info in English regarding the upcoming CA on Germany’s role in the world: https://deutschlands-rolle.buergerrat.de/english/

Radio Podcast Series “Democracy in Crisis” on Democracy and Sortition

Last month, with WORT FM in Madison, Wisconsin, I helped organize a three-part radio podcast series “Democracy in Crisis,” that asked what’s wrong with elections and explored alternatives such as assemblies and juries. Thanks very much to those who took part. Additional thanks to Chris Forman, Yoram Gat, Adam Cronkright, Keith Sutherland, and Manuel Arriaga for suggestions and introductions.

We aimed to include differing approaches and points of views in each round-table discussion, and largely succeeded, imho. My own view—that in modern mass politics, characterized by polarization and geographical and intellectual self-sorting, minipublics function as exceptional, pluralistic spaces for the formation of citizenship—was nowhere represented; so, that gives me at least one motive for a follow-up program.

Below are links to the episodes, also found in most podcast applications under the program “8 O’clock Buzz,” published on Aug 27, 28, 29.

Democracy In Crisis, Part 1: What’s Wrong With Elections?
Across the globe, electoral fraud, corruption, disenfranchisement of minorities and the specter of fascism now seem the rule rather than the exception. In 2017, the London-based Economist Democracy Index hit its lowest score ever, including the downgrading of the United States from a “Full Democracy” to a “Flawed Democracy.” Today, we start a three-part series, Democracy in Crisis, which will explore the failures of our current electoral system and perhaps, provide some hope for an alternative model.
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Community Cooperative in Australia Conspicuously Selects Board via Sortition

The Kyneton and District Town Square Co-op set up as an umbrella organization of community groups to democratically manage a historic school building / town square in Australia has a constitution that requires some board members be chosen by sortition.

Scroll down on their home page to see a video of Nivek Thompson speak about sortition and pick five board members out of a hat. Also, several of the activists pose with a placard “Lottery Democracy Lunch” and a sign reads “Lottery democracy arrives in Kyneton.”