The way from here to there

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.

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21 Responses

  1. Yoram,

    Your opening sentence refers to proposals for “reform”, so Luther’s claim that he didn’t seek to replace the Catholic church, merely to reform it is of relevance. Of course it didn’t turn out that way and led to centuries of bloodshed, so your use of revolutionary words like “substitute”, “alternative”, “manipulate”, “opponents”, “derail”, “popular pressure”, “force”, etc. is of relevance. Those of us who prefer Luther’s original motivation to Ground Zero and magic bullets reject the use of such intemperate and confrontational language. This is particularly the case when dealing with an entirely theory-based proposal for a political system that is without historical precendent and ignores all the evidence that the theory itself is deeply flawed.

    BTW, you still owe it to us to explain what on earth you mean by “the principle of delegation by sortition”. As I have explained many times before statistical representation does not involve delegation, owing to the absence of any kind or imperative mandate. So why do you continue to use this entirely misleading and inappropriate term? It would only make sense if you believe that allotted individuals are identical tokens who automatically reflect the interests of the social and economic class that they are drawn from in the same way that delegates at a trades union congress are merely tokens for the block vote of their local members. If that is your view then please nail your colours to the mast (in the same way that Luther nailed his 95 theses to the church door).

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  2. Yoram,

    I think you are missing a couple of important transition building blocks. While I agree that the early sortition implementations should grant real power to the allotted body (rather than merely an advisory role), I think you are mistaken in assuming existing elite authority will always oppose this. Using the budget jury in Canada Bay, Australia as an example. The elected city council was willing to authorize an allotted jury to decide the municipal budget, because they didn’t relish making decisions about what services to cut or taxes to raise. However, the successful use of sortition in that case provided a very important example that allows many more people to imagine that a broader use of sortition might be reasonable. The Council retained the power to dump the jury process, and retained ultimate power, but the trial use definitely advanced the possibility that sortition could become a more real thing in the future. In short, I think there may be various carve-outs, where existing elites will happily allow sortition trials to occur. This is the stage we are at, right now…real world working models, rather than any fundamental transition away from elections. That will take a significant amount of time. However, I agree that elected officials would probably prefer using sortition for merely advisory groups, and the key is to push for trials (carve-outs) where the allotted body has real power, though initially in a confined policy area.

    On the matter of detailed plans being provided by external authorities… I agree that a beauty of sortition is that it can be self-correcting and evolve through experience…However, there needs to be an initial starting point and process because a random group will not spontaneously form and start functioning. So it seems that good sortition launching pad models need a built in process for self-regulation and improvement within the initial design itself.

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  3. Keith,

    Let’s not rehash the question about the meaning of “delegates” or whether an allotted body can engage in deliberation between members in this thread. Let’s assume for now that the idea of “the principle of delegation by sortition” simply means that a community has delegated some public decision-making authority to a randomly selected group of people from that community (perhaps this might be done by a constitutional convention or a referendum). The individuals members of the allotted body might be referred to as representatives, or delegates, as that is typical ordinary English terminology, regardless of whether they meet Burke’s or Pitkin’s concept. The body as a whole is a REPRESENTATIVE body of the community, so it is likely the members will be referred to as representatives.

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  4. Terry,

    >Let’s not rehash the question about the meaning of “delegates”

    This isn’t just a case of terminological pedantry — in political theory the term “delegate” means a representative with a binding mandate. The members of an allotted assembly have not been “selected by a community”, they’ve been picked by a computer; nobody has chosen them to act on their behalf and whether or not they can be considered “representatives” depends entirely on the kind of actions that they undertake. They carry no binding mandate — in Pitkin’s language they would be referred to as “trustees” as they are free to exercise their own judgment as best they see fit. No doubt they will exercise this judgment in a way that is typical of people like themselves, but this does not make them delegates, as they have not been chosen by anybody and burdened with an imperative mandate.

    If Yoram and yourself insist on referring to these persons as “delegates” then we must conclude that you adhere to the perspective outlined in my last comment. If you wish to disassociate yourself from this perspective then I suggest you use the conceptual apparatus of political theory in the same way as everyone else, rather than creating your own private language. We won’t make any progress in this field unless we are absolutely clear about the meaning of the words that we use.

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  5. >I think you are mistaken in assuming existing elite authority will always oppose this. Using the budget jury in Canada Bay, Australia as an example. The elected city council was willing to authorize an allotted jury to decide the municipal budget, because they didn’t relish making decisions about what services to cut or taxes to raise.

    Agree 100%. I’ve published some proposals for the use of sortition to replace referenda on controversial issues (EU membership and fracking). The political class would love to outsource this sort of issue and I agree that successful one-off experiments would provide a template for a more permanent use of sortition. This is why I’m vehemently opposed to Yoram’s confrontational call to abolish elections and vanquish the political class through some sort of popular uprising. I seem to remember this sort of rhetoric during the 1970s but I thought we’d all grown up a bit since then.

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  6. > Using the budget jury in Canada Bay, Australia as an example.

    As I wrote, I don’t think this is really an effective way forward. Such setups are essentially a tool for the established power to diffuse objections, not an example of alternative power.

    > the successful use of sortition in that case provided a very important example that allows many more people to imagine that a broader use of sortition might be reasonable.

    I don’t see this happening, and if it did happen somehow, the use of such setups would be quickly abandoned. An expectation that established power would facilitate the creation of alternative power is unrealistic.

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  7. delegate (n.)
    late 15c., from Old French delegat or directly from Latin delegatus, past participle of delegare “to send as a representative,” from de- “from, away” (see de-) + legare “send with a commission” (see legate). http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=delegate

    In the process of statistical sampling nobody is “sent with a commission”.

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  8. @Yoram, I agree with the general message that (gradual?) reform viewed as a process of democratization should be an immediate goal and a best strategy for sortinistas. That said, I second Keith’s point about using “reform” language to talk about reform–not mixing in revolutionary language.

    Point (2) is well said and seems to me in harmony with both conservative and progressive approaches here on EbyL. The conservative advocate of sortition can read a respect for tradition and “the wisdom of time” in gradual democratic reform. The progressive can see realistic goals around which to organize.

    I disagree with (1) in so far as no one has a crystal ball to predict what “failed” reform experiments could men. It could be–for all we know–that experiments seen as “half-steps,” e.g., voice of the people could turn into an educational opportunity for the public or its failure could create advocates for reform “with more teeth.” Voice of the people for example, would only have an advisory role; but it would be hard for politicians to ignore the recommendation of a minipublic chosen in such a way, just like it quite difficult for a judge to ignore a jury verdict when said jury is chosen according to pre-established legal rules and instructed by the very judge on the law.

    An example from current American politics: It could be that the “failure” of Obamacare creates more advocates for single-payer universal health care either by educating a broader public on the inefficiencies in the current system, or by showing how the “bandage” approach does not work. We do not know. At least I would not confess to.

    That isn’t to say any reform is better than none; but one can endorse, with reservations, imperfect or flawed ideas. Experiments often turn out different than what their designers intended.

    @Keith, political theorists may not be quite so sure on what delegate or representative means; ordinary people may not care. For example, it is usually said that a trial jury “represents” the community’s judgment or the community’s standard of conduct. A jury picked by lot is certainly not “delegated” in the sense you mention.

    More on my own view of the usefulness of trial jury analogy soon; I just spent four days on one and was rather impressed with the collective wisdom I witnessed in my rural Midwestern surroundings.

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  9. Ahmed,

    My concern is not just that we use conciliatory language but that we should stop making risible proposals to “replace election with sortition”. There are no historical examples of purely aleatory regimes and simple theoretical arguments as to why any such regime would be undemocratic.

    The delegate/trustee polarities are ideal types but, as you rightly point out, sortition has no connection with delegation.

    I’m glad you were impressed by your jury service; so was I when I did it last year. The problem with the UK system is that no guidance was provided as to how we should deliberate in a fair and balanced manner — the jury are just instructed to pick a foreman and get on with it. I was also concerned by how easy it was for one person to sway the verdict against the majority position (we ended up being discharged as we couldn’t reach the necessary quorum). When it comes to the preservation of liberty that’s no bad thing, but if the raison d’etre of the jury is statistical representativity this indicates how it can so easily be upset by differences in the rhetorical powers between jurors. Our verdict was not a “representative” one (although I firmly believe that it was right from an epistemic perspective).

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  10. Ahmed,

    > using “reform” language to talk about reform–not mixing in revolutionary language.

    I don’t really see what you mean by that. I use the language that I find best suited to express what I mean. If you call that “reform” or “revolution” is not important.

    > Experiments often turn out different than what their designers intended.

    Obviously, no one knows outcomes with certainty. People however make informed predictions, and it is unrealistic to expect people in power to systematically make the mistake of promoting competing power.

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  11. >it is unrealistic to expect people in power to systematically make the mistake of promoting competing power.

    Terry has already provided some evidence to contradict this assertion. And why do you assume that it would be a “mistake”? It’s perfectly possible for public servants to be as concerned with good governance as with the rewards that follow from the possession of personal power. There is more to life than economics.

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  12. Let me give a not-completely-hypothetical reform usage of sortition to see whether people think it is worthy of support. An activist reform organization in California is looking at a constitutional amendment through a petition/referendum process that would use sortition to draw a representative body to rule on legislative redistricting plans following the decennial census. The idea is that this allotted body would have full power to establish district boundaries…but the goal is ti improve elections by avoiding partisan gerrymandering. Because politicians have an obvious conflict of interest, this jury model has popular appeal. However, it seeks to shore up support for the electoral system. This is an example of educational reform that Yoram would probably oppose, but Keith and perhaps Ahmed would probably support (am I right?). while the INTENTION is to shore up elections, my hope would be that a successful working model of sortition, even for this purpose, would be a net gain for an eventual shift towards more use of sortition. So, while I wouldn’t make this reform a personal project, I can see how it might be beneficial.

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  13. I would not say that I oppose this effort, I just don’t see it as getting us any closer to a meaningful sortition-based reform. Therefore, I don’t think those who advocate sortition-based democracy should be spending their efforts to promote such applications.

    A more meaningful application of sortition is the Washington commission for setting elected officials’ pay, and even that is not really getting much traction in promoting sortition as a democratic tool. It has been in place since 1987 and I doubt many Americans are even aware of its existence.

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  14. @Terry, that is an interesting development and an example, to my mind, of a partial reform that could pave the way to further and better innovations. In that case, the use of sortition as a non-partisan, citizen-led mechanism could not only improve elections (however imperfectly) but get people thinking about other uses of lotteries. Would you share a link to information about that organization?

    @Keith, did you serve on a criminal or a civil case, and was unanimity required?
    I agree that “replacing elections” would neither be a point around which sortinistas could unite, nor a winning political strategy. And I would be content with allotted bodies being a supplement, or counterweight, to elections. But current elections still need major reform (at least in the US).

    A workable soft reform could be a mix of (somewhat reformed) trial juries, policy juries, and administrative juries (all selected by lot) to not only oversee elected and appointed officials but also to be ultimate judges (whether biding or advisory) of “the facts” including policy whenever some threshold of doubt or controversy is met–which would include a large number of political issues.

    A concrete case: rather than Federal Communications Commission being the ultimate arbiter on the possible mega-cable merger, a randomly selected policy jury could decide based on evidence presented by experts, political parties, advocacy groups, etc. Whether the FCC Citizen Jury’s verdict is binding or advisory in nature may not be all that important. We could imagine the political consequences of a commission going AGAINST a Citizen Jury verdict!

    Once experiments have been tried combining elections and lotteries, it could change my mind. But my feeling is there is something about organized political groups, like parties, that society seem to need; and I don’t see internet groups or collective blogs filling that social need. But only experience with good sociology could answer that question?

    @Yoram, I doubt “elites” are so unified and monolithic in countries with some level of civil liberties and some kind of popular elections. Judges are certainly “elites” in one sense, yet most of them gladly let juries decide many issues, not just because the law requires, but also to avoid having to do it themselves. I think this is like Terry’s example.

    I am no sociologist, but I will speculate a bit. Could the biggest impediment to democratizing reforms (like proportional elections or sortition) are not “economic elites”–who know they will do fine under almost any scenario that respects civil and property rights–but “quasi-elites,” the middle and upper-middle classes economically? They are more jealous of what they have and more distrustful of the “less-educated” and “less-cultured.” Among these will be highly educated lawyers and political scientists, and the technically educated engineers and business managers, etc…

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  15. Ahmed,

    > I doubt “elites” are so unified and monolithic in countries with some level of civil liberties and some kind of popular elections.

    Naturally, elites have they own schisms and conflicts, but no elite faction has anything to gain by giving power away.

    > Judges are certainly “elites” in one sense, yet most of them gladly let juries decide many issues, not just because the law requires, but also to avoid having to do it themselves. I think this is like Terry’s example.

    As long as they have nothing to gain or lose, judges will happily let the jury make decisions. As soon as elite interests are involved juries are pushed aside. Constitutional courts, for example, never have juries.

    > Could the biggest impediment to democratizing reforms (like proportional elections or sortition) are not “economic elites”–who know they will do fine under almost any scenario that respects civil and property rights

    Hardly. For example, the elites have gained a lot of power over the last 3 or 4 decade – this could easily be reversed.

    > –but “quasi-elites,” the middle and upper-middle classes economically? They are more jealous of what they have and more distrustful of the “less-educated” and “less-cultured.”

    While distrust of people of lower status is quite common in our society (among all groups, including – and maybe especially – among elites), this is something that can be changed. We’ve had similar ideological changes in the recent past, e.g., reduction in racism, sexism and homophobia.

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  16. Terry: >This is an example of educational reform that Yoram would probably oppose, but Keith and perhaps Ahmed would probably support (am I right?).

    Absolutely. Both the scientific method and establishing perceived legitimacy require experimentation. Any experiment that demonstrates that randomly-selected juries can make decisions in an epistemically satisfying and democratically legitimate fashion can only further the cause of sortition. It doesn’t particularly matter what the particular goal of the experiment is, it will still demonstrate the utility/validity of the decision mechanism. Yoram’s insistence that this would be counterproductive might be taken as a sign that he is less than confident regarding the epistemic competence of allotted juries. Indeed this might well be the case if one’s argument for sortition is based on interests alone.

    Ahmed,

    Mine was a criminal trial (intention to defraud) and the initial requirement is unanimity. The judge then said 10:2 would be an acceptable threshold, but we were below that. Did you have any helpful guidance as to how the jury should deliberate in a fair and balanced manner? We were given no guidance whatsoever — just told to get on with it and come up with a verdict we were all agreed on.

    >And I would be content with allotted bodies being a supplement, or counterweight, to elections.

    Yes, but rather than the suggestions of O’Leary and C&P for identical parallel bodies constituted by two different mechanisms, it would be better to analyse exactly what sort of functions elections and sortition can best perform. Pitkin’s distinction between “acting for” and “standing for” (matched by Pettit’s “responsive” and “indicative” styles of representation) would suggest that sortition and election are best suited to, respectively, the advocacy and judgment role. Experiments need to test a hypothesis rather than just vague heuristics.

    Yoram:> Naturally, elites have they own schisms and conflicts, but no elite faction has anything to gain by giving power away. . . As long as they have nothing to gain or lose, judges will happily let the jury make decisions. As soon as elite interests are involved juries are pushed aside. Constitutional courts, for example, never have juries.

    Your reduction of all human behaviour to a calculus of interests is starting to get tedious — all you ever do is Trot out (oops!) materialist dogma. The reason that constitutional courts have no juries is because they are designed as an independent check on legislative and executive power, as part of Montesquieu’s trinity of balanced governance. Lawyers, like software engineers, are certainly a professional elite but that doesn’t mean that their decisions are necessarily dictated by their own interests. Human beings are blessed with the ability to think rationally (and, sometimes, even disinterestedly) and this is more than epiphenomenal froth. The difference between Marx and Calvin is that the latter did believe in the possibility of disinterested judgment, even if that ‘stern virtue was the growth of few soils’ (Federalist, 73:1).

    BTW, if our behaviour is all determined by “interests”, why do we spend so much time debating on this blog? For my part it’s because I feel it’s both important and “interesting”. But I have no career ambitions in this respect (at the age of 62, it’s a bit late for that) and my commercial interests (publishing) have not been improved by publishing sortition books that nobody wants to read. I would like to think that we are all of us motivated by a sense of public service, but if so, then why not give the benefit of the doubt to judges, elected politicians and other such “elites”?

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  17. Ahmed,
    You asked “Would you share a link to information about that organization?”

    I can’t, because these were confidential preliminary strategy discussions with a non-profit foundation with experience running California initiative campaigns, and they haven’t decided on exactly where they will go with this yet.

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  18. Ahmed,

    I should add that as I recall, a bill to use sortition for election reform design (as in BC) or perhaps it was a constitutional convention was introduced in California several years ago (it went nowhere of course).

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  19. Yoram,

    You wrote, “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.”

    Why should this be the only criterion? I would think there are others – for example, the extent to which a particular experiment makes a particular government more democratic, regardless of how successfully it is publicized; and the extent to which a particular experiment serves the purpose of learning about the potential of sortition.

    You wrote, “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”

    What evidence do you have this “implication” is always there? I’ve read quite a few sortition proposals – including Keith’s and Terry’s – and I didn’t notice any implication in any of them that “the entire intricate structure must be put in place in order to achieve the desired democratic goal.” Are you really suggesting that no one should try to think about the design of better political institutions and write about there ideas? In my opinion, people like Keith and Terry and John Burnheim and Alex Zakaras are doing a great service to all of us, because they are improving our ability to think about better institutions. Even if you or I decide that we don’t like their proposals, we are still much better off than if there were no proposals at all to start with.

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  20. Hi David,

    > Why should this be the only criterion? I would think there are others – for example, the extent to which a particular experiment makes a particular government more democratic, regardless of how successfully it is publicized; and the extent to which a particular experiment serves the purpose of learning about the potential of sortition.

    My point is that any meaningful change must come through popular pressure. Changes that are originated by the established elites are unlikely to actually serve democratic purposes even if that is their proclaimed purpose or superficial appearance.

    > What evidence do you have this “implication” is always there?

    The implication is there, whether deliberate or not. Often the implication that sortition has to be managed in one way or another is explicit (e.g., Burnheim, Zakaras, Sutherland, Leib, Barnett & Carty), but even if it is not explicit, when plans introduce a variety of novelties in a single package it is hard to avoid the impression that sortition is no more than another wrinkle in a radical pipe dream. Furthermore, often those novelties are aimed at reducing the power of the allotted decision making body, again implying that it cannot be trusted with the same political power that elected bodies wield today.

    Imagine, for example, that advocates for women’s suffrage, instead of simply saying that women should have the vote in the same way that men vote, worked by developing complex schemes in which, say, men and women would vote for different bodies with different function and responsibilities which would have various intricate inter-relations, and the same time the power of those bodies would be reduced compared to existing ruling bodies elected by men. Would you say that this would be an effective way to promote women’s political rights and that those proposals are a valuable contribution to that cause?

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  21. YG: >My point is that any meaningful change must come through popular pressure.

    That sounds more like a general theory of revolution (of the kind made years ago when the elite/masses divide made sense) than a proposal for the improvement of democratic governance.

    YG: >Changes that are originated by the established elites

    By implication do the proposals that David mentioned fall under this remit? I wasn’t aware that any of us were elite members, but you’ve never specified what qualifies one as such.

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