Let’s reimagine democracy: replace elections with lotteries

An article by Joe Humphreys, in the The Irish Times, November 19th, 2016:

What’s happening to our democracies? Donald Trump’s presidential-election victory in the United States, after a bitter campaign characterised by deceitful and incendiary rhetoric, is not an isolated episode. It’s the natural outcome of what David Van Reybrouck calls democratic-fatigue syndrome.

One of the most worrying facets of electoral democracy is what political scientists call rational ignorance. Citizens have negligible chances of influencing which candidates get elected and of influencing those candidates once elected. “Citizens thus have no incentive to become well-informed regarding political affairs,” says Dr Peter Stone of Trinity College Dublin.

The answer, says Stone, is to find new ways of invigorating democracy, suggesting a much greater role for “citizen juries” randomly selected to serve public roles. This notion of governing by lottery rather than election is at the heart of Van Reybrouck’s book, which has sought to popularise a concept that stretches back to ancient Greece, the birthplace of democracy. In Athens, in the fifth and fourth centuries BC, the most important governmental offices were appointed by sortition, or the drawing of lots.

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22 Responses

  1. Nothing new in the article, is there? As always there is a sense that “pure lottery” intuitively suggests inferiority. The immediate question of a casual reader will be: How can a “random” citizen be better than an “elected” being? Their gut instinct: Cannot.

    We must work on a better elevator speech.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. The problem with such a proposal is that it envisions a single-step random selection process. That will not work, especially in a modern, complex country. The solution is fetura, or a multi-step process in which random selection alternates with merit selection, as in evolutionary algorithms. See http://constitutionalism.blogspot.com/2016/05/answer-to-objections-to-sortition.html

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  3. The immediate question of a casual reader will be: How can a “random” citizen be better than an “elected” being?

    I’m a casual if not downright lethargic reader, and my answer is “Trump.”

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  4. This article, like Van Reybrouck, misses the point completely. It represents exactly the opposite of what needs to be learned from the present situation, and exactly the opposite of how sortition needs to be used.

    Even with the best of intentions, those who govern the people without involving them govern them in only a limited sense.

    The problem is not that the well-meaning elites are confused. The problem is that they are self-serving at the expense of the average citizen. What we need is not to help the elites to govern but to remove the elites from power. This is democratization – not some meaningless participatory window dressing over the existing system.

    “Rational ignorance”

    Rational ignorance is a problem, but not the primary one. In fact, rational ignorance has been a force buttressing the elections-based system. It allowed the elites to delude the people into thinking that they can influence policy through elections. The reason that the system is in crisis now is that the situation has become so clear that rational ignorance can no longer mask it.

    Building “nonpartisan” decisionmaking processes into the political system would help to guard against politicians such as Trump overreaching their powers, Stone says.

    Trump is the symptom, not the problem. The problem is Clinton (and Obama, Bush, Clinton, …).

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  5. Yoram:>The problem is not that the well-meaning elites are confused. The problem is that they are self-serving at the expense of the average citizen. What we need is not to help the elites to govern but to remove the elites from power.

    It’s this kind of student-revolutionary cod-Marxist dogma that makes me claim that “sortinistas” (pure sortitionists) are inflicting enormous damage on our attempts to improve our system of democratic representation. Apart from Yoram, Campbell and Terry, does anyone on this forum agree with this antediluvian nonsense?

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  6. Yoram is correct to a first approximation, yes, that the elites are self-serving. The historical trend has been to try and make the elites’ interests align with the people’s. I think it is perfectly sane to say that the elites should be removed from power. But in practice, it is a very different matter. It needs to be gradual and something else (sortition) needs to take the place of that power. The one main problem I have with sortition is that I don’t see much of a way forward for it. Citizens’ assemblies appear to be a start. Other than that, what’s the plan here folks?

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  7. Mike,

    >The one main problem I have with sortition is that I don’t see much of a way forward for it.

    For those of us interested in improving electoral democracy (“meaningless participatory window dressing over the existing system”), the most promising route may well be to focus on proposals for upper houses constituted by sortition. For those interested in removing the elites from power, the answer appears to be to use this forum for consciousness raising — to enable the masses to see that they are the victims of exploitation. Unfortunately programmes like this have not been successful in the past.

    >The historical trend has been to try and make the elites’ interests align with the people’s

    Then why not encourage this historical trend? Brexit is the first example I can think of where the political elite is constrained to pursue a policy that it fundamentally disagrees with, so why give up on this strategy just when it is proving successful?

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  8. Mike,

    > Other than that, what’s the plan here folks?

    The first step in any useful plan is to disseminate the idea of sortition as a democratic alternative to elections.

    Since the elite will not relinquish power unless forced to do so, mass mobilization is the only way to democratize the political system.

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  9. Yoram,

    Thank you for confirming that my articulation of your position was accurate. I would dearly love to know how many of the other followers of this blog agree with you that mass mobilization is the only way to force the elite to relinquish power and that the primary role of this blog is popular consciousness raising. Unfortunately history (and current events) both indicate that the masses are more likely to empower a strong man than to seize the reins of power directly.

    I do think we need some sort of vote on this, as your approach is entirely counterproductive from the point of view of those of us advocating “meaningless participatory window dressing over the existing system”. I think this latter category includes pretty well everyone actively working in the field (as opposed to just posting their opinions on internet blogs).

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  10. Keith,

    For ANY implementation of sortition, of any sort to proceed, certainly “The first step … is to disseminate the idea of sortition as a democratic alternative to elections.” If elections continue to be seen as the ONLY tool for democrats to aspire to for creating representative bodies… then that’s it for sortition.

    Whether any specific proposal maintains a role for elections or not is not the fundamental issue… it is whether there is ANY role for sortition.

    You insist that those who imagine a utopia without elections are doing harm, because they drive elites who benefit from electoral systems away from sortition. But that isn’t an immediate problem, and the task at hand is simply to spread general awareness (not exclusively nor primarily among elites) of sortition as an alternative democratic tool.

    For an analogy, in 18th Century America there were certainly SOME (few) people who argued that the right to vote should be extended to unpropertied white male laborers, but also to women, and to slaves and native Americans. Did their advocacy for that broader expansion of the franchise harm the efforts at expansion of voting only as far as the unpropertied males? I doubt it. Having a vision or long term goal, even if unrealistic for the foreseeable future can be useful.

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  11. Terry,

    > Whether any specific proposal maintains a role for elections or not is not the fundamental issue… it is whether there is ANY role for sortition.

    “Any role” is not nearly enough. The role must be an independent role – a role that is not managed by the electoral elite and its allies. Having a procedure that involves sortition but is in fact dominated by the elites is at best worthless, and quite possibly worse than worthless. If we want to promote sortition as an alternative to existing oligarchical power, we must make independence from that power a very clear part of the agenda.

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  12. Terry,

    Whilst Yoram and yourself both advocate “pure” sortition, your strategies for implementing it are as different as chalk and cheese. Your chosen method of dissemination is via authoring scholarly articles in the Journal of Public Deliberation, whereas Yoram seeks to “mobilise the masses” in order to “force the elite to relinquish power”. The former strategy requires arguments, whereas the latter only needs sloganising. Like it or not, all social and cultural change is top-down — as (paradoxically) demonstrated by the huge impact of the Frankfurt School (of cultural Marxism). In many respects the populist revolution that we are seeing on both sides of the Atlantic is a revolt against the hegemony of the new cultural/media/political elite, but the masses will (as always) choose the strong leader rather than seeking to assume power for themselves. The other difference between Yoram and yourself is that, whilst we have had some passionate disagreements, you have never questioned my personal integrity or refused to engage with me in debate.

    Unfortunately your 18th-century analogy doesn’t work as nobody was proposing the abolition of elections, merely the extension of the franchise to those who, in the language of the Putney Debates, lacked a “permanent” interest in the commonwealth. The electoral principle was never challenged, merely whether the extension of the franchise to other groups was just or prudent. And the principle of distinction would always apply whereas, in the case of pure sortition, the elites would no longer have any formal role to play in political life. This is why I argue that clarion calls for the abolition of elections and the end of politicians are entirely counterproductive. You have to remember that Yoram has attacked most of the existing sortition experiments as “meaningless participatory window dressing over the existing system”, and that strikes me as a singularly ineffective way of disseminating sortition to a wider audience. With friends like Yoram, who needs enemies?

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  13. So now we hear that most existing sortition experiments — “meaningless participatory window dressing over the existing system” — are “worse than worthless”. It’s unsurprising therefore that the Stanford Center for Deliberative Democracy doesn’t participate in the debates on this forum and it is a great credit to the patience of the good folk at NewDemocracy that they have not also chosen to boycott our site (especially as the attacks all come from the Kleroterian site administrator). We are running the danger of emulating the sectarian warfare that characterised the hard left in the 1970s and that ended with the left disappearing up its own backside.

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  14. Adding to Keith’s comment: We need to be open to innovation and changes until the method is right. The key element to avoid sectarian warfare is falsifiability. Juries of committees should always document what they predict will be the consequences of following or not following their recommendations, or the recommendations of politicians and require politicians to do the same for their decisions. By comparing the error in these predictions we can judge the appropriateness of a measure, without implying anything about its ideological value.

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  15. HJ,

    That’s an interesting, and welcome, suggestion, unprecedented in the field of governance. I guess the only problem is defining the appropriate time-scale, given that it’s apparently too soon to assess the outcome of the French Revolution.

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  16. *** Keith Sutherland says (november 24) « the masses will (as always) choose the strong leader rather than seeking to assume power for themselves ».
    *** The masses did sometimes choose as « representative » a strong leader – who was not always to be a dictator, see Franklin Roosevelt or de Gaulle – because democracy in modern States was not a real option. Now, with electronic technology and the idea of « representative sample », democracy (ortho-democracy, dêmokratia) is possible. When the dêmos will feel strongly that, we will come back to the Greek situation at the end of sixth century, when democracies began to appear, and when the dêmos ceased to favor populist tyrans, as Peisistratos (even if actually the Athenian dêmos kept a fond memory of him, see Aristote, Constitution of Athens, 16, 7, he did never harbor any leaning for a new tyranny).
    *** The idea of dêmokratia is getting out of the limbo. See the (cautious) proposal of Montebourg for the French Senate ; such a proposal by a politician of the Establishment, even a somewhat eccentric one, could not be imagined in 19th or 20th centuries. We are in a moment alike the end of sixth century in Greece.
    *** Keith Sutherland‘s intellectual mistake is to say « always », blending all the historical ages.
    As kleroterians, we must consider, and distinguish, the classical Greek cities, the medieval Italian cities, the Western States of 19th-20th centuries, the first modernity, and the 21st century States belonging to the « second modernity », where dêmokratia is a real option.

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  17. Andre,

    >Keith Sutherland‘s intellectual mistake is to say « always », blending all the historical ages.

    Fair point, but it’s important to remember that the Athenian demokratia was not based on pure sortition (the position that I’m arguing against). Neither Cleisthenes, Pericles nor Demosthenes gained their power through the kleroterion and I’m not aware of any historical precedent for pure sortition. Politicians or statespersons are an ubiquitous part of the political landscape, and election is probably the only way we have of ensuring that they reflect the views and priorities of the demos (albeit imperfectly).

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  18. *** Keith Sutherland says (December 11) : « I’m not aware of any historical precedent for pure sortition » and « Politicians or statespersons are an ubiquitous part of the political landscape, and election is probably the only way we have of ensuring that they reflect the views and priorities of the demos ».
    *** We must distinguish between two things : sovereignty, which decides basic political choices and basic regulations (« laws ») ; and management of an administration or permanent advising. Election may be a device used in a dêmokratia to select managers or permanent advisers, but we go out of dêmokratia (ortho-democracy) when election becomes « representative », i-e selects persons to exercize sovereignty. When Demosthenes (Against Leptines 107-108) describes the election to the Spartan Gerousia as oligarchical, in opposition to Athens, he says this election gives to the elected the sovereign power (kyrios), which was not the case when in Athens were elected a military commander or a financial manager.
    *** The formula to exercize democratic sovereignty in the Athens was at the beginning mainly “general vote”, in the times of Demosthenes a mix of “general vote” and “ allotted juries”. If in a modern dêmokratia it becomes mainly “allotted juries”, it would only a third step in the evolution. Personnally, I would not exclude cases of general vote (referendum), in cases it is possible to guarantee a deep deliberation by the general civic body; rare cases, it seems clear.
    *** « Politicians or statespersons are an ubiquitous part of the political landscape ». Here, I agree. And it is better to acknowledge the fact. But in a dêmokratia, the « honors » they may look after are to be an adviser of the dêmos and / or to be chosen as manager, not to be a « representative ».
    *** Keith writes : « Neither Cleisthenes, Pericles nor Demosthenes gained their power through the kleroterion ». Not through election ! Pericles was a leader because the dêmos was convinced by his proposals of « intelligent imperialism » (maybe wrongly), not because he was elected among the military commanders ; the same for Demosthenes, who, as far as I know, was never elected to any office ; Euboulos and Lykourgos got elected as financial managers, but had influence mainly through convincing the dêmos about their financial ideas.
    *** In Athens the elected « magistrates » were elected by general vote (and overseen by a jury, but « dokimasia » was only about trust into their civic virtues and democratic ideas). Logically given the complexity of modern society and therefore the political work necessary to assess a manager, I think the election of managers would be better to be left to juries, not to general vote. But if a dêmos would prefer to use general vote for rare case and very highly visible offices, it is not a problem – the principle is the same : is a deep deliberation possible ?

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  19. Andre,

    I agree on the distinction between sovereignty, administration and advisors and that sovereignty should be in the hands of a body selected by sortition. Focusing first on the role of advisors, I agree also that in small poleis, where the advisors spoke directly to the assembly, there was no need for election or any other mechanism to ensure that the isegoria was in any way representative of the demos — in theory anybody who chose to could speak. This is impossible in large modern states, and there is no reason to believe that the speech acts of the individuals randomly allocated to the sovereign body would either be representative of those of the target population or would have any particular epistemic merit. The Athenians did not select their advisors by lot as the Council was primarily an administrative secretariat. So other mechanisms are necessary and election would seem to be an obvious candidate.

    I have no strong views on the best way to appoint managers — general vote, allotted vote, headhunting or competitive examinations. But it’s important to maintain the distinction between managers and advisors, although the former will also play an advisory role as they are the ones with the hands-on experience of putting laws into action.

    As such the project to “replace elections by lotteries” (the title of this thread) is a quixotic one.

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  20. Keith,

    I gather that you have settled on a unique idea of “representative isegoria” … meaning that subscription newspapers and the like speak, but this really seems like a misnomer. In a mass society we can still embrace genuine isegoria (freedom of any to speak to the deciders) and use either random selection or some crowdsourcing rating system to select which of the hoi polloi get their input all the way to the top. Isegoria is not the same as selecting expert witnesses, which likely needs a somewhat different epistemic process. But claiming the media is a modern version of, or substitute for isegoria seems more than just a stretch to me.

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  21. Terry,

    The relevant chapter in my thesis is long and rather complex (especially the media section), but I argue that there are two aspects to representative isegoria:

    Political institutions
    Election for parties and persons
    Pressure groups and new political movements
    Direct-democratic initiative + public votation

    Informal public sphere
    Competitive commercial media
    Public service broadcasters
    Demarchic councils and think tanks

    As you can see the media only represent a small part of the mix, the principle direct agency being reserved for election. The theoretical model I adopt is Michael Saward’s Representative Claim. As with the Athenian precedent, random selection has no part whatsoever to play in the isegoria process (note my earlier observation on the boule)

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  22. […] electorate is manifesting itself in a revival of openly anti-democratic ideas. Van Reybrouck and others offer sortition as an alternative: an a democratic mechanism that will furnish the elites with the […]

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