Gruen: A pathway to sortition

Nicholas Gruen, an Australian economist, consultant, commentator and former adviser to the Australian federal government, has two lengthy articles in The Mandarin advocating introducing a sortition-based body into the Australian political system. Gruen’s proposal is to create an allotted body with 6 year terms and some measure of legislative veto powers.

It is unfortunate that as a background for his discussion, Gruen offers the familiar story of the failures of the electoral system stemming from the elite’s pandering to the voters’ uninformed whims. This explanation seems to never lose its appeal despite clashing both with the fact that in practice policy outcomes in electoral systems overwhelmingly serve the elites and with the truism that those in power tend to serve their own interests.

The articles are of the interest for being another step in sortition’s journey into mainstream politics, and in particular for taking a step beyond the ad-hoc issue panel setup that is by now familiar in Australia. But beyond those points, the articles are interesting for Gruen’s suggestion for how sortition can be promoted:

I’d like to go hunting for the funds – from philanthropists and from ordinary concerned folk like you and me via crowdfunding – to simply establish a people’s chamber outside our official constitutional institutions.
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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?
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Monbiot: Sortition is “a formula for disaster”

George Monbiot, a Guardian columnist and a regular critic of the status quo, has finally opined about the potential of the use of sortition to address the ills of the established system. He is not too enthusiastic:

There are plenty of proposals to replace representative democracy with either sortition (randomly selecting delegates) or direct democracy (referendums and citizens’ initiatives). Such systems might have worked well in small city states with a limited franchise (sortition was used in ancient Athens and medieval Venice and Florence). But in populations as large and complex as ours, these proposals are a formula for disaster. It’s hard to see how we can escape the need for professional, full-time politicians. (Perhaps, in a fair and accountable system, we could learn to love them.)

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Debate: for and against allotting our political representatives

Henri Vernet, January 6th, 2017

Democracy. Several candidates for the Elysée are proposing sortition as a complement for elections.

Having citizens participate in political life through… sortition. The idea may appear to be unknown, but it is making its way in the upcoming presidential campaign. Is it the accessory needed to fight the falling turnout rates and the mistrust of the political “system” which many French people feel excludes them? Several candidates for the Elysée are proposing this device, in one form or another, in their programs. Arnaud Montebourg wants to have a citizens’ senate allotted from the electoral registry. Jean-Luc Mélenchon has already “experimented” with the mechanism by allotting some of the delegates to the convention which hammered out his program.

At the same time Emmanuel Macron proposes that an allotted citizens’ council will audit the president of the Republic every year. Others as well, among the Right as well as from the Left, view this mechanism – which evidently does not replace elections – as one of the ways for renewing political practices. The grand return of sortition, which was a major force in the Athenian democracy of ancient Greece? Already, several countries like Ireland, Estonia and Iceland have used sortition over the last few years for addressing issues as important as constitutional reforms. In France the debate is ongoing…

QUESTION OF THE DAY: Should our political representatives be allotted?
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2016 review – sortition-related events

This is a review of notable sortition-related events of the year 2016.

Paul Lucardie wrote to note that sortition has been gaining some momentum in the Netherlands with a proposal from a group of mayors to appoint municipal councils members by lot, a proposal that received some media attention. Paul also reports that the Groningen municipal government is set to have an experiment in 2017 in which a partly allotted body will be granted some limited decision making power in the municipality. Paul and some other academics will be monitoring the experiment.

Going over last year’s posts on Equality-by-Lot, I note the following:

Sortition continues its movement toward the center of the political stage in French-speaking Europe.
The most notable developments this year occurred in France, where two prominent candidates for the leadership of the socialist party made separate proposals for introducing allotted bodies into the French system in a way that would potentially give those bodies significant independent power. Allotment was also used to select delegates for a convention of a Left-wing party. More modest steps were taken elsewhere on the continent: in Switzerland and, as Paul mentions, in the Netherlands.

To a much lesser extent sortition is making gains in the English speaking world. In Ireland, the government expressed an intent to convene allotted citizen assemblies to review various issues. In Australia, allotted bodies were convened to handle corruption in local government, and to consider a nuclear dump in SA. David Van Reybrouck’s Against Elections was published in English and received some attention. In Canada and the UK sortition was discussed by academics. In the US, sortition was mentioned in a workshop of the APSA.

Sortition’s gains are fueled by the ongoing delegitimization and destabilization of the electoral system throughout the Western world. The two outstanding electoral events of 2016 – the Brexit vote and the election of Trump – are both expressions of a rejection of the electorally-generated establishment and status-quo. For the first time, the U.S. presidential elections featured major party candidates who both had negative net favorability ratings. A study reported that citizens all over the Western world – and in particular, rich citizens – are losing their faith in the electoral system and mainstream political scientists re-discover that electoral government is inherently non-responsive. Elites’ frustration with the electorate is manifesting itself in a revival of openly anti-democratic ideas. Van Reybrouck and others offer sortition as an alternative: a democratic mechanism that will furnish the elites with the outcomes they desire.

Antoine Bevort: Chouard and democracy: an intellectual and political fraud

The following is my translation of a recent article Antoine Bevort in the online French publication Mediapart. Like Tommy Lasserre’s Sortition in politics – the false good idea, which appeared in Mediapart two years ago, the article is a critique of Chouard and his proposals. Bevort makes some similar points, but, unlike Lasserre, doesn’t focus solely on sortition, and when he does discuss sortition he often deals with implementation details rather than with the principle itself to which he is not wholly hostile. Bevort also relies much less than Lasserre on canned Leftist rhetoric. As a result of those differences more of his punches land on target.

Chouard and democracy: an intellectual and political fraud
29 June 2016 Antoine Bevort

Étienne Chouard presents himself as the scholar of “real” democracy. His proposal of allotting of a constitutional assembly is however a fraud. It incorporates general principles which can be embraced, at least in part, but rests on largely specious argumentation, eventually leading to a strange and dogmatic conception of democracy.

Chouard considers himself the guru of “real” democracy. He feels he has found the “cause of causes” of the political crisis (“the political disempowerment of the citizens”) and proposes as a solution the allotment of a constitutional assembly. In his analyses, Chouard invokes general principles which can be embraced at least in part, but advances mainly through theoretical and historical shortcuts, simplifications or even misinterpretations, and through blunt claims and assertions. His dogmatic propositions are based on largely specious argumentation and lead eventually to a strange philosophy of democracy.

In order to deconstruct this rhetoric of mystification, we use a conference video available online[i], a text on the Gentils Virus website whose contents are very similar to those of the conference, as well as on the wiki of this organization, and particularly on the constitution drafted by Chouard. We first discuss his analysis of the existing political system, his claims that “we are not living in a democracy yet” and that “an electoral system is not a democracy”. Then we examine his conception of the “true democracy”, and his proposal of drawing by lot a constitutional assembly. We conclude with the mode of action which Chouard, the Gentils Virus (GV) and Les Citoyens Constituants (LCC), two organizations which promote his ideas, are pursuing.
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Workshop on sortition for the Canadian parliament at the CSDC

The Centre for the Study of Democratic Citizenship (CSDC) at the department of Political Science of McGill University is holding a workshop under the title “Representation, Bicameralism, and Sortition: With Application to the Canadian Senate” on December 9.

This workshop will bring together social scientists and philosophers with two aims: critically to evaluate our theoretical and empirical knowledge of the relative merits and defects of using sortition to select representatives to the second legislative chamber of bicameral representative democracies like Canada; and to contribute to public debate in Canada about Senate reform by evaluating the desirability of reconstituting the Senate as a randomly selected Citizen Assembly.

Papers will be presented by Equality-by-Lot contributors Peter Stone and Alex Guerrero, as well as by McGill professor Arash Abizadeh. It turns out that Prof. Abizadeh gave a seminar on “Democracy, Representation, and Sortition” in the 2016 winter semester.