Jorge Cancio: Invitation to a Debate

Invitation to a Debate: Sortition and Sortition Chambers as Institutional Improvements of Democracy by Jorge Cancio. The English abstract follows. Main text is in Spanish.

I start off inviting my readers to exercise their imagination and then explaining a proposal of creating new “sortition chambers” on all administrative levels – from a chamber at the same level as the present-day Spanish Congress and Senate down to sortition chambers for each municipality. They essentially would be an addition to present-day institutions and would partake in the powers which are held today by elected representatives and officials, although the proposal envisages that in the short run they could be out-voted by the elective institutions. They would exercise their powers according to deliberative procedures.

After that introduction I offer a short account of present-day theoretical and practical proposals and implementations of sortition-based systems in the political field – highlighting the fact (following Manin) that mainstream discussions on democracy tend to ignore sortition altogether (including those made by the political left), but also making the point that since Dahl and others (inter alia, Burnheim, Goodwin, Barber; and the more recent works now appearing in Imprint Academic) there seems to be an increasing renaissance of this subject. I also point to the practical experiences of the Planungszelle and the voters’ and citizens’ juries.

Thereafter I try to explain why sortition is mainly ignored nowadays – here I follow again Bernard Manin – identifiying the contractualist bias of the XVII and XVIII century revolutions (which sought to establish a rule of consent for being governed) as the main reason for opting for elections instead of sortition as mechanism for the selection of political office-holders. Afterwards, the emergence of the political parties as oligopolical forces in the political market (here I refer to the work of C.B. Macpherson) and their growing distance from society and increasing autonomy vis-à-vis societal needs have led to a “party democracy” or “cartel party” system (Katz and Mair). The facade of autonomous decision in electing public officials covers, therefore, a system where political offers are very limited, allowing me to speak about an “election-fetish”. Contrasting to this evolution I then underline the paradox of identifiyng democracy with elections (and political parties) when we consider that democracy was linked in Athens with sortition whereas elections were considered aristocratic.

The final part of this short essay is dedicated to consider the pros and cons of sortition chambers. I don’t consider them as the ultimate response to all flaws of democracy, but as an interesting tool to improve its quality, understanding democracy as a never ending process. Among the pros I see gains in the following democratic vectors: direct/participatory (thousands or tens of thousands of citizens would take part in these chambers every year; this would act as a school of democracy; and have widespread effects on the attitude of the citizenship; TV coverage would be needed to achieve this goal), representative (creating a new source of democratic legitimacy; representing non-organized interests; and thanks to its independent source, it would be able to countervail and check the power held by elected institutions – controlled by political parties-; it would contribute to solve the old problem of “quis custodiet ipsos custodes?”) and deliberative (as debates would be more free, less bound to party instructions; and would help to open the agenda setting function now controlled by parties and established power structures).

I also compare sortition favorably to other participative and direct democracy mechanisms (more prone to manipulation by established power structures and/or exposed to scale problems) and to internal democracy efforts by political parties (mostly doomed to failure due to the nature of political competition in elections).

Then I analyse the possible problems: first the classical objections made to direct or pure democracies (arguments of capacity and scale). Regarding capacity I consider that, first, education levels in our democracies are quite high; second, that the expertise of the politician (i.e., surviving in the political game) is not really needed by the members of sortition chambers. Then I discuss the -in my opinion- more relevant problems of negative controls and positive incentives which the members of such sortition chambers would (need to) have in order to develop a satisfactory job. The starting point is that the incentives applicable to political professionals (career perspectives, re-election, etc) don’t apply in general to sortition chamber members (as they won’t, in principle, start political careers after their terms). As possible negative controls I believe that the experience of judicial juries may be useful, i.e. some minimal requirements ex-ante and minimal levels of duty could be established and controlled by specific allotted bodies or by the judiciary. As positive incentives, I see the following: first, their salary for being part of the chambers. Second, their political influence which probably – as in other institutions- would create a healthy “mission creep” dynamic. Third, personal ambitions of some “natural” leaders within these chambers, which nonetheless would be checked by the characteristics of annual terms, rotation, collegiality, etc. Finally I shortly discuss the problem of excessive influence by experts on these sortition chambers and the constitutional and legal hurdles such a proposal would need to take in a country as Spain.

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6 Responses

  1. This sounds like an interesting read. How do I get to it?

    Sortition needs slowly subvert the popular imagination. This requires some successful role model examples.

    Generally speaking, the role of government is to promote the will of the people. The true test of sortition becomes its ability to produce leadership that promotes the will of the people. What sortition leadership models are currently used by city, county, or state governments?

    Perhaps a third political party, with a sortition structure, is possible. This introduces sortition to the public and models results for wider political acceptance.

    Successful businesses are admired. A sortition business organization plan, that catches on and is successful, could go far to validate sortition methods. Is anyone aware of such a business entity or business plan using sortitioned leadership? If so, are these businesses succeeding with this leadership?

    Most people want practical evidence before changing plans. Business and military oligarchies are successful, recognized, and widely understood. Elective democracies are successful, recognized, and widely understood.

    Sortition based systems, lotteries, military drafts, juries, etc. are too much seen as sideline and novel by most of the population. Mainstream and successful examples are important. Until this changes, sortition remains a backburner concept.

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  2. Perhaps a third political party, with a sortition structure, is possible. This introduces sortition to the public and models results for wider political acceptance.

    The Newid party in Wales is an attempt at such a party.

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  3. mainstream discussions on democracy tend to ignore sortition altogether (including those made by the political left)

    Yes, it is quite interesting that Marxism (in any of its various manifestations) never developed support for sortition as one of its core proposals. This may be due by the elitist undercurrent in Marxist thought – the proletariat may be destined to inherit the earth, but it would still need an intellectual elite to lead it to the gates of paradise.

    I try to explain why sortition is mainly ignored nowadays – here I follow again Bernard Manin – identifiying the contractualist bias of the XVII and XVIII century revolutions (which sought to establish a rule of consent for being governed) as the main reason for opting for elections instead of sortition as mechanism for the selection of political office-holders.

    This, in my opinion, has cause and effect reversed. Elections had to be justified, therefore various rather contrived justifications, such as imaginary contracts, were offered – not the other way around.

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  4. Hi Yoram: In the text I’m clearer than in the abstract: of course it is social dynamics which led to the revolutionary movements and contractual theories were developed to justify their aspirations to being part of those whose consent was needed by Government to rule ;-)

    The interesting thing is that these theories tended to ignore the igualitarian dynamic of sortition (which was after all not functional to their needs) which were formerly an essential part of Greek democratic institutions and, with time, the notion of democracy lost its link with sortition and progressively was identified with elections…

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  5. The interesting thing is that these theories tended to ignore the igualitarian dynamic of sortition (which was after all not functional to their needs) which were formerly an essential part of Greek democratic institutions

    How common was the reference to the Athenian democracy in that literature? When there were such references, were they made in the context of offering Athens as a role model, or as a cautionary tale? Certainly in the Federalist Papers any references to Athens are at best ambivalent. (At the same time, by the way, Federalist Paper #63 makes the false claim that the Athenian Boule was elected.)

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  6. I think that Bernard Manin gives quite a good overview of that literature. There is quite a change in the assessment of Athenian democracy: from a kind of revenrential attitude (still in some passages of Montesquieu or Rousseau, if I remember well) to outright rejection (Federalist papers – where “ancient democracies” are synonyms of instability, turmoil etc

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