Dr. Brett Hennig is the cofounder and director of the Sortition Foundation (http://www.sortitionfoundation.org/). This is an edited extract from his new book, The End of Politicians, to be published by Unbound in late 2016 (https://unbound.co.uk/books/the-end-of-politicians/).
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:
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
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
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
2. Diamond, J. “Exit polls: Majority of voters dissatisfied or angry with Washington.” CNN Politics, November 4, 2014, http://edition.cnn.com/2014/11/04/politics/midterm-exit-polls-1/
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, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/10/26/business/global/family-of-wen-jiabao-holds-a-hidden-fortune-in-china.html?_r=0
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.
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