Interview with Yves Sintomer, part 2 of 2: With sortition, the scale is immaterial

This is the second part of a translation of an interview with Yves Syntomer. The first part is here, the original in French is here.

Does the end of the 20th century mark the return of a desire to experiment with sortition?

We witnessed in the 1980’s and 1990’s an explosion of experiments applying sortition, a “first wave” where the reference to Athens was very significant. There are however big differences. We aim to obtain a representative sample of the population by allotment, where the Athenians did not have this mathematical notion and resorted to pure luck. The second big difference is that we wish to use sortition to create an Assembly which is going to debate in nearly ideal conditions, following the ideas of ­Jürgen ­Habermas, according to which a decision is not legitimate unless it is preceded by a well-formed discussion.

The third difference is that sortition is introduced at the margins of the political system and that the mini-publics so constituted are merely consultative. This first wave allowed to show that with discussions among ordinary citizens, non-specialists, once they have sufficient information and have the opportunities to examine things, where opportunity to speak has been equally apportioned, in a general assembly or in small groups, high-quality conversation is attained. It is impressive to see that the exchanges between ordinary citizens put to shame those that take place in parliaments.

We are now seeing the emergence of a second wave. Sortition is now invoked by social movements in France, including Nuit Debout and some among the Gilets Jaunes. Ireland has recently offered us a paradigmatic example of this second wave. We had two allotted assemblies (one in its entirety, the other in its majority) convened first to discuss marriage for all and then abortion and to propose constitutional reforms which were then submitted to the people who have ratified those propositions by referenda.

Iceland is another significant example. The country was in a bad state at the moment of the subprime crisis… Two citizen assemblies were allotted (one in its entirety, the other in its majority) in order to propose how to reconstruct the country. That was followed by an election of a constituante committee where professional politicians could not be members, a proposal of a new constitution, a validation of the proposal by a consultative referendum… It was finally buried by an obstruction by a majority in Parliament, which refused to adopt the text.

It may be objected that those are two small countries…

With sortition, the scale is immaterial: it may be used at the level of a city or a country in quite similar ways.
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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.”
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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?