Interview with Yves Sintomer, part 2 of 2: With sortition, the scale is immaterial

This is the second part of a translation of an interview with Yves Syntomer. The first part is here, the original in French is here.

Does the end of the 20th century mark the return of a desire to experiment with sortition?

We witnessed in the 1980’s and 1990’s an explosion of experiments applying sortition, a “first wave” where the reference to Athens was very significant. There are however big differences. We aim to obtain a representative sample of the population by allotment, where the Athenians did not have this mathematical notion and resorted to pure luck. The second big difference is that we wish to use sortition to create an Assembly which is going to debate in nearly ideal conditions, following the ideas of ­Jürgen ­Habermas, according to which a decision is not legitimate unless it is preceded by a well-formed discussion.

The third difference is that sortition is introduced at the margins of the political system and that the mini-publics so constituted are merely consultative. This first wave allowed to show that with discussions among ordinary citizens, non-specialists, once they have sufficient information and have the opportunities to examine things, where opportunity to speak has been equally apportioned, in a general assembly or in small groups, high-quality conversation is attained. It is impressive to see that the exchanges between ordinary citizens put to shame those that take place in parliaments.

We are now seeing the emergence of a second wave. Sortition is now invoked by social movements in France, including Nuit Debout and some among the Gilets Jaunes. Ireland has recently offered us a paradigmatic example of this second wave. We had two allotted assemblies (one in its entirety, the other in its majority) convened first to discuss marriage for all and then abortion and to propose constitutional reforms which were then submitted to the people who have ratified those propositions by referenda.

Iceland is another significant example. The country was in a bad state at the moment of the subprime crisis… Two citizen assemblies were allotted (one in its entirety, the other in its majority) in order to propose how to reconstruct the country. That was followed by an election of a constituante committee where professional politicians could not be members, a proposal of a new constitution, a validation of the proposal by a consultative referendum… It was finally buried by an obstruction by a majority in Parliament, which refused to adopt the text.

It may be objected that those are two small countries…

With sortition, the scale is immaterial: it may be used at the level of a city or a country in quite similar ways.
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Sortition and democracy. History, instruments, and theories: a special issue of Participations journal

Participations journal’s latest issue is devoted to sortition. This appears to be a treasure trove. The issue, titled “Sortition and democracy. History, instruments, and theories”, has 24 papers comprising over 500 pages. The French text of all papers seems to be allow unrestricted access.

The papers are organized into 5 sections:

  1. The ancient world
  2. The medieval world and the modern world
  3. The Chinese world
  4. The contemporary world
  5. Postface

The authors include familiar names (Sintomer, Demont, Courant) as well as many that I, at least, am not familiar with.

“The contemporary world” section has some papers that seem particularly interesting, e.g., Samuel Hayat’s “The militant trajectory of the reference to Bernard Manin in French activism for sortition” and Julien Talpin’s “Does random selection make democracies more democratic? How deliberative democracy has depoliticized a radical proposal”.

Another intriguing paper is Alexei Daniel Serafín Castro’s “Political representation and the uses of sortition in Mexico: 1808-1857” which discusses a historical application of sortition that I have never heard of before.

A response to Cody Hipskind, part 3 of 3

Cody Hispkind’s post is here. The previous parts of my response are here and here.

Political activism under a democratic system

A major tenet of democratic ideology is that people are the best representatives of their own interests: when provided sufficient opportunity, each person and each group of people are best able to understand and express their own values and ideas and the actions that should be taken in order to promote these values and ideas. This tenet is in contrast to “republican” ideology which shares with democratic ideology the idea that everyone’s interests should count equally, but asserts that some people (“a natural aristocracy”) are best qualified to determine what those interests are and how they should be pursued, and therefore those people should be in charge.

Elections are a republican, anti-democratic mechanism: they empower an elite to determine public policy for others (whether this elite may be called a “natural aristocracy” is a matter of taste, I guess). That elite should be able to represent itself, the democratic tenet asserts, but is quite unlikely to represent the majority of the people who are very different from it. Sortition, through the process of statistical sampling, creates a body that by representing itself would represent the public at large.

However, the capacity for self-representation is not a spontaneous, automatic capacity. Getting a group of people (or a single person, for that matter) to the state where it is able to represent its own interests effectively is not a trivial matter. From an institutional standpoint, there are clearly some preconditions that need to be met: there need to be enough resources at the disposal of the group so that reliable information can be gathered. There needs to be enough time to discuss matters, determine an agenda, fashion proposals, debate them, amend them, vote on them, evaluate the effect of the adopted policy, reconsider the matter and repeat the procedure over time.
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A response to Cody Hipskind, part 2

Cody Hispkind’s post is here. The first part of my response is here.

Using an electoral campaign as a focus for political organization and action

Electoral campaigns are like military campaigns. Like military campaigns, electoral campaigns can in principle be fought for good causes – causes that serve the greater good. But there is no reason to believe this is generally the case. Like military campaigns, electoral campaigns, at least those with any traction, are invariably led by an elite, for purposes determined by that elite, and with power in them held by that elite. Like in war, the masses are mobilized by the elite using sloganeering and propaganda rather than rational argumentation and once mobilized they play the role of canon fodder. In political campaigns, the masses are milked for their political and moral energy as well as for time, money and, eventually, votes. Yes – there could be benevolent elites who promote good causes, but these surely are the exception. Thus, as a rule, electoral campaigns serve elite purposes.

It might be objected that it would be easier to recruit the electorate to campaigns that serve the greater good. This, however, relies on the false assumption that people join political campaigns based on informed and considered analysis of their objectives and prospects. Just as is true about recruits to the military, a realistic assessment of the objectives, actions and consequences of the organization which one joins is rarely a major factor in the decision to join a campaign.

Even if one has successfully overcome the inherent oligarchizing tendencies of an electoral campaign and managed to send a democratically-minded delegate to an elected chamber, one has won a single contest. While one is busy with the effort of identifying a campaign worth supporting and then putting one’s precious spare time and energy into that campaign, a well-funded effort by a narrow interest group has broadcast its messages into the minds of millions and has co-opted promising candidates as well as those already in power. Rather than getting an effective platform, the rare democratically-minded delegate is ignored or painted in mass media as a lone lunatic.

So the fact that electoral campaigning may actually be one of the relatively more effective ways to promote democratic goals in an electoral system is really an indication of how dysfunctional that system is. With all its futility, an electoral campaign may actually be a relatively promising political activity in a system that is so thoroughly oligarchical.

The oligarchizing effects of electoral campaigning are largely effects of mass politics in general, where nominally egalitarian political relations in fact almost invariably result in hierarchical relations. Having no formal hierarchy is far from a guarantee of democracy. Contrary to liberal, Marxist and progressive dogmas, democracy in large groups is not a spontaneously occurring phenomenon. It does not just appear due to the good intentions and hard work of the members of the group. It needs to be designed and applied with care and rigor in order to exist and thrive.

A response to Cody Hipskind, part 1

Thank you Cody for your post. I believe it can serve as a starting point for a fruitful discussion – a discussion that has already started in the comments thread to the post.

I would like to address various points you made separately. Here are the first 3 points, corresponding to the first 6 paragraphs in your post.

1. Class and political conflict

It is an obvious fact of life that different people have different political ideas. If everybody agreed on everything politics would be very easy – any one of “us” would do what “we” all agree upon. Still, there is a tendency, which used to be the dominant line of elite political thought in pre-modern times but is common today especially among liberals, to argue, or at least to imply, that disagreements are over means rather than ends. That is, that “we” all agree what is the common good (or at least would agree what is the common good if some of us overcame our ignorance) and the main difficulty is finding competent people who would be able to achieve that good. This translates to elitism. The elitism used to be explicit with the pre-moderns, the archetype being Plato, it was slightly less explicit with the early moderns, e.g., the American Founders, and it is much more implicit today. Nevertheless, it is often still just below the surface of the democratic rhetoric.

The notion that “we” all agree on goals can be dismissed. The common-goals ideology and the attendant elitism are of course self-serving notions for those in power. They imply that to the extent policy produces undesirable outcomes – say enrichment of those in power and their associates and the impoverishment of much of the rest of the population – then those in power can at most be blamed for incompetence rather than corruption. (Naturally, they would in fact argue that unfortunate as the outcomes are, they are necessary for the achievement of the commonly agreed goals.)
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Yves Sintomer: Blow the dust off of democracy with an allotted third chamber. Part 1

This is an English version of an interview with Yves Sintomer in the journal Socialter (original in French).

The Gilets Jaunes, who are looking for new democratic experiences, have called for an “assembly of assemblies”. Would it be necessary, in order to resolve the impasse, to radicalize our democracy? Why not re-institutionalize one of the its original components: sortition. A conversation with Yves Sintomer, a political scientist and an expert in democratic procedures.

Philippe Vion-Dury, 17/04/2019
Photos: Cyrille Choupas

The Gilet Jaunes have been first presented at an anti-tax movement and then as a social justice movement. Isn’t it, however, fundamentally, the question of institutions and democracy question which predominates?

What unites the Gilets Jaunes, it seems to me, is not so much the question of institutions in the strict sense as much as denial of recognition to which they respond by protesting against social injustice and against the democratic gap, a sentiment of non-representation. These two components appear to me to be tied together: society does not recognize them both because its fruits are distributed too unequally and because their voice is not being heard.

Popular distrust can be observed in most western democracies, in different forms. Isn’t there a generalized crisis of “representative government” itself?

There is a French particularity: a President with disproportionately concentrated power, little countervailing power, unusually weak political parties… and the revolt of the Gilet Jaunes is a social mobilization to which there is no equivalent in neighboring countries. This particularity has to be put in context, because it works within a much more general crisis of representation which affects not only European democracies but is also the young democracies of Latin America and in the formally democratic countries of Africa and Asia.

Representative governments were created during the English, French and American revolutions as a compromise solution. It involved giving effective decision power to a self-proclaimed elite – from this point of view, there is an aristocratic dimension to representative government. This ruling aristocracy, however, would not longer be one of “blue blood”, of nobility, but an aristocracy determined by the voters.

This institutionalization of representative government has long been opposed to the feudal society of the Ancien Regime, but also against democracy, understood as “government of the people, for the people, by the people” – to quote Abraham Lincoln. The is to limit the power of the people by giving decision making power to an elected aristocracy. That allows us to distance ourselves from the classical liberal conception asserting that “democracy means elections”.
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Sortition in the press

Some recent media items mentioning sortition:

Verena Friederike Hasel, Politico, May 16:

Germany’s democracy problem: History has made Germans reluctant to let the mob decide.

BERLIN — Germany, like many places in Europe, is badly in need of democratic rejuvenation.

But where other countries are experimenting with bringing voices from the street into the political process, Germany’s dark history casts a shadow on efforts to break down barriers to political participation.

There’s no question Germany would benefit from listening to its citizens and engaging in some talk therapy. […]

In ancient Greece, that cradle of democracy, citizens’ assemblies consisted of 500 people who were elected by lot. After serving for a year, they were replaced by others. Lately, with democracy in crisis, the Greek model has served as an inspiration for modern-day democracies. Ireland, for example, set up a citizens’ assembly in 2016. […]

The Germans have been more reluctant to tinker with their political system. But on a Saturday morning in late February, 44 people gathered in Frankfurt. The choice of venue had symbolic value. Frankfurt, nowadays known as the country’s financial hub, was home to the first freely elected German parliament in 1848. This time around, people gathered for an event called Demokratiekonvent. It’s the brainchild of Dominik Herold, a 27-year-old politics major who wanted to take a cue from Ireland, knowing full well that “Germany still has a long way to go.”
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