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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 that 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.