Electing Officials By Lottery Can Save Democracy
We always say democracy is more than just voting. But it’s time to act like we mean it.
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In What is to be Done, Lenin laid out a pathway for the revolution he sought to muster. Lenin may have came up with a convincing critique of liberal democracy and its institutions, but his solutions left much to be desired. This isn’t just an old problem. Recent efforts by scholars like Patrick Deneen have shown it is one thing to accurately criticize a system of government but something else entirely to imagine an adequate (or realistic) alternative. We increasingly live with the assumption that liberal democracy is the worst system of government except every other. This assumption, I think, is wrong and too often receives a pass from leading intellectuals, who by their nature are prone to pessimism. Liberal democracy, for all of its faults, can be revived. It just needs to be re-imagined, including through potentially radical means.
Yale political theorist Helen Landemore is arguably the most prominent advocate of such a “radical” fix. She begins from a critique of liberal democracy as we know it, which is to say representative democracy. In handing over decision-making to elected officials, representative democracy can’t help but marginalize the citizenry. This might be fine, if it wasn’t for the fact that representatives across Western Europe and the United States are increasingly distrusted and disliked by the people who elect them. The Trump presidency in particular highlighted deep fissures between the representative and the citizen.
Edmund Burke believed representatives owed their constituents, writing that “Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgement; and he betrays you instead of serving you if he sacrifices it to your opinion.” But today we have representatives who are inherently reactive and indulgent to the public mood. This has produced outbursts of frustration via Brexit, Trump, and the Yellow Vest movement yet are unable to fix long-held dissatisfaction.
The answer to the flaws of ‘ballot democracy’ is not immediately obvious. Technocratic systems depending upon expertise dilute the democratic input required to legitimise them, whereas direct democracy via ballot runs into questions of basic practicality. However, I believe the project of remaking representative democracy should move towards an old solution for a new problem. First utilized in Ancient Greece, sortition—the appointment of citizens to government by lottery—offers the chance for citizens to not only represent their communities but also themselves in new and dynamic ways.
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At its most basic level, sortition entails removing ballots for candidates and replacing them with a lottery on who should govern. This model, as Graham Smith demonstrates in Democratic Innovations, has been used more recently in British Columbia, Ontario and The Netherlands. Sortition prevents nepotism from emerging in politics, limits self-selection, and creates the space for a plurality of voices, since anyone (quite literally) can be randomly selected. In essence, sortition grants citizens the chance to take the reigns of governing away from an expert, elite class, to put themselves back in control.
Reimagining representative democracies allows a much-needed opportunity to breathe new life into them. Although for many, ballot democracy has become the only acceptable method (see Shadi Hamid’s work on the topic), Robert Dahl’s On Democracy argues that what matters are the conditions in which we conduct politics, rather than the method we use to attain such conditions. While ballot democracy grants us the equality of voting (“one person, vote”) and the chance to participate via protest, sortition grants us a greater equality, the equal chance to be a part of our government. Our government should be our own, not someone else’s.
Where in Ancient Athens sortition was limited to a narrower basis, such as being male, sortition today can be expanded outwards to ensure fair representation of minority groups. Critics may argue that sortition excludes a number of citizens for a period of time. Indeed, some may be concerned that in increasingly heterogeneous societies, sortition could ignore whole segments of the population by virtue of chance alone. Yet, sortition can be weighted to provide a representative sample of citizens so no one particular group is ignored. Weighting sortition does not deny the lottery element to the system, it merely ensures a fairer spread of representation of diverse communities.
Rather than reinforcing structural barriers to participation such as income, class, or geography, doing democracy by lot rather than ballot can help eliminate those barriers by giving everyone an equal chance of office. The process of lottery, combined with term limits and regular rotation of offices, neuters the possibility of aristocratic political classes emerging. Lottery means an end to the Bushes, Clintons, and other dynasties that citizens rightly feel rig ballot democracy before any vote has been cast. Not only does sortition include more citizens in the process of decision-making, it also denotes an equality of access to governing that is currently denied.
As Landemore argues, sortition delivers on the promise of “people power” not just as a theoretical construct but as something that’s actually possible. This is the key difference between democracy by lot versus by ballot: citizens decide not who leads us but what we should do. This helps avoid the temptation of investing in mere individuals an aura of unusual wisdom or, worse, that most misused of words—authenticity. When the American Founders imagined representative democracy, the educated were few and far between. It was necessary, then, to rely on exceptional leaders. As James Madison outlined in the Federalist Papers: “The aim of every political constitution is or ought to be first to obtain for rulers, men who possess most wisdom to discern, and most virtue to pursue the common good of the society.”
The problem, now more than ever, is that our leaders aren’t exceptional. We live in an era of ever more education narrowing the gap between the representative elites and the demos whom they rule over. All too frequently we have jokes made about our representatives lack of candor, ability, and gaffes which play an increasingly large role in our political discourse. This begs the question why should citizens not represent themselves?
As opposed to merely watching from the sidelines and becoming angry at professional politicians, sortition becomes our joint responsibility. Instead of sending a letter to your representative, you may ask your neighbor who is in the local assembly about the issues that you care about. Representatives will genuinely emerge from the district, as opposed to taking up residence in a new state in the hope of fulfilling political ambitions.
There is, of course, the question of scale. Despite the size of modern states, Landemore finds that AI and modern technology can bring together deliberation in the age of the modern state. Using a mixture of online technology, citizen meetings, and ‘grievance books’ France’s national debate consisted of approximately 1.5% of the population seeking opinion from far and wide. The national debate highlights the possibility of bringing together vast numbers of people to deliberate on issues affecting whole nations.
France also used a citizens convention for climate bringing together 150 citizens from across the country to decide policy that has found approval in their deliberations amongst the populace. This was a piecemeal attempt at incorporating sortition to governance as opposed to a larger scale replacement of our representative institutions which would incorporate far greater numbers of citizens. Indeed, Landemore posits that thousands of assemblies could be created and rotated regularly using AI as cheap, impartial moderators checking facts and organizing arguments made in the assemblies.
Not only would assemblies regularly rotate ensuring maximum citizen participation, the number of assemblies would be far greater thus giving many more citizens a chance to represent their communities. Citizen assemblies would replace councils and state assemblies, ensuring lottery is the system in use consistently throughout. Civil servants would act as speakers maintaining order with technology enabling the use of supplementary digital forums for citizens who wish to be actively involved if they are not selected by lot.
Limiting the number of times a citizen can represent their community in the assembly, and rotating the roles they are eligible for once they have been in them, gives each citizen a better chance of taking their turn of representing. Names would be drawn out of the lottery on a annual basis limiting the draw to those citizens who qualify and withdrawing the names who have already participated. A two-week course on etiquette and rules of the assembly would be given to all those selected ensuring all representatives understand the functions and practice of the assembly.
Election by lot is not only feasible but integrates actively disenfranchised citizens. Sortition restores the honor and dignity of those who may otherwise be ignored for a variety of reasons such as levels of education, income, or aesthetics. While some, such as Assistant Professor of Politics at South Carolina, Samuel Bagg, are nervous about unleashing the average citizen onto the legislative process, it’s worth remembering that lawmakers are functionally average citizens too. Few have genuine expertise in the subjects they legislate on, which is why committees exist to interrogate the opinions of experts. There is little reason why as the Belgian political theorist David Van Reybrouck argues in Against Elections citizen participation cannot be institutionally embedded more deeply as opposed to being limited to episodic events.
Some will disagree of course. The United Kingdom has long prided itself on its flexibility of government as opposed to its more slow and rigid American counterparts. The political scientist Richard Johnson argues, for example, that the so-called electoral dictatorship of the Westminster system provides space for governments to be bold, ambitious, and even aggressive while remaining accountable. Though this argument makes some sense in theory, it ignores the fact that in recent times this simply hasn’t happened. Consecutive governments have allowed regional inequality to grow, infrastructure to fail, and trust in government to corrode.
By bringing democracy to the people in a fair and equitable way and giving everyone a voice (in both theory and practice), democracy can begin functioning once again. When Trump said at the Republican convention in 2016 “I am your voice,” he was speaking to culturally and politically neglected communities that were, or felt, left behind. No single person or organization can possibly manage or represent everyone today. We are too large, too diverse, and too angry for that to happen. But, if we start deciding for ourselves, at least a little bit at first, I believe the temperature can be turned back down.
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