DR OLLY DOWLEN
SORTITION AND THE REQUIREMENT FOR STATE IMPARTIALITY IN TRANSITIONAL AND DEVELOPING DEMOCRACIES
EARLY CAREER FELLOW: SEPTEMBER 2012 – SEPTEMBER 2013
This study programme is designed to investigate how the use of randomly selected citizens in public offices could help to develop impartial state institutions and so add stability to developing democracies. By exploring and identifying problems relating to factionalism experienced by modern states in transition to democracy or seeking to maintain democratic progress, the study then uses several model schemes to assess how sortition could contribute towards their resolution. As well as examining current theoretical appraisals of the transition to, and consolidation of, democracy, the study will draw on historical examples of the successful use of sortition, modern theories on the value of choosing office-holders by lottery, and particular case-studies of states in transition to democracy to examine these claims.
The Research Idea
My doctoral work and research since graduation in 2007 is on the subject of sortition: the random-selection of citizens for public office. This method of selection was used comprehensively in the Ancient Athenian polis, and re-emerged in the late medieval and renaissance city-states of Italy. It now survives in modern democracies in the form of the randomly selected jury. By examining the past practice of sortition in the light of an analysis of the form and function of the lottery I identify what I call its primary political potential. This is its capacity for preventing the process of selection from falling into the hands of those wishing to control it for their own ends.
Recently I have been working on possible modern applications of sortition, particularly for state rather than governmental offices on the grounds that it is here that the mechanism can best complement the process of government by electoral consent. My attention has also turned to the problems facing new or relatively new democracies, especially the need to create stable, inclusive and trustworthy political institutions. My intuition is that sortition could be a particularly valuable element in this process.
My study proposal is to investigate whether it is possible to define a “requirement for state impartiality” in the process of building new democracies and explore how a number of possible schemes involving sortition could help build impartial institutions that would add to the stability of developing democracies. My working hypothesis is that, in comparison to the states where sortition was regularly practised in the past, the potency and potential dangers of factionalism are underestimated in modern democratic state building. By teasing out the relative current neglect of the problems of impartiality I can present sortition as a genuine option for those engaged in the modern process of democratic state building.
This study promises to break new ground by effecting the intervention of modern sortition theory a) into the academic field of democratic transition theory b) into the practical field of anti-factional planning at the level of constitutional design in new or developing democracies.
The motivation for this study comes from the perception of real problems in the lengthy process of transition to democracy. The most pressing of these is the problem of potential factional disintegration (most graphically illustrated by the 2007-8 electoral violence in Kenya), but of equal concern is the situation where a factional struggle can lead to the victory of one party that then dominates the state apparatus (Zimbabwe 1980-90). Within the transition to democracy citizens often become active in overthrowing an authoritarian regime only to be “de-mobilised” or sidelined once negotiations between power blocs or rival elites get underway. The resulting agreements and the subsequent state-building can therefore reflect partisan concerns, rather than the general interests of the citizenry at large.
My understanding is that this study is entirely original in its depth, focus and scope. Sortition is a new and rapidly growing subject. While there have been numerous instances of the advocacy of sortive schemes, (including Barber1984, and Barnet and Carty 2008) very few of these have been based either on a comprehensive understanding of the past practise of sortition or on an evaluation of the form and function of the lottery mechanism. Similarly none have focused on the very real practical problems of the transition to, and consolidation of, democracy. From the other side of the equation modern democratic theory, especially in the area of transition and consolidation, makes little or no mention of sortition as a possible mechanism for choosing citizens for public office. (I am thinking particularly of the work of Huntington, Lijphart, Linz, Lipset, O’Donnell, Schmitter and Stepan.) Nor, (more surprisingly) is there much work on the distinction between state and government in this literature. Furthermore, modern literature on democratic consolidation relies heavily on the idea of strengthening civil society (see, for example, the work of Arato, Cohen and Bibic), with little criticism of how the interface between civil and political society operates. The operations of sortition, however, focus on this very interface.
Theory & Evidence Base
This study is innovative in its theoretical base in that it takes advanced modern sortition theory, which identifies the capacities and political potential of the lottery process, and seeks to apply it to the genuine problems of democratic development.
In doing so it will, de facto, advance the prospect of a different model of the state and a new and distinct relationship between citizen and state. A sub-script to the project is, therefore, the limitations of the liberal democratic model (in which, for example, citizen participation is limited to periodic voting, and where the individual’s entry point into the political system is dependent on party loyalty). Impartiality, rather than the representation of pluralist partisan interests (as in Dahl 1971, following Bentley 1908) thus becomes a key concept. The past practice of sortition constitutes half the empirical or factual basis of the study, the other half being the more recent history of democratic transition and consolidation.
Barber, B. (1984) Strong Democracy: Participatory Politics for a New Age. University of California Press, Berkley.
Barnet, A; Carty, P. (2008) The Athenian Option, Radical Reform for the House of Lords. Imprint Academic, Exeter.
Bentley, A.F. (1908) The Process of Government: a Study of Social Pressures. Chicago
Dahl, R. (1971) Polyarchy. Yale University Press, New Haven.
- Look systematically at the problems facing emerging democracies with a focus on those that derive from excessive factionalism or the factional penetration of state institutions. While I would expect to investigate a broad range of democratic transitions and processes of consolidation in the post WWII period in order to identify and characterise this set of problems, I also propose to look at two or three countries in greater detail. My current interest is in Zimbabwe, Kenya and the current situation in Thailand, but other more pertinent subjects for special attention could arise during research. The aim of this would be to identify and describe a group of related “factional problems” that derive from actual political practice and which would be generally applicable to a majority of transitional/consolidation scenarios.
- Look at the theory that a) emerged from these problems, b) contributed to how the political actors approached these problems in practice. In particular I will be looking at how state institutions are understood in comparison to those of government, what attention is given to the need for state impartiality and how it is suggested that impartial institutions are created and sustained.
- Make a clear case for state impartiality as a necessary ingredient in the transition to, and further development of, democracy.
- Present a comprehensive view of the value of sortition as a mechanism capable of contributing to the formation of impartial state institutions. Most of this work has already been completed, but will need to be reworked to make it more relevant to this new project.
- Develop a series of about 4 or 5 model institutions based on the use of randomly selected citizens. These models will cover a range of state functions and will involve different pool sizes, different criteria for belonging to the pool, and different relationships with other, more familiar, democratic procedures and institutions.
- Present a cross-category evaluation of the above. In this I would create a theoretical confrontation between a series of known problems and a series of possible solutions. The purpose would then be to explore the principles and attendant measures that might inform and direct good practice if any of these options are to be taken up in the future.
The nature of the tasks indicates that the most appropriate written outcome would be a short monograph of about 30-40,000 words. This would be accompanied by a shorter journal article designed to make an intervention into the academic arena of general democratic theory. I am also considering producing an internet pamphlet of some 10,000 words designed to appeal to a less academic readership.
I would actively incorporate aspects of this work into conference and seminar presentations, both amongst those exploring and developing modern sortition theory (with whom I currently work) and those engaged in studying democratic transition and consolidation.
This proposal is unique, innovative and will suggest new (albeit old) solutions to real modern problems in an area of endeavour where new developments on the ground are possible. It is not interdisciplinary in the usual sense because the study of sortition is very much a new and emerging area of study: but this, in itself speaks to its originality. Nonetheless, because it is too practical in its implications it is unlikely to attract funds as a work of political theory; at the same time, because it is suggesting new solutions it does not easily fit within the category of empirical or descriptive study favoured by Political Science.
I have been able to make considerable progress in my project. The research work has involved a number of different elements: close study of two main examples (Kenya and Hungary); extensive studies of the academic literature on democratic consolidation from the period 1945-95; the formulation of general perspectives and principles based on the above.
The most important result of the work so far has been the formulation and articulation of what I call the mediative/oppositional perspective as a means of evaluating the process of democratic consolidation. This distinguishes between a political relationship in which two (or more) parties are mediated by a third party, group or institution and one where the parties merely pursue their interests in opposition to each other. Constitutions and most other forms of political agreement are mediative in form, but can break down if the mediative aspect is not sufficiently impartial or is not successfully defended against partisan groupings.
It is in the strengthening of these elements and the design of impartial institutions and procedures that we can find the most appropriate and the most valuable use of random recruitment of citizens to public office. A lottery decision is, by its very nature, mediative in that it creates an anonymous impartial third or mediating party. This is because it excludes power relations from the process of decision making – in this case the recruitment of public office holders.
In January 2014 I visited Athens as the guest of a citizens’ democracy NGO to discuss the practical relevance of my work. This was a very successful visit and I hope to be able to make contact with other similar organisations in the coming years.
Workshops & Conferences
IPSA Conference, Montreal, July 2014, “Sortition and the Constitutional Design of Democracies”
Collective Intelligence and Democratic Procedures Seminar, University of Laussane, October 2013
Sortition and Democratic Consolidation Seminar, Queen Mary, University of London, October 2013 (Organiser)
ECPR Conference, Sciences Po, Bordeaux, September 2013, “Selection by Lottery: Citizen Recruitment of a Special Kind”
AFPS Conference, Sciences Po, Paris, July 2013, “Le tirage au sort et la consolidation démocratique”
Queen Mary, University of London, May 2013, “Modern democracy and the Randomly Selected Citizen; directions and perspectives”
PSA Conference, Cardiff, March 2013, “Sortition and Democratic Consolidation”
Sortition as a Democratic Mechanism Seminar, Trinity College, Dublin, October 2012