New Ways of Looking at Democracy

By Brett HennigJuly/August 2016 | Print

Dr. Brett Hennig is the cofounder and director of the Sortition Foundation ( This is an edited extract from his new book, The End of Politicians, to be published by Unbound in late 2016 (

Democracy, in modern times, has become synonymous with elections. This was not always the case. In ancient Athens, and for almost two thousand years afterwards, it was synonymous with random selection, or sortition. Modern experiments with new ways of doing democracy, from Policy Juries to Citizens’ Assemblies to Constitutional Councils are harking back to the days of ancient Athens and sortition is undergoing a revival of use and an explosion of interest.

Together with guardianship this gives three principal ways of selecting those who govern:

  • Election
  • Random selection (sortition)
  • Guardianship (or meritocracy)

What are the pros and cons of these differing selection methods? What are their histories? Where do they derive their legitimacy from, and what might boards learn from understanding the differences? These are some of the questions addressed below.

The political appeal of sortition was so obvious, to ancient Greek men at least, that it was by far their most commonly used process for allocating political posts. While the ancient Athenian assemblies are surely the most famous of early legislatures, it is less well known that the proposals for debate were usually developed by a randomly selected Council of Five Hundred (the boule), each of whom served office for one year only.

An extensive system to fill the vast majority of the public offices used the drawing of lots and strictly limited terms of office to decide who was to be a magistrate, who was to serve on the courts and in the boule. Election was reserved for those few positions where narrow, specialist skills were deemed necessary, such as heads of finance and military leaders.

Key thinkers, from Aristotle (384–322 BC) all the way to Rousseau (1712-1778 AD) and Montesquieu (1689–1755 AD), consistently linked democratic government with selection by lot, and aristocratic government with selection through election. Aristotle, in Politics, states “it is thought to be democratic for the offices [of constitutional government] to be assigned by lot, for them to be elected oligarchic.” From Montesquieu we have: “Selection by lot is in the nature of democracy, selection by choice is in the nature of aristocracy,” and from Rousseau: “it will be seen why the drawing of lots is more in the nature of democracy. . . . In an aristocracy . . . voting is appropriate.”1 It was well understood that elections are aristocratic devices; elite and elect, after all, share the same etymological root.

Which perhaps explains the current malaise suffered by electoral democracy, with populist parties denouncing government as rule by elites thriving at both ends of the political spectrum.

This populism reflects an all-too-apparent general disaffection with, and cynicism toward, the modern representative system and its politicians. In survey after survey, politicians invariably rank among the least trustworthy and most dishonest of professions, along with car salesmen and real estate agents. Voter exit polls in 2014 in the United States found that “about 8 in 10 Americans disapprove of how Congress is handling its job.”2 Compared to the 1950s, membership of political parties has plummeted in most democratic states, and election turnout has, in general, also declined. This leaves the machinations of state to a small class of politicians, journalists, and lobbyists, who, at least until the rise of social media in the last decade, pandered to traditional media conglomerates as the best way to access and influence potential voters.

Somewhat paradoxically, this retreat of ordinary people from formal politics has made it even harder for politicians to make difficult decisions. Reduced public participation increases the sphere of influence of special interest groups, corporations and their paid lobbyists, the mainstream media, and the hard core of highly ideological party activists who determine which candidates can stand through their domination of preselection procedures. This capture of the political process derails any genuine attempt to tackle the problems, especially if they conflict with corporate, donor, or key-faction party interests.

Nevertheless, electoral democracy today has triumphed in approximately half of the world’s nation-states. Elections are one of the modern answers to the ancient question of how to govern. The other common global alternative is some form of authoritarian guardianship.

According to Robert Dahl, the doyen of democracy studies in the United States:

The claim that government should be turned over to experts deeply committed to rule for the general good and superior to others in their knowledge of the means to achieve it—Guardians, Plato called them—has always been the major rival to democratic ideas. Advocates of Guardianship attack democracy at a seemingly vulnerable point: they simply deny that ordinary people are competent to govern themselves.3

Theoretically, supposedly “benign dictatorships” such as those in China are meant to be meritocratic. However, it is noteworthy that all these regimes strenuously promote the idea of their own legitimacy, through a varying combination of bribery, propaganda, censorship, and oppression. Even in authoritarian regimes it does matter what the people think: they must be made to understand that the rulers are ruling in the people’s best interests, even if, according to the New York Times, the Chinese rulers and their families are getting very rich while doing so.4 It is not surprising that Chinese autocracy is looked upon by a number of states, particularly in the developing world, with admiration.

It is the appeal to a necessary guardianship that authoritarian regimes such as China use to justify their control and monopoly of power. If people are too stupid to govern, then perhaps they’re also too stupid to vote.

Political power in China is supposedly meritocratic, and exams play a large part in the process. However, meritocracies are well known to be susceptible to cronyism, nepotism, and corruption. Lyn Carson and Ron Lubensky highlight how in boardrooms the famous “tap on the shoulder” is often justified by claims to meritocracy,5 yet this selection method, obviously reliant on social or professional networks, will more often than not reduce the diversity of those who govern and is highly susceptible to accusations of cronyism and nepotism.

The third selection method, sortition, is currently making a very strong comeback.

Since the 1990s citizens’ summits and participatory governance structures involving everyday people have spread across the world and become increasingly common. Politicians and bureaucrats are choosing—or being forced—to open up the process of decision making whereby ordinary citizens deliberate political issues that are often complex and contentious. People are deciding together which issues should get priority, how government money should be spent, and how best to implement and monitor laws that affect their communities.

The participatory governance experiments range from the relatively small-scale examples of municipal participatory budgeting to large-scale summits such as the British Columbia Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform in Canada in 2004, an Australian Citizens’ Parliament in 2009, the Icelandic National Gathering on the Constitution in 2010, Ireland’s National Citizens’ Assembly in 2011, and Belgium’s G1000 Citizens’ Summit, also held in 2011. These latter assemblies relied on the legitimacy inherent in using a representative sample of people in an informed, deliberative process.

To ensure that the randomly selected sample is an accurate reflection of the community at large, and not, for example, overpopulated with older, more educated men, the selection is often stratified: once the number of men in the sample reaches 50 percent of the total, no more men are invited to participate. The same idea can be applied to age brackets, income, education level, and so forth.

Random selection increases the perceived legitimacy of such forums, as it avoids any potential takeover by well-organized special interests or political lobbies, and the process of stratification avoids a common problem of voluntary self-selection, whereby a forum “disproportionately attracts politically active, highly educated, high-income, and older participants.”

Of these types of forums, policy juries are typically smaller than deliberative polls, which are usually smaller than assemblies. The aim, though, is broadly the same: to inform a representative sample of citizens on certain issues and facilitate deliberation leading to an understanding of the relative popularity of specific policy options. It is emphatically not an opinion poll or a referendum. Deliberation informed by balanced and accurate information are key elements: the outcome should measure not what people in general do think, but what they would think, given the time, information, and possibility to argue their point of view and be affected by the views of others in a facilitated and fair setting. John Dryzek from the University of Canberra calls this the “simulation claim”—a mini-public should give “a simulation of what the population as a whole would decide if everyone were allowed to deliberate.”6 Deliberation moves beyond public opinion to public judgment.

Random selection has many benefits when compared to elections or guardianship: for example, you can ensure gender balance, there is no need to appease donors or party factions, and media-driven popularity is of no consequence. Of course, it also has drawbacks, although one notable unfounded criticism is that people are incapable of making substantive, balanced, and considered judgments. The assemblies conducted to date show that large numbers of people, combined with good processes, can produce a surfeit of engaged and thoughtful attendees: “The most obvious finding from mini-publics relevant to the larger public sphere is that, given the opportunity, ordinary citizens can make good deliberators. Moreover, issue complexity is no barrier to the development and exercise of that competence,” says Dryzek.7

There is also considerable evidence that diversity trumps ability when solving problems and producing innovative ideas (see, for example, Scott Page, from the University of Michigan, in The Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools and Societies, 2008). So next time your board is looking for a highly legitimate, inclusive, diverse, and fair way to develop long-term vision, goals, or strategy, perhaps it will be time to draw a few names out of a hat.

Brett Hennig can be contacted at


1. Quoted in Manin, B. The Principles of Representative Government (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 43, 70, 74, 77.

2. Diamond, J. “Exit polls: Majority of voters dissatisfied or angry with Washington.” CNN Politics, November 4, 2014,

3. Dahl, R. A. On Democracy (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1998), 69.

4. Barboza, D. “Billions in Hidden Riches for Family of Chinese Leader,” New York Times, October 25, 2012,

5. Carson, L., and R. Lubensky. “Appointments to Boards and Committees via Lottery, a Pathway to Fairness and Diversity.” Journal of Public Affairs 9, no. 2, (2009): 87–94.

6. Dryzek, J. S. Foundations and Frontiers of Deliberative Governance (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2010), 21.

7. Ibid., 158.

Why Wait?

Get the current newsletter and
Sign up to receive exclusive content and special offers in the areas that interest you.
Copyright © 2000-2014 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc. or related companies. All rights reserved.