What If We Made Democracy… More Democratic?

In These Times Editors on 4 Jan.:

When politicians seem increasingly out of touch with the average person, perhaps the average person should make decisions instead.



  1. the appointment of political positions by lottery, rather than election

Aren’t elections kind of what ​“make” democracy, though?

Not according to the ancient Athenians. In fact, these early democrats worried elections would inevitably favor the wealthy and powerful sound familiar? The city-state functioned instead by having citizens randomly selected annually to serve in public office, with duties ranging from monitoring public finances to deciding foreign policy and participating as one (of 6000) jurors on the People’s Court. Women and enslaved people, among others, were excluded, so Athens might not be the best example of a full-fledged democracy; still, they had a point about elections. In the United States, wealthy donors have more impact on policy than public opinion, and Congress is far whiter, richer, older and more male than the overall population.

You can read the rest of this short editorial here.

Report Back from the Hannah Arendt Center Conference on Sortition, part 3/3

Shmuel Lederman: “Representative Democracy”

Lederman’s intervention began with a theme quite familiar to this forum but one that still surprises the general public, probably due to our prevailing Whiggish and/or mythological approach to teaching political history—at least in the US.

Until the 19th century, elections were considered “an anti-democratic or aristocratic form of government.” It was assumed that winners of elections would be powerful or celebrity-like figures, Lederman underscored. The question that he attempts to answer is, “how did elections come to be associated with ‘democracy’ beginning in the early 1800s?” In an upcoming APSR [I think] article he argues that European Imperialism and Colonialism had to do with the recognition of elections as “democratic.” Lederman reasons that one cannot separate—as Western political theorists have—John Stuart Mill’s thoughts on the proper form of government for India (and other “barbarian and semi-barbarian” parts of the world)–tutelage or “enlightened despotism”–from his thoughts on “the only rational form of government” (for civilized Europeans) generally. You “cannot take out the East India Co.” from Mill’s thought and be left with something democratic, insists Lederman.

Rather, Lederman explained, there is a common thread between the “civilizing” trope in regard to the “backward” places on Earth in the 19th century and the “meritocracy” myth behind today’s electoral representative government. “Enlightened despotism” and “representative government” were and remain mutually reinforcing ideas.

Lederman underscores that there were democratic alternatives to representative government at the beginning of the 19th century (and earlier). There were, for example, among workers’ movements schemes for pyramidal council systems that would involve the population as a whole in decision making. The very fact that Mill, like the American founders and French republicans, had to make a case for representative government reflects the fact those alternatives were seen as a threat. [One might add that perhaps humans are not by nature simply willing to let others rule over them; but that might get this blog censored for being “populist.”] Evidence that the council system and freedom as self-government, the themes of Arendt’s On Revolution, were not mere aberrations in her political thinking, Lederman adds, can be found in her letters to her long-time friend and mentor Karl Jaspers. In the letter Arendt expresses her pleasure that the book earned his “approval,” because “every word you wrote strikes at the very heart of what I mean to say… Heinrich’s experience, of councils, to the experience of America.”

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Report Back from the Hannah Arendt Center Conference on Sortition, part 2

Reporting from Bard College’s Hannah Arendt Center Annual Conference by Ahmed R. Teleb

The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard College recently hosted a two-day in-person and live webcast conference on sortition on Oct 14-15, which I attended online. Each day of the conference also included a midday break-out small group discussions in person and online. Estimated participants came to about four hundred, who, in my estimation, demonstrated enthusiasm for participatory democracy through sortition, but also a dose of critical awareness of, among other things, organizational and economic/structural difficulties with participation via sortition and in general.

I share here my impressions of the panels I attended and my most significant take-aways. This Conference marks an important step, because the Arendtian perspective on mini-publics and citizen councils has long been missing from the discussion of sortition. As it happens, this is also my area of research. From this perspective, “The meaning of politics is freedom,” as David Van Reybrouck quoted Arendt during his intervention, and not just “better” policy or results. Of course, I see these as going hand in hand. Freedom of people to actively shape the world they live in tends also to create better results from a public perspective but it is a by-product rather than the basis. As Shmuel Lederman put it, “benevolent dictatorship” and “representative government” follow the same logic that has roots in 19th century European colonialism.

P.S. The word sortition was a non-issue for the activists, practitioners, and members of the public who attended—the exception being Peter McLeod who used “civic lottery.” As a nice surprise, the three mayors/managers of the small NY towns who participated in Van Reybrouck’s class all plan to (attempt to) implement some kind of citizen assembly or citizen jury to tackle the issue that each brought to the class as one needing an innovative solution. One, whose town has exactly one traffic light, promised on the spot that she can get a PERMANENT citizens’ assembly approved by the city council and that funding the project would be a non-issue.

Opening Address by Roger Berkowitz: Revitalizing Democracy, Sortition, and Citizen Power

The American Founders, remarked Berkowitz, were “scared of democracy,” at least those identifying themselves as Federalists. He went on to quote from Federalist papers that stressed the instability of “ancient democracies” and “petty republics of Greece,” Fed # 9, 10. They emphasized the importance designing a system in which elites run the government, via an “elective system”. Moreover, they feared “factions,” and thought that an “extended republic” would be THE preventative measure against them, Fed 10, 51, since imposing a unity of will was not practical. Madison thought, we could “replace virtue with size.”

So far, well-known territory, although a bit different than the mythologized version taught in middle and high schools in the U.S. Berkowitz replied that for Arendt, factions are the very reflection of the basic human condition of plurality. He then went on to summarize Hannah Arendt’s assessment of the American system as articulated in her book On Revolution and the “Crisis of the Republic.” But Arendt did praise, for example, the “federal principle,” because its discovery, “was partly based upon an experience, upon the intimate knowledge of political bodies whose internal structure predetermined them, as it were, and conditioned its members for a constant enlargement whose principle was neither expansion nor conquest but the further combination of powers.” This kind of local-based power from the bottom up, Arendt saw as analogous to the council system or the town-hall system, one that permitted just about anyone to appear and act in public.

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Report Back from the Hannah Arendt Center Conference on Sortition, part 1

On October 14-15 Wayne Liebman and I (and we presume many other followers and contributors to EbL) attended (online) the HAC’s Annual Conference: “Revitalizing Democracy: Sortition, Citizen Power, and Spaces of Freedom.” We each independently wrote our impressions and comments. Below is Wayne’s overview. Subsequent parts contain more detailed summary and commentary on what I considered the most important of the presentations, where I also attempted to add some US context for international readers, or other context for those not immersed in the world of Arendt studies. That appears in brackets or under the heading “commentary.”

We invite anyone else who attended to correct or complement what we have below. I am sure each of us came from a different perspective and took note of different aspects of the event. And we hope this provokes some discussion of some familiar and new themes. Throughout, I use the word citizen in a POLITICAL not a legal sense, as I believe most speakers do. [P.S. Subjectively, the highlights of the conference for me were the interventions from Akuno and Lederman]. ~ AT

Revitalizing Democracy, Hannah Arendt Center, Bard College

“Representative government is in crisis today, partly because it has lost, in the course of time, all institutions that permitted the citizens’ actual participation, and partly because it is now gravely affected by the disease from which the party system suffers: bureaucratization and the two parties’ tendency to represent nobody except the party machines.”

(Hannah Arendt, Crises of the Republic, 1970)

If you missed the livestream of this year’s Revitalizing Democracy Conference, you can watch the videos online HERE. My subjective (activism oriented) highlights follow.

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It damages society if we keep on calling our politicians cheats and liars

Matthew Syed’s column in the current Sunday Times is a valuable corrective to the widespread cynicism over elected politicians expressed on this blog.

A story caught my eye last week about Priti Patel, the embattled home secretary. It involved Shirley Cochrane, a woman from Essex who had been diagnosed with breast cancer in 2016 but who felt abandoned by the NHS during the pandemic. She had been seeing cancer specialists every six months but was told last spring to “self-manage” at just the time she thought she felt another lump.

Unable to get through to specialists or generic phone numbers, Cochrane contacted her local MP — Patel — in a state of desperation. “She managed to secure for me a telephone appointment, and that was followed by the mammogram, and thankfully that was OK,” Cochrane told the Commons health select committee. She sounded more than a little grateful.

I mention this because I can’t help noticing how often Patel is demonised in our political culture. Every time I see her on TV, I brace myself for the vitriol, the ad hominem attacks, the questioning of her motives and intellect, a tsunami of nastiness that shames those who indulge in it. This isn’t just limited to social media. You see it in commentary, radio phone-ins and the “most liked” comments on newspaper websites.

This isn’t just about Patel, though. It seems to me that this is part of a more pervasive rush to see the worst in our political representatives. Sure, MPs sometimes bring criticism on themselves, but how often do we acknowledge the other side of the ledger: the dutiful constituency work, the civic-mindedness, the reports of select committees that few notice but that, through the slow accretion we call social evolution, improve countless lives?
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Citizens’ Assembly on Gender Equality

There’s a report out on the recent Citizens’ Assembly on Gender Equality. The report, by Jane Suiter, Kirsty Park, Yvonne Galligan, and David M. Farrell, focuses on “the quality of the deliberative process and the attitudes of the members towards the process”. The report can be found at:


Democratic lotteries featured in FastCompany

Democratic lotteries and our organization, of by for*, were recently featured in a piece in FastCompany. The article introduces selection of representatives by lottery, the history in Athens, Democracy R&D, and our recent Citizens’ Panel on COVID-19. It will be followed up by a ‘World Changing Ideas’ podcast episode within the next month.

Excerpt below and full article here: What if we replaced elected politicians with randomly selected citizens?

For Cronkright, drawn-out election cycles—filled with stump speeches, attack ads, and super PACs—are dysfunctional. The candidates are often “slick and vicious performers” trained to put on a show and say the right things, who spend most of their time fundraising. “We are awarding power to those who can win, and keep winning, cutthroat popularity contests,” he says. When elected, many politicians are then at the whim of parties, lobbyists, and corporations and don’t have personal incentives to make the right decisions for the average Joe. “To me, they’re the least qualified bunch to represent us,” he adds.

Real representation can only be achieved by putting ordinary people in charge of governing. That means “representatives” should reflect the greater population’s demographics, but also its struggles, fears, hopes, and values. These people would be accountants, waitresses, engineers, business owners, single mothers, and students, who are actually affected by the decisions they make for everyone. “If they sink the ship,” he says, “they, too, are going down.”

Sortition on Ted.com

If you think democracy is broken, here’s an idea: let’s replace politicians with randomly selected people… My TEDxDanubia talk has been promoted to the front page of Ted.com – it should be the featured talk for the next 6 hours or so…

To celebrate, my publisher, Unbound, has cut the price of the e-book edition of The End of Politicians: Time for a Real Democracy.

Back to the Future for a Real Democracy | Conway Hall Talk | Brett Hennig

A sortition talk I gave in London (on 11 March 2018) as part of Conway Hall’s “Thinking on Sunday” series has been edited and published – you could consider it an extended version of my TEDx presentation


Launch of International Sortition Network: Democracy R&D

On Tuesday 16th and Wednesday 17th of January 2018 around 40 people from more than 15 organisations will meet, many in person at Medialab Prado in Madrid (others will join online), to develop the founding principles and processes of an international sortition network: Democracy R&D.

The Sortition Foundation will be at the two day meeting, alongside representatives from newDemocracy (Australia), hosts ParticipaLab (Spain), Forum dos Cidadãos (Portugal), G1000 (Belgium) and G1000 (Netherlands), MASS LBP (Canada), Missions Publiques (France), Particitiz (Belgium), Japan Research Forum on Mini-PublicsDanish Board of Technology FoundationBertelsmann Stiftung Foundation (Germany), ECI Campaign (EU), Democracy in Practice (Bolivia/US/Canada), Jefferson Center (US), Healthy Democracy (US), Empowering Participation (Australia), the Policy Jury Group (US) and the Nexus Institute (Germany).

The two day meeting promises to lay the groundwork for international collaboration and skill-sharing to promote and institute sortition locally, nationally, and even internationally. A post-meeting report will appear on the Sortition Foundation blog.

[Note: this is an edited repost from: http://www.sortitionfoundation.org/launch_of_international_sortition_network]