Sorting out the Senate: Some Reflections on a Randomly-Selected Senate

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In the ongoing negotiations for a new Belgian federal government, Paul Magnette recently suggested transforming the Belgian Senate into a “Citizens’ Chamber”, where citizens selected by lot (“sortition”) would deliberate on issues of common concern. In this post, Ronald Van Crombrugge offers a clearer perspective of how such a randomly selected senate could contribute to democracy.

The proposal – virtually unthinkable a decade or so ago – has been steadily gaining ground in Belgium among academics, activists (such as Extinction Rebellion), and political parties alike. Time to describe and evaluate the underlying normative arguments to explore the proposal’s potential democratic contributions but also its limits.

Fundamentally, two strands of argument support a chamber chosen by lot. The first is grounded in the democratic value of sortition itself – especially vis-à-vis election – while the second concerns the epistemic gains of a sortition-based chamber for the democratic system as a whole. While most authors rely on arguments of both kinds, there is a big difference.

Those basing themselves primarily on the democratic argument are more likely to see sortition as superior and preferable to election. Thus, the idea of a second chamber chosen by lot co-existing with a chamber based on election often features as a second-best and – ideally – temporary solution. The ultimate goal then is a democratic system entirely based on sortition, a lottocracy if you will. Those who base the value of sortition mainly on epistemic grounds, on the other hand,often are not opposed to elections at all. They merely consider a randomly-selected chamber as one element in a complex democratic system composed of numerous institutions.

The Democratic Argument

The first democratic argument in favour of sortition is that it realises political equality: it guarantees everyone (or at least every full citizen) an equal chance of holding office. In ancient Athens, this principle was tightly connected to the idea that, although not everyone could exercise power at the same time, appointing offices by lot still allows a citizen to consider himself free in so far as – in the long run – he will rule and be ruled in turn. In this way, sortition was strongly tied to the value of citizens participating in decision-making directly. Under modern conditions of mass democracy, this evidently no longer applies. While in Classical Athens almost one in two citizens would be a member of the Council (or Boulē ) at least once in his life, in a democracy with (sometimes hundreds of) millions of citizens the chance of being chosen by lot is virtually non-existent. Seen from this perspective, under a fully “lottocratic” system, citizens have traded in the real possibility of exerting an -albeit limited and indirect- influence on state-affairs for an infinitely small chance of exercising this power directly.

One possible counterargument to this is that, under a sortition-based system, citizens do not have to be actively involved in the decision-making process in order for them to recognise a decision as their own. Since the chamber chosen by lot is statistically representative for the broader population one could argue (as some authors do) that its judgment represents what the broader population would think on a certain issue if it were in a capacity to deliberate about it.

Such claims are problematic from a democratic perspective, however. Not only are they empirically implausible , they fly in the face of the fundamental democratic principle that every citizen is an autonomous, thinking subject deserving of respect. Under a fully lottocratic system,  the idea that people may have good reasons not to agree with the majority of a sorted assembly is reduced to ignorance: they did not think the issue through like the participants in the assembly did and therefore should simply blindly defer to the judgment of “their better selves”. When the democratic credentials of sortition are overstated, they encourage the passive acceptance of reasons by the outside public. Yet a healthy democracy relies precisely on a lively public sphere to play a critical and contestatory role.

The Epistemic Argument

If the value of sortition does not lie in its “democratic superiority” vis-à-vis elections, then where does it lie? I believe that the added value of a randomly-selected assembly should primarily be sought in the epistemic contribution it could make to the democratic system as a whole. The role of the randomly-selected assembly within the Belgian bicameral system would thus be that of a “reflection chamber”. Interestingly, this would return the senate to its original purpose, as envisaged by the founders in 1831. Yet, while the founders saw this epistemic added value in the senate’s aristocratic nature, which would guard the system against the fluctuations and passions of public opinion, the point of a randomly-selected senate is precisely the fact that it would consist of ordinary citizens. However, since these citizens likely possess little in terms of policy-expertise or specific knowledge, what is the basis for the randomly-selected senate’s role as reflection chamber?

Its epistemic benefits would be twofold. Firstly, it would ensure the inclusion of a more diverse set of viewpoints and social perspectives in the decision-making process. While elections are great at representing ideological diversity, they are much less successful at ensuring social diversity. Elections tend to attract a specific kind of people to run for office, often stemming from similar social backgrounds: higher-educated, more confident and wealthier than the average citizen. This limited set of social perspectives represented in elected parliaments, in turn, is likely to generate epistemic failures.

Social perspectives can be thought of as a set of common experiences leading people to ask similar questions, raise similar concerns, and share certain assumptions, even though the people sharing these perspectives may disagree about the conclusions to be drawn from these commonalities. Thus even though an elected chamber may be ideologically diverse, because most elected representatives share a similar social background, they might still inadvertently ignore the problems and misperceive the needs and concerns of people occupying a radically different perspective. A second chamber based on sortition where such social perspectives would be represented can confront elected representatives with their own biases and blind-spots.

Secondly, a randomly-selected senate would serve as a counterweight against an elected chamber dominated by members thinking along party lines. Especially the Belgian political system, which due to the dominant role of political parties in politics has been described as a “particracy” rather than a democracy, could benefit from such a counterweight.

The dominance of political parties in parliamentary proceedings has a number of negative deliberative effects. The iron law of party discipline – which to a large extent defines the internal working of parliament – reduces the prospect of high-quality deliberation. Most obviously, this party discipline denies elected representatives the freedom to vote according to their own judgment. Aside from these internal disincentives, the fact that the parliamentary agenda is defined by electoral cycles discourages representatives from engaging in longer-term reflection. They are discouraged from putting forward policies that will only bear fruit on the long run, because such policies do not help their re-election effort. While regular elections are crucial for keeping representatives accountable, and for enabling citizens to reject and actively contest representative claims, the overall short-termism of electoral democracy is an important side-effect. It negatively undermines the capacity of elected parliaments to deal with issues which require sustained legislative effort to be tackled successfully – such as climate change.

A randomly-selected senate would not be subject to the same incentive structure. Representatives chosen through sortition only represent themselves, and are not accountable to anyone. While this is a reason to limit the sorted assembly to an advisory role, it does mean that these chosen citizens are free to deliberate. They can listen to experts and their peers and change their mind if they so choose, without having to worry about re-election or having to fear negative repercussions for breaking party rank. Moreover, in their deliberations, these citizens are more likely to adopt a wider temporal perspective which reaches far beyond the next election date. Therefore, a randomly-selected senate could be seen as a means to representing the interests of future generations in collective decision-making.

Conclusion

In all these ways, a randomly-selected senate could act both as a useful deliberative input in the democratic system – by including un- or under-represented perspectives in the decision-making process – and as a necessary corrective against some of the weaknesses of elective representation. In both cases, however, its role is merely to supplement, not to replace. Due to the democratic limitations sortition suffers from the last word should continue to lie with the elected chamber, or with the population as a whole through referendum.


R. VAN CROMBRUGGE, "Sorting out the Senate: Some Reflections on a Randomly-Selected Senate", Leuven Blog for Public Law, 13 December 2019, https://www.leuvenpubliclaw.com/sorting-out-the-senate-some-reflections-on-a-randomly-selected-senate (geraadpleegd op 31 October 2020)

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