Gruen: detox democracy through representation by random selection

I use Troppo to make various notes for file as it were for reference in future. And on wanting to record something I found that I hadn’t reproduced this post — which was originally at The Mandarin — here. So here it is, with some notes to file below.

Part one. Part two is here and part three is here.

As Western democracy degrades before our eyes, (President Donald Trump wasn’t really imaginable even a few years or so ago and is still hard to fully comprehend) we need to remember the choices that were made as modern democracy was founded, at the time of the American and French Revolutions. Democracy was a dirty word!  Montesquieu’s Spirit of the Laws repeated Aristotle’s claim that “Voting by lot is in the nature of democracy; voting by choice is in the nature of aristocracy”.1

With great anxiety about democracy degenerating into mob rule, Montesquieu’s ideas were taken up as the best chance for the new republics of the United States and France. There was much concern to ensure that republican government 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, though no less comprehensively than poke bonnets.  Elections seemed far more promising than selection by lot. 2 The Roman Catholic priest Abbé Sieyès “one of the chief political theorists of the French Revolution” 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.” 3

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 parliaments 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 would argue that today we should be seeking to balance representation by election with representation by sortition as occurs, in juries by random selection from the citizenry. I’ll elaborate more on this in a subsequent essay.

In any event, in this essay, I itemise under subject headings firstly how various problems with our current system of electoral democracy manifest themselves, and secondly, how sortition based representation could help detox our democracy.


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. 4 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 build your standing. And rocking the boat within your party will generally set-back 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 to participate in a citizens’ jury or citizens’ deliberative chamber. One can’t completely guard against people currying favour with the powerful in their participation in a deliberative chamber, 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. 5

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 an odd experiment in Australia whereby for a substantial period the vagiaries of our preferential system chose what I call the ‘randos’ in the Senate, people with vanishingly small primary votes like Ricky Muir of the ‘Motorist Enthusiasts Party’ for instance, or Jacqui 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 by the reform of the system that gave rise to the ‘preference whispering’ that saw them elected, 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 on which political careers are predicated.

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, care 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 1 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 crossbench 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 govern and to be governed 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.6

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 keen to give of their best and privileged to be invited to participate. 7 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% with that increase in the average being disproportionately from those with previously low voting turnout. Likewise in the recent Melbourne City Council citizens’ jury, of less than fifty participants chosen at random from the community, at least two stood for council at the next opportunity.

Polarisation: competitive and unitary political institutions

Modern liberal democracy operates in a way that would have horrified most of the architects of modern government in the 18th and 19th century. Where they warned gravely against the spirit of ‘faction’ infecting the polity, the spirit of faction is more or less institutionalised today. I remember when I was young thinking that having an official Opposition to the Government was weird. I still do. Of course, I understand the purposes it and the party system more generally serve as a means by which voters can project their will into the political process by expressing broad ideological and programmatic sympathies in their vote. Moreover, division and contest ideally serve to clarify and sharpen disagreement and that might help forge more considered resolution on the floor of the legislature.

Even so, opposition for opposition’s sake really is weird. People talk about polarisation in politics, but it’s a weird kind of polarisation because other than in the USA where policy differences between mainstream parties have arguably grown, in the rest of the Anglosphere polarisation has intensified as policy differences have narrowed. If one looks at what they do in office rather than their rhetorical positioning, each mainstream party, whether of the right or left want a large state of at least a third of the economy, relatively free markets, a strong welfare state, substantial government underwriting of health and education services and standards and regulation of clear market failures — for instance for the environment and public and workplace safety. We’re all in favour of the mixed economy now.

Yet for all manner of reasons, Oppositions are rewarded by making life as difficult as possible for governments (though I suspect this is truer for centre-right than centre-left parties). We saw this in Australia in the years of Tony 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 Prices and Incomes Accord between the Australian Government and its unions (and informally its business community) was that it mobilised 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.

Thus, where particular difficult positions had been arrived at through the Accord, for instance, unions agreeing to wage restraint in return for expansions in the social wage and removal of some tax loopholes for business, the business representatives participating in the Accord would then pressure the right-leaning Liberal-National Party Coalition not to obstruct the policy progress to which the Accord had contributed.

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– likewise 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’.8

The balance of emotions

It is a commonplace that the emotions drive political debate and political campaigning. Yet it is only recently that political thinkers have given much attention to the role of emotions in guiding decision making both in our private and our political lives. As Nussbaum puts it “All political principles, the good as well as the bad, need emotional support to ensure their stability over time.” Embracing the importance of emotions in politics, Nussbaum suggests there are, broadly speaking, two alternative paths. In the first the focus is on shared identity. The two most important pronouns on the African Savannah were “us” and “them”. And so, one way of holding a polity together is to emphasise its shared identity. And there’s no better way to cement those emotions of solidarity – of togetherness – than against an external ‘other’. That’s why “we decide who comes here and the terms on which they come” was such devastating politics for John Howard in 2001. These are the emotions of nationalism.

To some extent these emotions of shared identity are inevitable, necessary and healthy in a political community – which must have some sense of a collective identity to function. But in a diverse, liberal society there’s a problem with too heavy emphasis on identity. Unleashing these kinds of emotions transforms our politics into competing witch-hunts against ritualised ‘others’ whether they’re fat cat bosses, ‘elites’, tax cheats or dole bludgers. The worst is routinely assumed of others. There’s little real debate between different perspectives, and lots of shouting down. This is true not just on “shock jock” radio but in ‘quality media’ such as the ABC’s Q&A which orients itself around conflict, not on the, less immediately compelling task of forging some common understandings between people with different perspectives.

Nussbaum talks about the two roles of the emotions in her imagined, alternative liberal society. The first role is to inspire to worthy collective projects requiring effort and sacrifice from national defence to protecting the poor and weak. Nussbaum continues:

The other related task for the cultivation of public emotion is to keep at bay forces that lurk in all societies and ultimately, in all of us: tendencies to protect the fragile self by denigrating and subordinating others. .… Disgust and envy, the desire to inflict shame upon others  – all of these are present in all societies, and, very likely, in every individual human life.

There is a gender dimension to all this as well. In interpreting Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro Nussbaum contrasts two worlds. The world of the men of the ancien regime, whether exalted or lowly are status hungry participants in a zero sum world in which one person’s status gain is another’s loss. The women meanwhile are the cooperators. An ethic of care is central to their sensibility.

This contrast between masculine and feminine emotions seems worth pondering. One set associated with competition and aggression and looking outward from a group to defend against or attack enemies, the other with building cooperation and care within the group. These constellations of emotions even have their own hormones – testosterone and oxytocin. Vox pop democracy is so drenched in testosterone, so full of aggression and the instinct for division that it’s deranging us. Our polity is becoming like a punch drunk boxer lurching from one dimly comprehended drama to the next.

And we can see how testosterone crowds out other ways of being. On the day that gave rise to the infamous events associated with the “children overboard” allegations, Naval Commander Norman Banks gave a phone interview to Channel Ten from the deck of the HMAS Adelaide fresh from rescuing the children whom it was later infamously alleged were thrown into the sea for a photo op. In it he said “2t was quite a joy to hold the little kids’ hands and watch them smile”. Compare that expression of care – rapidly shunted off the stage of our vox pop democracy – with the combative, macho sound bite which dominated the campaign and still rings in our ears today. “We decide who comes here and the terms on which they come”. Since then it has been axiomatic that asylum seekers must be kept away from the media lest they be humanised.

Emotions within citizens’ juries

It is notable how much citizens within citizens’ juries tasked with arriving at political decisions are eager to compromise, rather than compete their way to some conclusion. Here’s what one juror said in a citizens’ jury deliberating on the question of how to keep Adelaide’s nightlife safe and vibrant. “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”. Contrast this with the way the issue would have been presented for our entertainment with a spokesperson for the hoteliers facing off against some opposing left-wing activists, playing to their base. There’d be plenty of ideology and name calling. The hotelier might anathematise the nanny state, the activists ‘free market capitalism’.

Here are two more typical quotes from the same citizens’ jury.

I know more how it is now – I have a broader perspective of it and there is a lot more happening than I realised.

My political views haven’t changed. But my opinion about how you move things forward, yes. But to be in the process of really having something that you want, and having to allow it to not come out in exactly the way you want, but nevertheless having some contribution to it, I suppose that’s the essence of democracy

Electoral campaigning as road rage

In many ways, the impersonality involved in mass campaigning for elections, and the various media (including social 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? If you’re like me it brings you up short. What was I thinking? Well, something similar occurs in mass democracy as we practice it now. Compare this to the human scale of deliberative groups – even relatively large groups. (It’s probably one reason why those in 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 That’s huge!

Interdicting oligarchic power

Sortition or selection by lot also offers a powerful bulwark against the power of elites and interest groups. Indeed, this has very often been one of the major reasons it was adopted, both in Athens and in European cities since the Rennaissance. Athens’ political mechanisms were self-consciously developed as antidotes to the ever-present danger of Athens’ aristocratic families fighting between themselves 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.

A creative renaissance?

I make no claims to science here, but 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 the very few examples we have in history of cities with constitutions that made extensive use of selection by lot.

  1. 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. “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. 
  2. 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. … 3s 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.”

  3. Wikipedia . See this reference for an elaboration of his four reasons for his assertion. 
  4. 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). 
  5. For instance in Athens 
  6. “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 in Democracy in America:

    4owever great 5 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.” 

  7. For instance in this jury, “all (17) jurors indicated that, if given the opportunity, they would participate in another citizens’ jury”. 
  8. 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” 
  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. See also Ostrom, E, Lin, 2003. Trust and Reciprocity: Interdisciplinary Lessons for Experimental Research, p. 31 ff.  
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Chris Lloyd
Chris Lloyd
2 years ago

I wonder if sortition might be a possible way to implement the Voice? While I have not followed the details, I am unaware of a clear proposal for how representatives would be chosen in a way that does not emulate the current political culture. Otherwise, we could end up with another atsic.

John Walker
1 year ago
Reply to  Nicholas Gruen

deafening silence around who should and who should not have the vote in such arrangements. “
That is what troubles me; will that aspect lead to some kind of institutionalisation-legislation defining or testing who is or is not ,indigenous ?