In this op-ed, Save Liberal Democracy editor Paul Ostwald discusses whether the ancient democratic system of sortition might provide an avenue to improve liberal democracies around the world. He recently graduated from Oxford University.
On this year’s “Documenta” art exhibition in Athens and Kassel, spectators were asked to participate in a cross-national chess game between the two host nations, Greece and Germany. The chess figures moved democratically according to the wish of the majority of spectators. Needless to say, it was a disastrous match that left spectators with chess-expertise broken-hearted.
The artist showed us what we’d suspected along: the expertise-less majority errs and democratic outcomes are often suboptimal. But we’ve acquiesced to this peril of liberal democracy, pointing to its merits rather than amending it. „Democratic decision have to be determined by elections”, or so we claim. But that need not be the case.
In Aristotle’s Greece, democratic representatives were determined by lot. A randomized procedure called „sortition” was to guarantee that all members of the polis – and not only the affluent – could make their voices heard. Only in the 18th century did elections become a defining feature of democratic systems. And initially, they were more anti-democratic than pro-democratic. By limiting suffrage to a selected group, they prevented minorities and socially weaker groups from asserting themselves in the political system they had helped to instantiate. At the brink of the 20st century, we thought we’d finally overcome this injustice. But renewed discrimination against ethnic minorities in US states reveal the fragility of this achievement.
But what if blindly clinging to elections is the wrong way forward for liberal democracy? Political scientist David van Reybrouck advocates a different approach reminiscent of the ancient Greeks.
Take Brexit. The UK’s decision of whether to leave or to remain in the European required thorough economic and historical knowledge. Few voters had enough time to develop such knowledge or thoroughly research the claims of each side. Alternatively, we could have determined a quorum of 1000 British citizens by lot, drawn from all walks of life and parts of the country. After a month of intense preparation, they could have made a decision by majority-vote.
Certainly, elections remain important. They can have democratizing effects in states with little democratic experience, as Staffan Lindberg shows for sub-Saharan Africa. And we shouldn’t give up on them altogether. General elections remain an essential communal experience in every democratic state, forging the bond between cititens and the state.
But many decisions are currently either made behind closed doors or in expensive and divisive referenda. Maybe it’s time to tackle these from a novel, democratic perspective. And sortition might be just that.
A system of “sortition” provides a possible avenue to improve our democratic mechanisms on both dimensions. While general elections can only take place every few years, random panels could be created far more often. But what about Brexit, migration policy and data protection? By leaving these decisions either to representatives elected every four or five years, or to the general electorate with little time and expertise, we reduce trust and participation.
Democratic representation and expertise should guide essential political decisions in liberal democracies, especially in a highly-connected world where every national decision reverberates across the international arena. This is a daring approach. And rethinking democratic procedures might be unsettling to many. But liberal democracy lives by the many voices of its citizens. And making them heard is more important than ever.