Luc Rouban on sortition

Luc Rouban, director of research at CNRS, is the author of the book La démocratie représentative est-elle en crise ? (Is representative democracy in crisis?). In an interview with Vie Publique that took place in March he addressed the idea of sortition along with other reform proposals. An excerpt [original in French, my translation]:

There is a lot of talk about sortition as a way to give all the citizens an equal chance of being chosen to participate effectively in politics. The idea is to revive the ancient concept of Greek democracy at the time of Pericles. But it is necessary to recall that in the Athenian model, the electoral body was composed only of active citizens, sufficiently wealthy to buy military equipment, and excluding women, slaves and metics, that is foreigners who lived permanently in the city which were half the the Athenian population. In addition, this model relies on mistophory, that is the remuneration of allotted citizens for carrying out the charges of office, which allowed the less fortunate to participate in democratic life. It is very evident that such a system would be difficult to generalize in modern democracies, except at the local level, for example in the framework of citizen juries such as those being increasingly used recently to give their opinion to the public authorities on matters of planning projects.

In general, sortition – despite the supposed equality which it leads to – poses a philosophical and judicial problem. In fact, if Article 6 of the Decleration of the Rights of Man states that “all citizens are equally eligible to public offices, places and public employments, according to their abilities with no distinction other than their virtues and their talents”, it is proper that the evaluation of abilities, of virtues and talents of candidates are at the heart of representative democracy. Sortition, by definition, annuls this evaluation, which is taking place by the citizens when they vote. At bottom sortition depends on chance assemblies and cannot lead to the selection of the most commendable citizens. In sum, these risks lead to see sortition as no more than useful for consultation on specific projects at the local level when the purview of decision is well circumscribed. But sortition, just like the referendum, cannot provide good results unless it is associated with procedures allowing to clearly describe the objectives of the debate and allowing the involvement of experts or representatives of organizations.

Sortition in Jacobin magazine

Tom Malleson, assistant professor of social justice and peace studies at King’s University College at Western University, Canada, writes in Jacobin magazine that “we need a legislature by lot”.

Some excerpts make the following points. Electoralist regimes are not democratic:

[There is] widespread disillusionment that many of the world’s people feel towards their purportedly democratic systems. [T]he truth, widely known yet rarely acknowledged, is that the American political system is increasingly run not by the people, but by the rich. Plutocracy. Leading scholars of American politics Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page conclude their recent study with the observation that “the majority does not rule — at least not in the causal sense of actually determining policy outcomes. When a majority of citizens disagrees with economic elites or with organized interests, they generally lose.”

The standard reform proposals show little promise to fundamentally improve the situation:

What, then, is to be done? There has long been a conventional answer on the center-left: proportional representation and campaign finance reform — the former to enhance the representativeness of elections and the latter to reduce the distorting effects of money. This intuitive belief that the answer to our democratic problems is enhanced elections runs so deep that it is like an article of faith.

Yet should reformed electoral democracy really be the ultimate aim of our democratic hopes and dreams? Consider some of the places that are much closer to achieving an equitable electoral system, such as Canada, the UK, and particularly Western Europe. Such systems tend to function much more democratically than the US, but they run into the same basic problems with elections.

Money continues to play an important role, biasing elections towards the wealthy. Governments continue to be incredibly unrepresentative of the population — almost always composed of rich, white, middle-aged men. Even in Sweden, the young, the less educated, and the working class continue to be dramatically underrepresented (for instance, blue-collar workers make up about 9 percent of members of parliament despite comprising 41 percent of the electorate).

[T]he electoral process is inherently biased in favor of the rich — thereby undermining the cherished democratic ideal of political equality — because the precondition to winning an election is having the time and resources to communicate with the public and mobilize support, and that will always be done more effectively by those who have more money. This means that electoral democracy, regardless of campaign finance rules, will always be somewhat tilted towards the affluent.

Democracy and elections are incompatible:

If you lived in any previous historical era and told your neighbor that you believed in democracy, they would have understood what you meant. Yet if you had said that you believed in democracy and elections, they would have thought you’d lost your marbles.

For more than two thousand years, it was common knowledge that the only people who wanted elections were the rich and the powerful, since they were the ones who invariably benefitted from them. Those who genuinely believed in democracy, on the other hand, believed that political power must be kept in the hands of regular people and typically advocated the selecting of political positions by lot.

Continue reading

Rising Up With Sonali: David Van Reybrouck and Against Elections

David Van Reybrouck was recently interviewed by Sonali Kolhatkar on her show “Rising Up With Sonali” which is broadcast on a couple of public radio stations on the West Coast of the US. The Segment with Van Reybrouck starts about 35 minutes into the recording.

In the course of the interview Van Reybrouck gently points out to the interviewer that her proposals for reforming the electoral system, which are part of the standard reformist list of proposals (from which Ari Berman draws his proposals as well, for example), show no promise in fundamentally fixing the system, since they have been tried over and over worldwide without success.

Richard Askwith: People Power

Richard Askwith, a former executive editor of The Independent, has a new book out:

People Power: If we want to defend our democracy we must expel the Lords and replace them with the people

In his new book, ‘People Power’, Richard Askwith makes the case for abolishing the House of Lords and replacing it with a citizens chamber of 400 people to bridge the gap between ‘us’ and ‘them’

[…]

Here’s how [to reform Parliament]. We start in the obvious place, at the least democratic, southern end of the Palace of Westminster. We expel the occupants. And we give the House of Lords to the people.

We cannot put everyone in the chamber; nor can we sensibly put everything to referendum. What we could do, though, is create a People’s Chamber, whose 400 members, randomly conscripted from the electoral roll as jurors, would be a small, representative sample of the population as a whole.

The details are negotiable. Here’s one hypothetical version. Everyone eligible to vote is also eligible for selection by lot to serve in the chamber for a fixed term of, say, four years. Service is compulsory, well-paid and prestigious. The People’s Peers can wear ermine and, if they want, use titles; the financial rewards are comparable to a sizeable lottery win.
Continue reading

Hugo Bonin: Using sortition in order to resolve the crisis of representation

The French-Canadian newspaper Le Devoir has an interview with Hugo Bonin with the publication of his book, La démocratie hasardeuse (Éditions XYZ, Montréal, 2017, 150 pages).

Using sortition in order to resolve the crisis of representation

The essayist Hugo Bonin proposes to rid democracy of that which ails it: elections

Guillaume Lepage, October 28th, 2017

On November 5th the municipal elections in Quebec will take place. In the previous elections fewer than one citizen in two exercised their right to vote, a turnout which despite being slightly higher than that of 2013, remains steady under the 50% mark. Is that evidence of a dysfunctional system?

“Our political system is in crisis, almost everybody agrees about that. A crisis of institutions, of democracy, of citizenship, a crisis, finally, of politics,” writes author Hugo Bonin in the opening of his first essay, “The uncertain democracy” (XYZ publishers).

In 150 pages, the political science doctoral candidate at UQAM and the University of Paris-VIII proposes to introduce chance in our seats of power. In allotting among the citizens our next rulers we eliminate, according to him, the principle reason for the ails of Western democracies: elections.

The author therefore invites the readers to think beyond electoral reforms. If sortition in politics appears audacious, this idea was not created yesterday but rather is an echo of antiquity in our days.

Fundamentally “elitist” by reproducing “relations of domination”, the system in place is aimed at limiting the power of the citizens, emphasizes the author, when we meet in a the Plateau Mont-Royal cafe. “And elections were seen as one way of assuring that the better people in society, or those who were already at the top, continue to be there.”

Rather than electing the people who “are considered the most competent”, sortition places its bet on the idea that anyone can carry out political roles. In this selection mode of representatives of the people “there are no better candidates. What is important is allocating political responsibilities in an equal manner and assuring that everybody can govern.”

Nor are elections “a measure of competence”, Bonin asserts. “Donald Trump seemed in the eyes of the majority as being a better candidate than Hillary Clinton. Does this mean that he is more competent?” he asks amusedly.
Continue reading

Interview with John Gastil on Legislature by Lot

3.3 Legislature by Lot with Professor John Gastil

Above is the link to a podcast interview by Real Democracy Now! John Gastil is a Professor in the Communication Arts and Sciences and Political Science at the Pennsylvania State University as well as a Senior Scholar in the McCourtney Institute for Democracy. He studies political deliberation and group decision making across a range of contexts.

In September 2017 John and Erik Olin Wright, as part of the Real Utopias project, held a three-day workshop called Legislature by Lot. Participants included several contributors to this  site, Equality by Lot.  John was interviewed shortly after this workshop to learn more about what was discussed.

John described this workshop as ‘a deliberation about deliberation’.

John spoke about

  • the origins of the Legislature by Lot workshop [1:32]
  • the different ways to implement sortition (random selection) [3:54]
  • some of the arguments in favour of a legislature selected by lot [5:44]
  • different models of sortition [7:40]
  • responding to criticisms of legislature by lot [10:11]
  • how to design an oversight body to support a legislature selected by lot [14:10]
  • the prospect of institutional change and transition strategies [18:34]
  • moving the agenda of using sortition forward [23:43]
  • how much work is happening around the world to test and promote the use of sortition [28:35]
  • what representation and accountability means for bodies selected by sortition [30:29]
  • deliberation, consensus, contention and voting [34:35 and 38:50]
  • what the workshop agreed on [43:18]
  • what might happen after the workshop: building links between researchers and practitioners [45:34]
  • responses to critiques of empowered mini-publics [49:35]
  • when the book arising from the workshop will be published [53:07]

Ranciere: What times are we living in?, part 3 of 3

What to save from the drifting French political system? The philosopher Jacques Ranciere was the guest of Aude Lancelin in “The war of ideas” of June 20th, 2017. Here is the transcript of this interview. Parts 1 and 2 of the translation are here and here. [My translation, corrections welcome. -YG]

05. The question today is that of rethinking forms of organization, ways of being together for the long term, outside of the electoral forces.

Aude Lancelin: Your book is also a severe blow to those who today are pinning their hopes on the famous cortège de tête: the group of young people who clash with the police after the demonstrations. You have some ironic words on this subject. For you it is primarily a varnish of radicality which is applied to quite traditional demonstrations. The political meaning of all that and its future are not at all assured in your eyes. Do I misinterpret your thinking?

Jacques Ranciere: First thing: the cortège de tête is not simply the professional revolutionaries who think that it is necessary to radicalize the struggle and who radicalize the struggle by breaking shop windows. There are also people who think that breaking windows is the time of assembly of people who come from different horizons, who come from the political struggle or who come from delinquency in the suburbs, and who suddenly discover themselves. That is a way of gathering people that is classic anarchist or revolutionary politics, and suddenly the people that the movement appeals to and who are involved, who arrive with their own actions, their own revolt or their own ways, are coming first from the world of delinquency rather than from the world of politics. The cortège de tête are not simply people with a specific strategy. Another thing that I am trying to say is that the violent actions of the cortège de tête are also symbolic and not any more strategic in fact than the assemblies of the Nuit debout. Because, in fact, what is it that they are really doing? They take aim at symbolic targets; an ATM, a shop window, a nice car… But that is not at all a strategic action. There is this idea that it is necessary to radicalize, to create an irreversible situation. In my experience, that is not irreversible. It is not that some actions create an irreversible situation. I don’t think that existing conditions create a great realignment. Basically, the question is knowing how to manage this interaction between gathering the greatest number and striking the enemy. But what does “striking the enemy” mean? I don’t really know. I think that in the so-called “radical” thinking, there is always a double logic. On the one hand, the logic of confrontation (“we are going to confront them and it is through the confrontation that we rattle the enemy”) and at the same time a logic of desertion (“if we secede the system will collapse”). In the texts of the Comité invisible there is always this double logic. I think that neither of those two logics is really proven. But I am not trying to give lessons, I am just responding to the questions.
Continue reading