Archive for the ‘Sortition’ Category

A heavy head after Turkish election night

May 17, 2023 Leave a comment

Well, I admit it, I can’t stop thinking about the latest episode of Turkish Election Night. That promising new story-line of David vs Goliath, how could anyone resist? And the plot twists! Goliath sneaking out distracting numbers to put his opponent’s aim off. A sharp new personage surging onto the stage as a co-combatant. And then Goliath beating the odds and coming out on top.

That ending seems unlikely to change in a run-off vote on 28 May. Challenger Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, who took 45 per cent of Sunday’s vote, will be hard pushed to catch up with the incumbent, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who led with 49 per cent and looks sure to pick up much of surprise kingmaker Sinan Oğan’s 5 per cent.

Perhaps a different result might have meant profound shifts in domestic and foreign policies, as the New York Times opined. For the Economist, it was “a chance to restore democratic rule, and a path to economic stability”, with the fate of relations with Russia, the judiciary and the central bank all in the balance. At the very least, it would have been good to see a prisoner of conscience like persecuted businessman Osman Kavala walk free.

Now we’ll probably never know. My head the morning after was weighed down by the realisation that Turkey’s stance on all these real dilemmas was riding not just on a narrow majority but also on just one day’s vote that will not be repeated for another five years. And the question: why would any country, business or organisation that wanted to be flexible and innovative allow its decision-making process fall into an iron trap like this?

Choices have long-term consequences. As Turkish Professor Murat Somer argues, the country has been charging toward an autocratic, untransparent model of centralised decision making since a narrow majority of Turks approved a presidential system in a 2017 referendum. “The current authoritarian constitution and ruling style has not been consolidated yet but if the current government wins … it’ll be hard to get back to democracy. Autocracy could last a long time,” he said.

In short, I felt like I’d been hitting my head against a brick wall and expected a different result. The same old political map emerged: inland Anatolia and the Black Sea coast voted pro-Islamic and conservative (that is, for Mr. Erdoğan); the coast and some the biggest cities voted secular and progressive; and the mainly Kurdish southeast voted for Mr. Kılıçdaroğlu for president and for their mainly Kurdish party for parliament.

But the prevailing injustice remains: one half of Turkey has got to choose what happens next, and for five years national decisions will continue to be made more or less whatever the other half thinks. (Since the opposition is a much more equal coalition committed to re-introduce a parliamentary system, it’s fair to assume that it plans less of a one-person show, but in principle the same applies to them). The many municipalities in opposition hands will struggle to get funds and stay out of legal trouble. Meanwhile the common ground of consensus and good sense are undermined as the system increases Turkish nationalists’ undue influence on the right, as it does Kurdish nationalists on the left.

The incumbent’s victory surprised even the markets and on Monday morning the Turkish lira dropped five per cent against the dollar. The workers who are half-way through rebuilding the roof of my Turkish home from home failed to turn up, knocked out by spending the night watching the results come in and in one case driving half way across Turkey to vote.

Now the whole country of 85 million people faces two more weeks of paralysing drama until the 28 May run-off. Polarisation will proceed apace as President Erdoğan is forced even further to the right to ensure victory, while progressives, left with no prospect of a say in government, will doubtless become more pointed in their opposition.

Voting is obligatory and well-managed in Turkey – with only one or two reports of violence at polling stations – and Sunday’s 88 per cent turnout puts many Western states in the shade. But whichever side wins, it is hard to see how stability, motivation and progress will be well served by a centralised presidential system in which half of the population is angry, frustrated and feels unable to have its voice heard.

This is the same divisive majoritarian logic that gave Turkey its presidential system in 2017 with just 51 per cent of the vote. Similarly, this logic gave Europe the 2016 UK referendum on Brexit (which left 48 per cent of the British population seething and impotent for an indefinite future outside the EU) or the 2014 referendum on Scottish independence (in which 44 per cent of the Scots were left frustrated inside the UK for another generation). There is also the razor-thin margin which will doubtless decide between a Republican and a Democrat candidate in the U.S. in 2024, driving ever-deeper divisions between Americans who would mostly be able to agree on many things.

It’s not just in Turkey that people are gravitating to authoritarian alternatives (as long as autocrat reflects their political preference, of course). Pew Research Centre finds that a median of 51 per cent of people in 27 countries are dissatisfied with their country’s democratic performance, and a median 52 per cent of people in 17 advanced economies think their systems need major change.

Why then should elections continue to be the exemplar of how we choose who runs human affairs? In the conversations I’ve been having in my nearby market town in southern Turkey (described before the elections here), people are definitely split down the middle in their preferences between the candidates on offer. But at the same time, it is clear that most of them want broadly the same things: rule of law, predictability, jobs, schools and municipal efficiency.

In Turkey, polls generally show that people may dislike politicians, but they still trust the country’s institutions (see my pre-election piece in Politico about Turkey’s ‘battle of the centuries’). Experiments in my favourite alternative or complement to elections – sortition-based democracy, that is, groups of randomly selected citizens informing themselves about a topic, deliberating and then deciding in the public interest – are spreading fast in Europe, and from the Philippines to Mexico. Could they work in Turkey too? Perhaps. A recent Harris poll found that 63 per cent of Turkish citizens would be ready to participate in a council to audit their municipality’s work.

A start could be made with a citizens’ assembly on a subject that isn’t one of the big divides of Turkish politics. Possible subjects could be:

What would Turkey’s best policy be to cope with the long-term presence of 3.5 million Syrian refugees in the country?

Or: How can this country, criss-crossed as it is by major tectonic fault-lines, revamp its existing and future buildings to deal with the dangers revealed in the February earthquake, when inadequate and poorly enforced building codes resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands of people?

Or even: What does Turkey really want from its stalled membership negotiations with the European Union?

Such citizens’ assemblies would surely give a heartening example of ordinary people moving forward and finding consensus on difficult policy matters, as such mini-publics have done so well elsewhere. This would certainly lighten up the status quo, in which half the population is left alienated or angry the morning after. And for years of mornings to come.


Panels and Presentations for The Keys to Democracy

March 22, 2023 1 comment

This blog is updated with the public presentations of The Keys to Democracy: Sortition as a New Model for Citizen Power, by my late father Maurice Pope. Endorsements and reviews can be found separately here. A fine hardback is available direct from Imprint Academic (where you can get a 30 per cent launch discount with code CAT23, but beware of Brexit charges if ordering to Europe!). Globally it’s on Amazon (e.g. US, UK, DE) as a hardback and as Kindle. The publisher also posted my Dad’s preface online here.


4 June 2023 – FDRH Podcast with Michael Goldfarb

The eloquent American radio reporter and podcaster Michael Goldfarb and I had a fun and thoughtful conversation about democracy by lot and my late father Maurice Pope’s new book ‘The Keys to Democracy: Sortition as a New Model for Citizen Power’. (Also on SoundCloud here).

Goldfarb reported from around the world for National Public Radio, so our discussion on his First Rough Draft of History (FRDH) podcast ranged far and wide, even taking in the Turkish elections. I was happy that the veteran newsman, now living in London, appeared to like the book as well.

“Not a bad stylist, your Dad. Not a bad writer at all,” he hummed, reflecting what, in his adopted English home, could be quite strong expression of approval.


27 June 2023 – Engines of Oligarchy: Podcast with Australian economist Nicholas Gruen

This is a full podcast with Nicholas Gruen – on YouTube here – but our full conversation was a lot longer and has been well-edited to capture all the best parts that make up a good introduction to the benefits of sortition. The sound and video are strikingly good too, considering that I was talking from the end of a very long, thin copper cable while supervising roof work at my Turkish mountainside home-from-home. We cover a lot of ground about elections, sortition, my late Dad’s book and we even had some fun along the way.


24 May 2023 – Video of the book launch debate

“Fantastic.” “Visionary.” “Extraordinarily radical.” “It’s a brilliant book.”

This short video highlights the uplifting comments and buzzing spirit we had at the launch in Oxford of The Keys to Democracy: sortition as a new model for citizen power, my late Dad Maurice Pope’s long-lost work on how to understand and fix our dysfunctional, 250-year-old political system. To mark the occasion, more than 70 members of his family, friends and similarly minded enthusiasts for democratic innovation gathered on 18 March 2023 for a debate in Wadham College.


18 April 2023 – Online panel with Germany’s Mehr Demokratie

Much to consider in this YouTube recording of our wide-ranging debate on 18 April organised by Germany’s big national democracy innovation NGO Mehr Demokratie about when and how randomly selected citizens’ assemblies may gain more decision-making power.

For the discussion, Mehr Demokratie’s Ina Poppelreuter hosted Polish sortition expert Marcin Gerwin, Mehr Demokratie’s Board Member Sarah Händel and me.

While there was mention of legally binding powers in some countries and in some domains already today, most interventions were in favour of step-by-step gradualism and more experimentation. Still, it was clear that most of us thought that some citizens’ assemblies are already gaining much legitimacy and credibility, and that politicians will have increasing difficulty to ignore their recommendations.


21 March 2023 – Online panel organised by DemocracyNext

A first online discussion of The Keys to Democracy – alongside Professor Yves Sintomer, whose excellent new history of sortition The Government of Chance was published in February – was hosted on 21 March 2023 by Claudia Chwalisz of DemocracyNext and moderated by James Harding of Tortoise Media. Click here for a Twitter thread with key take-aways and more pictures.


18 March 2023 – Wadham College, Oxford

We had a full house and a lively debate on Saturday 18 March 2023 at Oxford’s Wadham College to launch my late father Maurice Pope’s book The Keys to Democracy: Sortition as a New Model for Citizen Power. A short video of the event is here.

I told our audience of 70 friends, family and democratic innovation enthusiasts how my father conceived and wrote the work in the 1980s, why it didn’t find a publisher three decades ago and what happened after we found the typescript after his death in 2019, forgotten on an obscure shelf in his large library.

I also laid out how The Keys to Democracy challenges us to define democracy more honestly: that is, to convince proponents of our current system that elections are not the be-all and end-all of democracy. In fact, my late Dad’s book argues that elections visibly do little more than shuffle chairs within an oligarchy, proving that “a ruling class does not need a ruling committee”. The alternative is sortition, he says, the system that powered the success of a civilisation like ancient Athens: replacing elite party politicians with the random selection of citizen panels that set policy through informing themselves, deliberating and reaching consensus, not forcing things through on narrow majority votes.

My old Wadham College roommate Michael Potter, now Cambridge’s Professor of Logic, responded to my enthusiasm by pointing out some challenges ahead. For instance, he questioned how a court jury can really be transformed so easily, as my late father proposes, into a policy-making panel. Michael’s intervention was informed by many conversations with my late father about the mathematics of sampling and random selection.

Richard Pantlin of Oxford’s Citizens Assembly Network moderated our debate, mixing it up with some instructive fun. Rich recreated the buzz of deliberation in a citizens’ assembly by asking guests to discuss their views with neighbours. Then he gave a taste of random selection by using lottery tickets to choose who got to ask questions from the audience. As ever, using random selection gave everyone a taste of having an equal chance.

We also had the chance to listen to two other Oxford activists. Dr Al Chisholm added a practical note, describing how a Citizens Jury brought very different people onto the same page about travel within Oxford. Dr Rabhya Dewshi explained why Extinction Rebellion supported citizens’ assemblies as part of XR’s goal to #decidetogether.

We were honoured to have University College London’s Professor Alan Renwick in the audience. He rose to tell us about a citizens’ assembly that he led in 2017, in which the randomly selected citizens made consensual proposals that might have defused the post-Brexit crisis. For instance, they showed that informed citizens supported the UK staying within the EU customs union and single market. If only such an assembly had had the chance to debate EU membership before the referendum vote!

Pioneer Olly Dowlen, who wrote his book on the political potential of sortition more than two decades ago, told the audience about how sortition produces good decisions.

I was amazed to hear, just ten days after publication, that several people had already ordered and read the book. My proudest moment for my father at the event was when one top practitioner said he had bought and almost finished The Keys to Democracy already and found it an “astonishingly brilliant book. It thinks through many of the things that political theorists and political scientists have been gradually groping towards over the last 40 years.”


13 March 2023 – Leiden University, the Netherlands

A light moment after a first book talk for The Keys to Democracy on 13 March 2023, for faculty and students at Leiden University’s Institute for Security and Global Affairs in The Hague, the Netherlands. 


1 March 2023 – Democracy Nerd podcast, Portland OR

The irrepressible Jefferson Smith and I left no stone unturned in my first podcast on 1 March 2023 in support of my late Dad’s book The Keys to Democracy: Sortition as a New Model for Citizen Power.

Starting with the impact of the earthquake in Turkey (where I happened to be), Smith and his podcast Democracy Nerd took us on an unstoppable and surprisingly fun romp through not just the philosophy of democracy (including testing questions on Plato’s noumenalism), my father’s work in South Africa, the lonely life of an independent academic, the things sons do & don’t learn from their fathers and what it’s like to attend a citizens’ assembly.

Along the way we did of course explore the ins and outs of random selection, deliberation and the possible uses of democracy by lot. It was midnight, we kept debating for more than 90 minutes, I was freezing by the end and I had no idea that the camera recording was going to be published on YouTube! So it was not my slickest look.

“The Keys to Democracy” Has a Publisher

September 11, 2022 Leave a comment

Good news! The UK’s Imprint Academic will be publishing my late father and classicist Maurice Pope’s last and long-lost book, which I and my brother Quentin been busy editing for the past several months. It will appear in Spring 2023 as “The Keys to Democracy: Sortition as a Model for Citizen Power.”

Three decades ago, my father’s then publishers turned down the text. They found his proposals for political innovation too radical, utopian and implausible, even though they were inspired by ancient Athenian democracy. He turned to other projects. The book disappeared into what we thought was an irreparably corrupted 1980s computer file.

Then, after my father’s death in 2019, my mother Johanna found the typescript in his library. Time changes points of view! Back in the 1980s I too thought the text wasn’t very realistic. But now I see how much politics-as-usual needs to change, his argument for decision-makers selected like juries looks fresh, relevant, clear & compelling.

The project to revive the book would have got nowhere unless others had felt the same.

Huge thanks for a generous Foreword to Prof. Dr. Hélène Landemore of Yale University, whose 2021 book “Open Democracy: Reinventing Popular Rule for the 21st Century” sets a gold standard for academic studies of sortition. She calls my Dad’s book “visionary … a prescient and self-assured argument for democracy by lot before pretty much anyone else.”

I much appreciated too a scene-setting Introduction by classicist Prof. Dr. Paul Cartledge of Cambridge, author of the masterful “Democracy: A Life.” Here’s part of what he says: “The Keys to Democracy remains unique in its philosophical breadth and scope. And in its vision it is still bolder than many on offer.”

Many thanks as well for early endorsements from Dr. Brett Hennig of Sortition Foundation, Claudia Chwalisz of DemocracyNext, Dr. Heather Grabbe of Open Society Foundations, Michael Keating, executive director of the European Institute of Peace and ex-UN envoy to Somalia and Prof. Richard Youngs of Warwick University and Carnegie Europe. They have variously supported the book as “Incredibly knowledgeable”; “Gives us hope”; “Required reading”; “Learned and entertaining”; and “[A] masterful tract”.

Much gratitude too to pioneering political scientist Prof. Dr. Peter Stone of Trinity College Dublin, who connected us to sortition guru and publisher Keith Sutherland. Imprint Academic is placing “The Keys to Democracy” in its series on Sortition and Public Policy.

Over the years, we also owe much to the moral and real support of Jonathan McVity, an author and student of philosophy who helped my father in trying to interest US publishers in the text in the 1980s; he tells the story in one afterword. And also Dr. Michael Potter, Professor of Logic at Cambridge’s Faculty of Philosophy, who shared rooms with me when we were undergraduates at Oxford. Michael often discussed sortition with my father, and in another afterword describes what he would have liked to have had out with my father about the use of juries (and my father did love a good argument).

The conclusion of The Keys to Democracy, Maurice Pope’s 2nd draft

It’s been a busy year of typing out the manuscript, editing, reaching out and researching footnotes. But it’s been wonderfully motivating to meet leaders of the new wave of innovators trying to upgrade our democracies, and above all to feel their selfless support.

Personally, I felt a great sense of closure when I pressed the button and sent the final manuscript to the publishers on Thursday.

I’m also so glad too to think that my father – silently but deeply disappointed, I believe, that this culmination of his life’s work didn’t see the light of day – can rest in peace. His ideas will now live on.

What will post-digital archives look like?

September 7, 2022 Leave a comment

In the picture below are about 150 pre-digital-era workbooks, files, diary entries and sheaves of letters (remember, cc is for carbon copy). They were left behind by a 20th century author and classicist: my late father Maurice W.M. Pope, who died in 2019. Surprisingly, it took me just a couple of days to sort out ahead of its journey to be archived by kind request of Cambridge University’s Department of Classics.

My trip back as far as a 1940s air raid on his school made me wonder: how will the intellectual journey of an individual be reconstructed in the 21st century? Will it matter about all our emails on lost accounts, digital files in unreadable formats, vanishing social media posts and hard disks that were left on the train?

My father had one last unpublished book that we had all thought was lost like this, a file on his computer that disintegrated after few chapters into digital gobbledygook. Then my mother found the annotated typescript on one of his library shelves. We’ve now nearly finished editing it as The Keys to Democracy: Sortition as a New Model for Citizen Power and expect to share some good publication news soon!

Maybe archivists’ work will one day all be done by a know-it-all algorithm in the cloud. But after the last week of looking at sixty years of thinking, research ideas, versifying, essay composition, editing and drawing, somehow I don’t think it will feel the same.

Some of my late father’s 1,500 or so books on the ancient world.

Democratic Wisdom from the 1930s

June 16, 2022 Leave a comment

It’s wonderful when an old book speaks clearly to what’s happening around us today.

I had sought out Pour le Tirage au Sort de la Chambre des Députés (For the Random Selection of the Chamber of Deputies), published by an anonymous French ex-parliamentarian in 1936, because it seems to be the first (in the past century or so) to argue that choosing our representatives by lot, or sortition, would be a better and truer form of democracy than elections.

I’ve become fascinated by sortition-based democracy as I help prepare my late father’s typescript on the subject for posthumous publication. For sure, Pour le Tirage au Sort was WAY ahead of its time. The next books to argue for sortition came decades later. The earliest comprehensive work actually only appeared in 2013 (Against Elections by David van Reybrouck, to whom many thanks for alerting me to the French deputy’s old book).

It wasn’t just the ex-deputy’s proposals that struck me as noteworthy: it was how he described the angst of the 1930s, an age when significant numbers of people thought dictatorship was the best answer to dysfunctional democracy. For some, Adolf Hitler in Germany was a shining example, for others Joseph Stalin in Russia or Benito Mussolini in Italy. Normally, I don’t see much connection between 1930s authoritarianism and today, or worry much about threats to the freedoms we enjoy in Europe and Western countries. But something in the old French politician’s warnings struck home.

Humanity doesn’t govern itself – alas! – by reason. The disquiet that is working on all peoples, in the New World just as in the Old, is pushing them to look to authoritarian regimes for the security and peace that an improvidently and badly run freedom has dissipated in the wind of chimaeras and illusions.

That sounds familiar! The dictators in power in the 1930s were no doubt more bloody than today, the economic situation worse and the sense of impending world war more palpable. Yet today’s range of leaders – Vladimir Putin, Boris Johnson, Donald Trump, Tayyip Erdoğan, Viktor Orban and many others – are ever-more worryingly unreliable and/or authoritarian. The conflict in Ukraine is bringing war ever closer to west Europeans. And there is a whole new range of threats to Western countries from densely populated, unstable, climate-change threatened countries in their neighbourhoods.

Paris by night (1935). Frank Hellsten’s clever new colouring of Dutch photographer Willem van de Poll‘s Champs-Elysées scene highlights how close we are to the past.

The old French parliamentarian echoes the kind of criticism we direct at the likes of Johnson or Trump today, but not against individual politicians. He blames the whole system of elections for producing a political class whose members “have all more or less gone bankrupt, and who, in the disorder of our society, demonstrate the most lamentable egotism or the most culpable profligacy.” His long administrative experience had made him sick of blatant corruption and foreign meddling, but he saw the cure in more democracy, not more elite rule. While ready to see experts in an advisory role, he believed that in terms of moral judgment, educated people “do not always represent the social class with the best grip on reality … the representatives of the masses are less educated [than those with instruction and beautiful diplomas] but more endowed with good sense.”

One cannot chase out the plague with cholera

As he plots a way out of France’s 1930s mess, the author surveys proposed solutions to the country’s problems being discussed at the time. (One book he cites is La France veut un chef, or France wants a chief). But he sees a weak link running through all of them: the idea that there should be politicians chosen through the ballot box. “Because all [these proposals] depend without reserve on elections – considered as a kind of incontrovertible dogma – and because every election, whatever measures one takes to make it just, is based on the corruption of conscience and its consequence, the waste of public funds, the evils one wants to suppress cannot be avoided. One cannot chase out the plague with cholera.”

This all leads him to propose a radical idea: a new constitution based on democracy by lot, because “random selection [is] the simplest and most legitimate way to ensure that deputies have moral independence, without which no government has a serious foundation.” The same is true today: selfish politicians like Trump or Johnson keep proving their contempt for the idea that leadership involves noblesse oblige or any moral compass. And from Putin to Erdoğan, all the problematic modern leaders took and maintain power through elections.

The ex-deputy next outlines a new constitution for France, which in 1936 had about forty million inhabitants. It’s an interesting exercise. He suggests a three hundred-seat parliament: two hundred and forty members would be randomly selected from forty constituencies of one million people (using a system similar to the national lottery); the remaining sixty people would be nominated from the expert class by the head of state from among people in pre-determined top posts (eg heads of unions, industrialists’ associations, administrative bodies, parliament and the like). This head of state would be chosen for life by four-five hundred holders of such top posts during a deep, rapid deliberation that would avoid bribery and lobbying. He compares this to the way the College of Cardinals selects a new Pope. That system has worked pretty well, for much longer than most.

“Elections have a less rational and logical basis than [random selection],” the French politician wrote. “By making those elected the slaves of parties and obligated to financial interests, [elections] suffocate their conscience and kill their personality …. Sincerity, rather than an often perverted intelligence, will be the guide of our institutions …. In all things, conscience and sincerity are worth more than knowledge and cunning.”

For better or worse, nobody heard the former parliamentarian’s call in his own time. Four years after the publication of Le Tirage au Sort, Germany’s army made short work of defeating an unreformed France. I can find no suggestion of the author’s name in online searches or link to the work beyond the facsimile of his book offered by the Bibliothèque Nationale Française.

Fortunately, though, the ideas of sortition and deliberative democracy are now taking off. After David van Reybrouck‘s book Against Elections came Brett Hennig‘s An End to Politicians and his Sortition Foundation, Hélène Landemore‘s Open Democracy and a raft of publications by Claudia Chwalisz at the OECD. There’s much more great research elsewhere. And in the past decade, nearly 600 randomly selected Citizens’ Assemblies have shown that sortition and deliberation work well together to produce practical, credible solutions to knotty political problems.

The 1930s French author would doubtless have been pleased to learn that France has been a trail-blazer of this “deliberative wave”. President Emmanuel Macron used random selection in his grand national debates and successful climate convention, and in 2021 the city of Paris decided to create a Citizens’ Assembly chosen by lot that will from now on be a permanent part of its administration.