This is a short piece with some thoughts on sortition. It is not a fully fleshed out post yet, it may grow into an essay later.
As David van Reybrouck describes in his brilliant book Against Elections, citizen assemblies are an increasingly popular tool to formulate policy and regain citizens’ trust. However, we contend that citizen assemblies contain some fundamental flaws that mean they may well undermine our existing democratic structures, rather than strengthen them. They are unrepresentative unless the number of sortitioned citizens is so enormous to make meaningful dialogue next to impossible. And they set up an assembly with its own form of legitimacy, rivalrous to parliament, while it mainly repeats the flaws of our parliaments which we should fix. Sortition is more likely to exacerbate the problems with democracy than to solve them.
How does sortition work?
Citizen assemblies are typically appointed through sortition and depend on the strength of deliberative democracy to formulate policies. You randomly select a group of people, and you put them together. You provide these people with experts, who make various arguments and show various facts, and the assembly can discuss what the definition of the problem is, and what solutions may exist for this problem.
Problems with sortition
I think there are multiple problems with sortition:
– A major, often overlooked issue, with is that with a small number of sortitioned citizens, the assembly is unlikely to be representative. Especially if people are allowed to drop out after having been sortitioned, the assembly is even less likely to be representative. Remember how well professional pollsters were at predicting the election of Trump and a majority voting for Brexit? Those estimates were based on massive samples, pooled together, sifted through for how representative they were, and they fundamentally failed to predict what citizens actually wanted. Why? Because getting representative samples is really hard, especially if people may decline to participate in the process. To ensure representativeness, 150 citizens just does not cut it. We can of course invite many citizens to a sortitioned assembly, and force them to attend (much like jury duty), but if the number of citizens gets too large, deliberation is no longer possible. To ensure that real deliberation takes place in a sortitioned assembly, one would need committees (just like in elected assemblies). These committees would be even smaller, and consequently even less representative.
– I do not think that the widespread lack of trust in parliament and government will be abated by introducing citizen assemblies. It is not the appointment process of our politicians which has gone awry, it is all the informal institutions, which we used to use between and around elections to create bonds of trust, accountability and good policy, which have atrophied. Think of parties, high quality journalism and civil society.
– Some supporters of citizen assemblies display, what I call, peak enlightenment liberalism: they believe that if we just put people together in a room, and let them deliberate to find the ‘reasonable’ solution, all will be well. The citizen assembly will announce the solution to the populace, and the populace will just accept the solution, because, after all, it is the ‘reasonable’ solution. This is not how politics works, and it completely ignores all those informal institutions and organizations (parties, media, civil society) I just mentioned. You know what all successful historical cases of sortitioned-based government have in common? They were all city states. So many social ties and a strong civil society which brought sortitioned rulers and citizens together existed, which helped citizens to influence policy-making and built trust among citizens that sortitioned legislators knew what they were doing. In this what the formal institutions (a sortitioned assembly) was built on and dependent on informal institutions. In polities the size of modern nation-states we cannot depend on such local informal networks. We need informal networks that tie the local into the national. This is one of the reasons political parties emerged. Sortition provides no platform for a similar development.
– Other supporters of sortitioned citizen assemblies correctly point out that communication about the assembly and its procedures is key to implement policies proposed by the citizen assembly. Citizens will only support the outcomes if they feel they have been part of the policy progress, and know why certain decisions were made. When this is lacking, citizen assemblies fail.
– Ironically, this is exactly what is lacking in our parliamentary democracy now. We already have vehicles for including people in the policy process to build legitimacy: to repeat, mass media, civil society and political parties. However, those are failing, as supporters of sortitioned citizen assemblies point out, but citizen assemblies provide no alternative for them. Replacing the appointment mechanism of our representatives in the legislature is not going to rebuild those crucial informal institutions necessary for self-government.
– If citizen assemblies become truly important, they may even further undermine these informal institutions. For instance, because policy decisions and career paths will no longer depend on the hard work of organising self-government (an interactive process between elites and citizens) within parties, but on what comes out of the citizen assemblies, political parties will stop being vehicles to unite people based on shared interests and preferences. Consequently, people will focus less of their attention there. However, we have no experience anywhere of modern mass democracy without political parties. Undermining them is a revolutionary move.
– Alternatively, citizen assemblies may be used, but be inconsequential, when the results are ignored by the government. In that case, having held a citizen assembly took a lot of time and effort, but it still undermines people’s trust in parliamentary government. After all, the citizen assembly is still a rival for legitimacy within the political system, ignoring it harms the legitimacy of parliament.