Political Reform: Sortition, a lesson from Ancient Athens

  • by Joshua Laferriere

This title says it all, “Princeton Study: U.S. No Longer An Actual Democracy

From the article itself,

Asking “[w]ho really rules?” researchers Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page argue that over the past few decades America’s political system has slowly transformed from a democracy into an oligarchy, where wealthy elites wield most power.

I recently wrote a letter to the editor of Los Angeles times.  I wish I had saved exactly what I had wrote, but I’ll just rewrite it here.

What is an oligarch?  Let me give a little history lesson…

~350 BC Athens had a system of electing their representatives which by today’s standards is considered very left wing radical.

We have issues today with gerrymandering, money in politics, and incumbency issues.  Congress had an approval rating last year of 14%.  When we vote, we are presented often with two realistic choices; even then, it depends on how the polling went for the district your voting on.  Not sure?  Just check electoral-vote.com and it will give you a breakdown of your poll for the district before you even vote… so why even bother right?  It’s hardly a quantum event, but more so a predicted result that lobbyists and politicians rely on.  If a district is too for one side for a company, they will spend advertising in that district.  Often these districts are carefully restructured by years of gerrymandering (unless your fortunate enough to have a district that doesn’t allow their politicians to redraw their district lines).   Point is we have a deep seated issue in our current electoral body.

This picture sums up our problem, which is arguably from a few causes.  Gerrymandering, unlimited campaign spending, lobbyists, inactive and uninformed electorate, and a two party system due to a plural district voting system.  All of which leads to a highly predictable outcome, money controls politics.


Citizens United and unlimited campaign spending has forever corrupted our politics with “free speech” no limit campaign spending.  I would like to address this from another article I’ve been reading on about Ancient Athens.

Plato strongly believed that an economic division between the citizens of a state is the most dangerous political condition. This belief was mainly due to the widespread and frank opinions expressed by the Greeks that economic motives are very influential in determining political action and political affiliations.

However, ironically… Plato believed in a type of government closer to modern day Communism.  Loss of property, totalitarian rule by Philosopher Kings.  If history has anything to say on the manner, communism doesn’t work [at least in a free society].  Luckily, there was another proposed solution by one of his student’s.  Aristotle, who recognized the abolishment of property is not the best thing because citizen’s like owning things.  Yay for capitalism right?  Quote from another article.

Much of Aristotle’s political writing was a retort to Plato’s republic. He believed that Plato’s communism – the elite holding everything in common – was impossible. He wrote that property owned in common received less attention than property owned by an individual. Men, he wrote, care most for their private possessions.

Athens had lobbyists as well.  There was a political movement in Athens at the time, they were called Sophists.  A direct threat to reasoned arguments and debate, more so a threat to the Philosophers than anyone else at the time; however, they quickly spread into areas of life such as lawyers and political positions.  What was their danger?  They could argue two sides of any position.  They quickly banned representation of those in legal cases due fear of sophism spreading into such areas.  Today we have lawyers and lobbyists.  It’s the lobbyists who speak to our representatives and sway their opinions one way or the other.


It is Plato who is largely responsible for the modern view of the Sophist as a greedy and power-seeking instructor who uses rhetorical sleight-of-hand and ambiguities of language in order to deceive, or to support fallacious reasoning. Plato was especially dismissive of Gorgias, one of the most famous and successful of the early Sophists. Sophism was thought capable of perverting the truth because it emphasized practical rhetoric rather than virtue, and taught students to argue any side of an issue.


Many of these people, the argument goes, are concerned only with convincing you to believe them, not with the truth.  The following Web links will help you explore this theme.

Some modern politicians are criticized for spending too much time ‘selling themselves.’  Like an advertiser, a politician must convince the public to think that they are the best candidate for the job. While they are urged to stick to the issues, too often politicians resort to attack ads, spin doctors, and damage controlOnce in office, some politicians are criticized for relying on opinion polls to make decisions instead of taking a stand and holding to their personal convictions.

Athens answer to sophism was to restructure their political system, arguably long before 350BC with Solon.  In turn this lead to the Peloponnesian War; amongst other things, such as the Delian League of Eastern City States who arguably didn’t wish to be a part of it who sided with Sparta to end Athenian Democracy which led to the Thirty Tyrants and their fall and the restoration of Democracy and ironically to the death of Socrates because he feared the rule of the mob.  History is full of interesting facts.  Socrates wasn’t a promoter of democracy, but quite possibly his prodigy Aristotle was.

There solution in 350BC was sortition, or election by lots.  Ironically I had a similar idea many years ago I discussed with a friend of mine who thought that such a system would elect incompetent people.  So I quickly abandoned the idea…

Until I read about the Athenian Constitution; which wasn’t discovered until 1879, 100 years after the founding of the Constitution of the United States.  Instead of a direct democracy where everyone votes, Athens applied the concept of random sampling to their electorate body (which was any able citizen, those who abstained were called idiocy’s, our derivative of idiot).  Therefore they eliminated the influence money and sophism had over their representation.  I would propose reinstating a similar solution.  If people were elected by random chance, everyone would be more politically involved.  Opinions of the commoner would matter.  Each citizen would be expected to be politically active and competent; similar to how we are all expected to be eligible for the draft, or eligible for jury service; we should be eligible to serve in government.  Not by siding with a party and playing party politics, but when called by government, we do our unbiased civic duty and represent no party, but the common man.  If we are representing our own selfish needs, we will be quickly drowned out as the elective body seeks to find a common solution excluding those who seek to promote their own ideology.

No longer would elections be decided by campaign advertising and demographics of an inactive electorate (whether Republican or Democrat).  It would erase the inherent flaws of the plurality system where only two parties survive to the top.  A plurality system makes our politics highly predictable and subject to influence by campaign spending by private interests (the oligarch); it also addresses the concern of gerrymandering and the desire for politicians to pursue a life in politics by any means (incumbency).  Lobbyism might still be a threat, but they would no longer be able to buy an incumbent politician.  Sortition would add a sense of accountability to the rest of government.  It would give the common man a chance to shine against say a plurality voted Senate and possibly exposure to be elected in such a process.  Sortition would address an inactive electorate and the way that demographics are used against us in elections (gerrymandering and campaign targeted ads).

For further consideration, I would recommend this article written in 2014, “Democracy Through Multi-Body Sortition: Athenian Lessons for the Modern Day” by Terrill G. Bouricius, New Democracy Institute, or the book “A Citizen Legislature” by Michael Phillips and Ernest Callenbach.  However, the premise is simple.  Random sampling of an electorate body would produce politics that is more representative of the voice and will of people vs party politics that is controlled by money and private interests.

5 thoughts on “Political Reform: Sortition, a lesson from Ancient Athens

    1. admin Post author

      that’s a better voting method (votingmethods.reddit.com). Doesn’t solve the issues a republic represents


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