Power of the People
New Books on Democracy by Lottery
Over the past weeks, we’ve witnessed seismic convulsions in three major western republics. In France and Israel, marches, protests, and strikes from every sector have ground their societies to a halt. In the United States, a jury of everyday men and women voted to indict Donald J. Trump, the first former President ever to be so charged. The particulars of these events are unique and varied, and their merits up for debate. But they share a common thread: they’re all attempts by citizens to rest power from autocrats and return it to the people. To end rule by the wealthy few and establish rule by the working many. To transform our gated plutocracies into open democracies.
That may sound hyperbolic. Yet think. In Israel, the civil resistance has taken aim at Netanyahu’s far-right regime and its mendacious, self-serving designs on the judiciary. In France, the protestors are battling a president—one man—who’s imposed an increase in the national retirement age for 65,669,600 souls without so much as a vote in Parliament. While Macron’s no Netanyahu (and retiring at 64 still sounds like a cruel joke to Americans), his despotic strategy has earned him the moniker “the prince.” More French now want to overhaul their political system than even Americans.
Meanwhile, across the pond, our one true democratic institution—the jury—has voted to try in criminal court the most crooked demagogue ever to occupy the Oval Office. We can question the wisdom of going after him for these salacious charges, as opposed to the bigger financial case the D.A.’s office had been pursuing. And there are many reasons why Trump may never see the inside of a cell, at least for this. Still, it’s poetic that a sovereign body of the American people (not to mention an immigrant judge) will now determine the fate of a tycoon who’s led his whole entitled life as if he’s above others and the law.
The thirst for democracy is strong. And more than ever, people the world over agree that liberal government doesn't deliver it—circus campaigns and the salesmen they serve are not the self-rule to which we have a right. Quite the opposite: our tribal elections and partisan wars have become a ten-ton roadblock to progress in our day, one which threatens the very conditions for life on Earth. In the midst of this citizen upsurge, two landmark books went to press in recent weeks that will gladden the hearts of all who pine for government of the people, by the people: The Keys to Democracy: Sortition as a New Model for Citizen Power by Maurice Pope, and The Government of Chance: Sortition and Democracy From Athens to the Present by Yves Sintomer. Enlightened, capacious, and invigorating, these volumes belong on the bookshelves of everyone who cares about our collective fate and freedom. I review Pope’s disquisition below; I’ll reserve my take on Sintomer’s for a subsequent post.
I. The Keys to Democracy: Sortition as a New Model for Citizen Power
All real democracy is an attempt to bring the shy people out. G.K. Chesterton
With this felicitous epigraph, Maurice Pope opens his long-awaited treatise on democracy by lottery. The history of this text is a story in itself. Pope, who died in 2019 at 93, was an English classicist and scholar of linguistics. A professor for two decades at the University of Cape Town, in 1969 he resigned as Dean of the Humanities in protest of the country’s apartheid system in higher education. He returned to Britain to take up a position at Oxford, teaching in Canada and the U.S. over the years as well. He wrote numerous books, including influential studies of the languages of ancient Crete and Egypt.
But it’s the one he couldn’t publish that concerns us today. Through his research into Athenian democracy, Pope unearthed the practice and theory of sortition—i.e., democracy by lottery—which had gone dormant for decades, even in academia. He began writing a monograph on the subject in the 1980s, revising and updating it into the early ‘90s. Despite his eminence in the field, though, his editors refused to print the manuscript, finding the very concept laughable (as did his own family). Eventually, he gave up and shelved the project. His adult children, curious as to what became of their dad’s quack idea, figured the text was lost to history. Imagine their surprise when, upon his death, they discovered the document among his voluminous files.
By this time, the world had caught up to Pope. Starting in 2004 in British Columbia, a wave of experiments with citizens’ assemblies had swept over the West, including in the Republic of Ireland and his native Britain. Books, articles, and podcasts on sortition surfed this wave and fed the public’s appetite for reform. After a long hiatus, democracy by lottery had returned as a legitimate, curative antidote to the pathologies of modern politics. Pope’s family were able to resurrect his text, finding a receptive publisher in the new, hospitable climate. Encountering the book, then, is like unearthing a time capsule: we peer into the mind of a genius whose work reaches out from the past and yet, in its perspicacity and ambition, stretches way ahead of us.
It’s also a delight to read. Pope’s voice speaks through the text in his breezy style and inimitable wit; the anecdote and humor that he peppers throughout make his points pop in your mind. And they’re big ones. He begins with a bang, arguing out of the gate that elections—which we’re all told constitute the essence of self-government—are in fact fundamentally tyrannical:
Whoever believes that our present society is successful and that its success depends on the rule of an expert elite over the masses who are largely ignorant and apathetic may be right or may be wrong, but he is hardly a democrat. He is an oligarch and what he is championing is oligarchy.
Later, he imagines a droll colloquy between a voter and the Devil, who tempts the man to stay home from the polls by appealing to rational ignorance:
“The chance is fifty thousand to one against your vote swinging the election. You would not trouble to fill in a free ticket in a raffle with odds like that against you.”
“Get thee behind me,” he will say, “and pass me my coat.”
“Very well,” says the Devil, passing it. “But remember that even if your man gets in, he’ll be a mere extra. He won’t influence as much as one bill in a hundred. You must multiply by that too if you want understand how ineffective your vote will be.”
“All right then. You win. Hang my coat up again. The rain is getting worse anyway.”
He goes on to diagnose the many social and political illnesses running through liberal republics like Britain, and underscores the link between the broad lack of participation by citizens with the servile status so many laborers endure in the workplace. As if reading a crystal ball, he anticipates the Brexit debacle in a section explaining the problems with ballot initiatives:
Although a referendum may be conducted openly and in full public view, the choice of issue, the wording of it and the presentation of the result are all likely to be in the hands of a comparatively few people operating behind closed doors. If there is any suspicion that these matters have not been handled in a completely honest and unbiased way, then the verdict of the referendum will not be accepted as a statement of public opinion and the whole point of the exercise will have been lost.
After skewering referenda, he makes a mockery of electoral parties:
A party programme is like the Christmas hamper advertised as a special offer by grocers and wine-merchants: inside the smart wrapping lurk articles that would not sell in their own right…We are encouraged to believe that the contents of a party programme are somehow designed to be compatible, that they will work much better if they are all implemented and that above all they must not be adulterated with items from the rival programme. This is as if our grocer was to suggest that the bacon in his hamper was specially selected to go with the eggs in it and that if you were so mean or undiscriminating as to eat a mixed breakfast using his competitor’s eggs, why then you would be lucky if you escaped with nothing worse than indigestion.
Lest there be any doubt about the pedestrian quality of careerist politicos, T.V. (Pope reminds us) has made it “quite evident that they are people like ourselves. In fact, they are often…fallible, misinformed, and stupid to boot.” He then pillories the Westminster system for its irrational turnover in governments, an absurdity we’ve grown used to in recent years:
It would be a mad navigator who set his course north for the first watch, south for the next two and then nothing again; madder still, the navigator who did not know which way he was going to be steering in the next watch until it had taken over; and maddest of all would be the crew who began to worry of the safety of the ship if it continued on the same course for three or more consecutive watches. But this is the picture which the logic of two-party politics, if it were taken seriously, would give the ship of state.
Pope’s banter gets you in high spirits. And, occasionally, the text detours off the beaten path. But even these rambles entertain you, and digressions aside, his essay’s a work of serious scholarship. Through pellucid prose, he analyzes the features of Athenian democracy and summarizes the use of sortition in the Most Serene Republic of Venice during the Renaissance. He engages in rigorous political theory to argue that democracy by lottery is the only form of government that befits a diverse society and could unite the world. He reaches back to Aristotle for support, pointing out how the Greek philosopher believed that rule by the many was the regime most suited to a large community—contra Plato, no one person, however enlightened, can steer a complex state. The Oxford don elucidates the social and individual goods that come from democracy, and even explicates Epicurean philosophy to produce a metaphysics of randomness:
To the noumenalist, a lottery is the least respectable of activities, strictly for those who enjoy gambling or who are so weak-minded that they have to resort to it in order not to feel envy. Virtue, in this view, comes from order and design, while sortition introduces chance and chaos. To the scientist and the natural philosopher, on the other hand, sortition enjoys a very high status indeed. It is the only way one can, in the material world, approach perfection.
As if that’s not enough, along the way he provides a fascinating history of the jury in English common law; tracks the historiography of sortition in the 19th and 20th centuries; unpacks the science of opinion polls; and draws up a masterful, wholly original design for democracy via myriad citizens’ assemblies. He takes pains to illustrate how sortition both aggregates expertise in making policy, but also overcomes the epistemic limitations of technocracy. On the one hand, “it would be possible to define history itself,” he says, “as the story of how experts have been proved wrong.” Putting everyday citizens in power mitigates against the repeated economic, military, and public health fiascoes of the best and the brightest. On the other hand, it also allows the people—armed with common sense and collective acumen—to evaluate experts directly and separate the wheat from the chaff. This results in a real meritocracy, in contrast to the nepotistic patronage web we currently suffer.
The most luminous chapter, however, comes near the end. Here Pope writes his very own utopian fantasy, imagining a near-future in which nuclear war annihilates civilization, leaving a group of scientists and their families in Antartica the sole survivors. Step by step, he narrates how they establish democracy by lottery and scale it up as they repopulate New Zealand. A sophisticated system of citizens’ assemblies develops to exercise rule, with prudent limits on inequality put in place to prevent a class of super-rich from emerging to threaten the regime. In this egalitarian, decentralized network, impartial rules, fair play, and civic education produce a cultural efflorescence akin to Hellas. Foreseeing our post-truth era, too, Pope creates a Deliberative Assembly tasked with judging good journalism from fake news, and ad hoc Review Boards to handle complaints of bias in media:
The result was not censorship, but the opposite. Media owners could no longer systematically distort the presentation of an issue or they might find themselves being forced to set the record straight.
It’s Pope’s form of the judiciary, though, that makes for his chief innovation—he draws up a system that eschews specialists entirely. The citizens of his state (by now 10 million) create a Judicial Assembly of 480 members who serve staggered terms of one month, with 120 rotating out every week. Each day, the Assembly provides thirty juries from members in their first three weeks of service. From those in their last week, it provides thirty benches, plus two managing committees. All cases go to trial within a month and, as in Athens, last one day. That’s right: one. At the end, the bench asks the jury for a unanimous verdict, but if the latter fails, it can empower verdicts of as low as 10-2. Upon a guilty verdict, the defendant and plaintiff deliberate on a suitable sentence, which the jury can confirm or—if it suspects foul play—refuse. The jury, in the latter case, proposes its own sentence, which the convicted can accept or appeal. Appeals go to a new jury, whose sentence is final. In all cases, the punishment truly fits the crime.
This design is unique among contemporary proposals, certainly more inventive than my own modest attempt. In its lack of professional jurists, it’s radical, even rash. But it has the virtues of being swift and preventing systemic capture by legal bureaucrats, as well as the development of case-law. The latter, with its labyrinth of precedents and arcane hair-splitting, not only becomes increasingly opaque, but serves as a beachhead (as we see today in the U.S.) for judicial tribunals to undermine the legislature and craft their own pet policy. Pope sums up the lesson of his thought experiment thus:
Justice may have been rough, but it was ready and it was not uncertain. It was a good deal safer to predict how juries acting in the light of public sentiment were going to interpret law than it is for us to predict how an appeal court will interpret it, acting by the light of legal ingenuity.
The author concludes his work by sketching possible ways that democracy by lottery could come about. He imagines experiments with citizens’ assemblies in the media; lotteries in political parties; and juries empowered beyond their present remit as three potential avenues. Not stopping there, he calls for the democratization of civil society writ large, bringing sortition into higher ed and all the way up to global governance. Pope’s realistic about the chances of any of this happening; a number of obstacles, he notes, stand in the way. One is the idiosyncratic nature of democracy by lottery, which he sums up with a pithy quip:
A patriot may win an emotional response when he says: “Let us die for liberty!” But hardly if he cries: “Let us die for the right to have our names chosen in a randomised lottery!”
On that note, real democracy, he confesses, would require total political transformation, and he’s wise to the odds:
There are few, if any, examples in human history of major constitutional changes of direction being voluntarily undertaken. Normally they occur only after defeat or revolution. Only traitors plan for the former and only visionaries for the latter.
Pope was such a visionary, and his plan’s more revolutionary than The Communist Manifesto. What’s incredible about it is the context of its writing. In the late 1980s—and certainly with the fall of the Soviet Union—citizens of the West were being told repeatedly that we’d reached “the end of history.” There were no alternatives, Thatcher declaimed, to neoliberal capitalism and the elective oligarchy that’s got us by the throat. Yet deep in the bowels of his study, this brave, brilliant man was working out an audacious dream for democracy entirely on his own. Reading the result is like being invited in and served a cup of tea in one hand and a stick of dynamite in the other—except the dynamite explodes your mind. The author’s out on a limb here; yet every place he leaps, he finds his feet. The epigraph from Chesterton above actually omits the full phrase: “All real democracy is an attempt, like a jolly hostess, to bring the shy people out.” Maurice Pope is that host, and his feast’s a joy.