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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Waxman and McCulloch: The Democracy Manifesto

Wayne Waxman, a retired professor of modern philosophy, and Alison McCulloch, a scholar of philosophy and retired journalist (as well as a contributor to this blog), have just published a book named The Democracy Manifesto: A Dialogue on Why Elections Need to be Replaced with Sortition.

The Democracy Manifesto is about how to recreate democracy by replacing elections with government that is truly of, by and for the people. Written in engaging and accessible dialogue form, the book argues that the only truly democratic system of government is one in which decision-makers are selected randomly (by sortition) from the population at large, operating much the way trial juries do today, but 100% online, enabling people to govern together even across great distances. Sortition has a storied history but what sets The Democracy Manifesto apart is its comprehensive account of how it can be implemented not only across all sectors and levels of government, but throughout society as well, including the democratization of mass media, corporations, banks, and other large institutions. The resulting Sortitive Representative Democracy (SRD) is the true heir to ancient Greek democracy, and the only means of ensuring ‘we the people’ are represented by our fellow citizens rather than by the revolving groups of elites that dominate electoral systems. In the process, the book grapples with myriad hot topics including economic issues, international relations, indigenous rights, environmentalism and more.

Mueller on Landemore

Jan-Werner Mueller, Professor of Politics at Princeton University and author of the recent book “Democracy Rules”, wrote an article in which he reviews Hélène Landemore’s book Open Democracy: Reinventing Popular Rule for the Twenty-First Century (along with a couple of other books that he devotes less space to).

Luckily Mueller’s review focuses on the better points made by Landemore (e.g., that elitism is inherent to elections) rather than on the less convincing parts of the book. (For a detailed review of the strengths and weaknesses of Open Democracy see my series of posts devoted to this book.)

Mueller’s objections to allotted chambers are the following:

  1. Alotted “bodies also can end up favoring the privileged, either because those who feel unqualified will abstain or because more educated and eloquent participants will dominate the debate.”
  2. A sortition-based system “promises inclusion and openness, but it ultimately excludes all who have not been chosen in the process of random selection. In large countries, many people will never get a turn (indeed, serving would amount to winning the lottery).”
  3. A “lottocracy might fail to fulfill one of the functions that elections reliably serve: the peaceful resolution of conflict through vote counting. If one accepts political realists’ argument that elections are always essentially conducted in the shadow of civil war, the counting process serves to demonstrate the relative strength of each conflicting party.”

Mueller concludes:

In any case, one need not go as far as abolishing elections to see that sortition chambers could play a useful role in situations where highly fraught moral issues need to be debated (as in Ireland’s abortion decision), or where conflicting parties need to set the terms of competition. That could apply to the shape of election districts, salaries for legislators, the overall size of parliaments, or any other issue where professional politicians have a conflict of interest.

James Kierstead on sortition as a Western idea

James Kierstead is a Senior Lecturer in Classics at the Victoria University of Wellington with an interest in sortition, ancient and modern. He has written a review of the 2020 book Sortition and Democracy: History, Tools, Theories edited by Lilian Lopez-Rabatel and Yves Sintomer soon to be published in Polis: The Journal for Ancient Greek and Roman Political Thought.

Kierstead also wrote some related points in a post on his blog. The post is largely a discussion of a claim made by Lopez-Rabatel and Sintomer in their introduction to the book:

While the practice of divinatory sortition was used in a wide variety of civilizations, the political use of random selection was largely (though not exclusively) developed in the West, where it became particularly widespread and increasingly rationalized. (p. 6)

Kierstead examines the historical evidence in the book – looking at both Western and non-Western history – and tries to assess the validity of the claim.

Elections and consent

It has been claimed, notably by Bernard Manin (The principles of representative government pp. 79-93), that the reason that sortition of representatives was never considered, and in fact hardly ever mentioned, by the founding fathers of the Western system was because it conflicted with their commitment to the notion that a just system must be based on consent. The argument is that only elections, which institutionalize the act of explicit selection, are compatible with this principle and thus sortition was ruled out a-priori to such an extent that it was never part of the set of ideas being discussed.

While the commitment of the founding fathers to the principle of consent cannot be realistically disputed, the notion that they saw a strong link between elections and consent is much less convincing. This link is far from obvious since, as Manin notes, the principle of consent long predates the modern era. Such a link would therefore not have been taken for granted by the founders, and presuming that it were important to them it would surely have merited a central place in their rhetoric. In fact, however, Manin cites no primary source which argues that elections are a mechanism of consent. He quotes, for example, John Locke as saying:

And thus that, which begins and actually constitutes any Political Society, is nothing but the consent of any number of Freemen capable of a majority to unite and incorporate themselves into such a Society.

But this, of course, makes no mention of elections. Quite the contrary – it is the consent to the incorporation itself, rather than any particular procedures of the newly formed body, that is crucial.
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Victor Bruzzone on sortition

Victor Bruzzone is a doctoral student at the University of Toronto. In a segment on a podcast he makes an argument for a selecting the legislative chamber of government by sortition (starting about 1 hour into the recording). The segment mentions a chapter Bruzzone wrote in a soon-to-be-published book, Liberalism and Socialism: Mortal Enemies or Embittered Kin?, which presumably argues for the same idea.