Varoufakis on democracy

An excerpt from a 2019 discussion between Yanis Varoufakis, the Greek economist and politician, leader of the MeRA25 party, and Caroline Lucas, the only Green Party UK MP.

CL: Your country is seen as the birthplace of democracy. In your opinion has there ever been a really good democracy we can look at and say, ‘That was when it was working well’?

YV: Democracy is always unfinished business. It is imperfect by design, especially in societies with vested interests vying for domination. But the merits of studying ancient Athenian democracy, which only lasted a few decades, is that it was the first and last time the poor controlled the government. Which is, interestingly, Aristotle’s definition of democracy. It was a remarkably radical idea that control over the instruments of the state should be independent of wealth.

CL: How did it work?

YV: Back in the times of the grand debates at the Pnyx, which was the parliamentary space in ancient Athens, there were two opposing parties: the Aristocrats and the Democrats. The Aristocrats hated democracy with a passion – but all the great philosophers we now eulogise like Aristotle and Plato were on the side of the Aristocrats. Nevertheless, the Aristocrats, who hated democracy, supported elections. And the Democrats did not.

CL: That sounds very paradoxical.

YV: The argument was that the Aristocrats could afford to buy influence in an election, so elections were an enemy of democracy. Democrats supported a lottery – sortition, as it is called today. Every official position in Athenian democracy was elected by lottery, including judges. Their terms were confined to six months. The only posts not sorted by lottery were the general, who had to know how to conduct a war, and bankers. The officials responsible for minting the money and for quality control of products like wine were slaves. Why? Because citizens had the right not to be beaten. Slaves did not. The idea was that bankers had to fear that they would be beaten up if they messed up the finances of the city. I think this is a splendid proposal for the City of London!
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Sortition in 2020

Continuing the series of yearly reviews appearing on this blog every December since 2010, in this post I review the 2020 sortition-related events that appear to me most significant or interesting. I invite readers to add their own reviews in posts or comments.

The most prominent sortition-related development of 2020 was without a doubt the work of the French Citizen Climate Convention. This body of 150 allotted citizens started its work in back in 2019 and has published its report in June. It received significant media attention in France even before it published its report, but public attention has intensified over the last 6 months. In fact one commentator was alarmed that discussion of sortition in France has reached pandemic proportions.

In the face of the expected pushback from elite groups, the French public has shown significant support for the CCC itself and for its recommendations. Toward the end of the year warnings have been raised about what appears to be the government’s attempts to abandon or water-down the implementation of the Convention’s proposals. In late breaking news, Macron has indicated that he is aiming to put constitutional changes aligned with the Convention’s proposals up for a referendum.

The work of the CCC and the aftermath of its report received scant coverage in the English-speaking media (with the sole exception of Equality-by-Lot).

At the same time, sortition made more modest progress in other countries as well. It was implemented or discussed in multiple contexts in Germany: 1, 2, 3, 4. Sortition was also implemented or proposed in Switzerland, Belgium, Greece, the United States, and Scotland.

In the United States, sortition got some fairly high profile exposure by Malcolm Gladwell (1, 2). On three different occasions sortition was proposed by undergraduate students as a replacement for the electoral system. It was also proposed as a way to achieve citizen oversight over the police.

Finally, two sortition-related books of interest were published this year. One is a hefty report published by the OECD on “Innovative Citizen Participation”. The report makes a historical summary of hundreds of cases of citizen participation in government, draws its conclusions and makes recommendations. The second book is by notorious sortition activist Paul Rosenfeld. In stark contrast to the OECD publication, Rosenfeld’s book, a combination of an autobiography and a sortition manifesto, makes for an easy and entertaining afternoon read.

Galland and Schnapper: Citizen conventions and representative democracy, Part 1

Olivier Galland, sociologist at the CNRS, and Dominique Schnapper, researcher at the EHESS and an honorary member of the Constitutional Council, write in Telos.

Parliamentary institutions are the only legitimate institutions for enacting legislation and for government oversight. Under what conditions could those institutions be complemented by the involvement in the public space of groups of citizens which would work for a period of time in order to come to know in an informed and open-minded way the dimensions of a political problem and which would publish the results of their deliberations?

This question is part of a general ambition for some form of democratization to which the institutions of the Republic are responding poorly at the moment. Dominique Rousseau advocates a “continuous democracy” while Rosanvallon advocates for a “counter-democracy”. But neither of them poses the problem in a way that appears to us just or practicable.

It may be accepted that low turnout rates are an indicator of the weakening of the legitimacy of the parliament and of government, or, put differently, that we are experiencing a crisis of representation. It is thus not out of the question to reflect on forms of citizen consultation which would inform the public discussion between elections. These would share the space that is now left solely to the media, to social networks and to unaccountable citizens who are not particularly informed and who make their opinion known, for example, wherever information is transmitted or even through the device of opinion polls.
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Call for 2020 review input

This is the yearly call for input for the year’s end review. As in previous years, I would like to have a post or two summarizing the ongoings here at Equality-by-Lot and notable sortition-related events over the passing year. Any input about what should be included is welcome – either through comments below or via email. You are invited to refresh your memory about the events of the passing year by browsing Equality-by-Lot’s archives.

For previous years’ summaries see: 2019, 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010.

Sortition in Government Series

Terry Bouricius will be leading a series of presentations on applying sortition to government at the next several monthly meetings of Democracy Without Elections, formerly the United States Chapter of the Sortition Foundation. The next monthly meeting will be held online on Tuesday 15 December at 9pm Eastern, 6 Pacific (US time). Terry’s topic is “Underlying legitimacy of election vs. sortition,” and further described as…

“Both election and sortition claim to be representative forms of democracy, but they have very different historic roots and very different bases for legitimacy. The different methods are likely to deliver very different policy outcomes as well. Law making using sortition dates back thousands of years, and is recently undergoing a resurgence.”

The meeting includes reports from Interest Groups and from our new Board of Directors. Contact Owen for access to the meeting.

Future online meeting presentations in this series will include discussions on

  • Why elections are a bad tool for running a democracy
  • Sortition representation and accountability
  • Why having one chamber elected and one chamber by sortition is problematic
  • How to organize law-making with sortition
  • Aspects of Sortition: impartiality, anti-corruption, representativeness, diversity benefits
  • Sortition role in the executive branch
  • Transition strategies to sortition democracy

Stakeholders! Empowerment! Holacritic! Nodes! Doughnut Economics! Flatpack Democracy! Sortition! Curation!

The Brixton Buzz isBrixton’s biggest and most comprehensive news , features and listings site”. It has “long rallied against the divisive, exclusive and downright incomprehensible jargon that self-elected community representatives The Brixton Project have been spouting recently”. It turns out that “sortition” is part of this bombastic jargon.

Some excerpts from the Brixton Buzz article:

The Brixton Project – the ‘community group’ who intentionally exclude most of their audience

The Brixton Project promises:

Stakeholders! Empowerment! Holacritic! Nodes! Doughnut Economics! Flatpack Democracy! Sortition! Curation! All resulting in: Inclusive and Cohesive Community Agency!​

The Brixton Project has been at pains to underline its commitment to inclusiveness across all the people of Brixton.

But – according to the Fleischer-Kincaid grade index, a widely accepted measure of comprehensibility – BP’s prose requires graduate-level comprehension, and is intelligible to only about 30% of the general public.

BP’s prose is a trifecta of gobbledegook: a turgid pseudo-intellectual blend of civic bureaucratese, cultural studies academic jargon and architectural-theoretic gibberish, which is pretty intimidating for anyone with limited or average English proficiency.
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Democracy Without Elections Board Selected by Lottery

A news release by Democracy Without Elections.

Directors for national board selected by lottery

The advocacy group “Democracy Without Elections” has decided to practice what it preaches and select its entire Board of Directors by lottery. Using a lottery, Democracy Without Elections (www.DemocracyWithoutElections.org) is able to form a diverse board and include input from less active members. The new Board, with Directors from across the country, will meet online later this month.

Democracy Without Elections is a grassroots member-driven organization that promotes better decision-making across all levels of government and in organizations ranging from Boards of Directors to student government. The use of democratic lotteries to select the decision-makers coupled with deliberation as the process to make the decisions are the hallmark of the group.

The organization specifically advocates for democratic lotteries to be used to select members in legislative bodies like Congress. The group also supports making fundamental changes in the way those bodies operate: replacing lobbyists, coalitions and partisan politics with deliberation.

Democracy Without Elections is a proponent of citizens’ assemblies as well. Citizens’ Assemblies are lottery-selected deliberative groups which make recommendations to legislative bodies. Each citizens’ assembly is tasked with one challenging issue like abortion or a specific ballot initiative.

The organization has members from Alaska to Florida and from New England to California. We welcome new members who can join us at www.DemocracyWithoutElections.org. We hold monthly online meetings that include relevant guest speakers and reports from Interest Groups.

Ostfeld: The Case for Sortition in America

Jacob Ostfeld makes a radical, uncompromising argument for sortition in the Harvard Political Review. Some excerpts:

The political realities of 2020 have laid bare that these flaws are structural to American democracy itself and have existed since its founding. Our system is not broken; it is functioning exactly as was intended. The system was always built around undemocratic institutions. The Electoral College, which allowed President Trump to be elected despite losing the popular vote, was created to protect the interests of slaveholding aristocrats in the South. Members of Congress are able to sustain decades-long careers in Congress despite consistently low approval ratings because of millions of dollars in lawful donations from Wall Street firms — donations which were made legal in the first place by a 5-4 decision from the nine lifetime-appointed justices on the Supreme Court. None of the undemocratic systems governing us today are subversions of the Constitution. On the contrary, they are all perfectly legal.

How, then, do we save American democracy? Sortition.

In simplest terms, sortition means appointment by lottery. In America, sortition would mean replacing Congress with assemblies made up of randomly chosen American citizens; elected representatives are entirely eliminated. Almost every responsibility of the legislative branch is delegated to a randomly subset of the population. Laws are written, discussed, and passed by ordinary people. Federal judges are interviewed and confirmed by ordinary people.

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The New Flemish Alliance does not want to see democracy turning into a “lottocracy”

A translation of an article from the Belgian La Libre.

Government reform: The New Flemish Alliance does not want to see democracy turning into a “lottocracy”
November 25, 2020

The government reform undertaken by the De Croo government cannot be a pretext for turning parliamentary democracy into a sortition-based system, warned on Wednesday the head of the N-VA (The New Flemish Alliance) in the Chamber of Representatives, Peter De Roover, during a discussion in the Constitution Committee on the presentation regarding political directions by the ministers for institutional reforms.

The new government drew up for the upcoming year a “platform of dialog” regarding the future of the Belgian federalism along the lines of that which is planned regarding the future of Europe. A “large scale consultation involving citizens, in particular young citizens, as well as civil society, universities, experts, and local authorities” will be undertaken, indicated the document by ministers David Clarinval and Annelies Verlinden.

The way in which citizens would be involved in the process raised questions among the nationalist opposition which asked whether the Vivaldi Coalition is going to resort to sortition, a method which was promoted over the last few years by some intellectuals. “I have more confidence in a body that was elected by the citizens than in a panel of allotted citizens”, emphasized De Roover who would not like to see democracy replaced by a “lottocracy”.
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The French Citizen Climate Convention: a provisional analysis

It has been about 5 months since the French Citizen Climate Convention has published its proposals, and with acrimony setting in about the de-facto shelving of much of its work, various conclusions are being drawn about the CCC process. As usual, the conclusions almost invariably confirm the existing notions of the analyst. My analysis is no different in this sense: it seems to me that to a large extent each party to the process has played its expected role and thus the outcomes are quite predictable. I will highlight however two points that have been established empirically that should not have been taken for granted regarding how things would turn out.

Here are points about the CCC process that in my opinion are worth noting:

1. The process was launched as a government response to the Gilets Jaunes, a mass movement whose agenda was not just anti-government but also anti-electoralist. A popular initiative process (Referendum d’initiative citoyenne, or RIC) and to a lesser extent sortition were a major part of the discourse of the Gilets Jaunes. The rise of the Gilets Jaunes movement was triggered by what the government presented as environmentalist policy – increasing the gas tax. Thus having a non-electoralist process for generating environmental policy proposals was a direct capitulation to GJ demands. This origin of the body as a direct, stop-gap response to mass protest is very different from the origins of other allotted bodies, such as the Irish constitutional conventions. Such bodies, even if they were in some way a response to public disaffection with the status quo, were constituted in a much more carefully controlled manner by established power.
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