Hansen: ancient and modern democracy

In a recent article Dr. Polyvia Parara made reference to a 2005 book by Mogens Herman Hansen, The Tradition of Ancient Greek Democracy and its Importance for Modern Democracy. It turns out this book is available online.

As always, Hansen is a very useful source of information about democracy in the ancient Greek world. In this book, Hansen focuses less on ancient Greece and more on the connections between ancient Greek democracy and “modern democracy”. Hansen rightly points out that, contrary to what some would have us believe (he cites and quotes Hannah Arendt), there is very little evidence for either institutional or ideological continuity between the two periods.

Hansen focuses first on the ideology.

The classical example that inspired the American and French revolutionaries as well as the English radicals was Rome rather than Greece. Thus, the Founding Fathers who met in Philadelphia in 1787, did not set up a Council of the Areopagos, but a Senate, that, eventually, met on the Capitol. And the French constitution of 1799, designed by Sieyès, had no board of strategoi but a triumvirate of consuls.

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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

Landemore: No Decarbonization Without Democratization

Hélène Landemore writes in Project Syndicate:

The planet is burning. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s warnings about the consequences of rising temperatures are becoming increasingly dire. And Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has set off a race in Europe and elsewhere to achieve energy independence through rapid transformations of the economy.

With decarbonization becoming such an urgent priority, it is tempting to consider political shortcuts. Why not try enlightened despotism or “epistocracy” (rule by experts), picking the best climate scientists and engineers and empowering them to make the decisions for us? Why not embrace the Chinese method of forcing through sweeping changes and swatting away any misguided resistance from below?

This opening has at least three standard features of Western elite political discourse. First, it puts climate change front and center – a problem that is widely recognized in elite circles not only as an issue that should be at the top of the governance agenda, but also one where the elite, duly concerned about the upcoming catastrophe, find themselves at the forefront of moral thought, desperately trying to lead a reluctant, obtuse public. The single issue of climate change is the only issue that matters in the article and other issues, issues that affect the public at large but are of no concern to the elite (most urgently recently, for example, the rising costs of energy, but many perennial issues as well), are considered only to the extent that they bear on the issue of climate change.
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Rangoni and Vandamme: Is deliberative democracy a hopeless ideal?

“Is deliberative democracy a hopeless ideal?” is the title of a recent books review by Sacha Rangoni and Piere-Étienne Vandamme on the Social Europe website. The review deals with three books discussing “deliberative democracy”:

  • Le tournant délibératif de la démocratie, Loïc Blondiaux and Bernard Manin (eds), Sciences Po, 2021,
  • Deliberative Democracy, Ian O’Flynn, Polity Press, 2021,
  • Deliberative Mini-Publics, Nicole Curato et al, Bristol University Press, 2021.

The books, to the extent the review reflects their contents, seem to largely cover well-trodden group. We again meet the standard “for” and “against” arguments regarding “deliberation” and allotted bodies. Those presented in the article are:

  • “[W]e should all exchange arguments before we reach the best collective decision, and that ideal lies at the heart of the deliberative conception of democracy.”
  • “[This is], some critics have argued, a hopeless ideal, founded on a naïve and unappealing understanding of politics, in which people do not have strong political convictions and would prefer consensual decisions over conflict.”
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1936: For the Random Selection of the Chamber of Deputies

Hugh Pope is a British reporter and author. He is also the son of Maurice Pope, a linguist and a specialist in Classical studies and antiquity. It turns out that when Maurice Pope died in 2019 he left a manuscript which he wrote decades earlier titled “Sortitional Democracy”. Hugh has now undertaken to edit and to publish this manuscript, and it seems that in the process he has become a sortition activist. I certainly hope to read and review the book once it is published later this year.

It seems that, now that he is running in the sortition circles, Pope has met David Van Reybrouk and the latter has informed him about the existence of a book published in 1936 in France called Pour le Tirage au Sort de la Chambre des Députés (For the Random Selection of the Chamber of Deputies). The book was written by an anonymous former French Assembly-member.

This book marks a very early contribution to the modern consideration of sortition. In fact, it is the earliest book-length treatment of sortition in the entire history of political writing, as far as I am aware, if we don’t count Headlam’s Election by lot at Athens, which is mostly historical and its political-ideological aspects are somewhat secondary (and which is also aimed at dismissing sortition rather than considering it seriously).
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A graphic novel advocating sortition

A new short illustrated fictional work set 5 years into the future follows Tom, an Architecture student in Marseille, who is allotted to sit on the French National Assembly. The work, written (in French) by Béatrice and Salomé Mabilon, is entitled Nous ne sommes pas en démocratie: Plaidoyer pour le tirage au sort (We are not living in a democracy: a plea for sortition) and is available both in print and as an e-book. Béatrice Mabilon is a professor of education and has written in the past in favor of sortition.

Excerpt (my translation):

Julien [Tom’s assistant, who is also a former allotted representative]: “At the beginning when I was allotted it was like a blank page, I felt like anything is possible. But we had a long way to go. In the previous system, power was arrogated by an oligarchy that formed a closed circle. The representative system was in crisis…”
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Bagg: Citizen oversight juries

Samuel Bagg is a democratic theorist, soon to be at the University of South Carolina. In 2019 he co-wrote with Michael Schulson an article about sortition in Dissent magazine. In a paper just published in the American Journal of Political Science Bagg elaborates on the ideas in Dissent magazine. The elitist notions that were hinted at in the 2019 article (and that are unfortunately standard among academics who discuss sortition) are now full fledged as Bagg offers a proposal for a strictly curtailed role for allotted bodies. The proposal seems very much along the lines the proposal made by Ethan Leib almost 20 years ago (of which Bagg seems unaware), but with a more limited range of application.

The paper’s abstract is as follows:

Sortition as Anti-Corruption: Popular Oversight against Elite Capture

Random selection for political office—or “sortition”—is increasingly seen as a promising tool for democratic renewal. Critics worry, however, that replacing elected and appointed officials with randomly selected citizens would only exacerbate elite manipulation of political processes. This article argues that sortition can contribute to democratic renewal, but that its genuine promise is obscured by the excessive ambition and misplaced focus of prevailing models. Casting random selection as a route to accurate representation of the popular will, most contemporary proposals require randomly selected citizens to perform legislative tasks, whose open-endedness grants substantial discretion to elite agenda setters and facilitators. The real democratic promise of sortition-based reforms, I argue, lies in obstructing elite capture at critical junctures: a narrower task of oversight that creates fewer opportunities for elite manipulation. In such contexts, the benefits of empowering ordinary people—resulting from their immunity to certain distorting influences on career officials—plausibly outweigh the risks.

The notion of oversight is rather broad and could imply bodies with wide anti-corruption purview that could create a real source of independent political power by drawing and enforcing radical rules about the connections decision makers (and in particular, elected officials) may or may not have with the powerful bodies in society and politics. However, this is not at all what Bagg has in mind.

COJs [Citizen Oversight Juries] would be convened over the course of a few days or weeks at most, and participants drawn randomly from the population would be required to serve for the entire process, so as to minimize the distortions of self-selection. As in civil and criminal trials, crucially, the role of jurors would be to make a judgment about a narrow, binary question, whose parameters are fixed in advance, after hearing arguments from designated adversarial representatives on both sides.

Thus, just like Leib’s proposal, Bagg’s proposal is for ad-hoc, short-term bodies, whose rules, agenda and information are dictated by elite bodies. It is only within the framework of these restrictions that Bagg feels that “citizen oversight bodies could plausibly make use of those advantages [of sortition] without incurring excessive risks”.

The expandable meaning of “democracy”

Traditionally, the word “democracy” has been used in Western political philosophy as a pejorative term. This use has been dominant for about 2,800 years – since the time of the Old Oligarch and Plato up to and including the time of the American and French revolutionaries. Those latter groups have adhered to this pejorative sense of the word “democracy” and have strenuously insisted that the systems they are constructing are “republican” rather than “democratic”.

The dominant pejorative meaning has been replaced by the by-now familiar celebratory meaning during the 19th century under the pressures of electoralism. As Francis Dupuis-Deri recounts the story of the word “democracy”, it was Andrew Jackson, who was the first U.S. presidential candidate who described himself as a “simple democrat”. This was, Dupuis-Deri writes, his winning campaign tactic in 1828, after having lost his bid in 1824 in which he still ran, like the other candidates in that race, under the banner of “republican” (Dupuis-Deri, Democratie, Histoire politique d’un mot, p. 320). Dupuis-Deri claims that the U.S. politicians of the 19th century were very conscious and deliberate about their adoption of the term “democracy” as a powerful marketing term. He cites the 1844 campaign booklet “Democracy” by Calvin Colton which opens with the following anecdote:

A Member of the House of Representatives, in Congress, a friend of Mr. Van Buren, met a Whig Senator, in a steamboat, in the early part of the Presidential campaign of 1840, when the former said to the latter, “Your Log Cabin and Hard Cider is a no go. We shall beat you.” “How so?” asked the Senator. “Mr. Van Buren,” answered the Member, “relies upon the words DemocracyDemocrat–and Democratic. We all rely upon them, as a party. While we wear this name, you can not beat us, but we shall beat you.” [Even though, in fact, Van Buren was more democratic candidate, t]he Member of the House was right, and the very reason he gave prevailed on the other side.–Mr. Van Buren was beaten.

An interesting parallel of the application of the word “democracy” to systems whose democratic credentials are far from solid is described by Angelos Chaniotis in his article “Illusions of Democracy in the Hellenistic World” (Athens Dialogues. 2010. Democracy and Politeia. Period Two). Chaniotis writes:
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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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Landemore in Foreign Policy

Prof. Hélène Landemore has a hard-hitting new article in Foreign Policy magazine. From the outset, Landemore’s subtitle aims right at the heart of modern democracy dogma:

Democracy as it was envisioned was never about real people power. That’s what needs to change.

This radical attack on the electoralist system keeps on coming, paragraph after paragraph. Landemore seems ready now to finally correct the conventional terminology (the unwillingness to do away with this convention was a huge burden for her in Open Democracy):

The systems in place today once represented a clear improvement on prior regimes—monarchies, theocracies, and other tyrannies—but it may be a mistake to call them adherents of democracy at all. The word roughly translates from its original Greek as “people’s power.” But the people writ large don’t hold power in these systems. Elites do.

Representative government, the ancestor of modern democracies, was born in the 18th century as a classical liberal-republican construct rather than a democratic one, primarily focused on the protection of certain individual rights rather than the empowerment of the broader citizenry. The goal was to give the people some say in choosing their rulers without allowing for actual popular rule.

The Founding Fathers of the United States, for example, famously wanted to create a republic rather than a democracy, which they associated with mob rule. James Madison, in particular, feared the tyranny of the majority as much as he disliked and rejected the old monarchical orders.

Another important attribute of the article is that Landemore is making it explicit that exclusion from government is not merely a matter of making people “feel involved”, but rather translates into unrepresented interests:
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