New Scientist letter

I was lucky enough to get the following letter on sortition published in New Scientist, (not quite as I penned it). I’m hoping there will be an exchange of letters, so if anyone wants to comment, there is an opportunity.

Letters should be sent to:


Letters to the Editor, New Scientist,
110 High Holborn, London WC1V6EU

They like them to be short (250-300 words maximum). Be sure to include your full postal address and telephone number, and a reference (issue, page number, title) to articles. In this case you should include “Campbell Wallace (Letters, 20 May, p53)…” if you comment on my letter; or, if you comment on another letter, the name of the writer and the date of publishing.

As published:

Dave Levitan (22 April, p 24), and Alice Klein (p 25) rightly deplore politicians such as Donald Trump and Malcolm Turnbull, who disregard scientific evidence in favour of policies chosen for short-term electoral advantage or to further special interests. But the problem is a consequence of the electoral system itself, which repeatedly brings to power people unfit to use it.

Since the 18th century we have assumed that elections are both necessary and sufficient for democracy, and that without them tyranny results. Yet the Greeks of Aristotle’s day knew that elections could lead to oligarchy, not democracy, and that a democratic alternative existed. Athenian democracy selected decision-makers by lot to get a statistically representative sample of the whole community: this is called “sortition“. It is perfectly feasible to design a system with the means to ensure that those chosen are well-informed on each issue that comes before them. Sortition would end the reign of big money, greatly reduce corruption, and would make intelligent decisions, taking into account the interests of all.

It’s high time we abandoned the myth that elections equal democracy.


14 Responses

  1. Great letter!

    I just sent my response:

    Campbell Wallace (Letters, 20 May, p53) proposes selecting political decision-makers using statistical sampling (sortition) instead of using elections. Wallace rightly notes that in antiquity democracy has been associated with sortition. He then adds that since the 18th century we have assumed that democracy requires elections. This is not quite the case.

    When elections were originally advocated for by the leading American revolutionaries, they were not presented as being democratic – quite the opposite. Those early advocates for the electoral system were explicit and adamant about being anti-democratic. They considered democracy an evil that must be avoided and proposed elections as an aristocratic mechanism that would be a bulwark against this evil. Thus their thinking and argumentation was in line with the ancient conventional wisdom.

    It is only in the 19th century that the electoral system – the same system that was originally designed and proposed as aristocratic – was re-branded and marketed under the newly popular notion of democracy.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Fair enough.


  3. Peter Stone’s comment on the Kleroterian facebook page

    I really wish people would stop making the stupid argument that we have people like Trump because of elections. We’ve been electing presidents since 1789, and in all that time we’ve elected only one Trump. So it should be bloody obvious that elections do not inevitably produce the bad outcomes that we are witnessing in the current era.

    is a good indication of the two incompatible approaches featured on this blog. On the one had there are those determined to overthrow “electoralism” (Yoram, Campbell, Terry, Brett etc) and on the other hand those (including myself) who wish to bring incremental improvements to our political arrangements with the introduction of sortition. In the shoot out between Brett and Peter and the PSA conference, my impression was that most of the audience sided with Peter. But then I would say that (and Yoram would retort that all political scientists are self-interested pro-establishment patsies).


  4. It is really rather disappointing to see Peter making such a weak argument (while calling the opposing, much more considered view, “stupid” [And where is Sutherland’s outrage at such intemperate language?! I am shocked, shocked!, to discover that Sutherland is not quite sincere on this matter.]).

    Of course “we have people like Trump because of elections”. Or is Peter claiming that Trump was not elected?

    At most, even we take Peter’s argument at face value, and see Trump as some kind of an inexplicable, unprecedented anomaly (rather than a product of long term processes of the electoral system, a product which is in fact quite similar in many ways to the typical president), it would show that elections produce both Trump-like presidents and non-Trump-like presidents.


  5. >“I really wish people would stop making the stupid argument that we have people like Trump because of elections.”
    Does Peter Stone think that Trump got where he is without elections? And actually, I don’t think there are many people “like Trump”.

    >“We’ve been electing presidents since 1789, and in all that time we’ve elected only one Trump.”
    One Obama, saviour of the banks.
    One George “Dubya” Bush, who saved the Iraqis and the oil companies from Saddam Hussein, by killing hundreds of thousands of Iraqis.
    One Bill Clinton (forget the “lying to Congress”, it’s the deregulation of banks that made the soup boil over).
    One Richard Nixon.
    One LBJ (ok, the Great Society had its good points, but the Vietnam war was all bad).
    And so on, and so on. (One might ask when did the US last have a good president.)
    Other countries too:
    One Tony Blair (Iraq again).
    One Thabo Mbeki, who caused tens of thousands of needless infections and deaths from AIDS.
    One Rodrigo Duterte.
    One Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
    One Viktor Orban.
    etc, etc.

    >“So it should be bloody obvious that elections do not inevitably produce the bad outcomes that we are witnessing in the current era.”
    It is “bloody obvious” that they very commonly do. They produced some pretty bad outcomes in the 1930s, too. Of course, I did not say that they inevitably produce a bad outcome. Occasionally, you get a good candidate elected. But power attracts many people for all the wrong reasons, and elections make it likely that bad candidates will get power. Elections are certainly no guarantee of either an equitable result or intelligent, far-sighted wise policies.

    And, Peter Stone, if you happen to read this, suggesting that I am stupid is not a very effective way to persuade me that you are right and I am wrong.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I’ll leave it to Peter to defend his choice of words, but I imagine his anger may in part be a product of the attacks on the integrity of members of his profession on this blog. The regular explanation within the polsci community for Trump and similar phenomena is rational ignorance, but Yoram has informed us that this is not in fact the case, that it’s all down to mass politics furthering the interests of the rich and powerful. In terms of recent British experience this would mean that the rich and powerful manipulated the vote for Brexit and then decided it was in their interests to shoot themselves in the foot by hobbling the negotiating power of the person charged with executing the public will. A more parsimonious explanation would be rational ignorance.


  7. On the subject of interests:

    Corbyn made a spontaneous additional offer during the campaign to splurge up to £30bn more on writing off the student loan debts of all those who had graduated since tuition fees were introduced. I even wondered if that might be in breach of electoral law, which declares it is “illegal to offer money or gifts to voters, directly or indirectly”. Look no further than this for the reason Labour wiped out a 10,000 majority to take the university city of Canterbury — a Tory stronghold since the First World War.

    vs rational ignorance:

    I doubt [the Conservatives] will again make the mistake of producing a responsible manifesto. They will return to the hallowed custom of bribing the voters with their own money and making pledges they hope they are never obliged to redeem. Mrs May, the vicar’s daughter, seriously overestimated the British sense of public duty.

    Dominic Lawson, Sunday Times, 11 June 2017


  8. Hard to decide what’s more laughable – the fact that the Sunday Times prints such pretentious, self-important, patently idiotic nonsense or the fact that there are readers (not that many, it seems, but at least one anyway) who appear to take it seriously.


  9. Yoram,

    >pretentious, self-important, patently idiotic nonsense

    Perhaps you might explain this verdict? The Sunday Times has for many years been the top-selling UK broadsheet newspaper, so your verdict implies that its readers are gullible idiots. Note also that Lawson’s verdict on the Labour manifesto aligns with your own interests-based perspective, but denies your claim that electoralism necessarily reflects the interests of the rich ‘n powerful. I seem to remember that you have been prepared in the past to see Bernie Sanders as the exception to this iron law, and you should be aware that Corbyn is the UK’s equivalent of Sanders. It’s also the case that both Corbyn and Blair agree that the majority of the age cohort should go on to higher education, the only difference being over who should pay for it — in Blair’s case the direct beneficiaries, whereas in Corbyn’s case the money would be added to the national debt.

    I doubt [the Conservatives] will again make the mistake of producing a responsible manifesto.

    No doubt your rich ‘n powerful trope applies to the Conservatives, irrespective of the contents of their manifesto, which has been viewed by many informed commentators (including the left-leaning New Statesman) as an attempt to transfer wealth from older richer house-owners to the young and to seek not to further burden the latter with the debts of the baby-boomer generation. The irony, of course, is that the young voted en masse for Labour, and this strikes me as a good case of rational ignorance. I accept, of course, that Brexit was the other determining factor but it should be remembered that Theresa May was a Remainer and only switched side as a result of the popular will as expressed in the referendum. Note also that the rich ‘n powerful were overwhelmingly in the Remain camp. So it is unclear in what sense mass politics (both electoral and plebiscitory) necessarily reflects the interests of the rich ‘n powerful rather than the views of the (rationally-ignorant) masses. Can we have some empirical evidence please (rather than just recycled Mosca and Pareto).


  10. *** Keith Sutherland says: “the rich ‘n powerful were overwhelmingly in the Remain camp. So it is unclear in what sense mass politics (both electoral and plebiscitary) necessarily reflects the interests of the rich ‘n powerful rather than the views of the (rationally-ignorant) masses”
    *** Right, the Brexit process demonstrates that the polyarchy is not a plutocracy (maybe sometimes a plutocracy, an aristocracy of the rich, could be better as more rational). The political decisions in polyarchy are the result of a complex parallelogram of forces, including all the social powers. The money elite is only one of these powers – but a very important one, whose interests are especially well defended.
    *** That said, Keith Sutherland should wait a little before taking conclusions from the Brexit. We are not in the end of the Brexit process. Maybe we will get a soft Brexit – so soft a Brexit that it will not be unpleasant for the UK elites; some kind of association with the EU which actually will be not very different, except in name, from the Union itself. As we saw the “European Constitution”, rejected by the French plebiscitary vote, coming back through the Lisbon Treaty.


  11. Andre

    >sometimes a plutocracy, an aristocracy of the rich, could be better as more rational

    That is an alternative explanation for some of the data cited by Gilens and Page in their study of the alignment of politicians’ policy preferences with those of richer citizens.

    >so soft a Brexit that it will not be unpleasant for the UK elites

    And that is partly because of the concern of the elites for jobs and national prosperity, see for example the Chancellor’s recent Mansion House speech.

    The simplistic dualism of elite and mass interests is not applicable to modern polyarchies.


  12. *** I never said that the moral or material interests of the different elites are always contrary to the other interests to be considered. Why?
    *** But too much power for a too much self-centered group, and a group prone to feel superior to the others, has its specific drawbacks.
    *** Anyway my comment was about the weight of the elites in polyarchies, which is much more important that it is in the theory of “representative democracy”. If the effects are good or bad is another subject.


  13. Sorry, Andre, I was actually agreeing with you — the simplistic dualism of elite and mass interests was aimed at others on this list.


  14. *** About “the simplistic dualism of elite and mass interests” I would suggest Keith Sutherland consider the discourse of the “Old Oligarch” (pseudo-Xenophon) in the “Constitution of the Athenians”. Funny book. The author (the oldest known Greek anti-democrat writer) explains how the Athenian mass is intellectually and morally inferior, but goes on saying the common Athenians are right not to delegate the sovereignty to the elite, because the elite people would use their intellectual superiority to pursue the specific elite interests, against those of the lower classes …
    *** That said, the elitary phenomena are more complex in contemporary North-Atlantic societies than in the Old Oligarch’s Athens, and even then the discourse was maybe simplistic.
    *** But let’s consider the following discourse “the elites of the North Atlantic societies have basically the same moral and material interests than all their inferiors, and the political differences come only from their higher intellectual level allowing them to well understand these common interests”. I hope that Keith Sutherland would likewise consider this discourse as somewhat simplistic.


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