Shadi Hamid on sortition

Shadi Hamid is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute and a contributing writer to The Atlantic. He seems to have recently discovered sortition through the writings of Hélène Landemore and he is quite excited. (He still seems quite confused in his terminology about what should be called “democratic”, but ideas die hard.)

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.

“Sortition Academy” and the Revitalizing Democracy Conference

The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard College in NY is holding a (pandemic-delayed) hybrid in-person / webinar conference on sorition in a couple of weeks. The center is also home to the BIRDS, “Bard Institute for the Revival of Democracy through Sortition,” which has existed for a couple of years but has mostly held online events until now. Registration is still open for the webinar portion of the conference, and I believe in-person attendance is limited to a small number.

Sortition, Citizen Power, and Spaces of Freedom

The conference website is called and features three short video introductions to the topic of sorition, averaging 10 minutes each–“What is sortition?” “Greek democracy” and “The story of sortition”–all presented by the Hannah Arendt’s center director Roger Berkowitz. I found these videos quite good for a general audience. Especially intersting was the last video that ends with two segments, “The erasure of sorition,” and “The return of sortition.” Readers of this blog will already know what he is refering to.

Speakers at the conference include many familiar faces in the world of Sortinistas–Van Reybrouck, Landemore, Suiter–but also some surprising old faces and many new faces including young activits and academics. I have registered to attend.

I am curious what Kleroterians and Sortinistas think of the videos and Berkowitz’s take on the role sorition can play under the anti-institutionalism anti-elitism of our time.

Yuval Harari on sortition?

“If you want power, at some point you will have to spread fictions. If you want to know the truth about the world, at some point you will have to renounce power.” Yuval Harari in 21 Lessons for the 21st Century.

Citizens’ assemblies are much more about truth, and not power. Harari seems to present a lot of reasons why we need CAs, but never mentions them. Has there ever been a connection between him and sortition / CAs?

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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A Call to Arms

Dear Fellow Sortitionist: I urge you to join me in a letter writing campaign intended to raise public awareness here in the U.S.

I’ve written to the director of the Metropolitan Museum (in New York), requesting that the Greek wing host an exhibition on the subject of Athenian democracy. The letter is heartfelt but I am an unknown individual possessing no social or institutional connections – neither a donor, a scholar, or a socialite – I doubt very much that my missive will ever even make it past his secretary. But what if the director were to receive a dozen (or a hundred) similar letters? I think then his assistant would undoubtedly take notice and the director would most certainly give the idea serious consideration. Hence, my plea to the sortition community for a joint assault on the director’s inbox

To directly challenge someone’s mainstream political views (as sortitionists are wont to do) is usually an exercise in futility. But to question them indirectly, by contemplating the example of an exotic, ancient system of government, may just leave some wiggle room for the adjustment of hard held habitual beliefs. That’s the hope anyhow. The museum patron enters the exhibit as a die hard supporter of the 21’st Century “Democratic” status quo and exits harboring some well informed doubts. A sortition partisan in the making… This is what I would hope for anyhow, and so long as sortition remains unknown here in the U.S. activist projects such as this will remain the main focus of my energy.
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Landemore: Open Democracy, part 11

This continues the review of Landemore’s treatment of objections to “open democracy” which makes up the last chapter of her book.

3. Tyranny of the majority

“For some readers”, Landemore says (p. 199),

the undemocratic, or at least counter-majoritarian, aspects of electoral, liberal democracy (aka representative democracy) are intended and desirable features, not problems to be solved.

Those readers

fear that promoting a purer democratic regime against electoral democracies risks undoing the minority rights protections built into the liberal core of the latter.

Landemore sees such fears as “legitimate”, but argues that

it is also entirely possible that, by starting with a liberal rather than a democratic framework, the founders of our modern “democracies” have turned the screw too tightly on the elements of popular rule that they have also tried to incorporate (while compounding that mistake by locking the design and throwing away the key with almost impossible-to-revise constitutional entrenchments. (p. 200)

Josiah Ober is then credited with a “recent attempt at drawing a clearer distinction between democracy and liberalism” and approvingly described as having “thus begun to challenge the view that the tradition of political liberalism, and consequently representative government as its central emanation, is the only ideology or historic system that can protect at least certain individual rights and freedoms.” “Pre-liberal, non-representative democracy” – Landemore reassures her readers – “was not all that unstable or even as terribly ‘illiberal’ on the substance […] as is often feared.”
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Alpa Shah on democracy and sortition in India and globally

Alpa Shah is Professor of Anthropology at London School of Economics and Political Science, London, UK, where she also leads a research theme at the International Inequalities Institute. Her most recent book is Nightmarch: Among India’s Revolutionary Guerrillas (Hurst, 2018).

Shah has an article in a special issue of Development and Change journal titled “What if We Selected our Leaders by Lottery? Democracy by Sortition, Liberal Elections and Communist Revolutionaries”.


What if we selected our leaders by lottery? Zooming out from the mud huts of indigenous communities in the forested hills of eastern India, this article compares three different models of leadership and democracy: liberal electoral democracy; Marxist‐Leninist Maoist democracy; and democracy by sortition — the random selection of rotating leaders. The significance of sortition is introduced into discussions of democracy in India (showing connections with practices in Nepal and China) as part of a broader attempt to make scholarship on South Asia more democratic. The author also re‐reads ideals of leadership among indigenous people, showing that we need a theoretical and practical vision arguing not for societies without leaders but for societies in which everyone may be a leader. In India, this compels us to push back against the critique of its indigenous communities for not producing leaders and enables a profound re‐reading of the history of subaltern anti‐colonial rebellions. The final aim of the article is to highlight the virtues of the potential of sortition in creating democratic society globally. How we think about democracy and leadership is thus turned on its head to provide a new vision for the future.

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Mansbridge: Beyond Adversary Democracy

An interview with Jane Mansbridge in the Harvard Gazette.

GAZETTE: How might we get citizens who are so polarized to listen to one another?

MANSBRIDGE: One proven practice is the technique of citizens’ assemblies or deliberative polls. These are groups of citizens drawn randomly, through a democratic lottery, from a particular population. It could be an entire country, a state, a city, or even a neighborhood, from which you bring together a group of citizens to talk about an issue that is of concern to their community. For this technique to be successful, the group has to be random, meaning that you have to have good representation from everyone, not just the white retirees who don’t have much to do and would love to come to this sort of thing. To get a random group, you ought to able to pay the participants because you want to be able to get the poor, the less educated, and people who, for one reason or another, would not give up a weekend otherwise to come together with other citizens to deliberate about some major issue.

GAZETTE: Have you participated in a citizens’ assembly? What was it like?
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The best possible system of representation and democracy we can imagine

Reddit user subheight640 has a post presenting an uncompromising argument in favor of sortition:

Why randomly choosing people to serve in government may be the best way to select our politicians

So I’m a huge advocate of something known as sortition, where people are randomly selected to serve in a legislature. Unfortunately the typical gut reaction against sortition is bewilderment and skepticism. How could we possibly trust ignorant, stupid, normal people to become our leaders?

Democracy by Lottery

Imagine a Congress that actually looks like America. It’s filled with nurses, farmers, engineers, waitresses, teachers, accountants, pastors, soldiers, stay-at-home-parents, and retirees. They are conservatives, liberals, and moderates from all parts of the country and all walks of life.
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