What’s in a Name?

Many of us are part of a movement that melds three ideas: sortition, deliberation and democracy. But we don’t have a widely-accepted name for our movement.

Deliberative democracy could be that term. However, it has a major deficiency: outside our movement it only means two of our three central tenets. I did not find any mention of the terms lottery or sortition in the entry for deliberative democracy in Britannica, Wikipedia or The Free Dictionary. In other words, the references that many people consult to learn about the topic don’t reflect our movement.

Is there an effort to make changes to popular reference sources? Is deliberative democracy the best term for our movement? Should the term deliberative democracy embrace sortition?

Sortition in the U.S. constitution

In a paper in The Yale Law Journal, Bernadette Meyler, professor of law at Stanford, makes the case for having sortition as part of the American democratic (sic) system. In the abstract she writes that she aims at

highlighting the ways in which the Constitution celebrates aspects of democracy that do not fit neatly within the model of majoritarian elections. Focusing in particular on the jury system, the protections for petition and assembly, and the references to the general welfare, this Response opens space for nonelectoral democratic defenses of the administrative state, including agonism.

In the article itself Meyler writes:

While democracy today is often seen as synonymous with majoritarian elections, that was not always the case. Another form of democracy, practiced in ancient Athens and elsewhere, entailed selecting officials by lot, or sortition.32 Although the U.S. Constitution never explicitly mentions this procedure, it was not foreign to the Founders, who arguably incorporated it into our constitutional scheme through the jury. Sortition represents a significant democratic alternative to the mechanism of election, and systems that rely on sortition tend to emphasize different aspects of democracy than those implementing majoritarianism.

[S]election by lot could permit an equal distribution of the “probability of achieving power” and “could promote equality in the distribution of offices.”

Meyler wonders why the U.S. revolutionaries did not consider introducing sortition into the system they were designing, and with Bernard Manin suggests that this has to do with their reliance on the idea of consent. (See here for why this idea is not convincing.)
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U.S. should try choosing its leaders at random

Tyler Brown from Reading, Pennsylvania, writes the following in a letter to The Reading Eagle:

Your Oct. 23 editorial (“Be prepared when casting votes this fall”) claims that it’s time to get ready to make an informed vote. But being informed makes no difference. A candidate’s decision to run for office is disqualifying in itself.

People do not run for office for altruistic reasons, they run because they are power hungry ne’er-do-wells seeking to leech off productive members of society. Even the most blameless person would be corrupted by our dirty, money-laden election process.

The simplest fix would be to make a non-vote count as a vote for sortition. Consider that in 2020 there were about 255 million U.S. citizens. Roughly 81 million voted for Joe Biden and 74 million for Donald Trump. Another 5 million voted for someone else, bringing the total to about 160 million.

Therefore about 95 million citizens did not vote at all. Why should their voice not count? They all saw the candidates, considered all options and decided not to vote. Biden was about 14 million votes short. In such a case the office should be filled by random draw much like jury duty.

If a candidate cannot even win a plurality of their constituents, then what real claim can they possibly have to hold office? The very inventors of democracy, the Athenians, considered sortition to be the test of a democracy. They considered voting to be oligarchic.

I’d much rather entrust the future of our country to randomly chosen citizens rather than partisan politicians.

In a response, Daniel Jamar writes:

How could sortition ever happen when the only people that would benefit is the general population? Lawyers and politicians make the rules and it would largely put them out of business.

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.

Kline: An incorruptible democracy of and for the people

Victor Kline, a barrister from Sydney, is apparently a somewhat well-known person in Australia. In 2019 he founded “The New Liberals” party.

Kline has just published an article calling for replacing elections with sortition.

Winston Churchill said: “Democracy is the worst form of government — except for all the others that have been tried.”

For many of us, this “least worst” argument is getting pretty threadbare, particularly as we watch our democracy sliding further from its defining principles every year.

We know this is due to the rise of the professional politician, whose aim is to promote their own advancement to the exclusion of all else. And to achieve that personal advancement, they have to promote the interests of, essentially, a cadre of multinationals plus Rupert Murdoch. And a few other second-division players like big oil, the unions, lesser Murdoch “lookalikes” and a handful of assorted billionaires.
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Should we choose our leaders at random? A podcast

The Bunker is a podcast billing itself as “fearless, independent politics talk for Britain and beyond. We examine the big issues with humour and expertise, cutting through the claptrap to make sense of what’s really going on – and give you the fighting spirit to keep on keeping on.”

Its Nov. 4th, 2022 episode discusses sortition:

We’re not on a great run of political leaders at the moment – is the problem how we pick them? And what if we simply… didn’t? Rather than choosing between a bunch of self-serving, pound-crashing Westminster drones – could democratic lotteries be the answer? Brett Hennig, author of The End of Politicians: Time for a Real Democracy and director of the Sortition Foundation discusses how we pick our representatives, and how we could change it, with Jacob Jarvis.

Borrell on the inefficacy of elections in achieving political goals

Josep Borrell is the High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, i.e., he is the EU’s foreign secretary. In a recent speech to the EU ambassadors, Borrell said the following [video]:

Many people in the world, yes, they go and vote and choose their government, but their material conditions are not being improved. And in the end, people want to live a better life.

Borrell followed this admission in the inefficacy of elections in achieving the most fundamental political goals with the following bromide:

We have to explain what are the links between political freedom and a better life. […] Our fight is to try to explain that democracy, freedom, political freedom is not something that can be exchanged by economic prosperity or social cohesion. Both things have to go together.

Borrell, however, fails to explain what those supposed links between elections and prosperity are. In fact, as he admits, in reality those links do not exist. It is Borrell himself who tells his audience that “many people” vote without having their conditions improved and that the Chinese system provides prosperity without elections. Moreover, despite Borrell’s assertions to the contrary, the situation of having elections on the one hand and stagnation or deterioration of the quality of life of the average person on the other hand is the norm in the West as well, and indeed worldwide. Thus Borrell’s unreflective faith in the links between elections and prosperity is due purely to his own blindness and to him belonging to an insular elite whose status is justified by the electoralist ideology.

Invitation to The Similitude

Hello, Kleroterians! Nick Coccoma here from Boston, USA. I’ve been a follower of the blog and member of the sortition movement for several years now, after I discovered the theory and practice in the wake of the 2016 Presidential Election. In the years since, I’ve been a part of The Sortition Foundation and Democracy Without Elections, and published an article on sortition a couple of years ago for the journal New Politics.

Last February I launched my own Substack newsletter, The Similitude, where I cover politics, culture, and religion. I’ve written several posts on sortition, including a recent one entitled “Real Democracy Now: How Americans Can Win Self-Government.” It makes the case for sortition and features original interviews with our own Brett Hennig, Terry Bouricius, and Adam Cronkright. In your kindness, consider subscribing to the newsletter and sharing it in your circles as I seek more readers. I’d love to have the Kleroterians join the conversation. Many thanks for your ongoing work to bring about real democracy in our 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

Sortion [sic] on Chapo Trap House

Chapo Trap House is a popular American left-wing political podcast, with over 100,000 weekly listeners.

Wikipedia says the following about Chapo Trap House:

[Podcat co-host Will] Menaker has said that Chapo is meant to be in “marked contrast to the utterly humorless and bloodless path that leads many people with liberal or leftist proclivities into the trap of living in constant fear of offending some group that you’re not a part of, up to and including the ruling class.”

Sortition (mispronounced as “sortion”) made a brief appearance in episode #662 of the podcast, “The Queen” (about 46 minutes and 30 seconds into the show). Sortition is offered as part of a reform of the U.S. political system in which voting is used to select limited-tenure monarchs among celebrities, while “governing is actually carried out by permanent bureaucracies overseen by a rotating cast of essentially jury duty citizens”. The proposer did not indicate the rotation period of the “national service” but noted that, for that period, service would be considered as a full time job and would be paid accordingly.