Sortition advocacy in North Carolina

Owen Shaffer, a retired college professor living in Asheville, NC has an opinion piece in the local Citizen Times. Unlike many sortition advocates, Shaffer is not talking half-measures. He is ready to dispose of elections altogether and replace them with sortition:

Is there a better way to select representative bodies to govern us? Is it possible to remove “politics”, “lobbyist”, and “campaign contribution” from our vocabulary, and still have a democracy? Can we remove the oligarchic underpinnings to our democracy? One only needs to look at history to find the answer. “It is thought to be democratic for the offices to be assigned by lot, for them to be elected would be oligarchic” – Aristotle (Politics, Book 4, Section 1294b)

What changes might happen if the random selection of members of a governing body occurs? It would be more likely that they deliberate issues and not sink into decisions based on political affiliation, posturing, and “sound bite” opportunities. They would be unafraid to make hard choices since they would owe no one any favors nor have an opportunity for re-election. In short, they would be more willing to make the right decisions.

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11 Responses

  1. The major problem is with national legislatures and we should start with them initially with the establishment of parallel parliaments. This may also have the benefit of capturing public interest, imagination and participation.

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  2. I agree that national legislatures is the place to start. “Experimenting” with low powered, low exposure bodies is not useful, and may actually be counter-productive.

    The problem is that a “parallel parliament” would require significant resources to perform well. It would be difficult to arrange something like that without either institutional commitment or mass public support. Since obtaining institutional commitment is unlikely without public pressure, it is clear that mass public mobilization is the prerequisite for real progress.

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  3. >mass public mobilization

    The perennial dream of the hard left (always doomed to end in disappointment). This forum currently has 495 followers so you’ve got some way to go. Much better to moderate our language and go for institutional commitment (even though that would mean some of us will have to put a clothes peg on their noses).

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  4. *** Any kind of sortition would be useful to get back the sortition model in the common political mind.
    *** But I agree with David Fewtrell that « the establishment of parallel parliaments » is the best prospect in polyarchic States, and that it would « have the benefit of capturing public interest, imagination and participation. »
    *** Fire needs first the material being combustible, and second some sort of kindling. Any political mutation, major as the advent of ancient dêmokratia, the end of French monarchy, the end of communism in USSR, the establishment of fascisms in Western Europe, or minor as the passage to universal franchise in Britain, came as the result of a « thermodynamic » factor, the acceptance of the new model in some part at least of the society, and of « cinetic » factors which can be diverse and often could not be foreseen, including personal charismas and ambitions, quarrels and resentments inside the dominant elites, sometimes sightlessness among the future losers. Mass public mobilization may occur at one step of the process, but I don’t think we can consider it as a prerequisite. Then I am not convinced that, considering avances towards « democracy-through-minipublics », mass public mobilization is the « prerequisite for real progress ». Yoram Gat requests too much.

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  5. >Mass public mobilization may occur at one step of the process, but I don’t think we can consider it as a prerequisite.

    I can’t think of a single example of political change resulting from mass public mobilization. Ober is alone in imagining that there was such a thing as an Athenian “revolution”, all other historians viewing the demokratia as an unintended consequence of an inter-factional aristocratic dispute.

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  6. Andre,

    > Mass public mobilization may occur at one step of the process, but I don’t think we can consider it as a prerequisite.

    The alternative would be democratization that is motivated by the good will of the political elite. This seems very unlikely. Any historical precedents?

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  7. Demarchy is one of the most socially enriching and exciting ideas since the era of the French Revolution. Also the proposal to replace the existing oligarchy smacks of treason. Pretty exciting and dangerous stuff. This business about “parallel parliaments” was meant as a way of generating public interest in this “plan B” for democracy. However as Sutherland pointed out a crowd of 500 odd people worldwide is not likely to generate much interest. Articles in newspapers magazines and word of mouth will have to do.
    The difficulty with moving demarchy forward is that it is a matrix with no prescribed programs, and no one wins, only everyone equally. It is an idea whose time will come.

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  8. *** Keith Sutherland writes : « I can’t think of a single example of political change resulting from mass public mobilization. Ober is alone in imagining that there was such a thing as an Athenian “revolution”, all other historians viewing the demokratia as an unintended consequence of an inter-factional aristocratic dispute. »
    *** The Athenian dêmokratia is a consequence of an inter-factional nobiliary dispute. Sure. But such a dispute could lead to a very different outcome. Some kind of dêmokratia model was in the mind of Cleisthenes (purely theoretical, or maybe from former experiments elsewhere). The cleisthenian mutation established not only the sovereign power of the Assembly, but civic institutions following a highly abstract model, « melting » the civic body, destroying pluralism by creating artificial tribes (with such measures as an allotted geographical organization and end of official use of family names). It seems strange to consider this undertaking as only an « unintended consequence », as random tactical tricks in an inter-factional dispute. We do not know the mental surroundings of Cleisthenes (there are interesting speculations in the book by Lévêque and Vidal-Naquet) but there was clearly some kind of model which did steer at some moment the line of events. Even in contemporary atmosphere, is there really an English-speaking historian who denies it ?
    *** The role of mass public mobilization in the events ? Difficult to assess, as our information is meager. But there was at least one critical event which looks like a popular upraising (Herodotus V, 72 ; Aristotle, Constitution of Athens, ch. 20).

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  9. *** Yoram Gat writes that « democratization that is motivated by the good will of the political elite » « seems very unlikely ».
    *** I agree. But, conversely, I am not sure that every time everywhere, in front of a democratic advance, all the established elites will be perfectly united, perfectly conscious of the risk, without internal quarrels, without particular self-serving and short-sighted strategies, and without some characters who unite some « good will » towards dêmokratia and some personal or group ambitions or resentments.

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  10. Andre,

    Sure – the elite has its weaknesses, and, yes, there will be a minority within the elite with genuine democratic sympathies. The notion that those will somehow lead to democratization without significant popular pressure seems highly unrealistic.

    Specifically about sortition: It is much more likely that the elite will attempt to exploit sortition (like any other social tool) to buttress its power than that it will embrace it as a tool for democratization. Taking at face value the elite-managed experiments with sortition as reflecting a genuine intention by the elite to promote democracy seems very naive. (The specifics of those experiments only serve to validate a skeptical attitude.)

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  11. Andre, I guess my point is a) Cleisthenes’ motivation (to win a dispute between aristocratic factions) and b) the direction of causality (primarily top-down [to everyone apart from Ober]). Whether or not this required an abstract model of democracy on Cleisthenes’ part is a secondary consideration.

    Yoram:

    >It is much more likely that the elite will attempt to exploit sortition (like any other social tool) to buttress its power than that it will embrace it as a tool for democratization. Taking at face value the elite-managed experiments with sortition as reflecting a genuine intention by the elite to promote democracy seems very naive.

    All that matters is the outcome, not the intentions of the various agents involved.

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