Interview with the Classical Republican

I was interviewed some time ago about sortition for the Classical Republican. It was a wide-ranging conversation that included discussion of this blog. The interview is now on Youtube, and can be viewed here. Note that the Classical Republican has an entire Youtube playlist devoted to sortition which features, in addition to my interview, an extended conversation with longtime sortition advocate Oliver Dowlen and other interesting videos. The playlist can be found here.

Bertrand Russell on Athenian democracy

In his 1945 book History of Western Philosophy Betrand Russell writes the following (p. 74):

Athenian democracy, though it had the grave limitation of not including slaves or women, was in some respects more democratic than any modern system. Judges and most executive officers were chosen by lot, and served for short periods; they were thus average citizens like our jurymen, with the prejudices and lack of professionalism characteristic of average citizens.

It is remarkable that the reason given for the Athenian system being more democratic than modern systems is not the standard superficial argument about the Assembly voting directly on laws. Russell’s appeal to the fact that Athenian judges and officers had, as a result of being chosen by lot, the same outlook as the average citizen is an adumbration of Manin’s pure theory of elections (“the principle of distinction”).

“A Random Group of People” editorial in Seattle and town hall on Citizens’ Assemblies

the Stranger, perhaps Seattle’s most widely read newspaper, has recently published an editorial by Ansel Herz, a former Congressional staffer in DC, now serving as communications director for Democracy Next, recently founded by Claudia Chwalisz (of OECD & Parisian Citizens’ Assembly fame).

In fact, this is what “democracy” actually is. In the 5th century B.C., the Greeks of ancient Athens coined demokratia to describe their carefully designed lottery system, under which any citizen was able to serve in parliamentary, administrative, and judicial bodies. Demokratia is not politicians, elections, and parties; the Greeks would have abhorred those, as many ordinary people—perhaps even you—do to this day.

“Their greatest gift was their passion for democracy,” observed the Trinidadian writer C.L.R. James in his 1956 essay, “Every Cook Can Govern”. The Athenians believed that elections were undemocratic; Aristotle called them “oligarchic.” It’s common sense that when only a handful of people can hold power, corruption is likely.

The Greeks recognized that whoever runs for elected office in the first place usually projects a peculiar power-seeking personality type. Having spent a lot of time around candidates who’ve won and lost, let me tell you: the Greeks were right.

After introducing sortition, Herz mentioned America in One Room, the Irish Citizens’ Assembly, and Brussels’s recent introduction of its own permanent CA.

In 2019’s “America In One Room”, for example, Stanford researchers organized an assembly of 526 Americans to deliberate for a long weekend. The group did not combust from anger and tension, nor did the participants retreat to their bubbles and cling to their beliefs. They found common ground around issues of trade, wages, immigration, and more. Democrats reported a 13-point increase in positive feelings toward Republicans; Republicans felt 14 points more favorably toward Democrats. Ninety-five percent of participants said they “learned a lot about people very different from me,” and 98 percent said they found the experience “valuable.”

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Khoban: A Feminist Defense of Randomly Selected Political Representatives

In a recent paper in Critical Policy Studies, Swedish researcher Zohreh Khoban argues that feminism and sortition are naturally allied.

Politics of Emancipation: A Feminist Defense of Randomly Selected Political Representatives
Zohreh Khoban


The presence of women in elected assemblies has been argued to transform the political agenda so that it better addresses the needs and interests of women. In this article, I reflect on women’s political representation by starting from democratic theories that point to the inadequacy of electoral democracy. I argue that, compared to including women in the political elite, dissolving the division of political labor between professional politicians and ‘ordinary’ citizens has a greater potential to challenge status quo gender relations. I suggest that political assemblies consisting of randomly selected citizens would better serve women’s self-determination and emancipation for three reasons: 1) allotted representatives would be more willing and able than elected representatives to critique social norms and practices, 2) the idea of allotted representatives better supports the idea that knowledge is situated, and 3) it better accommodates the notion that political merit is a gendered, racialized and class-based concept.

The Case for Abolishing Elections

Just in advance of Election Day here in the USA, Boston Review has published my article on why getting a real democracy requires that we replace elections with lotteries, career politicians with everyday citizens. Grateful to Terry Bouricius, Brett Hennig, and Adam Cronkright for allowing me to interview them for this piece.

In the ancient world, lot meant “destiny.” The Athenians believed that it was the fate of selected citizens to serve. Views on providence have changed, but whether we channel the will of the gods or merely our own earthly dreams, democracy by lottery would empower us to combat oligarchy, give voice to the multitude, and put ordinary citizens in the room where decisions are made. The question is not whether American democracy will die, but whether it will be instituted for the first time.

AI-enabled deliberative democracy

The proponents of “deliberative democracy” have spent decades dredging a this-but-that argumentative quagmire that has yielded nothing of either theoretical or practical value for democracy. One of the prolific underlying springs of sticky material for the quagmire has been the inherent contradiction between two dicta of “deliberative democracy”: mass participation and deliberation. It is very straightforward that masses cannot deliberate. Meaningful deliberation can occur in groups of at most a few hundreds of people (and even at this scale all-to-all deliberation could occur only under very favorable conditions).

Thus, “deliberative democracy” professionals can develop entire careers stirring, pouring and piling the sands of participation and deliberation without ever managing (or, it could be argued, without ever trying) to build any solid structure. Those of us who would suggest that both mass participation and deliberation are at best tools for good outcomes, rather than sacrosanct goals, are severely chastised for looking for illegitimate “shortcuts”.

Technology is one of the implements that have been routinely used to stir those sticky sands. Over and over again we have been promised that new information technology would allow democracy to go where it has never gone before. Mass education, remote participation, virtual mass discussions, crowd-sourced documents – these and many other unprecedented tools of democracy would be enabled by innovative technology. The fact that such promises go back to the advent of the radio (and probably much farther back) never discourages the prophets of mass participation from promising that the next technological innovation would be the one that would usher in democratic utopia where millions of voices would be heard by millions of people who all make meaningful – equally meaningful – contributions to decision making.

In the spirit of the times (or maybe a bit behind the times), the latest technology recruited to the cause of mass deliberation is Artificial Intelligence. Continue reading

Sortition in the Netherlands

The very useful Dutch sortition-focused blog Tegen Verkiezingen reports about a new bachelor’s thesis at Leiden university in the Netherlands titled “Lottery as a democratic instrument?”. The thesis was written by Max Van Duijn, who is the leader of a local political party in the Katwijk municipality named DURF. DURF, which is the biggest party in the municipal council, advocates the application of sortition at the municipal level.

Tegen Verkiezingen provides the following translation of an excerpt from the thesis:

In essence ‘representative democracy’ is not democratic. It’s something fundamentally different. It would be more justified to label it ‘elective aristocracy’. In that sense the contrast between classical and representative democracy is a false one. In fact what we’re talking about is a contrast between democracy (sortition) and aristocracy (elections).

Booij: Sortition as the Solution

Below is the Introduction to a Master’s thesis by G.J. Booij, submitted in 2021 at the Tilburg School of Humanities and Digital Sciences of Tilburg University, the Netherlands, titled “Sortition as the Solution: How randomly sampled citizen assemblies can complement the Dutch democracy”. Booij was advised by Prof. Michael Vlerick, author of the 2020 paper “Towards Global Cooperation: The Case for a Deliberative Global Citizens’ Assembly”.

During World War II, Winston Churchill famously stated that “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.”. Not only does this indicate that, at least in Churchill’s eyes, the current governmental form is flawed, but also that, remarkably, Churchill sees democracy as being synonymous to the elective representative democracy that was present during his life. If this kind of democracy would indeed be the best way to govern a nation, it is logical that many countries have stuck with it. However, if it is actually flawed, as he also claims, it may be wise to investigate alternative forms of government.

In this thesis, I will do just this by investigating alternative (democratic) governmental systems, since democracy is in fact not synonymous to the elective representative democracy that is still present in many Western countries. In particular, I will scrutinize the democratic system of sortition (democracy through citizen assemblies drawn by lot) and I will argue that this system should be used as a complement to the system currently in play in the Netherlands. By doing this, I will build on existing literature regarding sortition (Fishkin, 2011; van Reybrouck, 2016) by presenting a comparative perspective of several (democratic) systems, focusing specifically on the Dutch context. This kind of critical evaluation of the governmental status quo and democratic renewal is now more important than ever, since political trust dropped drastically over the past years – 70% of the Dutch population has indicated they do not have faith in politics (Erasmus University Rotterdam, 2021; NOS, 2021a).
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Thomas and Pollack: Rethinking Guilt, Juries, and Jeopardy

A distinction is sometimes made between democracy as a system in which citizens are politically equal and a system in which the “right” decisions are made. In “Rethinking Guilt, Juries, and Jeopardy”, a paper published in the Michigan Law Review in 1992, George Thomas and Barry Pollack argue, in the context of juries, that the two concepts may be theoretically indistinguishable. It is interesting to weigh the strength of their argument and see to what extent it is applicable to citizen judgement in the case of policy making. Thomas and Pollack also go further and use this argument to reason about jury size, an argument which may be interesting and relevant in public policy making as well.

It may be obvious, but it is worth noting anyway, that the arguments made are also relevant to very wide epistemological questions about what is truth, what are facts, the analytical/synthetic distinction, the fact/value distinction, internalism vs. externalism, etc. It turns out that a theory of democracy may require a workable epistemological theory, or at least a part of such a theory.

The purpose of a mechanism for deciding guilt is to impose punishment only on those who deserve it. This goal raises two questions. First, who decides? Second, how can an observer evaluate whether the decisionmaker was right or wrong?

Although citizen juries played a role in the English criminal process at least as far back as 1201 A.D., their role initially was limited to screening cases, much like the present-day grand jury. Thus, a jury would decide whether to hold the accused for the guilt-determining phase, which might be battle or ordeal. Battle on an accusation of felony ended in death for the accused if he lost – the offender would perish either in the battle or from immediate hanging. Ordeal consisted principally of trial by fire and water, which required the accused (and sometimes the accuser) to walk through fire, carry red-hot iron, plunge his hand or arm into boiling water, or be thrown into a pool of water.

The premise underlying both battle and ordeal as guilt-determining mechanisms was that “God would always interpose miraculously to vindicate the guiltless.”

With the dawning of the Renaissance, however, Western culture gradually ceased seeing the hand of God or Satan in every physical event, and the role of citizen juries was extended from screening defendants for trial to determining guilt. As long as God was making the decision, believers did not accept the possibility of error. Once the ultimate decision rested in the hands of citizens, however, error became possible. The difficult, and usually unappreciated, question is how error can occur.
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Buge and Vandamme: The CCC as a case study on the legitimacy of sortition

A new paper by Eric Buge and Pierre-Étienne Vandamme, published in the Journal of Representative Democracy [Full text, PDF], has the following title and abstract:

Conflicts of Legitimacies in Representative Institutions: The Case of the French Citizen Convention for Climate

Conceived as an alternative form of democratic representation, the random selection of citizens for a political task comes in tension with the logic of electoral representation. The idea, carried by random selection, that anyone can be a good enough representative challenges the assumption that we need to choose the most competent among ourselves. And the fact that citizens’ assemblies are sometimes tasked to draft legislation may undermine the authority of elected representatives. This article tests this hypothesis of tension between competing forms of representation on a recent case: the French Citizen Convention for Climate (CCC) in 2020. Drawing on parliamentary hearings and questions as well as public political reactions to the CCC, we find indications that elected representatives may feel threatened in their legitimacy even when most randomly selected citizens do not see themselves as representatives. This may be due to the fact that the CCC was seen by some as stepping on the prerogatives of the Parliament. This suggests that future experiments of the sort could benefit from a clearer functional division between the two forms of representation.

This repeats a commonly asserted notion that sortition rests on different positive assumptions about political competence from those upon which support for elections does. Supposedly, while sortition advocates assert equal political competence among all citizens, advocates of elections assert that the elite is politically more competent than the rest of the population. In fact, analysis shows that the claim that this is the crucial difference between the positions is rather questionable. Continue reading