Dear Mr. Scialabba,
I am writing to you following your article “Plutocratic vistas: America’s crisis of democracy”. I am a committed sortition supporter and advocate and a member of a group of like-minded people. We have a blog – Equality by Lot (https://equalitybylot.wordpress.com) – devoted to discussing and promoting sortition as a tool of democracy.
I liked your article a great deal. Articles discussing sortition in one way or another appear occasionally in the mainstream press (you can find a running record of such articles on Equality by Lot – the most prominent of these is Joe Klein’s 2010 Time article ”How Can a Democracy Solve Tough Problems?”). I think yours was substantially different.
Most of the mainstream articles that deal with sortition present it as some sort of a curiosity or a possible add-on to the existing system that could be used when the powers-that-be find it necessary or convenient. This presentation is probably attributable to some extent to conservatism on the part of the writers and to some extent to the background for the discussion, which is very often the work of Prof. James Fishkin who presents his “Deliberative Polls” as more of an ad-hoc decision-making device of convenience rather than a device for fundamentally democratize public policy making.
Your article, on the other hand, starts at the root: a complete rejection of elections as a democratic device. This leads naturally to a search for an alternative. The alternative that you offer – sortition – is therefore conceived in your presentation as a radical democratic solution to a problem inherent in the current system, which, dogma and slogans notwithstanding, is oligarchical. Appropriately, then, your proposal is radical – not an ad hoc panel with limited powers, but the use of sortition for the selection of one of the most high-powered bodies in the world.
I would also add that I think your awareness of Callenbach and Phillips’s proposal is, by itself, a major point of difference from the standard mainstream treatment. The standard treatment would be quite unlikely to have enough of background work behind it to discover relevant prior work in the form of a rather obscure decades-old book on the topic.
My purpose in writing this letter, beyond nodding my agreement and inviting you to join the ongoing discussion at Equality-by-Lot, is to urge you not to allow this article to become one-time action. Fleeting attention is appropriate for those who see sortition as an adornment for the existing system. The position you presented justifies, I think, maintaining a focus on sortition. If it is really the only known democratic device for selecting decision makers, then how could we justify not doing anything in our power in order to push sortition to the forefront of the arena of public political discussion?
I am committed to doing just that, and I would presume to ask you to use your prominence as an intellectual to do the same.
Geroge Scialabba responded briefly:
Thanks for your letter. I’m not sure whether I’ll write again about sortition in the future, but it happens I reviewed the Callenbach/Phillips book when it first appeared: http://www.georgescialabba.net/mtgs/1985/09/a-preface-to-economic-democrac.html.