Slow Democracy: how representation by random selection can rebalance our stricken democracy

The Acropolis of Athens by Leo von Klenze.I’ve outlined some of the pathologies of what I call ‘vox pop’ democracy in various posts from time to time. As Western democracy degrades before our very eyes (President Donald Trump wasn’t really imaginable a decade or so ago and is still hard to fully comprehend) we need to remember the choices that were made – modern democracy was founded – at the time of the American and French Revolutions when democracy was a dirty word!

Thus in his landmark Spirit of the Laws, Montesquieu repeated Aristotle’s claim that “Voting by lot is in the nature of democracy; voting by choice is in the nature of aristocracy”. Though Montesquieu regarded democracy as a scary prospect, he respected the constitution of ancient Athens as protected by the richness of its checks and balances and the way it was mixed with aristocracy. [1.”The people’s suffrages ought doubtless to be public and this should be considered as a fundamental law of democracy. The lower class ought to be directed by those of higher rank, and restrained within bounds by the gravity of eminent personages.” The secret ballot used to be called the Australian ballot after Australian innovation on that score in the 19th century.]

With great anxiety about democracy degenerating into mob rule (sound familiar?) the ideas Montesquieu set out were taken up as the best chance for the new republics of the United States and France. Amidst much concern about how a democratic government might mobilise a “natural aristocracy among men”, one of “virtue and talents” as Jefferson put it expressing a widespread sentiment which went out rather more slowly, but no less comprehensively than poke bonnets, this answer suggested itself. In Madison’s words:

Who are to be the objects of popular choice? Every citizen whose merit may recommend him to the esteem and confidence of his country. … [A]s they will have been distinguished by the preference of their fellow-citizens, we are to presume that in general they will be somewhat distinguished also by those qualities which entitle them to it, and which promise a sincere and scrupulous regard to the nature of their engagements.

The Roman Catholic priest Abbé Sieyès “one of the chief political theorists of the French Revolution” [2. Wikipedia] was more unequivocal insisting that “In a country that is not a democracy (and France is not a democracy), the people can only speak and can only act through representatives.” [2. See this reference for an elaboration of his four reasons for his assertion.]

However a second method of representing the people was far more common at the time in many cities in Europe stretching back from early modern times to ancient Athens: Sortition or the selection of citizens at random from the citizenry as in the Athenian boule and was far more common.

In the eighteenth and nineteenth century were about establishing checks and balances between popular electoral democracy and upper houses intended to represent the aristocracy or some new world simulation of it via property franchises – with different houses of the legislature representing these two poles. Likewise I think that today we should be seeking to balance electoral democracy with deliberative democracy – in which representation occurs, as it does in juries, by random selection by lot. I’ll elaborate more on this in a subsequent post.

In any event, in this post I itemise under subject headings firstly how various problems with our current system of electoral democracy manifest themselves, and secondly, how giving deliberative democracy mechanisms a greater role could help.


Careerism is a central thread that enables political power – wielded both within political parties and bureaucracies. The signal achievement of the Australian Parliament that first assembled in 2013 was to abolish the carbon pricing regime which had emerged from the bipartisan consensus for carbon pricing that had been forged with great difficulty over the previous 15 odd years. A majority of parliamentarians voted for something that an overwhelming majority of them understood to be against the public interest. [3. Amongst coalition parliamentarians I would expect well over half thought carbon pricing was in the public interest. (If I’m wrong make it a third or a quarter – it doesn’t really affect the argument).] Why did they vote against their consciences? They did it because they were careerists. Of course ‘careerism’ is a pejorative, but I’m not using it in that way. The centrality of one’s career is an indispensable building block of modern life in politics as elsewhere. If you’re to make a success of yourself as a politician – for yourself, but hopefully also for the things you believe in – you need to work over time to build your standing. And rocking the boat will usually be costly to your career.

There’s nothing like random selection to take these kinds of considerations out of contention. There’s certainly nothing one can do to increase one’s chances of being (randomly!) chosen for political power by being chosen to participate in a citizens’ jury or citizens’ deliberative chamber. It is possible that, once there, people do things to curry favour with others to be delivered either during or after service in the chamber. One can’t completely guard against this but one can criminalise making and/or taking bribes and other inducements to such people both before and after their service and one can also specify that, accepting a position in the people’s chamber disqualifies one from traditional political office either forever or for some period of time. It has also been normal throughout history for there to be limitations on the extent to which someone can continue or repeat their service on deliberative bodies.[4. For instance in Athens].

There’s something else also. In addition to the privilege which those randomly chosen almost all feel and their desire to honour that privilege by doing their best, the evidence we have from the randos in the Senate, like Ricky Muir, Jackie Lambie and Glenn Lazarus is that they don’t seem to be easily manipulated by career incentives. When their immediate self-interest in reelection was threatened they were not swayed in their vote – against the expectations of the hard heads of politics and journalism. In other words acting in your own career interests over and above your political principles is largely a learned behaviour, though to put it another way, that learning is typically done much faster by those who’ve elected to make politics their profession.

Superficiality, sensationalism, expression

This is a terrible problem for our current democratic institutions as political debate is conducted through the media. And the media is a finely honed machine to arouse and entertain, rather than to inform and arousal it turns out is much more easily stoked for all kinds of destructive emotions – envy, disgust, resentment, contempt and hatred than it is for more salutary ones – like affection, respect and love.

Our legal institutions show some understanding of this in the way in which they seek to insulate juries from the media and the eyes of the outside world so that they can deliberate in their own way in their own time. One couldn’t insulate citizens’ juries or chambers on political matters from the media nearly as comprehensively, but at least the whole process is far calmer with people making decisions after being given time to think, consider and deliberate with others (see ‘Deliberation’ and ‘Polarisation’ below). Indeed, I rather like the idea of naming what I’m calling for ‘slow democracy’.


Except in the very unusual circumstances of conscience debates or on the cross-bench as John Dryzek puts it:

Australia’s federal parliament is today .… not a deliberative assembly in Burke’s sense [but] rather a theatre of expression where politicians from different sides talk past each other in mostly ritual performance. Party politicians do not listen, do not reflect and do not change their minds.

This has been highlighted recently by the independents in the lower house during the Gillard Government and the randos in the Senate each of whom tend to judge the merits of the case by (amongst other things) listening to the various sides of the argument in parliamentary debates.

By contrast on citizens’ juries and in people’s chambers the whole point is to facilitate joint deliberation by citizens. Overwhelming majorities feel the process is fair and that it helped inform them on issues as for instance with this jury. Jurors often report their (already low) opinion of the media sinking further precisely because they realise they’ve been misled about the issues.


In the 1940s Joseph Schumpeter proposed thinking of electoral democracy analogously to markets with politicians being the producers and voters being the consumers. In fact since then politics has come to resemble such a market more and more with ideological differences narrowing along with participation in politics by the community. As membership has plummeted, the parties have become dominated by brand management techniques – and in my opinion a surprisingly large amount of the public’s disenchantment with politics gets down to the dissonance this creates. On the one hand debate is conducted using high blown moral rhetoric, but the actual words used are equivocal, evasive, scripted and transparently inauthentic. To change the metaphor, politics is now a spectator sport.

Aristotle’s idea was that it was intrinsic to democracy that people took it in turns to rule and to obey and that rotating responsibility for government was not only the best way to arrange this, but also the best way to educate the populace to the virtue necessary to do this well. [5. “It has been well said that ‘he who has never learned to obey cannot be a good commander.’ The two are not the same, but the good citizen ought to be capable of both; he should know how to govern like a freeman, and how to obey like a freeman – these are the virtues of a citizen.” Aristotle.] This idea of participation as ‘civics’ education is something that Tocqueville took up surveying Democracy in America :

[H]owever great [the jury’s] influence may be upon the decisions of the courts, it is still greater on the destinies of society at large. … The jury contributes most powerfully to form the judgement and to increase the natural intelligence of a people, and this is, in my opinion, its greatest advantage. It may be regarded as a gratuitous public school ever open, in which every juror learns to exercise his rights, enters into daily communication with the most learned and enlightened members of the upper classes, and becomes practically acquainted with the laws of his country, which are brought within the reach of his capacity by the efforts of the bar, the advice of the judge, and even by the passions of the parties.

Modern social science finds something similar. Participants in citizens’ juries almost unanimously report it as having been a very good experience in which they felt privileged to be asked to participate in and keen to give of their best in. [6. For instance in this jury, “all (17) jurors indicated that, if given the opportunity, they would participate in another citizens’ jury”.] As it turns out, random selection of citizens for juries provides the ideal test bed for generating causal data about the effect of jury duty and there’s good evidence from the US that participating in just one jury is a powerful form of civics education producing subsequent increases in voter turnout of as much as 7 percent with that increase in the average being disproportionately from those with previously low voting turnout.

Antagonism and polarisation

Much of political science depicts democracy as an essentially adversarial process by focusing primarily on competitive elections.

Zsuzsanna Chappell

Modern liberal democracy operates in a way that would have pretty much horrified most of the architects of democracy in the 18th and 19th century. They warned gravely of the spirit of ‘faction’ infecting the polity, the spirit of faction is more or less institutionalised today. I remember as a kid thinking that having an official Opposition to the Government was pretty weird. And I still do. Of course I understand how and why and also the rationale for the party system which operates as a means by which voters can try to pick candidates by broad ideological sympathies. That puts them more ‘in control’ than backing their representatives ‘judgement’ – or so the theory goes. Moreover division and contest ideally serves to clarify and sharpen disagreement and that might help forge more considered resolution on the floor of the legislature – or so the theory goes.

Problem is that opposition for opposition’s sake is weird. There’s clearly an ideal balance between seeking agreement – which the legislature will always do in some form or other – and debating differences. And the problem seems to be getting a lot worse. People talk about polarisation in politics, but it’s a weird kind of polarisation, because the actual policy or even ideological differences between the parties is surprisingly small. Both major parties want a large state of at least a quarter of the economy, relatively free markets and regulation of clear market failures – for instance in environment and public and workplace safety.

Yet for all manner of reasons its usually good for Oppositions to make life as difficult as possible for governments (though I suspect this is truer for right than left leaning parties). We saw this in Australia in the years of Abbott’s leadership of the Opposition. In the US, even Republican voters think the Republicans were much less prepared to compromise to reach solutions – even though they thought they should. But it’s unclear how many changed their vote on a thing like that – in my experience people don’t tend to vote on such abstract things. This is their one chance to express their beliefs. See eg this report containing this table.

Indeed, US studies suggest that reality comes to be interpreted not through experience of the world but through party affiliation. Responding to the same report, Andrea Campbell, professor of political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology had this to say. “I was not surprised party affiliation influenced people’s opinions of the Affordable Care Act, but I was surprised that partisanship trumped personal experiences with our health care system. Personal experiences, like being denied health insurance for a pre-existing condition, have little effect on public support for the law. Instead, support is largely based on political party affiliation and beliefs about the likely impact of the law in the near future.”

Ideally democracies need both adversarialism and consensualism to function well, just as Aristotle and others championed the idea of mixing elements of different constitutions – aristocracy and democracy for instance. In her book Beyond Adversary Democracy, Jane Mansbridge contrasted Unitary versus Adversary Democracy. Unitary democracy focuses on getting to a compromise consensus – or near consensus position. As I’ve argued previously I think the beauty of the Accord was that it mobilsed the forces of unitary democracy to offset the forces of adversarial democracy sitting back in Parliament in Canberra:

The search for consensus often identified politically viable means of making policy progress while addressing the concerns of major interest groups. And once policies had been broadly agreed, the partners to the process then helped sell the sometimes difficult messages that emerged like the need to rein in expenditure, reduce real wage costs, protection and means test benefits.

Compare this with the way in which, in parliament, progress is constantly re-litigated wherever there’s scope for political advantage. The institutions of deliberative democracy – citizens juries and people’s chambers embody the dynamic of unitary democracy. As with a jury in a legal case, the task of the body is to make progress and if it can’t do so, everyone has failed. And progress isn’t some bare majority – which would be divisive – but a broad (if not necessarily unanimous) consensus. All the evidence I’ve seen of citizens juries backs this up. Participants almost invariably comment on their relief that they’re not presented with the self-righteousness of activists, but are rather discussing things with ‘ordinary people’. [7. Here are some quotes from this report of a citizens’ jury run by The Australian Centre for Social Innovation.
“Not just the young activists”
“I was expecting the blue-rinse set from the Eastern suburbs. I was delighted to find that wasn’t the case”
“Even if you have an open forum, you get the polar views there, you don’t get people in the middle who don’t… have to have their way. Here you get the average person and that’s really good”.
“I’m a man, I’m six foot two, I have no considerations for my safety in Adelaide. Then being with other people: older, smaller, females, you learn that their experiences are very different”]

Electoral campaigning as road rage

In many ways the impersonality involved in mass campaigning for elections, and the various media strategies to arouse interest and engagement encourages something akin to road rage. Media outlets stoke people’s contempt for others, their sense of entitlement and resentment towards others (even identifying individual people as hate objects). Politicians tend to be more circumspect about individuals, focusing instead on misrepresenting the policies and motives of their political opponents.

You know those occasions where you express or get close to expressing road rage only to find that your target is someone you know? You know how it gives you a quite arresting shock of recognition. What was I thinking? Well something similar occurs in the transition from adversarial mass democracy to the human scale of deliberative groups – even relatively large groups. (It’s probably one reason why the elite get on with each other and show such solidarity. They mostly know each other, bump into each other in the Captain’s Club, in the corporate boxes etc.)  In addition to the anecdotal evidence I’ve presented above, Sally (1995) reports that “A meta-analysis of over 100 experiments found that face-to-face communication in social dilemma games raises cooperation by 40 to 45 percentage points. [9. Sally, D. (1995). Conversation and Cooperation in Social Dilemmas: A Meta-Analysis of Experiments From 1958 to 1992. Rationality and Society, 7, 58-92.] That’s huge!

Finally, mechanisms of sortition or selection for deliberative bodies at random were very often chosen precisely for their ability to insulate politics from the factionalism of the powerful. Thus Athens’ political mechanisms were self-consciously developed as antidotes to the ever present danger of Athens’ aristocratic families fighting with one another and/or plotting to re-install oligarchy. Likewise in Renaissance Florence and Venice selection of bodies by sortition was chosen to moderate rivalry between great families. As I have mulled these things over in my mind, it’s struck me that, of the one or two handfuls of great creative flowerings of civilisation, it’s rather remarkable that two to three of them (I’ll take Venice as a half of one) occurred in small places with substantial representation of people chosen by lot in government.


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Moz of Yarramulla
Moz of Yarramulla
5 years ago

Thanks for your thoughts on this. It’s taken a while to get through, but I am increasingly persuaded that we should try citizen’s juries.