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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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.

REVITALIZING DEMOCRACY:
Sortition, Citizen Power, and Spaces of Freedom

The conference website is called sortition.academy 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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