Notes on Sortition Terminology

I have three concerns about terminology used by those working on sortition.

1. Stop using pejorative terms to refer to people selected by lot. This undermines the very idea of equality that is the foundation of sortition and reproduces the dominant supremacist logic of elite/ordinary people

The people selected by lot are frequently referred to as “ordinary people,” “common people,” “everyday people,” etc. All these adjectives have pejorative meanings. Even if the pejorative meaning isn’t the author’s intent, the pejorative meaning and logic remains. Sortition recognizes inherent human equality and seeks to overcome a deeply ingrained system of social differentiation of people into superiors and inferiors. It’s important to break out of this supremacist logic of elite/ordinary people, superiors/inferiors, etc., and not reproduce this vocabulary.

You wouldn’t like it if someone described you as “ordinary, common, everyday, average.” Don’t describe others that way.

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) definitions of “ordinary” include: “4. Chiefly of a person: not distinguished by rank or position; of low social position; relating to, or characteristic of, the common people; common, vulgar; unrefined, low, coarse. In later use derogatory.” And: “5. a. Of the usual kind; such as is usually experienced; not singular or exceptional. Often in depreciatory use: not above, or somewhat below, the usual level of quality; commonplace, mundane; (of a person) undistinguished in appearance, plain.”

OED definitions of “common” include: “12. a. Of persons: Undistinguished by rank or position; belonging to the commonalty; of low degree; esp. in the common people, the masses, populace. (Sometimes contemptuous.).” And: “14. In depreciatory use: b. Of persons and their qualities: Low-class, vulgar, unrefined.”

“Everyday”: 2. “That can be encountered every day; common, ordinary. Also: (of a person or his or her attributes) commonplace, mediocre, inferior.

“Average”: “2. a. medium, ordinary.”

“Regular people” can be somewhat pejorative to positive, but it still exists in contrast to supposed “elite people.” “Regular” can mean: “6. f. Chiefly U.S. (colloquial). Of a person: ordinary, normal, unremarkable.”

“Normal people” might be better, but it can still mean “ordinary” or “average, the norm” in contrast to supposed “elite people.” “Normal:” “1.  a. Constituting or conforming to a type or standard; regular, usual, typical; ordinary, conventional. (The usual sense.)”

I propose using a neutral to positive term, such as people at large, and avoiding contrasting supposed “ordinary/regular/normal/everyday people” with some supposed exceptional/elite people. “At large” is defined as: P1. “d. In a general way; in a general sense; without particularizing.” “At large” also has positive meanings of “at liberty, free, without restrictions.” Other neutral to positive terms are possible.

Another option is not to use any adjective; just say “people” or “citizens” full stop. It’s also possible to be purely descriptive: “99 ordinary citizens were randomly selected from the entire adult population.” A term that is always positive like “fellow citizens” could be used; instead of saying “ordinary citizens were given decision-making power,” one could say [our/their/Irish/etc.] “fellow citizens were given decision-making power.” “Fellow” has the meaning of: “4. A person who or thing which shares an attribute with another specified person or thing; a person or thing belonging to the same class or category as another. a. A person’s equal in position, rank, or status; someone’s peer.”

2. Stop using “elites”

Not only are people at large and our fellow citizens being referred to with pejorative phrases such as “ordinary people,” but they are being contrasted with people called “elites,” a term which has a highly positive sense. OED defines “elite” as: “1. a. The pick or choice part (of society, a group of people, etc.), the flower; spec. (a) a select group that is superior in terms of ability or qualities to the rest of a group or society.”

Instead of “elites,” I would propose using terms such as “people in positions of domination,” oligarchs, masters, supremacists, hierarchs (high priests), etc. Or use longer descriptive phrases: “people with concentrated power over others’ lives,” “people with undemocratic power.”

3. The Problem with “Citizens’ Assembly”

“Citizen” can mean: “2. a. A legally recognized subject or national of a state.” It can also have a broader sense: 2. “d. A person who regards himself or herself [or themselves] as an inhabitant of the world as a whole or as a member of the worldwide community.”

“Citizens’ Assembly” can sound like a nationalist, anti-immigrant assembly to a non-citizen. It’s important in discussing citizens’ assembly not to foreclose in advance the possibility of non-citizen participation. The boundary problem shouldn’t be resolved in advance by experts or others using a narrow meaning of “citizen” in “citizens’ assembly”; this should be made clear when this term is used.

Sortition and democracy. History, instruments, and theories: a special issue of Participations journal

Participations journal’s latest issue is devoted to sortition. This appears to be a treasure trove. The issue, titled “Sortition and democracy. History, instruments, and theories”, has 24 papers comprising over 500 pages. The French text of all papers seems to be allow unrestricted access.

The papers are organized into 5 sections:

  1. The ancient world
  2. The medieval world and the modern world
  3. The Chinese world
  4. The contemporary world
  5. Postface

The authors include familiar names (Sintomer, Demont, Courant) as well as many that I, at least, am not familiar with.

“The contemporary world” section has some papers that seem particularly interesting, e.g., Samuel Hayat’s “The militant trajectory of the reference to Bernard Manin in French activism for sortition” and Julien Talpin’s “Does random selection make democracies more democratic? How deliberative democracy has depoliticized a radical proposal”.

Another intriguing paper is Alexei Daniel Serafín Castro’s “Political representation and the uses of sortition in Mexico: 1808-1857” which discusses a historical application of sortition that I have never heard of before.

A response to Cody Hipskind, part 3 of 3

Cody Hispkind’s post is here. The previous parts of my response are here and here.

Political activism under a democratic system

A major tenet of democratic ideology is that people are the best representatives of their own interests: when provided sufficient opportunity, each person and each group of people are best able to understand and express their own values and ideas and the actions that should be taken in order to promote these values and ideas. This tenet is in contrast to “republican” ideology which shares with democratic ideology the idea that everyone’s interests should count equally, but asserts that some people (“a natural aristocracy”) are best qualified to determine what those interests are and how they should be pursued, and therefore those people should be in charge.

Elections are a republican, anti-democratic mechanism: they empower an elite to determine public policy for others (whether this elite may be called a “natural aristocracy” is a matter of taste, I guess). That elite should be able to represent itself, the democratic tenet asserts, but is quite unlikely to represent the majority of the people who are very different from it. Sortition, through the process of statistical sampling, creates a body that by representing itself would represent the public at large.

However, the capacity for self-representation is not a spontaneous, automatic capacity. Getting a group of people (or a single person, for that matter) to the state where it is able to represent its own interests effectively is not a trivial matter. From an institutional standpoint, there are clearly some preconditions that need to be met: there need to be enough resources at the disposal of the group so that reliable information can be gathered. There needs to be enough time to discuss matters, determine an agenda, fashion proposals, debate them, amend them, vote on them, evaluate the effect of the adopted policy, reconsider the matter and repeat the procedure over time.
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A response to Cody Hipskind, part 2

Cody Hispkind’s post is here. The first part of my response is here.

Using an electoral campaign as a focus for political organization and action

Electoral campaigns are like military campaigns. Like military campaigns, electoral campaigns can in principle be fought for good causes – causes that serve the greater good. But there is no reason to believe this is generally the case. Like military campaigns, electoral campaigns, at least those with any traction, are invariably led by an elite, for purposes determined by that elite, and with power in them held by that elite. Like in war, the masses are mobilized by the elite using sloganeering and propaganda rather than rational argumentation and once mobilized they play the role of canon fodder. In political campaigns, the masses are milked for their political and moral energy as well as for time, money and, eventually, votes. Yes – there could be benevolent elites who promote good causes, but these surely are the exception. Thus, as a rule, electoral campaigns serve elite purposes.

It might be objected that it would be easier to recruit the electorate to campaigns that serve the greater good. This, however, relies on the false assumption that people join political campaigns based on informed and considered analysis of their objectives and prospects. Just as is true about recruits to the military, a realistic assessment of the objectives, actions and consequences of the organization which one joins is rarely a major factor in the decision to join a campaign.

Even if one has successfully overcome the inherent oligarchizing tendencies of an electoral campaign and managed to send a democratically-minded delegate to an elected chamber, one has won a single contest. While one is busy with the effort of identifying a campaign worth supporting and then putting one’s precious spare time and energy into that campaign, a well-funded effort by a narrow interest group has broadcast its messages into the minds of millions and has co-opted promising candidates as well as those already in power. Rather than getting an effective platform, the rare democratically-minded delegate is ignored or painted in mass media as a lone lunatic.

So the fact that electoral campaigning may actually be one of the relatively more effective ways to promote democratic goals in an electoral system is really an indication of how dysfunctional that system is. With all its futility, an electoral campaign may actually be a relatively promising political activity in a system that is so thoroughly oligarchical.

The oligarchizing effects of electoral campaigning are largely effects of mass politics in general, where nominally egalitarian political relations in fact almost invariably result in hierarchical relations. Having no formal hierarchy is far from a guarantee of democracy. Contrary to liberal, Marxist and progressive dogmas, democracy in large groups is not a spontaneously occurring phenomenon. It does not just appear due to the good intentions and hard work of the members of the group. It needs to be designed and applied with care and rigor in order to exist and thrive.

A response to Cody Hipskind, part 1

Thank you Cody for your post. I believe it can serve as a starting point for a fruitful discussion – a discussion that has already started in the comments thread to the post.

I would like to address various points you made separately. Here are the first 3 points, corresponding to the first 6 paragraphs in your post.

1. Class and political conflict

It is an obvious fact of life that different people have different political ideas. If everybody agreed on everything politics would be very easy – any one of “us” would do what “we” all agree upon. Still, there is a tendency, which used to be the dominant line of elite political thought in pre-modern times but is common today especially among liberals, to argue, or at least to imply, that disagreements are over means rather than ends. That is, that “we” all agree what is the common good (or at least would agree what is the common good if some of us overcame our ignorance) and the main difficulty is finding competent people who would be able to achieve that good. This translates to elitism. The elitism used to be explicit with the pre-moderns, the archetype being Plato, it was slightly less explicit with the early moderns, e.g., the American Founders, and it is much more implicit today. Nevertheless, it is often still just below the surface of the democratic rhetoric.

The notion that “we” all agree on goals can be dismissed. The common-goals ideology and the attendant elitism are of course self-serving notions for those in power. They imply that to the extent policy produces undesirable outcomes – say enrichment of those in power and their associates and the impoverishment of much of the rest of the population – then those in power can at most be blamed for incompetence rather than corruption. (Naturally, they would in fact argue that unfortunate as the outcomes are, they are necessary for the achievement of the commonly agreed goals.)
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Representation: An ideological and legal fiction

I’ve spent the last few days at an international workshop on ‘Representation in Historical and Transcultural Perspectives’ organised by the Centre for Political Thought at Exeter University. On the final day it was suggested that representation was an ‘ideological and legal fiction’ and none of the participants disagreed. Yves Sintomer gave the final presentation and suggested that his fieldwork comparing Chinese and French systems of representation showed little difference between the two and that the lack of effective representation was an existential crisis for democracy. I had a question for Yves, but we ran out of time, so will ask it here (and draw it to his attention):

One system of representation that would clearly be non-fictional is delegates with legally-binding instructions but this was rejected at the time of the American and French revolutions. Trustee representation (with free mandate) may have worked for a time but didn’t long survive the extension of the franchise and is now rejected by the populist uprising in Europe and America. Virtual representation in Burke’s sense was always fictional due to the dissimilarity between voters and the political class. This would suggest that the only form of non-fictional democratic representation would be when final decision power is vested in a statistically-representative minipublic. Concerns might be raised both about the accuracy of the descriptive representation and the epistemic consequences, but such a system would be non-fictional so long as the microcosm retained ongoing descriptive representation vis-a-vis the target population. This would require large juries, quasi-mandatory participation, short-term service, balanced (exogenous) information and advocacy, and silent deliberation and secret voting, but the representation would not be fictional if it could be demonstrated that multiple samples of the same population generated closely-matching decision outputs. Might such a system be the only way of establishing genuine political representation?

A Marxist Analysis of Sortition

Welcome to Equality-by-Lot, Cody Hipskind! -Yoram

In this post, I’ll be taking a Marxist approach to the question of sortition. That is to say, I’ll be working from a framework that understands society as being composed of several classes with conflicting material interests, and which understands the state as an instrument by which one class rules over others.

I would also note that though classic Marxists have historically centered location within the system of production as central to the reproduction of class society, for my part I hold with the host of theorists who have shown in the decades since Marx wrote how questions of race, gender, migratory status, etc. are likewise integral to the ways in which the ruling class has reproduced its hegemonic status.

Let me begin by recognizing the benefits which rule by lot has from a Marxist perspective. Within my country of the United States and around the world, it is indisputable that electoral systems produce legislatures which, when taken as a whole, are disproportionately wealthy, white, cis-male, and otherwise more representative of the members of the ruling class than of society as a whole. A lottery system would certainly correct such an imbalance by increasing the likelihood of that members of historically disenfranchised communities would receive an equal voice in the legislature. This would obviously be a desirable outcome.

However, it is my position is that elections provide two social goods which would likely be undercut through a system which chooses officers exclusively through sortition. Specifically:

1. Elections create competition between parties over control of which is to say, over the control of the government.

In this way, elections implicitly recognize the sort of divisions in society I outlined above. If a party does something unpopular–say, decide to lower taxes on the rich, voters can punish that party by throwing them out and choosing a replacement. In practice, this means that the subgroups which compose the working class can play kingmaker between the bourgeoisie parties and, ideally, organize themselves into their own parties in order to take power as a class themselves.

In contrast, under sortition, there’s no way to hold people accountable for their decisions: popular or not, you leave office when your term expires. This has the upswing of producing less competitive and divisive politics. And that’s nice and all, but as a Marxist my goal is not to create a politics without division: its to highlight the material divisions and contradictions under capitalism and to exploit the competition among the bourgeoisie parties in order that the working class can get a foot in the door and eventually seize power.
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