Sortition – doing democracy differently | Brett Hennig | TEDxDanubia


Translator: Réka Gyöngyhalmi
Reviewer: Peter van de Ven I want to talk about
one of the big questions. Perhaps the biggest question. How should we live together? How should a group of people,
who perhaps live in a city, or in a continent, or even the whole globe share and manage common resources? How should we make the rules
that govern us? This has always been
an important question, and today I think
it’s even more important than ever if we want to address rising inequality, climate change, the refugee crisis;
just to name a few major issues. It’s also a very old question. Humans have been asking
themselves this question ever since we lived
in organized societies. Like this guy, Plato. He thought we needed benevolent guardians who could make decisions
for the greater good of everyone. Kings and queens thought
they could be those guardians, but during various revolutions
they tended to loose their heads. And this guy, you probably know. Here in Hungary you lived for many years under one attempt to implement
his answer of how to live together. His answer was brutal, cruel and inhumain. But a different answer,
a different kind of answer, which went more or less
into hibernation for two thousand years, has had profound recent success. That answer is, of course, democracy. If we take a quick look
at the modern history of democracy, it goes something like this. Along here, we’re going to put
the last two hundred years. Up here, we’re going to put
the number of democracies. And the graph does this. The important point of which
is this extraordinary increase over time. Which is why the 20th century has been
called the century of democracy’s triumph. And why? As Francis Fukuyama said in 1989, some believe that we have reached
the end of history. That the question of how
to live together has been answered, and that answer is liberal democracy. Let’s explore that assertion, though. I want to find out what you think. So I’m going to ask you two questions, and I want you to put
your hands up if you agree. The first question is: Who thinks living in a democracy
is a good thing? Who likes democracy? If you can think of a better system,
keep your hands down. Don’t worry about those who didn’t raise
their hands, I’m sure they mean very well. The second question is: Who thinks our democracies
are functioning well? Come on, there must be one politician
in the audience somewhere! My point is: if liberal democracy
is the end of history, then there’s a massive paradox
or contradiction here. Why is that? Well, the first question
is about the ideal of democracy, and all these qualities
are very appealing. But in practice, it’s not working.
And that’s the second question. Our politics is broken,
our politicians aren’t trusted, and the political system is distorted
by powerful vested interest. I think there’s two ways
to resolve this paradox: One is to give up on democracy. It doesn’t work,
let’s elect a populist demagogue who will ignore democratic norms, trample on liberal freedoms
and just get things done. The other option, I think,
is to fix this broken system. To bring the practice closer to the ideal and put the diverse voices of society
in our parliaments and get them to make considerate,
evidence-based laws, for the long term good of everyone. Which brings me to my epiphany,
my moment of enlightment. And I want you to get critical. I want you to ask yourselves:
“Why wouldn’t this work?” and then come and talk to me
afterwards about it. Its technical name is sortition, but its common name is random selection. And the idea is actually very simple. We randomly select people
and put them in parliament. (Laughter) Let’s think about that
for a few more minutes, shall we? (Laughter) Imagine, we chose you and you and you
and you and you and you down there and a bunch of other random people, and we put you in our parliament
for the next couple of years. Of course we could stratify the selection
to make sure that it matched the socioeconomic and demographic
profile of the country and was a truly representative
sample of people. Fifty percent of them would be women, many of them would be young,
some would be old, a few would be rich, but most of them would be
ordinary people like you and me. This would be a microcosm of society. And this microcosm would simulate
how we would all think if we had the time, the information
and a good process to come to the moral crux
of political decisions. And although you may not be in that group, someone of your age,
someone of your gender, someone from your location
and someone with your background would be in that room. The decisions made by these people
would build on the wisdom of crowds, they would become more
than the sum of their parts. They would become critical thinkers with access to experts
who would be on tap but not on top. And they could prove
that diversity can trump ability when confronting the wide array
of societal questions and problems. It would not be government
by public opinion poll. It would not be government by referendum. These informed, deliberating people
would move beyond public opinion to the making of public judgments. However, there would be
one major side effect. If we replaced elections with sortition and made our parliament
truly representative of society, it would mean the end of politicians. And I’m sure we’d all
be pretty sad to see that. (Laughter) Very interestingly, random selection was a key part of
how democracy was done in ancient Athens. This machine, this device,
is called a kleroteria. It’s an ancient Athenean
random selection device. The ancient Atheneans
randomly selected citizens to fill the vast majority
of their political posts. They knew that elections
were aristocratic devices. They knew that career politicians
were a thing to be avoided. And I think we know these things, as well. But more interesting than
the ancient use of random selection, is its modern resurgence. The rediscovery of the legitimacy
of random selection in politics has become so common lately that there’s
simply too many examples to talk about. Of course I’m very aware that it’s going to be difficult
to institute this in our parliaments. Try this. Say to your friend: “I think we should populate our parliament
with randomly selected people.” He’ll be like, “Are you joking??
What if my neighbor gets chosen?! The fool can’t even
separate his recycling!” But the perhaps surprising
but overwhelming and compelling evidence from all these modern examples
is that it does work. If you give people responsibility,
they act responsibly. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not a panacea. The question is not,
would this be perfect? Of course not. People are fallibly human, and distorting influences
will continue to exist. The question is, would it be better? And the answer to that question,
to me at least, is obviously yes. Which gets us back
to our original question. How should we live together? And now we have an answer: with a parliament that uses sortition. But how would we get from here to there? How could we fix our broken system and remake democracy
for the twenty-first century? Well, there are several things we can do and that are in fact happening right now. We could experiment with sortition, we could introduce it to schools
and workplaces and other institutions. Like Democracy in Practice
is doing in Bolivia. We can hold policy juries
and citizens’ assemblies, like the New Democracy Foundation
is doing in Australia, like the Jefferson Senate
is doing in the US, and like the Irish government
is doing right now. We could build a social movement
demanding change, which is what the Sortition Foundation
is doing in the UK. And at some point, we should institute it. Perhaps the first step
would be a second chamber in our parliament
full of randomly selected people. A citizens’ senate, if you will. There is a campaign
for a citizens’ senate in France and another campaign in Scotland, and it could of course be done
right here in Hungary. That would be kind of like
a Trojean horse, right into the heart of government. And then, when it becomes impossible to patch
over the cracks in the current system, we might step up
and replace elections with sortition. I have hope. Here in Hungary, systems have been created and systems have been torn down
and replaced in the past. Change can and does happen. It’s just a matter of when and how. Thank you. (Hungarian) Thank you. (Applause)

Maurice Vega

21 Responses

  1. Only problems are that people would be less likely to support an unelected government and it wouldn't be easy to judge public opinion on the performance of the government without elections. These are problems with replacing all elected politicians in a parliament, as the guy said there are other ways of introducing sortition to real politics. In the UK I would like to see elections for local councillors replaced with random selection because there is already such low voter turn out and a ward's vote could be bought with such a tiny amount of money by buying targeted Facebook ads, for example.

  2. Brett, love your idea! A real 'return to the past'. A movement that is already taking place (on a very small scale) in redesign and improvement of some healthcare services in OzA

  3. I love the concept, but we need to step up, grow up ourselves and stop looking for saviours and messiahs. It's important that we stop depicting politicians as 'devils' and realise that WE have created them. Are we ready to be tough with ourselves?

  4. What would incentivise representatives to do a good job if not the desire to be re-elected? What would prevent inexperienced representatives, acting on their own outside of a party system, from being overly influenced by lobbyists? How would you know if representatives were doing a good job? How would you influence them to take constituents views into account?

  5. Intriguing & new to me. Question—I live in the US where jurors are similarly chosen (in theory). We have great trouble getting citizens to step out of their daily lives & jobs & businesses for only a week for jury duty. How would random citizens be induced to give up (dedicate) 2 years? How has that worked in practice? Thank you.

  6. a representative random-sample of society would be able to identify societies problems, but wouldn't be able to come up with solutions. Political problem solving is like every other skill or knowledge, it has to be developed. Not everybody has the interest or time to develop that skill.

  7. Today I wittnessed reason #537 why we need a Sortition government of common citizens. The Liberals at MSNBC are currently outraged at President Trump for suggesting an end to War Games in the Korean Peninsula. Only in an overcommercialized win at all cost political system can "Liberals" be opposed to putting an end to War Games!!! Lol..

  8. I especially liked the idea of trying sortition as a replacement for the Senate. However, there were two (non-critical) factual errors in the talk. One is that the Hammer & Sickle design was somehow associated with Karl Marx, who had been dead 34 years before Vladimir Lenin's Bolsheviks adopted the symbol.
    Second, the promise of Electoral Reform in Canada (which had a lot to do with Justin Trudeau being elected) was officially abandoned 4 months before this TED talk. Brett can be forgiven for not knowing that one, since Electoral Reform was promised 1,800 times during the election and everyone expected it would happen. That's a good example of why politicians are so often reviled.

  9. If I was selected through sortition I would refuse the position. If I was forced through legality to accept it, I would either do nothing or actively work against the system. I refuse to participate in politics of any form. End of.

  10. This talk makes you wonder wheter when his bathrooom breaks he will open his contact list and call someone at random or search for a plumber

  11. Great idea! I believe that randomly selected people can enrich the arena, with unknown capabilities to inspire politicians. In the beginning the existing politicians should be working together with the newcomers. After a couple of years we'll see what happens. May-be less professional politicians, and more know how. It'll probably be better, for at least the atmosphere anywhere. We should take the chance and start talking about this. I will, in my neighborhood, anyways.

  12. Sortition is a big step away from democracy, as soon as you focus on the fact, that democracy requires self-determination of the people. There is a significant reduction of conscious choice and self-determination with sortition. The whole questions starts by the premises: That politicians and parties are in essence a bad thing! In reality, the only thing we can say is, that they work against us. But that could be due to "possibilities or holes" we have in our version of democracy, where we were unable to detect any failed or kidnapped element. In other words: our negative impression of representative democracy could just be caused by the awareness that it is not democracy at all, and it could just mean that we are unable to detect, why it is not democracy.

  13. A guy listened to this TEdTalk and then tried to blow up Washington DC with a 200-pound bomb. You guys should be ashamed!

  14. Choosing random people from the population to lead for a short time is the most sensible, representative answer to elimination of political corruption, abuse, war….

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