Sortition finally in the public eye? A report-back from APSA in Philadelphia

The American Political Science Association’s annual meeting ran Sept 1-4th. Several happenings there indicate that sortition is now in the (political science) public eye.

On day 1, during a panel called “A good year for deliberative theory, 20 years later” Jane Mansbridge mentioned selection by lot several times, adding that the public needs more education on the concepts of representative samples and minipublics.

On day 2, during a panel on majoritarianism, Jeremy Waldron (I am told) raised a copy of Van Reybrouck’s Against Elections and mockingly shook it.

On the closing morning of the convention, a roundtable titled “Lotteries and the Transformation of Democratic Theory” included Alex Guerrero, Hélène Landemore, Claudio Lopez-Guerra, Peter Stone, Arash Abizadeh, Alex Kirshner, and Emilee Chapman. In the audience was Jim Fishkin (who made a long intervention, mentioning an allotted legislature he was asked to design for Mongolia, as well as Deliberative Polls in several other countries–Ghana, Japan, China–then quickly exited), myself and several others.

In addition, several panels throughout the convention involved political psychologist, scientist or theorists addressing minipublics, assessing deliberation, etc. Using the online agenda allows you to search the panels by keyword, if you’re interested in the specifics.

During the roundtable, Peter used the word “sortinista” to mean someone who thinks ONLY a pure lottocracy would be a true democracy. Is this how you understand it? I think of a sortinista as an advocate of SOME use of sortition in a democratic process, perhaps at some key stage of decision-making.


6 Responses

  1. Thanks Ahmed that’s very interesting. It’s great to hear that sortition is now being seriously considered by mainstream political scientists and political theorists (wasn’t Mansbridge APSA president a year or so ago?). The take-home message for me is the need not to be dismissive of mainstream initiatives in this area.

    I agree that sortinista refers to anyone advocating sortition, not an aleatory fundamentalist. Kleristocracy would be the obvious term for pure sortition, so I guess that would make them kleristocrats.


  2. *** I think better, following the family of words democracy, aristocracy, autocracy, to keep –cracy for the political systems where there is a sovereign (individual or collective); a sovereign which has the possibility, after deliberation, to decide as last word about the basic policy choices, the issuing of laws, the major judicial decisions.
    *** A polyarchy has not sovereign, but a major myth sustaining the system is the “representative democracy myth”. This leads to confusion. I propose, when there is a risk of confusion, to use, for the true democracy, the word “ortho-democracy”; from the Greek “orthos” , which has among its meanings “direct”.
    *** In the last period of the Athenian democracy, the sovereignty of the dêmos had two channels; general vote of all assembled citizens after deliberation, or allotted juries. That would be the same in a modern ortho-democracy, but given the complexity of modern societies and therefore the time-consuming political work of deliberation, allotted juries would be practically the usual channel.
    *** For practical reasons, modern day democrats (ortho-democrats) must be sortinistas. An ortho-democracy with a referendum everyday on subjects most citizens had no time to deliberate about would be a sham, giving power to the mass media masters. And anyway the last word judicial powers would need juries.
    *** In a modern ortho-democracy, sortition would be basic for sovereignty. That does not mean that lot must be the one political device. The Athenians in the time of Demosthenes did not choose by lot neither the military managers nor the financial managers.
    *** “Kleristocracy” would be a good word only for a system where the lot gives sovereignty to one person (, or a small group of persons). Randomness would be a basic factor in the political system. This can be found in some S-F novels, but I don’t know instances of serious proposal. “Kleristocracy” is not a good word for a “democracy-through-minipublics” where randomness is kept to a low level by an adequate size of the allotted minipublics (every political system has some level of randomness). Lottery here is only a way to create a minipublic, with the same political sensitivity as the dêmos he is taken from.
    *** Modern-day democrats must be sortinistas. But political lottery may be part of some anarchistoid models, or of some undertakings whose aim is to renovate polyarchy and modifying the relative political weight of the social powers.


  3. Andre:

    > Kleristocracy would be a good word only for a system where the lot gives sovereignty to . . . a small group of persons.

    That’s precisely the point. A pure lottocracy would arrogate full powers to a small randomly-selected group of persons, as its remit would include speech acts and other functions that are not subject to the relevant representative principle (the law of large numbers). That’s why sortinistas should be opposed to pure lottocracy — it’s not democratic.


  4. *** Keith Sutherland said (September 5): “It’s great to hear that sortition is now being seriously considered by mainstream political scientists and political theorists”. Yes, I agree, as sortition is a necessary pillar of a modern democracy. But, likewise, we must be aware that sortition may be included in some political endeavors the aim of which is not to give sovereignty to the dêmos, but, on the opposite, to renovate polyarchy and strengthening it against any democratic (ortho-democratic) temptation.
    *** One big resource of legitimacy for the polyarchic system has been the idea of “representative democracy”. Behind it there was a powerful myth of “sovereignty of the dêmos”. The discourse went: “the sovereign dêmos has to delegate his sovereignty to representatives because in big and complex modern societies he cannot govern directly”. There are other legitimacy resources for the contemporary polyarchies, but it is the dominating one at the grassroots level. It is at least true in France, where the constitution is constructed not as a way of reining in the popular will, but as a way of protecting the popular sovereignty from usurpation. France may be an extreme case, but I think the idea is very strong in many polyarchies.
    *** The problem is that now the electronic technology and the “representative sample” model allows for a modern dêmokratia. The old strong legitimacy resource is becoming a menace.
    *** Many intellectual circles are thinking about it, and they conclude that the old democratic myth must be discarded.
    We must not be surprised that after the Brexit we saw so much discourses implying that the masses are intellectually dumb and morally perverse, discourses rehearsing ideas and sometimes words of a very old anti-democratic tradition that in my young times had become subterranean. Brexit is not so apocalyptic an event as to have change yesterday democrats into today hard elitists. It was only a revealing occasion. Conceptually, the hostility to the democratic myth itself means attacking the idea of kratos (= an illiberal concept), or of dêmos (= a populist myth), or both. But there are likewise institutional strategies. In French intellectual circles I see three main ones. First, the idea of quota (gender and race, practically) which allows to present the ruling bodies as mirroring the population, and attacks the idea of an unitary dêmos by stressing innate parameters (not situation parameters: only women may represent women, but the rich one represent the poor one, the childless woman represents the three children mother). Second, the idea of legitimacy through “impartiality”; which leads to developing many kinds of « neutral » political bodies, on the pattern of the Constitutional Courts, and to discrediting the majoritarian decision. But that may appear too clear an “up to down” political device and, to compensate, we have, third, the idea of “participatory democracy”. Here sortition is accepted, at least by the boldest, the democratic venom being treated through different ways: mixing allotted citizens with representatives of the “civil society”; mixing allotted citizens with experts; and heightening as strongly as possible the element of self-selection – that the resulting bodies are not representative is not a drawback, it is a target. Sortition is used as to allow “citizen bodies” to be “responsive to the civil society”, not to be representative of the dêmos.
    *** I conclude that if sortition is a pillar of a modern dêmokratia (or of an “hybrid” system as the one proposed by the French supporters of an allotted Senate), it is likewise a device which is considered by the boldest supporters of the renovation of the polyarchic system. That may explain for a part that it is “seriously considered by mainstream political scientists and political theorists”.


  5. Andre,

    Yes that’s all true. As an advocate of the mixed constitution I don’t have a problem with those seeking to renovate the polyarchic system — in fact the last section of my PhD is subtitled Towards Polyarchy III. But I agree with Dahl (and yourself) that ultimate sovereign power has to be vested in the demos according to his two principles:

    “The demos must have the exclusive opportunity to decide how matters are to be placed on the agenda of matters that are to be decided by means of the democratic process.” (Dahl, 1989, p. 113)


    “At the decisive stage of collective decisions, each citizen must be ensured an equal opportunity to express a choice that will be counted as equal in weight to the choice expressed by any other citizen. In determining outcomes at the decisive stage, these choices, and only these choices, must be taken into account” (ibid., p. 109)

    To my mind these goals can only be achieved by using sortition as one element in a mixed constitution. It can have no role to play in implementing the first principle and the ad hoc temporary nature of sovereignty in the second would suggest that stable, consistent and accountable executive power would need to be established by other mechanisms.

    >mixing allotted citizens with representatives of the “civil society”; mixing allotted citizens with experts; and heightening as strongly as possible the element of self-selection – that the resulting bodies are not representative is not a drawback, it is a target. Sortition is used as to allow “citizen bodies” to be “responsive to the civil society”, not to be representative of the dêmos.

    Note that this is antipathetic to both the mixed constitution and Polyarchy III. The balance is created not through mixing allotted volunteers with experts and elected politicians, it is through a clear functional division of labour between the monarchical, aristocratic and democratic elements that constitute every society.


  6. […] some attention. In Canada and the UK sortition was discussed by academics. In the US, sortition was mentioned in a workshop of the […]


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