Open Democracy: Reinventing Popular Rule for the 21st Century
June 23, 2020 12:48 AM   Subscribe

Politics Without Politicians - "The political scientist Hélène Landemore asks, If government is for the people, why can't the people do the governing?" (via)
Her forthcoming book, due out next year and currently titled “Open Democracy: Reinventing Popular Rule for the 21st Century,” envisions what true government by mass leadership could look like. Her model is based on the simple idea that, if government by the people is a goal, the people ought to do the governing.

“Open democracy,” Landemore’s coinage, does not center on elections of professional politicians into representative roles. Leadership is instead determined by a method roughly akin to jury duty (not jury selection): every now and then, your number comes up, and you’re obliged to do your civic duty—in this case, to take a seat on a legislative body. For a fixed period, it is your job to work with the other people in the unit to solve problems and direct the nation. When your term is up, you leave office and go back to your normal life and work. “It’s the idea of putting randomly selected citizens into political power, or giving them some sort of political role on a consultative body or a citizens’ assembly,” said Alexander Guerrero, a professor of philosophy at Rutgers who, in 2014, published an influential paper arguing for random selection in place of elections—a system with some precedents in ancient Athens and Renaissance Italy which he dubbed “lottocracy.” (It’s the basis for his own forthcoming book.) In open democracy, Landemore imagines lottocratic rule combined with crowdsourced feedback channels and other measures; the goal is to shift power from the few back to the many.

To many Americans, such a system will seem viscerally alarming—the political equivalent of lending your fragile vintage convertible to the red-eyed, rager-throwing seventeen-year-old down the block. Yet many immediate objections fall away on reflection. Training and qualification: Well, what about them? Backgrounds among American legislators are varied, and members seem to learn well enough on the job. The belief that elections are a skills-proving format? This, too, cancels out, since none of the skills tested in campaigning (fund-raising, glad-handing, ground-gaming, speechmaking) are necessary in a government that fills its ranks by lottery.

Landemore was taken with the unorthodox idea that normal people, in a group, could be trusted with big, scary decisions.
Open Democracy: Reinventing Popular Rule for the 21st Century with Hélène Landemore - "Hélène’s third book–Open Democracy: Reinventing Popular Rule for the 21st Century (under contract with Princeton University Press)–develops a new paradigm of democracy in which the exercise of power is as little gated as possible, even as it depends on representative structures to make it possible. In this version of popular rule, power is equally open to all, as opposed to just those who happen to stand out in the eyes of others (as in electoral democracies). The book centrally defends the use of non-electoral yet democratic forms of representation, including 'lottocratic', 'self-selected', and 'liquid' representation."

also btw... Continuous elections - "For a variety of reasons, I think it a good idea that we introduce into our voting system a greater element of stochasticism, of structured, intentional randomness."[1]
We select juries largely by lottery, on the theory that this is a good way to get a representative sample of ones “peers”. There have been a variety of democratic experiments with sortition, simply choosing by lot, picking random names from the phone book. Perhaps overcynically, many of us might consider that an improvement over our present, professional political representation.

I do not favor sortition for the constitution of our legislatures. There is a lot to be said for choosing among representatives who express an interest in and commit to doing the work, and to some kind of voting process that ideally filters for quality. What I do favor is an idea called “lottery voting” or “random ballot”. I really encourage you to read the first link, a very readable academic note by Akhil Reed Amar which introduced the idea. You should also read this essay by David MacIver (ht Bill Mill). In a nutshell, everybody votes in the way they currently do for their preferred candidate. Then we throw the ballots in a big hat, and draw the winner like a bingo hall door prize.[2] You’d never want to use lottery voting to elect a President. Who knows who you might pick? It’d be totally random. But for a large legislature, lottery voting will predictably yield proportional representation along whatever axes or characteristics are salient to voters, not just formal political parties. Further, lottery voting is immune to gerrymandering, and every vote always has equal influence. (This is decidedly untrue of conventional “first-past-the-vote” voting, where the statistical effect of a vote — the difference in the probability of a candidate winning with and without an additional vote — depends very much on the closeness of the election.) There are lots of reasons to love lottery voting, including the conventional case for proportional representation, which I very desperately endorse. (See Matt Yglesias and Lee Drutman.) Not to let the best be the enemy of the good, Id favor American experiments in more common forms of proportional representation (multimember districts, party lists), but lottery voting really is the gold standard. It is simple, effective, resistant to entrenchment of incumbents or capture by political parties. The US House of Representatives should be selected by lottery voting today. At the very least, we should start experimenting in some state houses.
posted by kliuless (55 comments total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
 
I've been thinking about this concept myself for a while. I know they say that it is immune to gerrymandering, but I figure some clever person could find a way to stack the deck. It's an interesting concept.

I don't see how you get around lobbying with this, though.
posted by rednikki at 1:08 AM on June 23, 2020 [4 favorites]


As soon as the entire adult population had been educated to the limits of its intellectual ability (and sometimes, alas, beyond) genuine democracy became possible... Thereafter, selecting a head of state was relatively unimportant. Once it was universally accepted that anyone who deliberately aimed at the job should be automatically disqualified, almost any system would serve equally well, and a lottery was the simplest procedure.
- Arthur C. Clarke, The Songs of Distant Earth
posted by Clowder of bats at 1:20 AM on June 23, 2020 [13 favorites]


I have a series of scattered thoughts about this.

One of the problems with jury trials is that the people who'd be best suited to serve on juries largely have other things going on for which they are indispensable. I am very curious to find out whether getting pulled to be part of the government meets the same fate, or whether having actual power for a time is enough for people to put their careers down for a year.

My country has an upper house that is elected through a very complex and mathematically fair system which, until a recent change, had the side effect of a small portion of votes, but enough to win a seat, being fairly unpredictably allocated. 'Preference whisperers' did deals with minor parties to attempt to direct these votes, which one election memorably managed to elect Just Some Guy from the Motoring Enthusiasts Party. He did pretty average, which for someone not actually planning on going into politics, and given some of the dipshits getting elected, is pretty impressive.

There is cause to question whether the people interested in standing for politics are really the best people for it. One of the things that made That Guy do well is that he realised how out-of-his-depth he was, and so he spent a lot of time listening, getting advice, and trying to make thoughtful decisions, things not generally in evidence among career politicans. This would suggest that a 'lottery ballot', where you have the same candidates and only one vote counts, would be strictly worse than one where people get called up for legislative duty.

A former employer ran a series of studies on whether you could get a random group of 30 or so people, put them in a room with experts, and have them draft good policy that they unanimously agreed on. Answer was, yes.

It's not hard to believe that human social dynamics would mean that a 'bipartisan' working group would divide along pre-existing party lines, but a group made up of people whose affiliation was to their working group first and their political identity second, would be more likely to come to an agreement informed by their individual backgrounds that would probably work for most people. This is harder in the US, given that your political affiliation is an American's primary identity these days.

I am not sure how you'd manage needing to talk to someone who knows their way around government bureaucracy, one of the core functions of elected representatives.
posted by Merus at 1:24 AM on June 23, 2020 [4 favorites]


have you met the people?
posted by kokaku at 1:38 AM on June 23, 2020 [24 favorites]


I've long thought that desire for political office should be an immediate disqualification from holding political office, as the risk of it being all about the individual's ego rather than about the people they were elected to serve seems far too great. I also feel that democracy as currently implemented in the UK is horribly, possibly-unfixably stagnant; I've been stuck for years on the idea that our current political climate isn't going to change without serious electoral reform, serious electoral reform isn't going to happen without serious media reform, and serious media reform isn't going to happen while Rupert Murdoch is alive and in bed with the tories, at which point the knot starts to feel gordian. Something like this would slice through it nicely.

I also believe that there are plenty of people out there with problem-solving and other relevant skills that would be assets to political work who are put off from running for elected office because of the public speechmaking popularity contest element of it. Making the job more appealing to people who could have a decent stab at it but don't want to be public figures per se and less appealing to people who largely do want to be public figures rather than governing effectively can only help.
posted by terretu at 2:12 AM on June 23, 2020 [1 favorite]


Not sure if it's behind any of these links, but Ireland's Citizens’ Assembly on the 8th Amendment is often cited as a good example of how sortition can be practically used in the modern world.

Sadly it looks like the Icelandic Constitution didn't get implemented.
posted by TheophileEscargot at 2:38 AM on June 23, 2020 [3 favorites]


I've dabbled in practical politics in a western democracy: run some campaigns, done some canvassing, volunteered for a party, etc.

The thing about candidates and elections for representatives is that the process does tend to select for people who are confident and immune to criticism. You just can't carry on against the people who give you shit all the time otherwise, and you wouldn't put so much effort in against the odds. So the range of personality types is smaller. And again, facility at being repeatedly elected doesn't necessarily correlate with skill in governing.

And yes I've met the people. The people individually ARE bonkers, some of them. In aggregate they're quite sensible, they are centre-left, and community minded. The political class doesn't reflect them because a lot of the people don't vote and because the right has massive signal boost because of money. This last is why absent a revolution, most democracies will not see Landeman's ideas implemented, except perhaps at city and local level.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 2:49 AM on June 23, 2020 [14 favorites]


Sortition should reflect the will of the people better than election because it creates representative legislative bodies with no distortion by tactical and strategic superiority in electioneering.

This is also probably its greatest disadvantage too, as important political change has often been achieved because the zeal of the minority can be channeled into electioneering that prevails over the apathy of the majority. That zeal would now lack any ability to affect the political process, and thus the pace of change would slow.

Sortition-selected legislatures certainly require mandatory service and mandatory compensation, and they require a high quality (expensive) senior civil service to advise them and execute their mandates.

(A huge additional benefit of sortition is that it redirects ambitious people into endeavors which, overall, are more constructive than electoral politics.)
posted by MattD at 5:49 AM on June 23, 2020 [2 favorites]


have you met the people?

Yeah, and they're mostly pretty alright.

That zeal would now lack any ability to affect the political process, and thus the pace of change would slow.

But the fact that zeal is an at this point essential input is a fatal problem to an electoral democracy. It means that there is no way to address any arrangement of things that benefits some small number of people a tremendous amount while costing a tremendous number of people a small amount. Under sortition, you probably don't need to wait for Warren to get something like the CFPB in place, you just need the fact that banks are fucking awful to deal with and everyone knows it.
posted by PMdixon at 6:00 AM on June 23, 2020 [1 favorite]


"I would rather be governed by the first 2,000 people in the telephone directory than by the Harvard University faculty."

(It occurs to me that such a sortition might well have put me in partial charge. Dammit.)

I don't see how you get around lobbying with this, though.

Make lobbying a capital offense.
posted by BWA at 6:42 AM on June 23, 2020 [4 favorites]


I really cannot fathom this focus on sortition, as it feels like the downsides get hand-waved away. People point out how it "worked" in Classical Athens, while not discussing that part of that was the oligarchic nature of the Athenian polity, which excluded a majority of the Attic population from membership. Not to mention that modern systems of direct popular rule such as plebiscites have very mixed track records, and the way California's attempt to rein in the state legislature with term limits - a move that wound up strengthening the power of lobbyists - backfired should give pause as well.

Then there's the lines that make me feel like the advocates just don't know how things work, like the argument that juries are selected by lottery while never once mentioning voir dire, the process by which the (semi-)random initial pool is interrogated and winnowed down to form the actual jury that serves. There also seems to be avoidance of risks in the system as well - for example, what happens if the lottery pulls all the candidates from a specific region or group?

In short, these arguments always keep striking me as somewhat lacking.
posted by NoxAeternum at 6:55 AM on June 23, 2020 [6 favorites]


Make lobbying a capital offense.

Lobbying (at least in the US) is protected by the First Amendment with the right of petition, so you're going to have a rather uphill road there.

Under sortition, you probably don't need to wait for Warren to get something like the CFPB in place, you just need the fact that banks are fucking awful to deal with and everyone knows it.

Except that you still need an expert like Warren, because while "everyone knows" banks are awful, what they don't know is why they are, or how to fix them. And that very lack of knowledge can (and will) be abused by bad actors to push their own agenda (see also: California Proposition 13; Eyman, Tim, career of.)
posted by NoxAeternum at 7:04 AM on June 23, 2020 [6 favorites]


There are some decent ideas in this, and it seems like it would certainly be better than the current US regime. That's not a high bar, of course. A detail that concerns me is that this proposal doesn't account for or address systemic oppression any better than the current US political system. It's very Libertarian in that assumption that everyone is on an even level and would be able/allowed to participate equally if selected for governing duty. For example, research indicates that mixed gender groups don't start listening fairly to women's input until women are a substantial supermajority of group members (i.e. overrepresented relative to share of overall population). I can't imagine the situation is any better for people of color. Landemore may address this in her books in a manner that has been left out of the article, but her claim that people in the US have social equality certainly makes me doubt that. I am also concerned that no reference is made to any anarchist theorists, who have been thinking about and working on implementing structures for direct democracy for centuries; nor to any non-Eurocentric traditions.
posted by eviemath at 7:08 AM on June 23, 2020 [6 favorites]


(That is, the author of the article left out a fourth category of doubters: those of us who think that this idea doesn't go far enough toward direct democracy.)
posted by eviemath at 7:09 AM on June 23, 2020 [1 favorite]



And yes I've met the people. The people individually ARE bonkers, some of them. In aggregate they're quite sensible,

you obviously haven't met the mob?

But seriously, I don't know.

One idea I heard years ago from a philosophy student concerned a rethink of how to staff local police forces. Basically, you'd have a limited professional crowd, career types who'd handle management etc and the more sophisticated investigations, maybe anything requiring lethal force ... but everybody else would be drafted for a two or three year term. They'd get trained/vetted, then stationed within their own communities, so whatever was going down, you'd always have someone on the scene that had a personal investment in things working out peacefully etc.

I could get behind something similar for choosing political functionaries. As for the actual setting of policy, let that come from the people.
posted by philip-random at 7:16 AM on June 23, 2020


The main selling point for a randomly selected assembly is that it should be a good reflection of the demographics and opinions of the general population. But as soon as the members are appointed, they cease to be representative, because now they’re senators or whatever. They’ll think differently and they’ll be vulnerable to professional civil servants and lobbyists, if not outright corruption (random selection implies a proper proportion of the dishonest, after all).

Moreover, one important function of elections is not so much to make the best decisions as to gain consent from free citizens. You may not like these people and what they’re doing, but a majority of people chose them, so work with it. I’m not sure a group of one-off lottery winners would be able to get the same consent.
posted by Segundus at 7:20 AM on June 23, 2020 [4 favorites]


A question that I think the institutions of a pluralistic society have to answer is how to prevent all of the dimensions of power collapsing into each other in a way that produces monovocality. This is especially a hard problem over time because power by definition includes the power to learn how other power can be used, acquired, and suppressed. I do not know of a way of solving the problem of the power obtained by/to piling up information to make predictions with except for the system of distribution of power to have some amount of nondeterminacy in its outcomes. If we actually think this problem is solvable we should take individual judgment out of the system altogether. We wisely don't, I claim, partly out of valid fear that those rules will have some flaw in them allowing some individual to accumulate sufficient power within the society as to be able to smash it and remake it in their image. If there is nondeterminacy that cannot be hedged away that at least has the possibility on serving as a check on our silicon oracles and the ancient AIs driving them.

I don't like sortition. But I like the idea of strictly predictable outcomes even less because I think a major component of shoring up power arrangements is keeping risk pushed onto those least able to bear it, which is easier to do when the risks are most foreseeable. If it's possible for large groups of people to live roughly peaceably and securely and equitably with each other, I have to think one part of that will be the certain knowledge that there are risks that individuals cannot opt out of. I see sortition as a least bad memento mori - Right now we have to wait for wars and plagues for the gods of capital to notice they're crazy. What if it were actually possible for them to lose a court case before we got to those? What if we could force them to acknowledge they are not in control of everything before the moment of death?
posted by PMdixon at 7:23 AM on June 23, 2020 [2 favorites]


I will read the full article later to see if these are addressed, but from the summary and a very quick skim:

1. There seems to be some elision of "governing" and "legislating." You probably do *not* want people picked randomly for things like director of the NIH, head of FEMA or even assistant deputy secretary of state for chess and backgammon. Similarly, is there still a judicial branch? Or do you grab people randomly to preside over trials and interpret laws?

2. Lobbying, non-profits and NGOs. You need a hell of an attention span and domain knowledge to understand each loop hole, exploit and unintended consequence in big legislation. Even today that is the realm of people who are paid to deal with them full time--and I don't mean legislators.
posted by mark k at 7:23 AM on June 23, 2020 [1 favorite]


My argument against this is similar to my argument against term limits: power will flow around this obstacle. With term limits, the legislator who chairs the health committee for two or four terms or whatever will ultimately have less power than the staffers who administer the health committee, and it will be those staffers who get lobbied even more heavily than they already are. So with sortition: the power, in any policy area which requires an investment of time to understand the details of (which is to say, any policy area) will devolve to those who have invested the time. Sortition means that the legislators will not have the opportunity to invest the time in a sustained way. Someone else will have to.

There are a lot of problems with republican democracy, but I don't know that sortition would be better, on balance.
posted by gauche at 7:35 AM on June 23, 2020 [4 favorites]


To the extent that the goal is not to create an elite-free society but simply to graft sortition onto actually-existing hierarchical systems so as to address certain specific forms of corruption, it seems like there might be a lot to be said for a Doge-like hybrid system, with e.g. an allotted body selecting candidates that go through subsequent vetting or election.

On the flip side, using sortition for advisory bodies (a la Ireland, Australia et al.), which seems to be more Landemore's thrust, seems generally to be a way of laundering elite manipulation, without really modifying any of the underlying power dynamics. Much like the jury trial as actually practiced in the US, it imparts the perception of democracy with very little of the substance.

Over on Equality by Lot, Yoram Gat reflects on this piece:
It seems possible to object that a professor in an elite university getting to design a whole new system of government could very well count as being about that professor’s vision and leadership. Another point to consider is whether having such a loose concept of what is proposed can be expected to lead toward democratization or to processes that are more of an exercise in elite manipulation, as many thought the Grand Debat was.
posted by Not A Thing at 7:36 AM on June 23, 2020 [1 favorite]


If the government was a rotating cast of regular people who may or may not want to be there, the locus of power would shift even further towards private industry and oligarchs who would be pulling the strings and taking advantage of the complete lack of long-term institutional knowledge among the acting leadership. On preview, pretty much what gauche said.
posted by grumpybear69 at 7:47 AM on June 23, 2020 [6 favorites]


One idea I heard years ago from a philosophy student concerned a rethink of how to staff local police forces. Basically, you'd have a limited professional crowd, career types who'd handle management etc and the more sophisticated investigations, maybe anything requiring lethal force ... but everybody else would be drafted for a two or three year term. They'd get trained/vetted, then stationed within their own communities, so whatever was going down, you'd always have someone on the scene that had a personal investment in things working out peacefully etc.

To which my response would be "arguing facts not in evidence." Just because someone comes from a particular community doesn't mean that they would be invested in peaceful resolution, and should not be treated as evidence of such.
posted by NoxAeternum at 8:00 AM on June 23, 2020 [2 favorites]


i am going to float the idea that just as the role of the police isn’t to protect the innocent and preserve order but instead to terrorize the innocent and maintain disorder, likewise the role of elected governments isn’t to allow us to govern ourselves through representative officials, but instead to diligently prevent us from governing ourselves — to stamp out any nascent attempts at self-government whenever and wherever they might pop up.

although sortition might be less-bad at establishing democracy than elections are — recall that although currently elections are seen as the sine qua non of democracy, until the bourgeois revolutions of the enlightenment period elections were understood as fundamentally antidemocratic — it runs into the problem that any attempt to establish a democracy will immediately face overwhelming organized violence from the extant power structure and its backers. overcoming this attack likely requires something more centralized and predictable than sortition can provide — at the very least, the transition period to democracy requires a well-trained disciplined military led by people selected for their skill rather than for their representative character.

that said, for my part i think the chief value of sortition, as a vanishing point we’re looking toward rather than as a goal we can hope to achieve, is how it would represent a certain pact between all people in the polity. under a sortition government, it is immediately obvious that thoroughgoing public education and a thoroughgoing respect for all people by all people is an absolute necessity. if any person may be called upon to participate in government at any time, the society as a whole must be bent toward ensuring, insofar as is possible, that all people have the requisite knowledge, skill, and moral training required to govern.

that said: we should take seriously eviemath’s suggestion from upthread. the problem with sortition might be that it’s not democratic enough.
posted by Reclusive Novelist Thomas Pynchon at 8:06 AM on June 23, 2020 [3 favorites]


the transition period to democracy requires a well-trained disciplined military led by people selected for their skill rather than for their representative character.

We've tried that. It turns out that the way we know how to guarantee the relevant skill rules out the ability to relinquish power. There is no Cincinnatus.
posted by PMdixon at 8:41 AM on June 23, 2020


indeed.
posted by Reclusive Novelist Thomas Pynchon at 8:46 AM on June 23, 2020


Except that you still need an expert like Warren, because while "everyone knows" banks are awful, what they don't know is why they are, or how to fix them. And that very lack of knowledge can (and will) be abused by bad actors to push their own agenda (see also: California Proposition 13; Eyman, Tim, career of.)

I don't know how you concentrate knowledge anywhere that can't be bought. The only way I know to try to solve this problem is to work to persuade people that it is in their vital self interest to understand the ways power maintains itself in their environment and that it is not especially onerous to do so well enough to get some basic protection. One of the ways you get protection is you work with others and I have honestly found that even that most basic political fact cannot be used by someone if they have no ability to understand the currents of human relationships they live in. I don't think privileging expertise is sufficient in the long term - all it does is make the routing of power around the blockage take the form of buying experts instead of politicians. If we don't have herd immunity in the shape of some critical mass of people having internalized what banks are and how what they do impacts those people's lives, I don't think there's anything that can prevent financial institutions from successfully taking on predatory behaviors for more than a couple of decades at a time, to take the example of the CFPB. If people thought it was important that they understood the rules, they would at some point demand rules they have a way to understand - which might be access to independent expertise about what the rules do, but that is not long term stable and needs a plan to avoid the expertise becoming dependent on the rule makers.
posted by PMdixon at 8:56 AM on June 23, 2020


Moreover, one important function of elections is not so much to make the best decisions as to gain consent from free citizens.

That's... not how it works, no. The vast majority of voters have no input into the slate of candidates they are allowed to choose from, and thus making a selection within that very restrictive context should not be seen in any way as giving approval or consent. Rather, for most of us, voting is merely about harm reduction.(*)

(* Important note: this does not make voting unimportant! It does mean that it is unreasonable for a candidate or party to view their election as a mandate.)
posted by eviemath at 9:03 AM on June 23, 2020 [2 favorites]


Certain Amish and mennonite communities have some version of lottery style elections. You get nominated for a position of authority in some cases. If you accept nomination, then you and other nominees are enter into a hat and winner is chosen lottery style. The narrative in that case is that God chooses. Then the person does the job for the specified time and repeat process. Sounds wonderful to me.

Love the jury duty analogy. Somewhat frightening but maybe you get the semi-enlightened and diverse wisdom of the crowd effect??
posted by danjo at 9:09 AM on June 23, 2020


as pmdixon has so ably reminded us, even if we manage to replace the current regime with democracy the newborn democracy will likely be strangled in its cradle by the very measures required to protect it from the antidemocratic reaction.

which i guess leaves us in the uncomfortable position of trying to, insofar as we can, practice democracy in state power’s gaps, given that we cannot hope to overthrow state power. i believe the term of art for this is “prefigurative politics” — whenever possible we must build little oases of democracy in the gaps left by antidemocratic state power. we should strive, insofar as we can, despite it all, to build little covert chaz/chops around all around us, to produce in microcosm a world worth living in.

in smaller groups fully participatory democracy is without a doubt the way to go, but for larger groups sortition is a useful tool in the democratic toolbox.
posted by Reclusive Novelist Thomas Pynchon at 9:12 AM on June 23, 2020


whenever possible we must build little oases of democracy in the gaps left by antidemocratic state power. we should strive, insofar as we can, despite it all, to build little covert chaz/chops around all around us, to produce in microcosm a world worth living in.

It's less dire sounding when you remember new gaps appear all the time and the real trick is keeping the old ones open.
posted by PMdixon at 9:50 AM on June 23, 2020 [1 favorite]


Something similar was proposed in 1985 by Ernest Callenbach and Michael Phillips in A Citizen Legislature (in which, if I recall correctly, they addressed some of the concerns about mob rule by proposing that one of two bicameral bodies be selected randomly, while the other would still be elected by vote).
posted by kristi at 9:59 AM on June 23, 2020


The success of any "random people end up holding office" system would depend on a few things at least:

1) a well-educated populace
2) a strong technocratic and continuous government/civil service to execute on plans
3) a strong training and facilitation framework to support the random officeholders

I am not a fan of hierarchical leadership for the most part, but among my anarchist/tear it down sort of friends I have often found a lack of appreciation and respect for the importance of leadership and organizational *skills*. People also underestimate the effort to implement changes, even if they are something everyone wants.

Point by point:

1) We elect some person who is a vaccine/5g/whatever conspiracy theorist. Or someone who doesn't believe in climate change. Or someone who believes deeply in revenge and power and the need to have the U.S. be "number one". Etc. So not just book education, but moral education and exposure to social groups are needed before people get into the governing system. How do you deal with that? Counterpoint: we already have this problem :-)
2) The only way to do a good job writing laws, building roads, running agencies, enforcing tax laws, etc. is to have a strong cadre of people who have made it their careers. It's fine to have a set of randoms agree that we should have free COVID-19 vaccines for all US residents, but they are not going to be useful in executing.
3) Related to #2 in a way ... most people lack the skills to do something like run a 10 person meeting with an agenda while ensuring that everyone gets to talk, outside experts are called in as needed, etc. A class of career coaches and facilitators and an agreed-on system to stream new people into governing bodies smoothly is a must.

On top of all this, we have a huge country with a very diverse population and I'm not convinced that it's even possible to all row in the same direction regardless of the system underneath. Having worked in 10 person, 100 person, 1000 person, and 10000 person companies, I can say that people from the simpler and smaller orgs really have no idea how to scale things. Which is why they say stuff like "just migrate everyone to github" as if that just happens.

I think the current system is very flawed, so I'm open to ideas, including the ones above. But I need *details*, man! And I need to see the 20 year transition plan. Because it is definitely a 20 year transition plan at least.
posted by freecellwizard at 10:30 AM on June 23, 2020 [2 favorites]


Look, I haven't gone into great depths of research on this or anything, so maybe I'm missing something, but there sure seems like an overabundance of optimism here, both on the potential success of a randomly selected legislative body and the price those legislators would be asked to pay in today's world.

Who exactly would be eager to serve knowing their entire life would be completely overturned for however long they were required to serve, having to leave any prior commitments or desires to do something they may feel they have absolutely no aptitude or interest in doing, knowing that their entire life history would be scoured by outsiders looking for information on them, knowing they'd be publicly mocked for any statements or choices they made while serving by those that disagreed or just found them good fodder for those hilarious news spoofs and talk shows, knowing that they and their loved ones would receive death threats and worse from any of the many people who will inevitably hate whatever decision they make, and knowing they'd be subjected to intense pressure from all sorts of people with vested interests in the outcomes of the choices they make, both from with the legislative body, those extroverts all too comfortable with their own sense of "rightness" and without, from alleged experts, lobbyists, and neighbors who want them to decide in their favor?

The idea that there would be some clear pool of unbiased experts or something informing these people, that these people who may have no knowledge of what they're being asked to decide on or evinced any ability in study or in dealing with groups of people large or small without giving in too peer pressure or anxiety or acting out of personal likes or dislikes for others instead of "the facts" themselves, among many other things, seems a highly idealized version of humanity that I don't really recognize in my day to day encounters with people. Asking a group of strangers to make "a" decision by consensus is a lot different than asking that same group to form a body that will make determine a wider agenda of choices, all of great importance and under extreme scrutiny.

Make it easy for people to opt out or otherwise limit the selection process and it then goes back to being less representative, but since it isn't really even very clear how a truly representative body would operate in terms of public interest, as there seems to be a lot more conjecture than proof of the alleged liberalism of the public as a whole, something that isn't really all that well proven and has much to argue against it in many areas of "common sense" consensus. I'm gonna need a lot more convincing before I'm sold on the idea as being a big improvement.
posted by gusottertrout at 10:33 AM on June 23, 2020 [3 favorites]


My two main problems with this idea:

One, her analysis is maybe two centuries out of date. Legislatures aren't the center of governing any more. Legislation is so complex that it's mostly written by professional staffers anyway; and the past year and a half has been a demonstration of how the executive can simply ignore the legislature in illegal ways.

Second, just look at the current discussion on race. Democracies can be terrible for minorities. If the average person is either racist or uninformed, then so is the sortition legislature.

And sure, you can respond that our current system is just as bad. But is it? Would a sortition system have produced AOC, John Lewis, Ilhan Omar, Sanders, Warren, or even Obama? For progressives today, the legislature is often the only way into power. This idea seems to close off that route.
posted by zompist at 10:48 AM on June 23, 2020 [2 favorites]


Legislation is so complex that it's mostly written by professional staffers anyway

I agree with this and it's frustrating. When I fantasize about serving in Congress, I imagine myself sitting by the firelight and just drafting legislation from thin air using my existing knowledge about the topic. That's what I assume most people do when they think "I could write a better law ...". We have very technical legislation and litigation that's based on technical correctness which, to invert Futurama: "you are technically correct. The Worst kind of correct." I'd like to see more intent-based legislation that relies on the court system to decide if it's violated *in spirit* and not in detail. That in turn would make it easier for normal citizens to engage with and have opinions about laws.
posted by freecellwizard at 11:40 AM on June 23, 2020 [1 favorite]


be careful, y’all, or cortex is gonna start picking moderators this way
posted by Huffy Puffy at 11:51 AM on June 23, 2020


I'd like to see more intent-based legislation that relies on the court system to decide if it's violated *in spirit* and not in detail. That in turn would make it easier for normal citizens to engage with and have opinions about laws.

That's how common law gets developed and it doesn't turn out that way.
posted by GCU Sweet and Full of Grace at 12:06 PM on June 23, 2020 [4 favorites]


That's how common law gets developed and it doesn't turn out that way.

True, but it would likely be a lot more that way if the appellate panels developing the common law were chosen by lot from the general public.

As with other proposals for radical change, I think a lot of the problem with visualizing how sortition could be implemented comes from the fact that we have an incredibly intricate existing system that is built on all sorts of assumptions about who is in charge and why. (Which is also, of course, one part of why white male supremacy is so hard to dismantle.) Sticking random members of the public into such a superstructure, without making other radical modifications, is going to make a mess.

For example, as noted above, heightening democracy in the slice of society we call "government" runs the risk of simply reducing the power of that subset relative to the more aggressively anti-democratic slice we call "business." Unless of course such a change is accompanied by other radical changes.
posted by Not A Thing at 12:25 PM on June 23, 2020 [2 favorites]


most people lack the skills to do something like run a 10 person meeting with an agenda while ensuring that everyone gets to talk, outside experts are called in as needed, etc. A class of career coaches and facilitators and an agreed-on system to stream new people into governing bodies smoothly is a must. (emph added)

I can tell you from experience this is not true. If you can get people to trust you enough that they're not going to get yelled at to be willing to work through one meeting's worth of what's usually the anxiety and learned helplessness that gets in the way, usually they manage to basically work out the rest. People are more capable than they're willing to give themselves credit for, and they're mostly also capable of noticing that eventually. People are actually really good at figuring out how to get along with people in the same physical space as them, by and large.
posted by PMdixon at 1:15 PM on June 23, 2020 [3 favorites]


Probably the best form of government we'll never see implemented. You get good decisions either by hiring experts or listening to the majority of your populace. Sadly, you get not so great but highly lucrative for a select few decisions by listening to a minority of your population and putting up fake experts to propagandize the rest.
posted by BrotherCaine at 1:21 PM on June 23, 2020 [1 favorite]


As a digression, one of my favorite moments in the TV show Battle Creek was the dialogue where Milt says: In my experience, when you trust people, they trust you. and Russ replies Hmpf. "Have you actually MET people?"
posted by BrotherCaine at 1:25 PM on June 23, 2020


After reading the whole article: If it is serious idea that has grappled with the challenges it would face, it wasn't well reflected in the New Yorker piece.

I'm generalizing here but there are two things most people want out of big reform: A system that feels fairer and more legitimate; and a system that makes better decisions. And many people mix up these goals because they think their preferred decisions would of course be the outcome of a fairer process. This is sort of analogous to the both sides fallacy, only for the abstract and philosophically minded.

MeFites can ask themselves that, if we adopted this system, and it produced roughly the same outcomes as now--bouts of anti-immigrant fervor, marginalization of minorities, indifference to global warming--would you be saying "well this is true democracy and at least we were heard?" Of course not. We'd be pointing out how randomly selecting people and putting them into a room to deliberate simply reproduces existing social hierarchies and status. Or maybe talking about the lobbying efforts, facile media coverage, and Fox news propaganda that made insane policy the default for 40% of the population. Or any number of reasons this doesn't reflect the will of the people.

The other thought exercise is to imagine you are an indifferent bureaucrat, wealthy business, Koch brother sycophant intent on preserving your privilege. Does this proposal leave you levers you could push or strings you could pull to subvert the intent? I would love the options available to me on this one.

I used to love thinking about better systems*, but the truth is nothing is a good system if we're not all pulling for each other and viewing each other as members of the same community, on at least some level. IMO when big reforms work it's not because of any specific system put in place but because it's a symbol that everyone's sort of agreed we want to give it a real try.

So sure this could absolutely work after everyone agreed that democracy-subverting behavior was off limits and we all are part of the same polity. But once we do that the need for a new system really isn't that high.

*I got one of my wishes, which was stronger more clearly defined parties instead of this mix of boll weevil Democrats and gypsy moth Republicans when I was a kid. Because then voters would have clear decisions and accountability would be easy. I just knew this would help us reach better decisions.

It did not help.

posted by mark k at 1:35 PM on June 23, 2020


For a fixed period, it is your job to work with the other people in the unit to solve problems and direct the nation. When your term is up, you leave office and go back to your normal life and work.

This is a bad case of spherical cow. The grandfather anecdote about the wisdom of crowds is about weighing cows after all. Many political issues are not problems that can be "solved" by a group of nice people working together. Many political issues are not even solvable: the role of the politician is to arbitrate between conflicting priorities conflicting interests, conflicting people. And at a certain level all decisions are bad because you cannot please everyone, and some people are going to hate you because their priority was not your priority. And still, in the end, you have to take full responsibility for your decisions (aka "the buck stops here"). A decision-making process involving a non-randomly chosen person means, at least, that that person is accountable to the people who chose them. Where is accountability if those who make the decisions can simply "go back to their normal life and work" once their time is up?
posted by elgilito at 2:02 PM on June 23, 2020 [2 favorites]


A decision-making process involving a non-randomly chosen person means, at least, that that person is accountable to the people who chose them

Really? Who is Ginsburg accountable to?
posted by PMdixon at 2:03 PM on June 23, 2020 [1 favorite]


For a fixed period, it is your job to work with the other people in the unit to solve problems and direct the nation

There are two serious issues I see with this. The first is that you need agreement that there is a problem. The second is that even if everyone does agree with the fact that there's a problem, they may not agree on what a solution looks like. If you aren't both trying to work towards roughly the same goal then you can't possibly agree on how to get there.

For example, global warming. You can't debate solutions to climate change with people who don't believe it is happening or with people who don't believe it's going to be much of a problem.

The same is true for immigration reform. I want to make immigration easier on a wide range of fronts and provide a path to legal status for a lot of undocumented immigrants. Others believe the exact opposite.

Even if you have a specific problem you are trying to solve and there is general agreement that it is a problem, you can still disagree about what a solution looks like. Your solution to poor public education in the US might involve smaller classes and better funding. Mine might involve charter schools and vouchers. Our solutions are both very different and, frankly, I don't think much of your solution.

If the mandate is that X is a problem and the outcome we want is Y and it's our job to figure out how to get there, then this can work. If not, well...
posted by It's Never Lurgi at 3:16 PM on June 23, 2020


There are two serious issues I see with this. The first is that you need agreement that there is a problem. The second is that even if everyone does agree with the fact that there's a problem, they may not agree on what a solution looks like. If you aren't both trying to work towards roughly the same goal then you can't possibly agree on how to get there.

I think the process of working this out is called politics and will be necessary to do in some form in any institutional arrangement and will always have some chance of ending in gridlock in any institutional arrangement. I do agree with you that there are ways one can structure these negotiations that are likely to end in less tears and blood than other structures, and iterative decision making as you describe is often a good one.
posted by PMdixon at 3:33 PM on June 23, 2020


Sticking random members of the public into such a superstructure, without making other radical modifications, is going to make a mess.

To be fair, it sounds like Landemore is envisioning radical systemic change. Not, I think, radical enough to fix some of the problems of the current system and I certainly have doubts about how well thought out the proposal is (though I haven't read the full book, just the article linked above). But not just plugging random members of the public into existing superstructure.
posted by eviemath at 6:36 PM on June 23, 2020


MeFites can ask themselves that, if we adopted this system, and it produced roughly the same outcomes as now--bouts of anti-immigrant fervor, marginalization of minorities, indifference to global warming--would you be saying "well this is true democracy and at least we were heard?" Of course not. We'd be pointing out how randomly selecting people and putting them into a room to deliberate simply reproduces existing social hierarchies and status.

Some of us have already said the latter bit, in fact. With detail about the specific mechanisms for why this would be so.

I've been getting a lot of people repeating my ideas without attribution or seemingly without remembering that I voiced the idea previously at work this past year or two. It's annoying. I'd appreciate efforts by fellow Mefites to not do the same here, too. Thank you.
posted by eviemath at 6:40 PM on June 23, 2020 [1 favorite]


As the excerpt from the article above shows, the sortition folks are constantly facing off against folks who say that experience, knowledge, education and dedication matters, and at least in that sense a legislature should be non-representative: perhaps like the populace at large in all other demographic categories, but more knowledgeable, trained and dedicated. The sortition folks say that the gaining the representativeness in all demographic categories is worth a potential tradeoff in education and training. But then when you say, well in that case, we already have an even better way to take a perfectly representative measure of public preference on any issue we want -- polling -- so why not just govern a democracy through public polling? the sortition folks say no way, you need to have representatives who can learn on the job and become at least semi-expert and aren't just some buffoon who answers the phone. They're kind of stuck between elite republicanism on the one hand, and pure direct democracy on the other, and it's hard for me to understand why this solution that is 75% of the way towards direct poll-based democracy is really better than elite elected representation or truly representative direct democracy.
posted by chortly at 10:01 PM on June 23, 2020


That's kind of a weird take? Like, we don't expect elected experts to come up with answers during the course of a thirty-second phone conversation, the premise of sortition isn't that common people are blessed with some kind of oracular abilities that let them produce good policy decisions without any research or deliberation.
posted by Pyry at 10:46 PM on June 23, 2020


I was thinking to myself that sortition may be particularly problematic for minorities, in that especially smaller minorities may through random process simply not appear at all. Eg if your group is say 2% of the population, and 100 people are chosen, there will be plenty of selections where no one from your group appears. And also, to the extent that you will only ever have a few reps, they will not cover the spread of opinion in your community the way that the contingent from a majority group will.

In an electoral system with proportional representation, or reserved seats for ethnic minorities, or other consititutional arrangements, ethnic minorities at least can organise to make sure their voice is heard and get some protection from the dictatorship of the majority. Pure sortition doesn't seem able to guarantee that to me.

I find the sortition idea best when used as a thought experiment to justify citizen juries and the like.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 11:09 PM on June 23, 2020


> Thereafter, selecting a head of state was relatively unimportant.

one of (continuous elections' author) SRW's guiding policy principles is 'lower the stakes'. so like freedom as optionality -- how do you give folks (everybody!) as much of that as possible?

> under a sortition government, it is immediately obvious that thoroughgoing public education and a thoroughgoing respect for all people by all people is an absolute necessity. if any person may be called upon to participate in government at any time, the society as a whole must be bent toward ensuring, insofar as is possible, that all people have the requisite knowledge, skill, and moral training required to govern.

yea, the idea behind stochastic sampling isn't just to disincentivize self selection, but also to incentivize wanting your peers to be the best possible people. if, like jury duty, you aren't just judged by your peers, but ruled by them, then you'd probably want them to be fair-minded and knowledgeable! and they -- maybe -- might be similarly like minded :P

re: underlying power dynamics, radical change and sequencing (at which point sortition could be a solution in search of a problem, although perhaps prefiguratively useful ;) political power in part stems from economic power, which itself increasingly derives from technological power, but of course it's also organizational[1,2,3]

it seems there are two groups intent on actually wielding this power...
The Global Implications of "Re-education" Technologies in Northwest China: "the world is witnessing the birth of a new form of technology-enabled systems of social and behavioral control"

and those -- writ large -- who think like...
Marc Andreessen:[4] "We have the potential over the course of the next century or over the next few centuries to really dramatically advance and have life be better for virtually everybody."

but when the former tell themselves the latter, and the latter enable the former you end up with a pretty shitty world the fusion of 'big tech' into critical gov't infrastructure that psychohistory suggests doesn't end all too well. sortition might not be the best way to install (functional) democratic accountability into the process, but -- on preview -- as a thought experiment, i think it helps frame governance issues by inserting a random sampling of 'you' (the public) into a more representative picture.
posted by kliuless at 12:21 AM on June 24, 2020


That's kind of a weird take? Like, we don't expect elected experts to come up with answers during the course of a thirty-second phone conversation, the premise of sortition isn't that common people are blessed with some kind of oracular abilities that let them produce good policy decisions without any research or deliberation.

I'm not advocating government-by-phone-poll, but just pointing out that there's a continuum between elite, non-representative expertise on the one hand, and genuine direct democracy (of regular people) on the other. Sortition in the popular press tends to stake out a position that is perceived as being on the far end of the spectrum akin to direct democracy, in part because all of its criticisms come from the elite direction (not enough experience, expertise, education, etc). But in reality, it's somewhere in the middle of that spectrum, and shares many of the anxieties about direct democracy that the standard elite republican model does. It believes these worries can be alleviated with "deliberation" in the broad sense, which includes not just discussion, but education, consultation with experts, delegation to experts, etc. So in practice, it tries to have the best of both worlds: representative (due to random sampling), and expert (due to deliberation and training over a somewhat extended period of service).

But to the degree to which it achieves its expertise, it becomes less representative, having indoctrinated the representatives in knowledge, logic, deliberation, etc. It may be that there is a way to do this that doesn't break what we want -- preserving a connection to identities and interests while boosting knowledge and skill -- but that is not clear, not easy, and there is a long, long history of apparently technocratic training that in fact indoctrinates a large set of values which (almost by definition) lead the individual away from their own original interests and the expressed interests of the groups they represent. These are in fact many of the same problems that elite republicanism runs into: not just that law school selects for class backgrounds, but that it replicates those backgrounds even in folks coming from other backgrounds.

The question is whether the training-by-deliberation that Landemore's model requires can be constructed in a value-neutral way, and if not, whether we are ok with breaking the main justification for sortition, that there will be accurate representation of the values of the populace within the legislature. More broadly, by positioning itself as the modern version of "direct democracy" in the popular press, the sortition folks kind of insulate themselves from critiques from the direct-democracy flank that argue that in practice many of these deliberative mechanisms induce lots of non-representativeness, and you might be better off with either proper elitism (where you don't try to make up for decades of training with a few deliberation workshops), or proper representation (where you simply ask people what they want).

Like most people, I personally fall somewhere in the middle, though a bit farther on the "direct" side, inasmuch as I am very wary of the deliberation/training that goes into these deliberative councils in practice, which tend to be led by technocratic centrists and tend to achieve their vaunted consensus by replicating that technocratic centrism in the participants. At the very least, I'd prefer a deliberative system that was led by an actually representative set of elites, though that would necessarily include nazis as well as socialists these days. Otherwise it's just a bunch of centrists saying "look, isn't it amazing how these deliberative groups we lead achieve (centrist) consensus!"
posted by chortly at 10:37 AM on June 24, 2020


Who decides what questions to poll and how to phrase them in your ostensibly more-direct polling-based system?
posted by Pyry at 12:58 PM on June 24, 2020 [1 favorite]


Open nominations and some thresholding for a full vote, just like most existing referendum systems? Though again, that's not "my system," just the standard articulation of what direct democracy might entail in the modern world. But I'm not sure whether your objection is that it is technically impossible, or normatively undesirable; there are good arguments for both.

Again, my own argument is not that direct democracy is either normatively good or technically doable, but that sortition+deliberation has many of the same problems as both ends of the spectrum (elite, direct) that bracket it do. In particular, it purports to be more representative of the masses, but then does everything in its power to retrain those masses to make them more like elites. And it even has the same technical problem you point out for direct democracy (which has many technical problems!), inasmuch as the deliberative process involves a huge amount of agenda setting by the trainers/moderators (similar to deciding which questions to poll), which often has very little oversight or transparency.
posted by chortly at 8:45 PM on June 24, 2020


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