Cammack: Deliberation in Ancient Greek Assemblies

A paper by Daniela Cammack, Yale University:

When an ancient Greek dêmos (“people,” “assembly”) deliberated, what did it do? On one view, it engaged in a form of public conversation along the lines theorized by contemporary deliberative democrats; on another, a small number of “active” citizens debated before a much larger, more “passive” audience. On either account, deliberation is represented as an external, speech-centered activity rather than an internal, thought-centered one. The democratic ideal, it is argued, was at least occasional participation in public speech.

This article questions that interpretation. A study of βουλεύομαι, “deliberate,” from Homer to Aristotle reveals three models of deliberation: internal, dialogical, and a partial combination that I shall call “guided,” in which speaking and deliberating were performed by advisers and decision-makers respectively. Assembly deliberation was almost always represented as guided deliberation. The dêmos—which is to say the audience—deliberated (ἐβουλεύετο), while those who spoke before it advised (συνεβούλευσε). Citizens thus did not fall short of a democratic ideal when they did not speak publicly. To the contrary, internal reflection, culminating in a vote, was precisely how the dêmos was expected to exercise its authority. The implications for our conceptualization of ancient Greek democracy are significant.

Full text

Back to the Future for a Real Democracy | Conway Hall Talk | Brett Hennig

A sortition talk I gave in London (on 11 March 2018) as part of Conway Hall’s “Thinking on Sunday” series has been edited and published – you could consider it an extended version of my TEDx presentation


Back to the Future for a Real Democracy – London sortition talk

20180311-Democracy-SortitionHow can we fix our broken democracies? What lessons can we learn from the past and what bold new democratic experiments are happening right now? At Thinking on Sunday on March 11 at Conway Hall, and together with London Futurists and GlobalNet21, Brett Hennig, author of The End of Politicians: Time for a Real Democracy, will take you back in time through history before jumping back to the future to show how a real democracy of, by and for the people could work. Tickets are now available at

Sortition in the Bulletin of the Institute of Mathematical Statistics

The Bulletin of the Institute of Mathematical Statistics has published a column of mine that deals with the historical and theoretical connections between democracy and statistical sampling:

Democracy and statistical sampling

For about 2,500 years, statistical sampling was closely linked with democracy. “Selection by lot is natural to democracy, as that by choice [i.e., elections] is to aristocracy,” asserted Aristotle in the 4th century BC, following his own first-hand experience at Athens and the conventional wisdom of his time. Montesquieu concurred in the first half of the 18th century. It was only in the last 200 years, as democracy displaced aristocracy as the legitimate organizing principle of politics, that sortition—the delegation of power by statistical sampling—had to be air-brushed out of history and political science. […]

As part of the attempt to dismiss sampling as a political device it is sometimes claimed today that its use in Athens was motivated by the superstition that randomization allowed the gods to make the selection. However, the historical record indicates that the main motivation behind the practice was the law of large numbers. It was expected that sortition would produce a group that would mirror the population in important respects. This was often stated as an expectation of resemblance between the population and the sample in terms of wealth and social status (i.e., that most members would be poor commoners) but it was taken for granted that these characteristics would be correlated with certain interests and beliefs.

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Words, words…

A pretty informative (and visually attractive) short video in French about how the word “democracy” came to refer to an oligarchical system.

The French and American revolutions overthrew monarchical and absolutist regimes in order to give power to the people to institute “democratic” regimes. The story was beautiful… But digging a little into the subject, we find that the historical reality is very different. While the French and American revolutions rejected monarchy, they rejected democracy at the same time. They are not the point of departure for the power of the people, by the people, for the people but rather for the constitutionalization of a representative regime. “Democracy”, which our representatives like so very much to talk about today, was not part of the design.

The transcript is here.

Arturo Íñiguez: On the meaning of the word ‘democracy’

Arturo Íñiguez, an occasional contributor to Equality-by-Lot, recently published a rather beautiful essay touching upon sortition which weaves together history, linguistics and political philosophy (English, French, Spanish). Well worth reading in its entirety even for people familiar with the idea of sortition, here is an excerpt from the essay:

[R]epresentative regimes can be either aristocratic, if they rely on election, or democratic if they rely on sortition.

According to my experience, a lot of people, when exposed to these truths, will react in complete denial. But the fact is that this has been completely trivial knowledge for political scientists for most or recorded history: from Plato and Aristotle to Montesquieu and Rousseau, in the mid XVIIIth century, all of them wrote the same: elections are aristocratic and sortition is democratic. How come, then, that we have been so thoroughly indoctrinated as to believe the exact opposite of something that was crystal-clear for the greatest human thinkers?

Well, the change began in the late XVIIIth century, when the rich bourgeois in France and North America decided that they would be better off in the future by breaking free from the existing monarchic regime (which after all had not been so bad with them, or they wouldn’t had got so rich in the first place). Needless to say that sharing any power with the poor masses was always completely out the question. The masses would be used to fight the royal armies and then abused into thinking the the victory was also theirs. Both the Founding Fathers and the French revolutionaries were adamant in opposing democracy. Suffice to read what they said and wrote to understand that democracy was for them a very bad and ugly word.

But calling their elective system aristocracy, which would have been the logical thing to do following the philosophical tradition we have just mentioned, was also a no-go. Was not the aristocracy the despised enemy recently destroyed? And at the end they had to settle for a word like ‘republic’, an empty signifier which can mean anything you want it to mean.

A lively discussion followed the essay in the comments and Arturo exhibited the proper democratic mindset and engaged in conversation with some of the commenters. Here, for exmaple, is one comment by a reader and Arturo’s reply:
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Why Executive Power Matters

It’s a bit surprising that this sortition blog hasn’t ventured much into executive power.  Most of the time it’s focused on either legislative power or some other non-executive power.

Not for nothing did one example from Paul Lucardie’s book on radical democratic theory (Democratic Extremism), the Second All-Russian Congress of Soviets, decide a century ago to appoint a truly revolutionary provisional government to “get things done”: the Council of People’s Commissars (Sovnarkom).

That said, sortition today could be applied to traditional cabinets. It could be applied to multiple cabinets in some proposals (state, social, economic, industrial). It could even be applied to the topmost consultative bodies headed by individual ministers, collegia.