Sortition in the New Yorker

Another step in the thousand mile march: Sortition is positively featured in the second paragraph of Masha Gessen’s article in the New Yorker. The oligarchical nature of elections is rather matter-of-factedly asserted:

The concept of democracy rests on the premise that any citizen is a potential member of government. The ancient Athenian choice of sortition—the selection of government by lottery—was based on the understanding that elections would inevitably favor the aristocracy, and in a democracy the government should be a mirror of the governed. The American system has proved the Athenians right. Access to our electoral system is determined by the candidates’ ability to attract financial contributions. The contest itself is rigged in favor of the white, the highly educated, and the privileged—those who reproduce the class, race, and style of their predecessors.

Bradatan: Today’s democracy favors the the power-hungry, arrogant, oppressively self-assertive political animal

Costica Bradatan, professor of philosophy at Texas Tech University, has a free-ranging essay about democracy in the New York Times. It is a rather incongruous mass of ideas, some more convincing than others. It does mention (approvingly? hard to tell) sortition as one of the fundamental foundations of Athenian democracy.

The institutions of democracy, its norms and mechanisms, should embody a vision of human beings as deficient, flawed and imperfect.

Ancient Athenian democracy devised two institutions that fleshed out this vision. First, sortition: the appointment of public officials by lot. Given the fundamental equality of rights that all Athenian citizens — that is, free male adults — enjoyed, the most logical means of access to positions of leadership was random selection. Indeed, for the Athenian democrats, elections would have struck at the heart of democracy: They would have allowed some people to assert themselves, arrogantly and unjustly, against the others.

The other fittingly imperfect Athenian institution was ostracization.

Bradatan notes how different is the modern system that self-describes itself as “democracy”:
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Sortition and democracy. History, instruments, and theories: a special issue of Participations journal

Participations journal’s latest issue is devoted to sortition. This appears to be a treasure trove. The issue, titled “Sortition and democracy. History, instruments, and theories”, has 24 papers comprising over 500 pages. The French text of all papers seems to be allow unrestricted access.

The papers are organized into 5 sections:

  1. The ancient world
  2. The medieval world and the modern world
  3. The Chinese world
  4. The contemporary world
  5. Postface

The authors include familiar names (Sintomer, Demont, Courant) as well as many that I, at least, am not familiar with.

“The contemporary world” section has some papers that seem particularly interesting, e.g., Samuel Hayat’s “The militant trajectory of the reference to Bernard Manin in French activism for sortition” and Julien Talpin’s “Does random selection make democracies more democratic? How deliberative democracy has depoliticized a radical proposal”.

Another intriguing paper is Alexei Daniel Serafín Castro’s “Political representation and the uses of sortition in Mexico: 1808-1857” which discusses a historical application of sortition that I have never heard of before.

A response to Cody Hipskind, part 3 of 3

Cody Hispkind’s post is here. The previous parts of my response are here and here.

Political activism under a democratic system

A major tenet of democratic ideology is that people are the best representatives of their own interests: when provided sufficient opportunity, each person and each group of people are best able to understand and express their own values and ideas and the actions that should be taken in order to promote these values and ideas. This tenet is in contrast to “republican” ideology which shares with democratic ideology the idea that everyone’s interests should count equally, but asserts that some people (“a natural aristocracy”) are best qualified to determine what those interests are and how they should be pursued, and therefore those people should be in charge.

Elections are a republican, anti-democratic mechanism: they empower an elite to determine public policy for others (whether this elite may be called a “natural aristocracy” is a matter of taste, I guess). That elite should be able to represent itself, the democratic tenet asserts, but is quite unlikely to represent the majority of the people who are very different from it. Sortition, through the process of statistical sampling, creates a body that by representing itself would represent the public at large.

However, the capacity for self-representation is not a spontaneous, automatic capacity. Getting a group of people (or a single person, for that matter) to the state where it is able to represent its own interests effectively is not a trivial matter. From an institutional standpoint, there are clearly some preconditions that need to be met: there need to be enough resources at the disposal of the group so that reliable information can be gathered. There needs to be enough time to discuss matters, determine an agenda, fashion proposals, debate them, amend them, vote on them, evaluate the effect of the adopted policy, reconsider the matter and repeat the procedure over time.
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A response to Cody Hipskind, part 2

Cody Hispkind’s post is here. The first part of my response is here.

Using an electoral campaign as a focus for political organization and action

Electoral campaigns are like military campaigns. Like military campaigns, electoral campaigns can in principle be fought for good causes – causes that serve the greater good. But there is no reason to believe this is generally the case. Like military campaigns, electoral campaigns, at least those with any traction, are invariably led by an elite, for purposes determined by that elite, and with power in them held by that elite. Like in war, the masses are mobilized by the elite using sloganeering and propaganda rather than rational argumentation and once mobilized they play the role of canon fodder. In political campaigns, the masses are milked for their political and moral energy as well as for time, money and, eventually, votes. Yes – there could be benevolent elites who promote good causes, but these surely are the exception. Thus, as a rule, electoral campaigns serve elite purposes.

It might be objected that it would be easier to recruit the electorate to campaigns that serve the greater good. This, however, relies on the false assumption that people join political campaigns based on informed and considered analysis of their objectives and prospects. Just as is true about recruits to the military, a realistic assessment of the objectives, actions and consequences of the organization which one joins is rarely a major factor in the decision to join a campaign.

Even if one has successfully overcome the inherent oligarchizing tendencies of an electoral campaign and managed to send a democratically-minded delegate to an elected chamber, one has won a single contest. While one is busy with the effort of identifying a campaign worth supporting and then putting one’s precious spare time and energy into that campaign, a well-funded effort by a narrow interest group has broadcast its messages into the minds of millions and has co-opted promising candidates as well as those already in power. Rather than getting an effective platform, the rare democratically-minded delegate is ignored or painted in mass media as a lone lunatic.

So the fact that electoral campaigning may actually be one of the relatively more effective ways to promote democratic goals in an electoral system is really an indication of how dysfunctional that system is. With all its futility, an electoral campaign may actually be a relatively promising political activity in a system that is so thoroughly oligarchical.

The oligarchizing effects of electoral campaigning are largely effects of mass politics in general, where nominally egalitarian political relations in fact almost invariably result in hierarchical relations. Having no formal hierarchy is far from a guarantee of democracy. Contrary to liberal, Marxist and progressive dogmas, democracy in large groups is not a spontaneously occurring phenomenon. It does not just appear due to the good intentions and hard work of the members of the group. It needs to be designed and applied with care and rigor in order to exist and thrive.

A response to Cody Hipskind, part 1

Thank you Cody for your post. I believe it can serve as a starting point for a fruitful discussion – a discussion that has already started in the comments thread to the post.

I would like to address various points you made separately. Here are the first 3 points, corresponding to the first 6 paragraphs in your post.

1. Class and political conflict

It is an obvious fact of life that different people have different political ideas. If everybody agreed on everything politics would be very easy – any one of “us” would do what “we” all agree upon. Still, there is a tendency, which used to be the dominant line of elite political thought in pre-modern times but is common today especially among liberals, to argue, or at least to imply, that disagreements are over means rather than ends. That is, that “we” all agree what is the common good (or at least would agree what is the common good if some of us overcame our ignorance) and the main difficulty is finding competent people who would be able to achieve that good. This translates to elitism. The elitism used to be explicit with the pre-moderns, the archetype being Plato, it was slightly less explicit with the early moderns, e.g., the American Founders, and it is much more implicit today. Nevertheless, it is often still just below the surface of the democratic rhetoric.

The notion that “we” all agree on goals can be dismissed. The common-goals ideology and the attendant elitism are of course self-serving notions for those in power. They imply that to the extent policy produces undesirable outcomes – say enrichment of those in power and their associates and the impoverishment of much of the rest of the population – then those in power can at most be blamed for incompetence rather than corruption. (Naturally, they would in fact argue that unfortunate as the outcomes are, they are necessary for the achievement of the commonly agreed goals.)
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A Marxist Analysis of Sortition

Welcome to Equality-by-Lot, Cody Hipskind! -Yoram

In this post, I’ll be taking a Marxist approach to the question of sortition. That is to say, I’ll be working from a framework that understands society as being composed of several classes with conflicting material interests, and which understands the state as an instrument by which one class rules over others.

I would also note that though classic Marxists have historically centered location within the system of production as central to the reproduction of class society, for my part I hold with the host of theorists who have shown in the decades since Marx wrote how questions of race, gender, migratory status, etc. are likewise integral to the ways in which the ruling class has reproduced its hegemonic status.

Let me begin by recognizing the benefits which rule by lot has from a Marxist perspective. Within my country of the United States and around the world, it is indisputable that electoral systems produce legislatures which, when taken as a whole, are disproportionately wealthy, white, cis-male, and otherwise more representative of the members of the ruling class than of society as a whole. A lottery system would certainly correct such an imbalance by increasing the likelihood of that members of historically disenfranchised communities would receive an equal voice in the legislature. This would obviously be a desirable outcome.

However, it is my position is that elections provide two social goods which would likely be undercut through a system which chooses officers exclusively through sortition. Specifically:

1. Elections create competition between parties over control of which is to say, over the control of the government.

In this way, elections implicitly recognize the sort of divisions in society I outlined above. If a party does something unpopular–say, decide to lower taxes on the rich, voters can punish that party by throwing them out and choosing a replacement. In practice, this means that the subgroups which compose the working class can play kingmaker between the bourgeoisie parties and, ideally, organize themselves into their own parties in order to take power as a class themselves.

In contrast, under sortition, there’s no way to hold people accountable for their decisions: popular or not, you leave office when your term expires. This has the upswing of producing less competitive and divisive politics. And that’s nice and all, but as a Marxist my goal is not to create a politics without division: its to highlight the material divisions and contradictions under capitalism and to exploit the competition among the bourgeoisie parties in order that the working class can get a foot in the door and eventually seize power.
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