The Way Forward – by Terry Bouricius
This is the original full draft of an introductory presentation intended to prepare participants of the 21st Century Democracy conference hosted by the Library of Alexandria for the subsequent day’s sessions largely focused on sortition. Due to earlier panels running overtime, this full speech was never presented, and only a few key points were made in an introduction the next day. Note that some underlining and ALL CAPS appear as emphasis aids for reading the speech aloud.
Discussions about the problems of democracy tend to focus on the problems of the elections.
A fundamental point that needs to be understood is that elections are not the same thing as democracy, and are at best one tool for approaching the democratic ideal. Clearly, a system of free and fair elections is a vast improvement over a dictatorship or one-party state. But the ideal of democracy goes far deeper.
The democratic ideal can be summed up as government of, by and for the people. But modern democracies all have government BY a political class that is distinctly different than the people (mostly male, older, wealthier, better educated, etc.)… and whether that government is truly FOR the people is always a matter of debate.
John Adams, one of the founders of the United States wrote in 1776 that a legislature “should be in miniature an exact portrait of the people at large. It should think, feel, reason and act like them.”
The ideal of democracy is that the government should make the same decisions that the people as a whole would make IF they could all have the time, motivation, information, attention, expert advice, access to conflicting points of view, fact-checking of faulty assumptions, and good facilitation. Obviously it is impossible to have all of the people do this on even one issue, let alone the vast number of public policy decisions made every year. But we know exactly how to achieve this ideal by combining the principles of scientific sampling to select a statistically accurate representative mini-public, with good decision-making procedures. The random selection of public officials like this is known as “sortition.”
This would be government BY the ordinary people, rather than by a political class with only the CONSENT of the people.
I want to draw a sharp distinction between the notion of democracy as CONSENT in which the people get to choose between competing teams of wold-be rulers, on the one hand, and SELF rule, in which ordinary people participate in turns to rule themselves.
To elaborate on this distinction, a brief history of democracy and a brief history of elections will help.
The roots of democracy are generally traced to ancient Greece, and Athens in particular. Let’s set aside their narrow definition of citizen, which excluded slaves and women, and focus on the tools of democracy used by that citizenry (however defined).
We learn in school that the Athenian system was a form of “direct” democracy, where citizens made decisions in face-to-face assemblies, without representatives. We learn that although this kind of system could work on a small scale, it would be unworkable for a nation. However, a careful review of the facts reveals a very different story.
Athenian democracy was fundamentally representative. The People’s Assembly was a sample of the demos (80% of eligible citizens were off doing other things during every assembly meeting). Those who attended effectively represented the entire demos.
Sortition was used to fill nearly all public offices including the Council of 500, which prepared the resolutions and agendas for the Assembly. Nearly all magistrates were selected by lot, and usually worked in teams of ten, to avoid risks of corruption or incompetence. The Courts, were made up of randomly selected juries numbering in the hundreds or even a thousand. These randomly selected juries could even over-rule decisions made by the Assembly. Public officials were monitored and audited by other randomly selected panels of citizens. And… of particular interest to many of us…in the reforms around 403 BC, the Assembly gave up authority to make laws, and transferred that responsibility to panels of randomly selected law-makers, known as nomothetai.
To the Athenians, selection by lot was an essential feature of democracy. Elections were barely used at all, and were not seen as a particularly democratic tool. The Athenians only used elections to fill a few specialized positions such as Generals. They regarded elections as inherently aristocratic, since typically only those with fame or wealth could win. In Book IV of Aristotle’s Politics, we read that “the appointment of magistrates by lot is thought to be democratic, and the election of them oligarchical.” This view of the role of elections and sortition persisted through the European Enlightenment and was reiterated by leading political philosophers such as Rousseau and Montesquieu.
Contrary to the common belief that Athenian democracy has little relevance for modern nation states, the Athenians had solved the problem of scale. The Athenians invented a system of government that worked at a larger than face-to-face scale, in which the citizens ruled through representative institutions, mostly selected by lot. It was called “democracy.”
Our systems of elections on the other hand do not have their roots in democracy.
The virtual monopoly of elections as the method of selecting law-makers today was the result of the path that was set upon by American and French revolutionaries of the 18th Century, who did NOT favor democracy (which they saw as rule by mobs and the poor). Rather than advocating democracy, they generally preferred a system modeled on the senate election system of Rome… a republic governed by an elected aristocracy… Thus elections were seen as the ALTERNATIVE to monarchy AND an alternative to democracy. Rather than allowing rule BY the people, elections were intended to give the people a means for CONSENTING to which elites would govern them.
By the early 19th Century political theorists like Alexis de Tocqueville were using the word “democracy” to describe the system of elections in the United States. And today, most people can’t imagine democracy without elections.
The democratic tool of sortition is now mostly limited to such things as the court system in a number of nations that randomly select juries of average citizens to decide guilt or innocence. The modern descendant of assembly democracy is often considered to be the popular referendum process as exercised in Switzerland. But before we consider the possible advantages of such alternative means of democratic self-governance by the people, we should recognize some of the inevitable flaws of elections as a tool for democracy. I want to briefly mention just a few of the flaws that I see as inherent.
A fundamental reality of any system based on mass elections is the concept of “rational ignorance,” a term coined by Anthony Downs in his seminal work, An Economic Theory of Democracy. Having voters who are informed about issues and candidates is essential for elections to “work.” It takes time and effort to overcome ignorance. Since the chance that a single person’s vote will change the outcome of a large scale election is vanishingly small, a cost/benefit analysis shows that it is irrational to commit any effort to overcome one’s ignorance in this situation. The rational thing to do is put in little or no effort to overcome your ignorance — hence, “rational ignorance.”
As a result, many citizens simply don’t bother to vote, and those who do often rely on a variety of mental shortcuts, for deciding how to vote (perhaps party label, ethnic, religious,clan identity, or simply how handsome or self-confident a candidate appears in the media). This leaves voters open to manipulation by skilled public relations and campaign tactics. Elections often devolve to a battle of image and emotional associations rather than substance.
Sortition offers a solution. With a relatively small number of accurately representative citizens empowered to make a group decision, suddenly they have the motivation and opportunity to overcome their own prior ignorance. Unlike a scientific sample of citizens responding to a public opinion poll, which is devoid of deliberation and maximizes citizen ignorance, sortition uses this scientific sampling but then pairs it with good democratic process such as education, expert knowledge, resistance to corruption, etc.
The imperatives of electoral competition encourages candidates to portray their opponents as either foolish or evil. This demonization of the “others” can then have trickle-down negative effects throughout society. The nature of elections is such that it encourages both politicians and their supporters to think of winning elections as a mandate to do what they want. After all, they WON the election. It is reasonable to see elections as the non-violent cognate of civil war. If we have more fighters we would WIN in a battle and get to rule, just as having more voters means we win
The partisanship that is the essence of electoralism, rarely incorporates any meaningful deliberation among diverse members of society. Politics is generally about winning power with little if any opportunity for problem-solving deliberation or seeking win-win solutions to society’s problems. Here again, sortition offers a solution.
Tomorrow’s sessions are full of discussions about real world implementations of forms of democracy outside the customary electoral arena. There is the participatory budgeting movement that took off in Brazil, and then around the world. Experiments with direct democracy and referendums, and most interesting to me, real world use of sortition. Beginning with the establishment of the Citizens Assembly in British Columbia, Canada in 2004, randomly selected ordinary citizens have been convened to tackle a variety of tasks all over the world. They have proposed constitutional amendments in Ireland, and Iceland, adopted municipal budgets in Australia, reviewed citizen initiated laws in the state of Oregon in the United States, and made recommendations on a wide variety of matters in India, China, the Netherlands, Belgium, Denmark and elsewhere. Proposals for how randomly selected citizen juries might make laws, oversee executive departments, fight corruption, and even supplant elections as a whole will be discussed. I think you will all find it an extremely exciting day of presentations and discussions.