Democracy without political parties: the case of ancient Athens George Tridimas

Here’s the abstract of a recent article by George Tridimas in the Journal of Institutional Economics:

Democracy without political parties: the case of ancient Athens

Political parties, formal, durable and mass organizations that inform voters on public policy issues, nominate candidates for office and fight elections for the right to govern, are ubiquitous in modern representative democracies but were absent from the direct participatory democracy of ancient Athens. The paper investigates how the political institutions of Athens may explain their absence. The arguments explored include voter homogeneity; the conditions at the start of the democracy, characterized by single constituency configuration of the demos, simple majority voting and lack of organized groups; the irrelevance of holding public office for determining public policy; appointment to public posts through sortition; and voting on single-dimension issues. The paper then discusses how in the absence of parties voters became informed and how political leaders were held accountable by the courts.

I’ve not yet read it. If you want to email me on ngruen at gmail, I might be able to help you out with access to the article.

Modern citizen assemblies are an affront to Athenian democracy

The burgeoning media interest in citizens’ assemblies (it was the lead discussion on the BBC R4 Today programme last Saturday) prompted me to contribute my own article to The Spectator, explaining some of the underlying political theory and the (spurious) claims for their origins in the fourth-century Athenian nomothetai. Again it’s a short article so best to read it on the Spectator blog. It will be interesting to read the comments.

A Citizens’ Assembly on climate change is the coward’s way out

Interesting article by Melanie McDonagh in The Spectator on citizens’ assemblies. In response to the demands of Extinction Rebellion, letters inviting 30,000 households across the UK to join a citizens’ assembly on climate change were sent out last week by an alliance of six Commons select committees, chaired by Rachel Reeves. The author (an Irish Catholic) has some alarming claims to make regarding the citizens’ assembly on the repeal of the eighth constitutional amendment (on abortion). It’s a short and interesting piece, so I won’t bother to post extracts.

All the comments posted after the Spectator article are critical of the design of such deliberative assemblies which (IMO) run the danger of bringing the entire sortition movement into disrepute.

Cook: Sortition is an element in a war on civilization

Michael Cook, editor of MercatorNet, issues a strong warning against the Extinction Rebellion movement. Here are some excerpts:

Extinction Rebellion’s loopy politics

The movement’s “Declaration of Rebellion”, a pastiche of America’s “Declaration of Independence”, states: “We hereby declare the bonds of the social contract to be null and void, which the government has rendered invalid by its continuing failure to act appropriately. We call upon every principled and peaceful citizen to rise with us.”

Declaring the “social contract” null and void is a radical step – so radical that either the author did not understand it (unlikely) or he thought that no one else would (likely). Stopping traffic? You ain’t seen nothin’ yet. This is a declaration of war on civilization.

There is but one rational, ethical, and spiritual position on climate change. None other is possible. “The ecological crises that are impacting upon this nation, and indeed this planet and its wildlife can no longer be ignored, denied nor go unanswered by any beings of sound rational thought, ethical conscience, moral concern, or spiritual belief,” the declaration says.

In a democracy, questioning an opponent’s sincerity about his convictions is the ultimate offence. Convictions are tested by rational debate, not by smearing people as venal, wicked or stupid. But this is just what XR is doing.

XR demands that countries go “beyond politics”. “Government must create and be led by the decisions of a Citizens’ Assembly on climate and ecological justice.” Why? Because “Political power in the UK is in the hands of a few elected politicians” says the “Our Demands” page on the XR website. This, of course, is true. Putting power in the hands of elected politicians is called representative democracy and it has a long and successful history of defending political and personal freedom.
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Minipublics beyond representation

[This serves, in a sense, as my response to the discussion on the French climate assembly post.]

Now that minipublics are no longer limited to local level “experiments” but are regularly involved in consequential political occasions, constitutional amendments (Ireland), long term city planning (Australia, Germany, US), responses to major political crises (France, Iceland, Ireland), institutionalized checks within representative government (East Belgium, Oregon)–to name a few—the question of their “representativeness,” and, more fundamentally, their legitimate democratic role is no longer academic. Given the response rate problem, those who accept invitations to a citizens’ assembly or jury (however scientifically sampled) are different in some respects from those who do not, and the number of participants in any such minipublic will, regardless of sampling, be exceedingly small compared to the population. Sortinistas and participatory democrats have raised the question of how a not entirely representative, unelected minority could legitimately affect political outcomes for the overwhelming majority who do not take part in the minipublic. In contrast to the “allotted citizen,” with the implication of egalitarian empowerment, some would disparagingly label participants in a minipublic chosen by lot an “aleatoric elite”–ignoring the standard implication of non-ephemerality in the term “elite.” But this focus on strict representativity misses the strongest reason for using minipublics chosen by lot in the first place, and it distracts us form their most promising participatory democratic uses.

After summarizing the strongest arguments articulated by both sortinistas and participatory democrats for the strengths and political potential of minipublics, I suggest another dimension on which they can function. Allotted minipublics can serve as unique spaces of political action and contestation, different from the space of electoral struggle, the space of confrontation in protest, or “enclave” spaces within activist groups and political parties. An electoral campaign is mostly fighting, a protest mostly “manifesting” strength or conviction, a party/union/organization meeting mostly strategizing or venting; but a minipublic provides a rare opportunity for the “everyman,” in a time of cognitive and political “bubbles,” to confront or act with a plurality of points of view, no one of which she/he can anticipate.
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Procaccia: Lotteries Instead of Elections? Not So Arbitrary

Ariel Procaccia, an associate professor in the computer science department at Carnegie Mellon University, has an opinion piece in Bloomberg News advocating sortition. Some excerpts:

Have you ever thought that 535 random people off the street would do a decidedly better job than the duly elected members of the U.S. Congress? If so, you’ve been scooped by a few millenniums; the idea of selecting government officials at random, known as sortition, is neither as outrageous nor as original as it seems.

In the fourth and fifth centuries BC, some of the central organs of the Athenian government were populated by selecting random volunteers. For example, the members of the Council of 500 — whose responsibilities included developing legislation, overseeing the executive branch and managing diplomatic relations — were selected at random for one-year terms.

During the Renaissance, sortition was all the rage. For centuries it played a key role in the process of selecting the Doge of Venice, as well as in populating the branches of the Florentine government. It was also employed widely throughout the Kingdom of Aragon, which is part of modern-day Spain. [King Ferdinand II of Aragon spoke highly of the virtues of sortition. Unfortunately, he also established the Spanish Inquisition and ordered the expulsion of practicing Jews from his kingdom, so he is hardly an authority on governance.] Sortition actually endured as a system of government into the 20th century: San Marino’s two heads of state were selected at random from 60 councilors as recently as 1945. [The two heads of state constitute a non-negligible fraction of the minuscule country’s population.]

Procaccia mentions in quick succession David Van Reybrouck, Terrill Bouricius, citizens’ assemblies, Ireland, and the German-speaking Community of Belgium, and finishes off with:

Admittedly, even the Belgian initiative is still a long way off from a Bouricius-style sortition utopia — and the jury is still out on whether we’d want to go that far. But it’s comforting to think that the best fix for our political chaos may be a bit of randomness.

Sortition in Ha’aretz

Ha’aretz is Israel’s elite newspaper. With Israel’s second election day of 2019 coming up in about a month, Ha’aretz published in its latest weekend magazine an article by Hilo Glaser offering readers several reform ideas for the political system. Sortition got top billing. I was interviewed for the article. Below is a translation of some excerpts (original in Hebrew, paywalled).

The method: Sortition (i.e., lottery instead of elections)

The idea: Advocates of sortition note that modern democracy embraces ideas originating from Ancient Greece, but it disposes of the government mechanism that enabled their application. In ancient democracy public offices were appointed by lottery among the entire citizenry. This is how officials, clerics, and even government ministers were appointed.

In 2014, Prof. Irad Malkin published an article in Ha’aretz in which he explained that “the lottery was the most effective tool against the oligarchy of money and government, drawing the citizens into the political activity and allowing them to take part at different levels: in the sovereign assembly, in the high council, and in the courts. This worked well for 200 years.”

Not only historians are calling to revive the lottery mechanism. Yoram Gat, a software engineer and a statistics Ph.D., has recently published an article challenging the mechanism of elections in view of the public frustration with elected institutions and offering sortition as an alternative. He claims that allotment of political office holders will result in optimal representation of the different groups in the population.
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