Public opinion in crisis

A stable democracy depends on a sound public opinion. It is the essential basis of agreement about what is legitimate behaviour on the part of both public institutions and many of the relations of citizens to each other. It is the central common good or communities of most sorts.

The traditional notion of public opinion

Until the advent of continuous polling what was invoked by the phrase “public opinion” was a set of beliefs and attitudes that were assumed to be shared by nearly everybody in the nation concerning the grounds on which choices of public policies were to be judged and the performances of public activities to be assessed. As contexts change, depending on the degree to which different groups approve of those changes, differences emerge in many fringe situations. As long as there is a sense of community people deal with these differences mainly by agreeing to small verbal changes that accommodate certain important new demands without abandoning traditional formulae “I’m not a feminist, but…”

Public opinion in this sense was traditionally invoked by prominent public figures, politicians, journalists and intellectuals often with such phrases as “will not tolerate” or “demands” that a government do this or that. Such public protagonists assumed that their attempts to articulate the tacit understandings on which the society operated would be endorsed by the “general public” if they thought seriously about the matter. So churchmen would assume that as Christians their followers were committed to certain views, labour leaders that justice required a certain treatment of workers and business leaders that the rights of investors be respected. They would each attempt to represent such claims as reflecting a more fundamental agreement on the way the community needed to work of it was to flourish and command loyalty.
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Sortition, Sovereignty and Democracy in Modern Government

I would like to persuade people who are interested in sortition to take more interests in other aspects of public decision-making. I believe it is not enough to think of remedying our means of choosing the personnel of existing authorities. In some respects those authorities have too much power. In others, the problem is that power is not the right means to deal with some vital issues. These issues are not questions of what we would like, but of how to avoid impending catastrophe. It is essential for us to understand what we can and cannot do in these matters. We must think in functional terms and on a global scale, not in terms of what we have the power to do, but of what we must do to survive. Those who want to persuade us to hand over power to them try to trick us into thinking we can have what we want. We have to face the real situation and get it right.


A great deal of the thinking about the potential of sortition to replace voting in existing political institutions is based on the Athenian practice of using a lottery to fill some public offices, thus removing those offices from struggles for power. Some proposals I have made at times have been of this sort, choosing a few people for a particular task. But much of the work done by kleroterians refers to using sortition as the basis for a representative system of government, something the Athenians never considered. It raises problems that have no precedents in their practice. Once you have representative government the question arises of what it is entitled to do. The assembly in Athens could do whatever it wanted, including some atrocious things.

As the Americans discovered in seeking for ways of constructing institutions to replace British rule, the Roman republic offered much more relevant precedents for representative government, but none that involved sortition. In any case, Roman practice was based on stratified and contentious citizen rights. The city-state proved unable to handle the problems of imperial power, which soon abolished any shred of democracy. Citizenship came down to a right to a share in the spoils of conquest. Bread and circuses. Political power rested on control of an army. Out of centuries of chaos the medieval monarchies set up a system of territorial rights that prefigured modern nation-states. Hereditary monarchs emerged to claim authority over a territory, conceived as the property of the monarch. Other occupants of that territory were seen as subjects of the monarch, whose will was law. Such titles to property as they had were enforceable only against each other, not the monarch.
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Can reason be democratic?

What is the point of raising the question in the context of this website?

I suspect that there is a difference of a fundamental sort between me and some of my critics that can be characterised very roughly as this: they are committed to democracy as the will of the people. Not because they think that will is infallible, but because any effort to make it less fallible is going to put too much power in the hands of self-appointed elites that are worse in many ways, even at getting things right. We cannot risk giving power to the elites who claim to be the voice of reason. No more Lenins!

On the other hand, I want to emphasise the supreme importance of getting it right in dealing with the dangerous world we have created. I postulate that this goal can only be achieved by a rational process in which any citizen who wishes to do so may take an active part. One takes an active part in a rational process by putting forward considerations for or against a proposal that others can be expected to recognise as having a certain amount of validity. Mere will or gratuitous assertion do not count.

An obvious objection to this view is that it makes people unequal. Almost anybody can cast a vote, but taking part in a rational discussion of a serious political problem demands a degree of skill in thinking and expressing one’s thoughts that many people do not have. Many also lack the time and energy that the task demands. There is certainly inequality of participation here. But is that any worse than the inequalities that voting almost inevitably inflicts on many people in any situation where the decision is determined by majority voting?
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Sortition versus manipulation?

I have been studying the claims that the Trump election was the product of clandestine manipulation of voters by sending them false information so targeted to their personal characteristics as to have a decisive influence on their voting behaviour.

The data firm Cambridge Analytica claims to have profiles of nearly everybody in the USA, based on information about them collected from the internet. These profiles enable predictions of a very high accuracy of what sort of information will be accepted by particular people and what influence it will have on their voting. It is not very likely that such manipulation would induce many Democrats to change their vote, bit it might leave them less likely to turn out for Hillary. It could easily account for bringing fringe Republicans to vote. The Trump campaign spent relatively little on conventional media. They got so much free! But they are said to have spent heavily on covert manipulation.

A first reaction is that we have another argument against voting and all that goes with it in current practice. But further reflection reveals a danger even to sortition. The members of a body chosen by sortition can be identified and their prejudices cultivated to pervert their view of the facts they are considering. It need not be very expensive, since they are relatively few in numbers, and well worth the cost to a body with big interests at stake. It would be more attractive than lobbying in many circumstances.

The only remedy I can see is insistence that all the proceedings of public decision-making must not only be available to all, but open to comment at every stage so that untruths are challenged and patterns of deceit uncovered.

Correction: sortition and caution

In my last post, emphasising the importance of giving mavericks a say and of changing general assumptions, I may have given the impression of advocating permanent revolution. I should have been more precise. You need very solid evidence to challenge established assumptions, even though it is sometimes very fruitful to do so. It is a matter of taking the unusual seriously.

Take the instances I referred to from the history of science, Newton first, challenging the old mechanists’ rejection of action at a distance. He set out to look at a very precise and limited problem: how to explain the stability of the planetary orbits. No grandiose questions about the nature of the universe. He found that they could be explained very precisely if one postulated the existence of a particular predictable force that could also explain many other phenomena. It was no open day for any old suggestion about other forms of attraction.

Nevertheless, it subsequently turned out that there were other forms of attraction at a distance, electricity and magnetism. And eventually the sub-atomic forces, all of which were more powerful and fundamental than gravity. They could not have been discovered without Newton’s breakthrough. Nor was it the case that Newton dismissed mechanist explanations. On the contrary, he was he first to formulate precisely the general laws of mechanical interactions. Similarly, when Einstein rejected Newton’s assumption of the invariance of space and time, he did not invalidate Newtonian physics within certain very broad limits. If you want to go to Mars, Newton is your guide, but to go to Alpha Centauri you need Einstein.
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Voting, sortition and power

Behind debates about forms and procedures of representation in political decision-making are the more fundamental questions about collective power, for what purposes ought coercive power be exercised and by what means. That in turn raises the question: who should have a say in what decisions, and about what constitutes having a say. A lot of discussion of the relative merits of representation by sortition or by voting ignores these questions with unfortunate results.

Historically in our Western traditions of democracies arose from struggles against monarchies and aristocracies in which the vast majority were subjects of the sovereign. Even as late as the First World War, that notion lingered on. Even in Australia the standard form of praise for those killed in the war was that they died “For King and Country”. We were Australian citizens, but subjects of the King of England, our sovereign lord.

One strand of various democratic traditions has seen democracy as the transfer of sovereignty from the monarch to the people. The old sovereign achieved and sustained power by force of arms. Of course wise monarchs tried to win the loyalty of their subjects by adorning their power in various ways and taking good care of their subjects. In return, grateful subjects sang God Save the King with joy and enthusiasm. The central activity of the monarchy remained war, and success in war was so glorious a thing as to override all other considerations. One sort of democracy saw the nation, the people, as the new incarnation of sovereignty and its power. That conception is alive and kicking in Donald Trump and his admirers. Emotionally it is very powerful. It is easily rejuvenated in new trappings to meet the needs of each age and culture.
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Why sortition is not enough

In over forty years of advocating sortition, the reaction I have most frequently encountered is: “No thanks. I’m not surrendering my vote to a faceless ragbag of the sort of people I have to put up with every day. Politicians may be full of faults, but at least they have gone through a selection process that ensures they aren’t complete idiots.”

I reply that it is not a question of personnel, but of structured roles and the way they work. Most people do attempt to meet the requirements of the roles entrusted to them. Not everybody succeeds, but in a representative sample they will do at least as well as a corresponding sample of voters at the task of making the right decisions. One of the basic defects of voting is that people are reduced to choosing what is on offer, and it is often the case that none of the options on offer is satisfactory, because the party system subordinates considerations of policy to the wheeling and dealing of the struggle for power. Sortition removes policy from any such struggle.

One would expect people who have no career at stake to look at proposals on their merits, as they affect people like themselves rather than as a matter of political tactics. But that is not enough. Already in the early 1980s when I wrote Is Democracy Possible? I realised that even very intelligent open- minded people often don’t understand the problems of minority groups such as Aboriginal people or the long-term unemployed. The advice of experts is often of limited value; based on theories that concentrate on one aspect of a problem, where the difficulty is how to relate incommensurable aspects of that problem.
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