Parara: Democracy and the modifiers of modernity

Dr. Polyvia Parara teaches Classics and Modern Greek Studies at the University of Maryland College Park. In a recent article in the English edition of the Greek newspaper Kathimerini, Parara argues that modern Western-system states, conventionally known as “democracies”, are in fact a distortion of the original meaning of democracy, since they do not implement “Isopoliteia” – political equality.

Compared to the original meaning of democracy, it is deduced that modern western societies constitute liberal parliamentary republics protecting individual freedoms and granting rights. They are governed by elected representatives, professional politicians that draw legitimacy by the popular vote. Yet, the citizenry remains limited in the private sphere, not constituting a governing body.

Parara references work of interest by two authors. Continue reading

DemocracyNext

Update: demnext.org now has a video of the launch event. There is also a link to an article by Hélène Landemore and Claudia Chwalisz offering sortition as an alternative to the way that the failed Chilean constitutional proposal was generated (and a tweet-thread with a summary in English.)

DemocracyNext is a new organization featuring a “Who’s Who” of the sortition circles. DemocracyNext‘s press release announcing its launch is here. Some excerpts:

DemocracyNext, a new non-profit, non-partisan research and action institute, which announces its foundation this International Democracy Day, 15 September 2022 – aims to actively help this new democratic paradigm take shape and take hold.

“We believe that another democratic future is possible. We want to design and build new institutions where citizens can hold real decision making power,” said Claudia Chwalisz, chief executive of DemocracyNext. “Our point of departure is that the current electoral system is broken beyond repair. An entirely new framework must be based on full participation, citizen representation by lot, and real deliberation.”
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Nathan Jack: Let’s end elections

Nathan Jack, an attorney in Salt Lake City, is a sortition advocate blogging at democracyplus.substack.com. He has recently written the following article in The Salt Lake Tribune.

Time to replace elections with Democracy+

Picking our leaders at random would be better than hard-fought elections.

Congress is broken. With few legislative accomplishments, we shouldn’t be surprised at its abysmal 16% approval rating. But with midterms approaching, all five Utah incumbents up for election won their primary. And all five are projected to keep their seats.

In states and districts across the country, incumbents easily win reelection. Despite our dissatisfaction with Congress, nothing changes.

This problem lacks an easy solution. Many look to term limits. Sen. Mike Lee himself has long advocated for senators to serve two six-year terms (although he seems unwilling to apply that rule to himself). Others look to campaign finance reform, as fundraising is one of the biggest advantages that incumbents gain. But these measures only treat the symptoms. We need to rid our government of the disease.

The disease? Elections.
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Marcel Monin: What about sortition?

Marcel Monin is a doctor of law. He writes the following in the French website AgoraVox.

What about sortition?

The substance and the goals of decisions made – which elude the people, and the conduct of the elites with regards to the people, especially over the last 5 years, lead sometime to doubt that we are still living in a democracy. Who wants government of the people, by the people, for the people, when those same elites are those standing for election?

The considerations made 2,500 years ago regarding the respective merits of sortition and elections and regarding their practice are again in vogue. Some advocate replacing elections with sortition.

Sortition, it appears, has advantages.

From a technical point of view:

  • It eliminates professionalism and thus the the submission of the elected to the internal rules of attaining and maintaining office (with its implications on the elected-electors relationship).
  • It eliminates the dependence before the elections in groups of financial backers who finance the electoral campaigns and which manipulate the voters through the media they own. (See the ideal-type example of this phenomenon with the candidate Macron.)
  • It overcomes the obstable of campaign cost which keeps the poor away from being candidates, somewhat similar to how things were when only the rich had the vote. The presidential elections show this effect in accentuated to an absurd degree.
  • Statistically, humble people would have less of a chance of being under-represented.

However, still from a technical point of view there are disadvantages. Among them are:
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Sortition on VSauce

VSauce is a popular YouTube channel. The channel, which has millions of subscribers, deals with “scientific, psychological, mathematical, and philosophical topics, as well as gaming, technology, popular culture, and other general interest subjects”.

In April 2021 the channel uploaded a 30-minute video called “The Future Of Reasoning”. The video is a bit of grab bag of ideas and topics, but the main message seems to be that in order to deal with global warming the human race (or the West, or the US) needs to improve the way in which it makes decisions, and that this improvement could involve relying on sortition. “Lottocracy” is presented and argued for starting about 26 minutes into the video and Aristotle is quoted about 28 minutes in. According to YouTube, the video has been watched 6.5 million times – quite a nice exposure to the idea of sortition.

The classical unities

According to Wikipedia, it was Italian Renaissance philosopher Gian Giorgio Trissino who came up with the “classical unities” as a prescriptive theory of dramatic tragedy. The three unities are:

  • Unity of action: a tragedy should have one principal action.
  • Unity of time: the action in a tragedy should occur over a period of no more than 24 hours.
  • Unity of place: a tragedy should exist in a single physical location.

When considering how sortition (and elections) can be conducted in a way that would be resistant to manipulation, such unities are crucial, argues Trent Clark in an article in the Idaho State Journal.

Ancient Athens was home to one of the world’s first democracies. The Greek orator and reformer Cleisthenes initiated citizen “voting” in 508 BC. His solution: Give every voter one black stone and one white stone. On each decision, whether to go to war, accept a treaty, send trade delegations, etc., the citizens would cast a stone (white for “yes,” black for “no”) into a jar. The contents of the jar determined the policy of the city. As many as 6,000 Athenians would participate.

In early Athens, serving in government was a civic obligation, like jury duty today. Military assignments were based on skill with weapons and history as a soldier. But other posts were randomly drawn, a process called “sortition.” Tokens with a citizen’s name, or pinakia, were arranged across a large flat tablet or kleroterion. Multi-colored dice were used to select rows and columns, pointing to a random name for each open position.

Cleisthenes found it essential that all this occur at a known location, at a designated time, in public. Citizens needed to see that the process was not rigged or “fixed” by the city’s tribal bosses.

Dikastic Thorubos

All the other powers are naturally in a man’s own control, but the power of speaking is blocked if there is opposition from the audience. Hear him as a scoundrel, bribe-taker, and as one who will say absolutely nothing true. (Dem. 19-340)

Cited in V. Bers, ‘Dikastic Thorubos’ in Crux: Essays Presented to G.E.M. de Ste. Croix, ed. P.A. Cartledge and F.D. Harvey (Exeter: Imprint Academic, 1985)

Recent outbursts of mud-slinging on this forum have implications for the design of sortition-based assemblies, especially if isegoria (equal speech) is the norm. This is the guiding principle of deliberative democracy, as it was in the Athenian democracy (unlike Sparta). However in both the ancient and modern cases only a tiny number of participants exercised the ho boulomenos (anyone who wishes) principle. It took some cojones to address the Athenian assembly and unpopular speakers were shouted down by the other participants (as we saw in the quote from Demosthenes). Whilst such prophylactics can work in direct democracies, large modern states resort to the exchange of insults between political parties, each one hoping to increase its share of the vote in elections. Jaw-jaw is certainly better than war-war, hence the fact that the illocutionary factions in the House of Commons are separated by two swords’ lengths.

The mud-slinging on this forum appears to be primarily between two “camps” — in the one corner Alex Kovner and Keith Sutherland and in the other Yoram Gat and Liam Jones. As Alex recently commented, the two groups appear to be “on different planets”, impervious to the (Habermasian) exchange of reasons.

There is no good reason to believe that a sortition-based assembly would be any different — especially if participation is voluntary, as this would attract those who like the sound of their own voice, which may or may not map to the voices of those in the target population that the randomly-selected group is intended to “describe”. This would suggest that ho boulomenos can do little to support the isegoria rights of the vast majority of citizens who fail to be included in the sortition.

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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.

Democracy in Crisis: Lessons from Ancient Athens

The book Democracy in Crisis by Professor Jeff Miller will be published on January 6th 2022.

The storming of the US Capitol building in January 2021 focused attention on the multiple threats facing contemporary liberal democracies. Beyond the immediate problem of Covid-19, the past two decades saw political polarization, a dramatic rise in inequality, global warming and other environmental threats, as well as the growth of dangerous cultural and political divisions. Western liberal democracies find themselves in the midst of what political theorists call a legitimation crisis: major portions of the population lack confidence in the ability of governments to address our most pressing problems. This distrust in government and traditional political parties opened the door to populist leaders and a rising tide of authoritarianism.

Liberal democracies face major structural and normative challenges in the near future that require us to look beyond the traditional set of solutions available. Democracy in Crisis points back to the world’s first democratic government, Ancient Athens, to see what made that political arrangement durable and resistant to both internal and external threats. The argument focuses on several distinctive Athenian institutions and practices, and considers how we might reimagine them in the modern world. The book addresses questions of civic ideology and institutions, with extended treatment of two distinctive Athenian institutions, ostracism and sortition.

The launch event is at the annual conference of the Association for Political Thought, St. Catherine’s College, Oxford, but has moved online as a result of the Omicron surge. Details below:

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Sortition: An Ancient Remedy to Heal the Organized Community’s Wounds

Christopher Tripoulas writes in The National Herald, a publication aimed at the Greek American community:

For months now, the Federation of Hellenic Societies of Greater New York has been embroiled in an ugly dispute between rival sides. As the coordinating umbrella organization for local Greek societies, its primary function is to organize the annual Greek Independence Day Parade on Fifth Avenue.

Despite any criticism regarding its subdued presence in other issues of vital importance for the Greek-American Community or the manner in which it organizes the parade, the truth is that with the exception of Holy Week, it handles perhaps the largest and most recognizable collective Greek Community activity in America. This alone constitutes the resolution of the present dysfunctionality an immediate priority.

The organization of a parade, without clear objectives and messages, negates its very purpose. Although the parade takes place in a prime location and is covered live by a large metropolitan area broadcaster, there are still glaring issues. Whether it’s the lack of a stricter dress code for participants to promote uniformity and aesthetic beauty, or the failure to properly showcase student-marchers, considering that our Greek parochial schools are interspersed with no rhyme or reason, as if Hellenic Paideia was not one of the most critical issues for the survival of Hellenism, there are serious issues that need to be examined through public discourse, and not just in the anterooms of the Federation.

Ultimately, either the Greek-American Community will manage to prioritize certain common values around which it will work in unison and strategically to upgrade the institutions that express them, or it will come apart, because the ‘tropos’ or manner of its distinct otherness will no longer be discernible, leading to withering and dissolution.

This column proposes that the present administrative crisis can be overcome through the application of the ancient democratic practice of sortition; that is, distribution of offices via a lottery system. In his work ‘Rhetoric’, Aristotle notes that “a Democracy is a form of government under which the citizens distribute the offices of state among themselves by lot” (1365b-1366a). Hence, if the Federation leadership invokes democracy as a defining quality of its mode of governance, then there should not be any problem with accepting the distribution of offices according to its signature trait.

On the contrary, the revival of this ancient element of democracy would serve as a sterling example for other organizations, while showcasing an essential aspect of democracy that is frequently overlooked in contemporary society. And while this trait may escape popular attention, it is not altogether absent from modern democratic polities. Two characteristic examples from the United States regarding the contemporary use of sortition include the selection of jurors for trials, and the draft, which is currently not in use, but still a legal requirement laid out in the selective service system. Now, if many of us just happen to view the former as an imposition and waste of time, and ward off the latter, it’s worth questioning just how democratically minded we truly are…
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