Étienne Chouard: Public decision-making from the perspective of the common good: Breaking out of the electoral trap

What follows is the table of contents of a 2016 essay by Étienne Chouard, which Chouard describes as “my most recent methodical comparison between election and sortition”. I will publish my translation to English of the essay in several parts. The original French version is here.

Public decision-making from the perspective of the common good: Breaking out of the electoral trap
A comparison between election and allotment of representatives
Étienne Chouard, 2016
(Original in French, translation to English by Yoram Gat, 2020.)

Part I. A comparison of the general strengths and weaknesses of elections and allotment of representatives

  • (i) Elections infantilize, and in this way paralyze, the voters. They discourage thinking and defending the common good (whereas sortition does not)
    • 1. By definition, elections are aristocratic, whereas sortition is democratic
    • 2. By definition, elections are an abdication, a renunciation of the exercising of one’s sovereignty oneself, it is delegation, it is the renunciation of legislation, whereas sortition is the assertion of sovereignty
    • 3. Elections infantilize, strip of responsibility, dissuade from doing what is right, and distance the people from politics and the common good, whereas sortition encourages, and promotes responsibility for, doing the right thing
  • Continue reading

Sortition in the New Yorker, again

For the second time in less than a year, sortition is mentioned in the New Yorker. Last time, it was merely an off-handed comment. This time, sortition is front and center. Nathan Heller’s article is built around an interview with Hélène Landemore. Alexander Guerrero also gets quoted.

Landemore’s ideal is participative, but she seems to be working with a rather loose concept for her proposals:

What distinguishes Landemore’s ideal from other lottocratic models, such as Guerrero’s, is the breadth of her funnel: the goal is to involve as much of the public organically in as many decisions as possible. Her open-democratic process also builds in crowdsourced feedback loops and occasional referendums (direct public votes on choices) so that people who aren’t currently governing don’t feel shut out.

As evidence that open democracy can work in large[…,] culturally diverse societies, Landemore points to France’s Great National Debate—a vast undertaking involving a vibrant online forum, twenty-one citizens’ assemblies, and more than ten thousand public meetings, held in the wake of the gilets jaunes protests, in 2019—and, this year, to the country’s Citizens’ Convention on Climate Change.

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Costa Delgado and Moreno Pestaña: Democracy and sortition: Reasons for using randomness

A new book, The Routledge Handbook of Contemporary European Social Movements, has a chapter by Jorge Costa Delgado and José Luis Moreno Pestaña named “Democracy and sortition: Reasons for using randomness”. The authors summarize their chapter as follows:

The use of sortition accompanies the renewal of debates on democracy. In this chapter, following a brief overview of a few general traits pertaining to the political use of sortition, we will study its fundamental contributions on three levels. First of all, we will analyze how random selection can contribute to renewing the debate about the knowledge necessary to participate politically. For that we will develop four logical possibilities following the discussion between Socrates and Protagoras in Plato’s homonymous dialogue, and, subsequently, they will be exemplified through the debate regarding sortition in the Spanish political party Podemos as context for reference. Secondly, we will address the problem of sortition and its double potential to motivate participation and demotivate unwanted behaviour and profiles. In this case, illustrative examples will be taken stemming from the authors’ own ethnographic experience. Lastly, it will be argued that sortition serves to produce a particular moral content within political participation, based on the idea that politics are a civic virtue, essential to the development of human capabilities, that must be stimulated and distributed en masse. This perspective contrasts with logics deeply rooted in activist environments that, often hinder the declared objectives of those who are members of them, specially the alternation, when we think of political participation, between the ideology of the gift and the professional one.

Blok: Sortition and democracy: equality, justice and the challenge of present-day democracy

Prof. Josine Blok, a classicist from the University of Utrecht, will be giving a talk titled “Sortition and democracy: equality, justice and the challenge of present-day democracy” at the University of Dresden on Feb 5th, 2020.

It turns out that Blok has been interested in sortition for some time. In 2014 she has published a paper called “Participatory Governance: The Case for Allotment” in the journal Participation. The paper is viewable and downloadable here.

In the paper, Blok hypothesizes that sortition was legitimated in Athens by the custom of using the lottery to allocate shares of inheritances among the heirs. Other parts of her discussion are interesting and original as well.

Democracy without political parties: the case of ancient Athens George Tridimas

Here’s the abstract of a recent article by George Tridimas in the Journal of Institutional Economics:

Democracy without political parties: the case of ancient Athens

Political parties, formal, durable and mass organizations that inform voters on public policy issues, nominate candidates for office and fight elections for the right to govern, are ubiquitous in modern representative democracies but were absent from the direct participatory democracy of ancient Athens. The paper investigates how the political institutions of Athens may explain their absence. The arguments explored include voter homogeneity; the conditions at the start of the democracy, characterized by single constituency configuration of the demos, simple majority voting and lack of organized groups; the irrelevance of holding public office for determining public policy; appointment to public posts through sortition; and voting on single-dimension issues. The paper then discusses how in the absence of parties voters became informed and how political leaders were held accountable by the courts.

I’ve not yet read it. If you want to email me on ngruen at gmail, I might be able to help you out with access to the article.

Citizen Climate Convention: Become a Democratic Assembly!

An open letter to the members of the French Citizen Climate Convention from several mass-action environmental organizations was recently published in Reporterre – a French environmental daily newspaper. [Original in French.]

A Citizen Climate Convention has been convening since October 4 over the course of 6 sessions of three days each until the upcoming January. How to make sure this unprecedented test of collective democracy, which gives 150 allotted citizens the power to deliberate measures for reducing France’s CO2 emissions by at least 40% in 10 years, does not end up as a tool of self-promotion for a government whose real policy for the last two years has been so blatantly anti-environmental that it forces Nicolas Hulot, its very moderate minister of the environment, to resign? That is possible if the allotted rely on their popular legitimacy in order to change the nature and the objective of their upcoming deliberations. It is for this democratic usurpation that we are calling.

What is it that makes you legitimate, more legitimate in any case than the committee that is supposed to “govern” you? It is not that fact that you were allotted according to social-professional or geographic “representivity” criteria defined by the polling institute. This representativity has no democratic value. The fact that an allotted woman is a self-employed resident of Brittany like me does not in any way guarantee that she would faithfully represent my political convictions. It is therefore not the allotment according to social-professional categories which makes you close to your fellow citizens, but rather the fact that you share their situation of democratic dispossession. In these dying days of this deceptive regime of “representative democracy”, we are all reduced to being nothing more than private individuals, deprived of any meaningful political power.
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Sortition in German press, Citizens’ Council website

Just a couple of notable discussions of sortition in the German press from the last couple of months.

The first from the Frankfurter Allgemeine in August is entitled: “Can sortition save democracy?” After mentioning that in Germany, like in many other countries, satisfaction with actually existing democracy has been hovering around 50%, it delves somewhat IN DEPTH into the differences between elections and lot. Not surprisingly, it quotes Aristotle that “sortition” is democratic, while elections are aristocratic. And it discusses historical examples beyond Athens, in particular, the familiar mentions of Florence and Venice. It then discusses both the Irish Citizens Assembly, and the Buergerrat Demokratie citizens’ assembly in Germany–mentioning that the President of the Bundestag supports it and will take its recommendations seriously. It then discusses the Buergerrat Demokratie at length.

The second from the Sueddeutsche Zeitung in September, entitled “An experiment to save democracy,” reports on the new Citizens Council, which amounts to a second chamber of Parliament, in East Belgium. It calls it a “world premier,” and allows readers to vote yes/no to the idea of whether citizens should be able to make laws. So far, the yeahs have it. It emphasizes that David van Reybrouk’s book, as well as the G1000, played important roles in bringing the idea of “aleatory democracy” to that part of Belgium.

Speaking of which, this is the website for the new Citizens’ Council in East Belgium.

Sortition has nearly gone mainstream, and the so-called “Neo-Athenian Revolution” is alive and well.