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.

Escoubès and Proriol: Democracy, differently; The art of governing with the citizens

Frank Escoubès and Gilles Proriol are the authors of the book “La démocratie, autrement – L’art de gouverner avec le citoyen” (Democracy, differently: The art of governing with the citizens). In an article in L’ADN they describe the thesis of their book.

There is no doubt that our representative democracy is in trouble. Humiliated, attacked, sometimes rejected: what is going to be its fate in the period between now and the presidential elections of 2022?

The citizens do not feel represented anymore

This is hardly news – our democracy is flawed. The elected are supposed to create the most faithful, the most accurate representation of the citizens, that which a technocracy cannot achieve. The coronavirus crisis has sunk the nail, in silencing the citizens like never before. In the face of that, populism and demagoguery are rising, claiming that they will provide ways for the people to decide everything, all the time, by themselves. Denial the complexity of reality, political irrealism, ideological naivety. In this context, the risk of “democratic retreat” is real. This could be due to an absence of consultation with the citizens (plowing through) or due to a simplistic consultation without a follow-up (an unkept promise). There is therefore an urgent need to “repair the links of trust”.
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Can sortition help fend off the threat of “broader prosperity and rising wellbeing”?

“Democracy Rules”, a recently published book by Jan-Werner Müller, Roger Williams Straus Professor of Social Sciences at Princeton University, is another contribution to the “democratic crisis” genre:

They do not all look the same; plenty of differences are obvious. But group them together and they clearly make up one political family: Orbán, Erdogan, Kaczynski, Modi, undoubtedly ex-president Trump, perhaps Netanyahu, but Brazil’s president Jair Bolsonaro for sure. It is imperative to understand what is often described as a global trend in authoritarianism.

According to a review of the book in Financial Times, Müller is concerned about “performance legitimacy”:

As exemplified by China, that is the undemocratic bargain in which illiberal, one-party control is put up with in return for broader prosperity and rising wellbeing. Its appeal stirs fears that there are other attractive norms on offer and that history may not be cheering liberal democracy on.

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Confessions of a Traitor to the Cause: Some reflections looking back from John Burnheim

As I struggle with my ninety-fifth year, I would like to beg forgiveness from the true believers in sortition.

Nearly forty years ago, in 1985, I published the book Is Democracy Possible? with the subtitle The Alternative to Parliamentary Democracy. The sortitionists believed that the alternative could only be to reject the electoral system and replace it by sortition. The will of the people could be expressed only by the people themselves, so they assumed I must support that view.

In fact what the book advocated was something different, but it was so far outside the mainstream that it attracted little attention. There is no point in offering answers to questions people, apart from a few anarchists, don’t ask. Everybody assumed that democracy was a matter of ensuring that the power of the state is invested in the nation’s people. Anybody who denied that was a traitor to democracy.

My contention was that the real problem was the concentration of all public goods in the powers of the state. Those who agreed with me on that point usually assumed that the only alternative was to manage the power of money to protect the rights of the owners of property — radical capitalism. Robert Nozick, in Anarchy, State, and Utopia (1974), claimed that the public goods that the state did not provide could be provided on a moral basis by the rich. This was hardly a prescription for democracy. Clearly public goods are very important to human life. Many public goods are conventions that evolve from the interactions of people as unplanned byproducts. Our languages are the obvious example. However in complex technological societies, many of the goods we need to have at our disposal must involve rational choices between different possibilities that are accepted by all those who need them.

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Landemore: Open Democracy, part 13/13

Landemore concludes her book in chapter 9. Looking at this chapter and looking back at the entire book’s narrative, it is hard to avoid the feeling that the book’s promise was not lived up to. By this point it seems that not much remains of the book’s original radical spirit. Gone in this conclusion is the most subversive part of Landemore’s narrative – the hints that the status quo, the elections-based system produces terrible outcomes. Also gone is the radical insistence on political equality. Other than some non-committal language about “an open door” connecting representatives and society at large, in the conclusion “open democracy” seems to boil down to three institutions – allotted bodies, popular initiative processes and delegative voting. Landemore writes that “open democracy” means that ordinary citizens “have access to power”. But of course it may be argued – and conventionally it is argued – that voting is also a form of “access to power”. Why is voting in the initiative process or though vote delegation a better form of “access” than conventional voting?

The concluding chapter is mostly concerned with issues that are only tangentially related to the topics discussed in the book. A concluding chapter can be expected to contain some “future directions” – ideas that were not explored in the book but which are somehow relevant to the topics that were discussed. These future directions, however, should stem from a concise summary of the conclusions that were drawn from the preceding discussion. The conclusions should position the reader at a new vantage point from which the future directions can be pursued. Unfortunately, such a new vantage point is missing. In particular, Landemore devotes a fair amount of space in the chapter to a discussion of the role of nation-states in governance, the inclusivity of the demos, and other sites of power such as corporate power. This discussion, however, does not build on previously discussed topics and does not go beyond the standard claims and arguments made. The claim, for example, that “there seems to be a logic to democracy that is conducive to universal inclusion” and that “[t]his logic eats away at the closed borders of a nationally defined demos and cracks them open” (p. 210) is a questionable commonplace, rather than an idea that builds on the main arguments of the book.
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Landemore: Open Democracy, part 12

The final objection to “open democracy” which Landemore considers in chapter 8 of her book is that a non-electoral system would be too demanding on people’s time and effort. Landemore does not explicitly do so, but it seems useful to differentiate between the demands made on the population in total, or on average, and the demands made on specific people. A system may be problematic if it requires the average citizen to invest more time and effort than the average citizen sees fit. But even in cases where the demand on average is low, there may be problems if some citizens (even a small number) are asked to put in more time and effort than they are willing to put in.

Landemore rightly emphasizes that “it is essential to consider citizens’ time and attention as scarce resources that must be used wisely”. The notion that it makes sense, or even commendable and serves some ideal of citizenship or democracy, for citizens to show up to mass meetings or mass political events of any kind must be firmly rejected. This is not “participation” but exploitation. It is important to note, however, that the same is true for other forms of powerless “participation”, quite a few of which Landemore “makes room for” (p. 206) in her let-a-thousand-flowers-bloom approach. Spending time on a “crowdsourced platform” (p. 206), for example, or even sitting on an “agenda-setting” or “proposal review” body which is one of thousands of such bodies, meaning that its output is diluted thousands of times, is also a meaningless, exploitative anti-democratic ritual.
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