We need to re-emphasise the “demos” in Democracy: Making a case for sortition in New Zealand

By Nicholas Ross Smith (University of Auckland)

I unashamedly admit that I did not vote in last year’s election, even though it’s meant having to put up with tedious carping from friends who believe that voting is essential to “having a say”. The main reason I passed on my right to vote was disillusionment with modern representative democracy. A democratic façade built on a myth that voting once every three years (in New Zealand’s case) is sufficient democratic participation.

It seems that I am not alone in my current antipathy to the electoral process, as voter turnout is has diminished significantly worldwide in the last three decades (New Zealand’s dropped from 93.7% in 1984 to 77.9% last year). While British Prime Minister David Cameron talks about extremism being the biggest challenge of contemporary times, I believe that apathy (nihilism being its extreme form) is a far greater problem for Western societies and is, in part, a product of our insipid democratic systems.

Any system which has elections as the centrepiece of its popular participation is inherently flawed and easily corruptible. In Classical Athens, the supposed first democratic society, elections were seen as a fast-track to oligarchy: rule by a small group of elites. Aristotle, in Book Four of his seminal treatise Politics, made the following statement:

That all offices are filled by election… is one of these oligarchical characteristics; that the power of inflicting death or banishment rests with a few persons is another

Looking across the globe in the so called healthy democratic states of the West, it is not hard to discern a ruling class of elites who see serving interest groups as over-riding the service of the people. Seemingly, one of the core principles of democracy, deliberation, has been gradually eroded to the point where it practically ceases to exist. In its place we are bombarded with election campaigns that use propaganda and populist tactics which in turn creates partisanship and reduces any scope for compromise.

The “vote-buying” behaviour of the mainstream parties in New Zealand, and elsewhere, is completely shameless. However, rather than chastise parties and politicians for their cynical political behaviour, which, especially in New Zealand, seems to suck up most of the energy of those that can be called politically interested, we should focus on amending the system which enables such behaviour.

Certainly, over the last few decades, many in the Western world have come around to the idea that our modern democratic systems are flawed and are in need of repair. While many tend to have knee-jerk reactions which place the blame squarely with the idea of democracy, I believe that the problem is not with democracy per se but simply that we do not have enough democracy.

A popular model for those advocating for “more” democracy is that of Switzerland. It has combined strong decentralisation with direct democracy. The Swiss model has some benefits over the standard representative system, such as elevating the principle of subsidiarity, which states that political decisions, where possible and suitable, should be made at a local level. However, based on my initial stated disdain for elections, being able to vote on a wider array of decisions is not a fix and arguably leads to intensification of the tyranny of the majority.

In my opinion, we are missing the obvious when we think about remedying modern democratic ills. Re-engaging with the philosophers who originally came up with the idea of democracy offers a potentially fruitful solution. In Classical Athens, selection was made not through elections but by sortition: a lottery in which all male citizens were candidates (any modern system would be far more inclusive). Herodotus, in Book Three of his famous treatise Histories, placed sortition as the first of three important democratic practices:

The lot determines offices, power is held accountable, and deliberation is conducted in public.

Proponents of democracy by sortition generally demarcate five key advantages over any other system of governance: its fairness and equality; its immunity against corruption; its ending of party politics and populism; the importance of participatory deliberation; and its softening of political apathy.

First, as sortition removes competition for office, it is fundamentally fairer than a voting system which rewards candidates with power, status, money and connections. Additionally, sortition helps remove demographic imbalances, especially gender and ethnic, usually found in modern representative democracies and provides a fairer cross-section of society.

Second, a system based on sortition is far harder to corrupt than a typical electorally-anchored democratic system, as the randomisation of potential officers means they cannot be prepositioned or influenced by individuals or interest groups.  Indeed, part of the attractiveness of sortition for the ancient Greeks was that it broke up powerful factions and minimised the impact of wealthy elites.

Third, sortition puts an end to the negative effects of party politics, and as a result, pervasive populism. Political parties not only create ideological partisanship and reduce opportunity for compromise, but they also engage in populist strategies. Thus, sortition would render populism fruitless while simultaneously removing one’s loyalty to a party and replacing it with loyalty to one’s conscience.

Fourth, decision-making in a system based on sortition is executed through participatory deliberation (in the form of citizens’ juries). Whereas deliberation in modern democracy has been eroded away and replaced with the cacophony of campaign-focussed politics, sortition requires that decisions be made through the face-to-face interaction of randomly selected individual; a process which naturally lends itself to cooperation and compromise.

Finally, sortition would help alleviate the high levels of political apathy evident in most Western countries. Through raising the opportunity for average citizens to contribute to political decision-making, rather than asking citizens to delegate to a politician, sortition would go some way to reversing the pervasive phenomenon of rational ignorance (in this case, rationally choosing not to learn about politics) amongst what is now the voting (or non-voting) public.

Unsurprisingly, a democratic system characterised by sortition is not without legitimate criticisms. The suitability and enthusiasm of ordinary people to make important political decisions, the chance of random misrepresentation, and a lack of legitimacy and accountability are obvious concerns. However, we entrust juries selected by sortition to decide whether someone is guilty or not in the eyes of the law, so why not trust ordinary people to make political decisions too?

Dismantling longstanding institutions and standard operating procedures of representative democracy is no easy task (particularly when so many interests will be compromised) and the practicality of imposing an alternative system based on sortition (especially to what degree) needs serious feasibility testing.

A starting point would be to endeavour for the introduction of sortition at the council level (a process underway in Australia) which, if combined with decentralisation (guided by the principle of subsidiarity), would make for a far more equitable situation. As a recent report by the New Zealand Herald on the Auckland City Council illustrated, serious rebalancing is required in our councils to enable a fairer representation of society – a problem sortition would likely fix.



One comment

  1. Pacific Outlier · August 6, 2015

    Reblogged this on Pacific Outlier.


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