Le Parisien Magazine: For or against allotting senators?

Nicolas Priou, January 18th, 2017

Appoint some of the senators by chance. That is one of the proposals of Arnaud Montebourg, for “rebuilding the lost confidence” between the citizens and the institutions. More precisely, the candidate for the primary of the left (on the 22nd and the 29th of January) would like to allot 100 senators in an assembly reduced to 200 members. This means on citizen for each department, drawn from the electoral registry, as is already the case for judicial juries.

A system created in ancient Greece

The goal? “Assure the involvement of citizens in the political system” and making the Senate “a chamber with oversight powers over the public purse, public commitments, political promises to the public, and European decisions”. The idea is as old as the Athenian democracy – or rather klerocracy, as the Greeks called the political system where the representatives of the people and the rulers are selected by lot. But this method is rarely applied other than for selecting juries. More recently, it was Iceland that went farther. In response to the financial crisis of 2008, an assembly of 1,000 allotted citizens was formed to create the basis for a new constitution. Which was eventually rejected. In France, in addition to Arnaud Montebourg, various think tanks, philosophers, and researchers have been promoting the idea of sortition of senators for several years, proposing different numbers of people designated by lot. But are the French people ready?

IN FAVOR – Valentine Daval, cofounder of the think tank “Citizen Senate” (Paris): “A tool for developing citizen involvement and our civic sense”.

A better representation. Since 1958, the Senate, which is supposed to represent the territories, is constituted primarily of men at the end of their careers of certain means and promoting right-wing ideas. The current appointment method therefore ignores the ideas and experiences of a huge part of the population. Sortition would increase diversity of Senate members.

Dissolving partisan logic.
The system, instituted at all levels (national, regional, local, …), allows developing citizen involvement and our civic sense. The restores confidence in the fact that decisions are not made in the interests of those who made politics their careers. Finally, the “citizen senators” would be independent of the partisan logic and can follow their own ideas rather than the voting instructions of the party hierarchy.

Complementary appointment methods. Allotment of a Citizen Senate, together with the direct election of deputies of the National Assembly, allows to highlight the complementarity of the two appointment methods for constituting the government of France. For this purpose, it must be that the Senate, and not the National Assembly, that has the last word in the interactions between the two.

AGAINST – Clément Sénéchal, essayist, author of the blog Lésions politiques (Paris): “Who would still want to fight for their ideas, if the exercise of power is distributed by chance?”

A bad remedy. If it is in vogue, the idea of sortition is more of a symptom of the crisis of political representation – a crisis which it will aggravate – than a solution. First, because it would replace the expression of individual aspirations, translated into a collective will through voting, with total arbitrariness. Through the exchange of arguments and discourse, elections allow, among other things, various actors in society to express themselves.

A risk of dehumanization. Sortition carries within it the risk of disengagement. Who would still want to invest in politics, fight for their ideas, if the exercise of power is finally distributed by chance. To the extent where it prevents citizens from expressing themselves through voting, sortition is a process of dehumanization.

A reform of the Senate is necessary. That said, it seems to me imperative to reform the Senate, starting with its role. Why not make the upper chamber a long-term assembly where the ecological interests would be specifically defended? In that case, it would have to be composed of scientists and activists who have proven their commitment to the subject.

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6 Responses

  1. >Through the exchange of arguments and discourse, elections allow, among other things, various actors in society to express themselves.

    Yes, that’s why election is essential to achieve representative isegoria.

    >Who would still want to invest in politics, fight for their ideas, if the exercise of power is finally distributed by chance?

    That’s why “lottocracy” (etc) would be a bad term for what we are proposing and why “stochation” is better as it encapsulates the notion of statistical representation. The small citizen juries used by some sortition experiments give the impression that power is distributed by chance, that’s why I’m opposed to Terry’s model of multi-body sortition. We need to be very clear as to why decision making by large statistically-representative juries is truly democratic — anything else will just tar us all by the same brush. Representation is the alpha and omega for democracy in large states and small, actively-deliberating allotted bodies only represent the views of the persons directly participating. So I reject Terry’s kind offer to grant me “stochation” for my own personal use and wish to see it becoming synonymous with all serious work in sortition studies.

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  2. Sénéchal’s high minded lecture about the importance of exchange of ideas is exposed as hypocritical by his confession about not being willing to fight for his ideas if “power is distributed by chance”. For Sénéchal fighting for his ideas means talking to elite members. “Exchanging ideas” with the average person is not worth his time.

    In the same way his high minded warning about the dehumanization associated deprivation of the vote, is exposed as hypocritical by his proposal for reforming the Senate into a body of professionals. It turns out that those humanized voters should be kept in check by the responsible adults.

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  3. As for the argument “in favor”, it is not clear why Daval considers “ignoring the ideas and experiences of a huge part of the population” to be OK when it happens in the Assembly.

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  4. Yoram,

    >For Sénéchal fighting for his ideas means talking to elite members.

    A more charitable interpretation would be that he seeks to persuade a plurality of voters in an election. If his ideas were subsequently overturned by arbitrary factors this would reduce his motivation.

    >“Exchanging ideas” with the average person is not worth his time.

    There is no such creature as the “average person”, the argument for stochation is that the aggregate judgment of a large randomly-selected jury would reflect what most people would think under good conditions. The task for those of us advocating stochation is to reduce the chance factors to a level that would ensure consistent representativity.

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  5. *** Which is interesting anyway is the existence of such debates in mainstream medias.
    *** Currently in France there is an explosion of proposals and debates about the idea of political sortition. I come back from travel ; I read the newsmagazine « Marianne » 13-19 January, of center-left and hard-republican sensitivity and until recently without closeness with political sortition ; and I find three articles (including one interview by Sintomer) with positive references to sortition. Three ! And there were others in end of 2016 in « Le Monde », etc … I don’t mind much anymore, as they are numerous.
    *** In France at least, sortition belongs now to mainstream political thought.
    *** It does not mean such a strong push towards democracy-through-minipublics, as many new converts see sortition as a element to strengthen the polyarchic model.
    *** The polyarchic model had two pillars : the electoral-representative principle; the principle of checks and balances (hence the twin name « liberal democracy »). The tide of populisms leads the elites to loose trust in the first pillar. Some think that adding an element of allotted people in some political powers will add to the complexity of checks and balances, even furthering the possibilities of play by the lobbies.
    *** France seems ahead in this trend. But it may be more general ; and the supporters of democracy-through-minipublics must be careful ; the more important line now might be, not to get sortition out of the limbo, but to think about the different roles it can play, which will not be always on the road to modern dêmokratia.

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  6. Andre,

    >the supporters of democracy-through-minipublics must be careful ; the more important line now might be, not to get sortition out of the limbo, but to think about the different roles it can play, which will not be always on the road to modern dêmokratia.

    True, but if sortition can be shown to function well as a check on polyarchic elites then the principal will have been established that ordinary people are capable of responsible and epistemically sensible political decision making and this will help towards the ultimate goal of a modern demokratia. Trojan horses can be very effective, even if the strategy doesn’t appeal to the revolutionaries within our midst.

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