In recent debate, some discussants have turned to the idea of lot-based representation drawn from the whole population, described with the term “sortition”. Sortition has been used to determine public officials in the antique Athenian democracy and is used for citizen-based juridical juries in many democracies, and since the pioneering works of Peter Dienel in the 1970s and 1980s[1], it has been discussed as a solution to the shortcomings of representative democracy, increasing under the new term “deliberative mini-publics” in the deliberation discussion since the 1990s, and very prominently in a recent turn of the advocacy group Extinction Rebellion.

Although sortition’s long tradition is a good thing, it may already evoke the question why something that has been discussed and even used so long may out of a sudden turn into being a broadly helpful solution to current problems. The longstanding usage in determining public officials means that many individuals concerned with the quality of the political process have already come into contact with it, so if it would provide an outstanding new quality, we could expect that it might already have been tried and shown.

These decades have indeed produced a body of evidence, but unfortunately one that has not supported all hopes. Especially in United Kingdom and the Unites States, since the 1980s a large number of iniatives have been created which have done few to alleviate or reverse the deteriorating trend in the satisfaction with British and especially American democracy. Those who participate are generally satisfied[2], but given that these participary bodies are generally assigned an advising role without factual decision-making, they, in the words of one recent study, “fit a description of (mere) citizen activation – an elite-led engineering of citizen engagement that, beyond the control of citizens themselves, not only fails to lead to empowerment, but can even work to perpetuate existing structures.”[3]

There is, however, one systematic place where a deliberative minipublic can make a difference. In a system with established direct democracy under the condition of threat through a polarised public sphere, a sortition-based deliberate mini-public can play the role to cool down heated public debate and provide help for advice-searching citizens. This has been true for the successful example in Oregon.[4] But this is another case where sortition-based deliberative mini-publics do not make the final decision.

But why is it that sortition has not been a more productive solution? What the mechanisms behind this lack of power?

I see two of them.

First, let us imagine for a moment that a magic insight would have placed sortition-based deliberative mini-publics into a position or real power, say, as a global assembly to decide about policies to save the climate. Would it be powerful? I fear it would not. In the world of representative democracy, parliaments are not isolated bodies. They are embedded in a huge network that processes information necessary to solving problems – knowing about details of policy processes, developing an intuition for consequences of political action, having relations built on mutual commitment with executives that will later be responsible for putting decisions made into reality. All this lacks for sortition-based assemblies. Designs of these assemblies try to overcome the first of these problems by going to lengths in providing impartial assistance, and they may be partial successful with that. They cannot, however, solve the other two problems because in order to achieve unbiasedness, sortition deliberately cuts developing political careers and networks. In terms of an important political science distinction developed by Fritz W. Scharpf[5], I hence expect sortition-based assemblies to lack external legitimacy – they will simply not as good as either representative bodies or as direct democracy.

Second, let us do away with the thought experiment of a magic insights setting sortition-based assemblies into power. In the real world, no social change takes place without a social movement, be it invisible and only described by later research or, as today in the majority of cases, a struggle visible and consciously been followed by any interested observer. Can we imagine a social movement to installing sortition-based assemblies to replace existing institutions? Well, in fact such a movement does already exist. There is a group of political philosophers and political scientists that argue for sortition-based assemblies already for over two decades. Outside of academia, however, this movement has largely failed to get traction. And this is not only due to the absence of already existing powerful cases of sortition-based assemblies already solving real-world problems. To gain traction, such a movement would have to provide a perspective for individuals and groups to connect their own life stories with this idea. Only such a perspective would make it worthwhile for people who are not motivated by academic career goals to invest their resources into such a movement. Even given the deterioration of Western democracies and the inexistence of any other meaningful alternative (aside of the non-meaningful alternative of falling back into authoritarianism) we have seen in the late 2010s, this did not take place. And based on the insights into human motivation developed in psychology and sketched in the first chapter of this book, we understand why.

After all, can you imagine investing a lot of your personal time and energy and other resources for something of which you know that in the case of success it will make you not more powerful but less? Because this is what sortition-based assemblies would do. Based on a deep mistrust into the dynamics of political competition, in my view a mistrust based on a misunderstanding, sortition-based execution of real power does away with democracy in exchange for a new hope set into enlightened rule, just this time created by statistical representation and short-time terms. In Scharpf’s words, sortition lacks internal legitimacy, as well. If in any country, not to speak of the world as a whole, power would be exerted by sortition-based assemblies, the misfit between the mass of information received and the inability to base meaningful action on it that is behind all the agitation and the trolls and the hate outside would only be further increased.

Civil democracy avoids these two problems. Based on a deep analysis of social relations in principle and their historical realizations, it knows why we could trust the dynamics of political competition. Through allowing open actors to hand on trust placed in them to other political actors, it creates a dense network that processes much more information compared to today’s representative democracies, instead of less. And through giving individuals and organizations a perspective of being and staying empowered in taking responsibilty in the long run, it has the ability to start the social movement with the speed we need to prevent our environment to crash.

1.             Dienel, P.C., Die Planungszelle : der Bürger plant seine Umwelt : eine Alternative zur Establishment-Demokratie. 1978, Opladen: Westdeutscher Verlag.

2.             Johnson, C., Local Civic Participation and Democratic Legitimacy: Evidence from England and Wales. Political Studies, 2015. 63(4): p. 765-792.

3.             Hammond, M., Democratic innovations after the post-democratic turn: between activation and empowerment. Critical Policy Studies, 2021. 15(2): p. 174-191.

4.             Felicetti, A. and D. della Porta, Joining Forces: The Sortition Chamber from a Social-Movement Perspective, in Legislature by lot : transformative designs for deliberative governance, J. Gastil and E.O. Wright, Editors. 2019, Verso: London ; New York.

5.             Scharpf, F.W., Regieren in Europa: Effektiv und demokratisch? 1999, Frankfurt am Main/New York: Campus.

2 thoughts on “Why sortition is not the solution

  1. The points you make do not take into account how few citizens have any idea that this type of democracy even exists. I argue that given the positive points of sortition, people once apprised of the idea might surprise you. Especially, given that many citizens have lost faith in the current form government. The January 6th attempted coup in Washington should be enough proof.
    Your point of the dissolving of political networks as a loss of power is positive process. “the good old boy network” has shown overtime the need for its demise.
    Unfortunately, the current form of democracy is under real threat, and unless we give the people a form of government from which they feel they have power and not the current elected representatives we are looking at a rough future.

    1. Thanks, and yes, the fact that I have not yet brought Civil democracy to being resonated in a wider audience is the current greatest hurdle. But I look forward to start the social movement with my upcoming new book, Reclaim Responsibility with Civil democracy. Stay tuned! And if you are able to help spreading the word, that would help.

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