Debates on this forum and elsewhere lead me to conclude that there are, broadly speaking, three schools of the thought regarding the political potential of sortition:
1. The Blind Watchmaker
According to this school of thought, outlined in Oliver Dowlen’s Political Potential of Sortition and Peter Stone’s Luck of the Draw, sortition is primarily a mechanism to defend the institutions of government from corruption and partisan influences. Although historically associated with democracy there is no necessary connection as sortition could be applied to the selection of members of any group – democratic, oligarchic, aristocratic, associational or otherwise. Such an argument requires no empirical confirmation as it is true by definition (if it didn’t work then the process would not have been properly randomised). Chance (an arational process) precludes intelligent design, hence the (Dawkins) Blind Wachmaker allusion.
True believers, however, claim that sortition can also be used to produce representative democracy, but the claims here are divided into two camps:
Theorists in this camp, including Zakaras, Liebe, Sutherland and others, argue that sortition is primarily a decision-making process (deciding the outcome of a debate by secret vote), which should operate alongside the other institutions of liberal democracy, including election/refererenda and government executives appointed on merit.
Believers in the one true god of sortition would grant all powers, including the setting of legislative agendas and the appointment of government officers to the allotted body or bodies. The argument used in favour of allotment is that it is necessary in order to free politics from the domination of rich and powerful elites. Although advocates of this position, such as Callaghan & Philips, O’Leary and Gat, would advocate the incremental introduction of allotted assemblies (for example an allotted House of Representatives alongside an elected Senate and President) there is no conceptual division of function involved.
It strikes me that the claims of models 2 and 3 to provide democratic governance are open to empirical testing (not required for model 1). Fishkin (2010) claims that his deliberative microcosm ‘offers a picture of what everyone would think under good conditions. In theory if everyone deliberated, the conclusions would not be much different’ (2009, p.194). This is because a deliberative poll has a limited prescribed agenda and functions primarily to judge the outcome of a moderated debate (by secret voting), under conditions of balanced information and advocacy. If Fishkin’s claim is true then any number of concurrent deliberative polls on the same topic should have the same outcome. Although criticisms might, and have, been made of the DP methodology, nevertheless an empirical test of multiple concurrent DPs would indicate whether or not the DP procedure does or does not indicate ‘what everyone would think under good conditions’. Given the above methodological caveat (what do we mean by ‘good’) nevertheless if all (or most of the) concurrent debates came to the same conclusion it would not be unreasonable to claim that the DP performed its (limited) function in a manner that was fully compatible with democratic norms.
It would be equally possible at the end of each of the concurrent DPs for the moderators, advocates and information providers to withdraw and say to the allotted members, OK the DP is over, now its up to you to decide what your own political priorities are – what would you like to debate and what would be your legislative agenda? It’s plausible to imagine that each DP might not come to the same conclusion (unless there was a single issue dominating public debate at the time), as active functions such as agenda-setting and advocacy tend not to be equally within the comfort zone of all citizens – some feel stronger than others and there are marked differences in confidence, rhetorical ability and perceived status between different citizens. Without wishing to pre-empt the results, if it were the case that the experiment indicated a wide range of agenda-setting priorities then in order to make the process truly democratic a large number of allotted bodies would be required, followed by a further allotted body to decide between the various proposals offered. It would be hard to shield such bodies from the influence of lobbyists and it might therefore be better to leave the agenda-setting and advocacy role to other elements of a mixed constitution.
Such an experiment would be easy to conduct and no doubt the Stanford Institute would undertake it given the necessary funding.
Filed under: Sortition |