Marcel Monin: What about sortition?

Marcel Monin is a doctor of law. He writes the following in the French website AgoraVox.

What about sortition?

The substance and the goals of decisions made – which elude the people, and the conduct of the elites with regards to the people, especially over the last 5 years, lead sometime to doubt that we are still living in a democracy. Who wants government of the people, by the people, for the people, when those same elites are those standing for election?

The considerations made 2,500 years ago regarding the respective merits of sortition and elections and regarding their practice are again in vogue. Some advocate replacing elections with sortition.

Sortition, it appears, has advantages.

From a technical point of view:

  • It eliminates professionalism and thus the the submission of the elected to the internal rules of attaining and maintaining office (with its implications on the elected-electors relationship).
  • It eliminates the dependence before the elections in groups of financial backers who finance the electoral campaigns and which manipulate the voters through the media they own. (See the ideal-type example of this phenomenon with the candidate Macron.)
  • It overcomes the obstable of campaign cost which keeps the poor away from being candidates, somewhat similar to how things were when only the rich had the vote. The presidential elections show this effect in accentuated to an absurd degree.
  • Statistically, humble people would have less of a chance of being under-represented.

However, still from a technical point of view there are disadvantages. Among them are:
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Ned Crosby (1936-2022)

Saddened to learn of the death of Ned Crosby, founder of the Jefferson Center and creator of Citizens’ Juries. Crosby was one of the first to envision selection by lot playing an important role in modern democratic politics. I only saw him speak once, and I’m sorry never to have met him.

Further details can be found here: https://www.cndp.us/announcement-on-the-death-of-our-founder-ned-crosby/.

The Minnesota Star Tribune has a full obituary.

RIP, Ned.

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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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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The classical unities

According to Wikipedia, it was Italian Renaissance philosopher Gian Giorgio Trissino who came up with the “classical unities” as a prescriptive theory of dramatic tragedy. The three unities are:

  • Unity of action: a tragedy should have one principal action.
  • Unity of time: the action in a tragedy should occur over a period of no more than 24 hours.
  • Unity of place: a tragedy should exist in a single physical location.

When considering how sortition (and elections) can be conducted in a way that would be resistant to manipulation, such unities are crucial, argues Trent Clark in an article in the Idaho State Journal.

Ancient Athens was home to one of the world’s first democracies. The Greek orator and reformer Cleisthenes initiated citizen “voting” in 508 BC. His solution: Give every voter one black stone and one white stone. On each decision, whether to go to war, accept a treaty, send trade delegations, etc., the citizens would cast a stone (white for “yes,” black for “no”) into a jar. The contents of the jar determined the policy of the city. As many as 6,000 Athenians would participate.

In early Athens, serving in government was a civic obligation, like jury duty today. Military assignments were based on skill with weapons and history as a soldier. But other posts were randomly drawn, a process called “sortition.” Tokens with a citizen’s name, or pinakia, were arranged across a large flat tablet or kleroterion. Multi-colored dice were used to select rows and columns, pointing to a random name for each open position.

Cleisthenes found it essential that all this occur at a known location, at a designated time, in public. Citizens needed to see that the process was not rigged or “fixed” by the city’s tribal bosses.

What If We Made Democracy… More Democratic?

In These Times Editors on 4 Jan.:

When politicians seem increasingly out of touch with the average person, perhaps the average person should make decisions instead.

sor•ti•tion

noun

  1. the appointment of political positions by lottery, rather than election

Aren’t elections kind of what ​“make” democracy, though?

Not according to the ancient Athenians. In fact, these early democrats worried elections would inevitably favor the wealthy and powerful sound familiar? The city-state functioned instead by having citizens randomly selected annually to serve in public office, with duties ranging from monitoring public finances to deciding foreign policy and participating as one (of 6000) jurors on the People’s Court. Women and enslaved people, among others, were excluded, so Athens might not be the best example of a full-fledged democracy; still, they had a point about elections. In the United States, wealthy donors have more impact on policy than public opinion, and Congress is far whiter, richer, older and more male than the overall population.

You can read the rest of this short editorial here.

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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Sortition: An Ancient Remedy to Heal the Organized Community’s Wounds

Christopher Tripoulas writes in The National Herald, a publication aimed at the Greek American community:

For months now, the Federation of Hellenic Societies of Greater New York has been embroiled in an ugly dispute between rival sides. As the coordinating umbrella organization for local Greek societies, its primary function is to organize the annual Greek Independence Day Parade on Fifth Avenue.

Despite any criticism regarding its subdued presence in other issues of vital importance for the Greek-American Community or the manner in which it organizes the parade, the truth is that with the exception of Holy Week, it handles perhaps the largest and most recognizable collective Greek Community activity in America. This alone constitutes the resolution of the present dysfunctionality an immediate priority.

The organization of a parade, without clear objectives and messages, negates its very purpose. Although the parade takes place in a prime location and is covered live by a large metropolitan area broadcaster, there are still glaring issues. Whether it’s the lack of a stricter dress code for participants to promote uniformity and aesthetic beauty, or the failure to properly showcase student-marchers, considering that our Greek parochial schools are interspersed with no rhyme or reason, as if Hellenic Paideia was not one of the most critical issues for the survival of Hellenism, there are serious issues that need to be examined through public discourse, and not just in the anterooms of the Federation.

Ultimately, either the Greek-American Community will manage to prioritize certain common values around which it will work in unison and strategically to upgrade the institutions that express them, or it will come apart, because the ‘tropos’ or manner of its distinct otherness will no longer be discernible, leading to withering and dissolution.

This column proposes that the present administrative crisis can be overcome through the application of the ancient democratic practice of sortition; that is, distribution of offices via a lottery system. In his work ‘Rhetoric’, Aristotle notes that “a Democracy is a form of government under which the citizens distribute the offices of state among themselves by lot” (1365b-1366a). Hence, if the Federation leadership invokes democracy as a defining quality of its mode of governance, then there should not be any problem with accepting the distribution of offices according to its signature trait.

On the contrary, the revival of this ancient element of democracy would serve as a sterling example for other organizations, while showcasing an essential aspect of democracy that is frequently overlooked in contemporary society. And while this trait may escape popular attention, it is not altogether absent from modern democratic polities. Two characteristic examples from the United States regarding the contemporary use of sortition include the selection of jurors for trials, and the draft, which is currently not in use, but still a legal requirement laid out in the selective service system. Now, if many of us just happen to view the former as an imposition and waste of time, and ward off the latter, it’s worth questioning just how democratically minded we truly are…
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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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Gauchebdo: Sortition – a false solution

The following piece was recently published on Gauchebdo (“Left Weekly”), a Swiss website which bills itself as “a platform for men and women who resist, the voice of those who propose to change society”.

Sortition – a false solution
Anaïs Timofte

Sortition has become over the last few years an idea which is garnering increasing attention. Whether in the context of deliberative citizen assemblies concerning the climate, or of the selection of candidates for the executive bodies of social movements, or of the random ordering of candidates on an electoral list, there is no shortage of examples.

Some promoters of sortition go farther and see it as an alternative mode of representation and to the election of parliament members. They see is as a way to “renew the democratic process” having the advantage of dissipating the “elitism” of the electoral process. But is this really the case?

Greek origins

Sortition is far from being a new idea. The most famous example is that of Athens in ancient Greece. The Council, composed of 500 Athenian citizens wielding significant legislative and executive powers, was allotted in a well defined and controlled process. In order to handle numerous tasks, the allotted citizens had at their disposal “public slaves”, owned by the city, whom they managed.

Other examples often evokes as part of the history of sortition are those of the medieval communes of 13th century Italy: Verona, Venice and Perugia. These cities developed modes of selection combining elections and sortition.

Sortition and capitalism

Even though there is something intriguing in the idea of imagining the powers-that-be reproduce today sophisticated (and largely fantastic) selection methods used by the Athenian democracy and of Venice of the Doges, it is nevertheless necessary to understand sortition within the framework of the current capitalist system and within the framework of the organization of working classes that aim to move beyond this system. 5 point of criticism may be raised:

First, sortition leads to a depolitization of the process of selection, and more precisely, a dissipation of class conflict. The candidates no longer need to defend ideas or a conception of society – their individual or social-professional characteristics suffice.
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