A useful proposal for reform must present a path for getting from the status quo to the desired, improved state and the credibility of the proposed path is an important determinant of the credibility of the proposal. Sortition advocates should consider what the most effective ways to promote sortitionist reform are.
To state the obvious: a reform agenda that is aimed at changing the power structure in society can expect to have allies and opponents, the former expecting to gain some power, the latter apprehensive of losing some. Democratic reform, by definition, aims at shifting some power from established elites into the hands of a disempowered majority. This makes established elites the natural opponents of democratic reform, and the general population its natural ally. In view of that, a proposed path for democratic reform which relies on cooperation by the elite is unrealistic. A credible path to democratic reform must rely on popular support and anticipate attempts by the elite to block or derail the reform.
To the extent that the sortitionist agenda is democratic, then, its progress depends on popular support and the application of popular pressure on the exiting power structure. Popular pressure is a blunt instrument that cannot be used to set policy on an ongoing basis, but it can – and must – serve to initiate a democratic bootstrapping process. It must force the creation of a body that is representative enough and powerful enough to be able to continue the bootstrapping process, eventually leading to and sustaining democratic government.
A prerequisite for the popular pressure to materialize is widespread public awareness of the sortition mechanism, and perception of its democratic potential as a substitute to the electoral mechanism. Since such awareness and perception do not presently exist, the usefulness of sortition-related activity and proposals should be measured according to their alignment with this goal:
Any activity is promoting a sortition-based democratic reform only to the extent that it increases public awareness of the potential of sortition as a democratic alternative to elections.
This guideline has implications regarding two matters that are occasionally discussed here: (1) the value of various proposals which contain allotment components and of applications of sortition in various settings, and (2) the value of creating detailed sortition-based system designs.
Proposals and applications with allotment components
When various applications of sortition and proposals for political reforms involving an allotment component are made and receive some public attention, proponents of sortition should consider to what extent those developments promote a democratic sortitionist agenda.
According to the guideline above, applications and proposals that put allotted bodies in roles that are largely controlled by or auxiliary to established bodies – in particular elected bodies or bodies nominated by elected bodies – are not promoting the cause of sortition and in fact may be harmful to the cause. In such roles allotted bodies are merely a distraction providing cover to established power rather than serving as a source of alternative democratic political power.
Similarly, allotted bodies that are put in situations where they have no real power, no adequate opportunities or incentives to reach informed decisions, no way to set and enforce the procedures of the bodies themselves, no power to affect the way their discussions and decisions are interpreted and presented, or put in positions of overriding conflicts of interests, can not only result in bad public policy but also in significant long-term damage to the perception of the democratic potential of sortition and discrediting of the idea.
It is likely that elites would have opportunities to manipulate the circumstances in which sortition is used. They certainly have an interest in making sure sortition does not become a source of independent power. Thus both co-optation and delegitimization would be likely tactics when handling popular pressure for implementation of sortition. It is therefore very important to be wary of such attempts and preempt them rather than automatically embrace every proposal or application that contains some form of allotment in government.
Detailed sortition-based system designs
It is quite common for sortitionist reform proposals to come in the form of detailed designs prescribing various novel political arrangements and institutions. Whether or not it is intentional, the implication is that the entire intricate structure must be put in place in order to achieve the desired democratization goal.
This implication is problematic. If it is true, then the democratization process becomes dependent on an external force setting up a complex institutional structure at the outset. Unlike a broad agenda, such as the principle of delegation by sortition, specific detailed institutional designs cannot be realistically expected to be an outcome of mass political pressure. If the detailed designs are necessary then democratic reform must be based upon the good will of an elite that is powerful enough to be able establish the exact rules by which a sortition-based system would work, and benevolent enough to actually establish those rules rather than use its power for its own narrow interests.
Beyond simply being an unlikely proposition, this message also undermines the objective of establishing sortition as a clear alternative to elections and mobilizing popular political energy behind this cause. By tying sortitionist reform with other reform ideas, the message becomes diluted and confused. Instead, for the sortitionist-democratic message to be effective it should be concise and principle-based, and should be focused squarely on sortition and the conditions that would make it likely to become a source of representative political power.