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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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:

Flags for sortitionism

Every movement needs symbols, and the sortition movement is notably short on them. I’ve taken the liberty of putting together a couple! The design is a stylised version of the kleroterion – a 6×7 grid of 42 horizontal bars (because sortition is the answer!) The bars are 2×8 units, separated by gaps of 2 units from each other; the top and bottom borders are 9 units high, and the right and left borders are 12 units across, giving the flag as a whole a 2:1 aspect ratio.

As well as representing the kleroterion, the flag also resembles a swarm of ‘=’ signs. The mass of bars – more than can be counted in a casual glance – suggests the mass of people sortition is meant to empower and the mass of centres between which it aims to separate powers. Aesthetically, it turns the design into a texture, unique to the sortitionist flags.

I’ve done two colour variants – a red-and-black one for left-sortitionism, and a blue-and-white one for centrist/right-sortitionism. As I see it, the dividing line between the two is that left-sortitionism sees the conflict between power elites and the public as extending into the economic sphere, and believes sortitional-democratic mechanisms are the best or only way to achieve lasting victory for the latter, while centre- and right-sortitionism are concerned more narrowly with political power within a capitalist market economy. Where we agree is on the importance and legitimacy of sortitional-democratic mechanisms in government. By having multiple flags riffing on the same theme, we provide a template for a symbolic shorthand for sortitionism that can be used by other people – green sortitionists, anarcho-syndicalist sortitionists, and so on – thereby helping spread familiarity with the idea.

You can see an animated version of the left-sortitionist flag here.

The Blind Break is the Heart of Democracy

In part 4 of my legislative series, I propose a new definition of democracy, one that revolves around the blind break. The blind break is, of course, an information control mechanism, and has not usually been treated as so essential to the political project. While concepts like representation and delegation have historically been treated as essential to political theory, information flow has been treated as secondary.

In this post, I aim to correct this mistake. Political systems are information flows at their very core. We must treat constraints on those flows as central to the entire political project, right up there with separation of powers, equality under the law, and other traditional notions of political theory.

Mark Rice-Oxley: Should citizens assemblies be mandatory?

Mark Rice-Oxley, acting membership editor of The Guardian, wrote a short piece entitled “Should citizens assemblies be mandatory?” He is supportive of the idea, writing: “Last year, I went to a citizens’ assembly. It was one of the most optimistic moments of 2019 for me.” “Perhaps a stint or two on a citizens’ assembly should be mandatory, like jury service or driving tests.”

The Service Pool

I don’t think we pay enough attention to the executive branch on this blog, nor do we pay enough attention to the careers of executive branch officials. There’s nothing theoretically fun about it, but when democracies give way to dictatorships, it’s usually through some group of executive branch officials who commandeer the system for their personal benefit.

In part 2 of my never-ending series on the executive branch, I explore ways to create a more professional corps of executive officers. Perhaps one day a force organized along these lines will be able to steer the ship of state with no chance of crashing into the rocks of authoritarianism or running aground on the shoals of dysfunction.

On the legitimacy of citizen assemblies

Dear Kleroterians,

I am currently writing on the legitimacy that grounds sortition-based representation in general, and citizen assemblies in particular. Not the perceived legitimacy of citizen assemblies (whether people actually see them as legitimate or not), but the reasons that we might have to see the decisions of such asssemblies as binding.

I realize that you have thought about this much more than I have. And this is why I would be interested in having your opinion on the three following questions:

  1. What are the potential sources of legitimacy for citizen assemblies, besides political equality, representativeness, impartiality and ordinarity?
  2. Among these different potential sources of legitimacy, which one(s) do you see as the most important?
  3. Finally, because I am expecting many of you to highlight representativeness as the main source of legitimacy, I add a third question:

  4. Would you say that a citizen assembly of 50 to 100 participants, with optional participation, still has some legitimacy? Would your opinion be different with stratified sampling?

Thank you very much for your input! I will make sure to credit the Blog if a publication comes out of this!

Thought Piece: Sharing Sortition With Some Soul

In a new essay, Sharing Sortition With Some Soul, Adam Cronkright and Simon Pek suggest we can make lot/sortition more accessible and appealing through savvy and emotive communication. Their goal to stimulate thought and debate, and also to start a practical conversation about framing and messaging to incorporate relevant insights from the well-developed art and science of persuasive communication into the Sortition Space.


All of us in the Sortition Space, from the organizations in Democracy R&D to the regular readers of Equality by Lot, are passionate about sortition and hopeful that it can empower everyday people and deepen democracy. The last decade has seen exciting advances on this front: mini-publics are on the rise, as are related books and articles, and we are connecting and collaborating with each other more than ever. But although we have grown and moved in from the fringe, we are still quite small and sortition is still quite marginal. And this should surprise us, especially given how desperate our societies seem for anything that could right the sinking ship of traditional electoral politics.

Political crises ripple through our countries and trust in government tanks, yet almost 50 years after its resurrection few people have even heard of sortition. Demagogues rise a wave of democratic disenchantment, yet few people who have heard of it seriously consider sortition. And we promote our cause everywhere from dinner parties to democracy conferences, yet few of our listeners seem to care about sortition. Some are surprisingly skeptical (given such frustration with the status quo), while others seem to find our case convincing but not compelling. 
But sortition is important and inspiring, so where are we going wrong?

In this short essay, drawing on research on political communication, we suggest that the primary stumbling blocks are an affinity to language that doesn’t always fit our audiences, and a lack of skill and comfort with persuasion—especially in the realm of emotion. We argue that the latter is likely due to our deep predisposition toward rational and objective communication. As illustrative examples, we offer concrete ways to overcome these challenges, juxtaposed with typical sortition speech. And we conclude with an invitation for others to join us in developing a suite of recommendations to make our messaging about sortition more captivating and memorable.

View or download the full essay with the following link (note: if you get a popup window that asks you to sign in or create an account, just click the ‘x’ in the upper right corner or “No thanks, continue to view” at the bottom). Link: Sharing Sortition With Some Soul (PDF)

If there is interest, they will follow-up with a future post suggesting ways to organize a larger conversation/collaboration.

Post Image: Randomly-selected participants in a debate run by Missions Publiques (France) 
© Rebecca Cosquéric.