There is no Democracy without Sortition

This web address was created at the beginning of 2018 and most of the content posted during the spring and summer of that year. The site was hidden from search engines however. It was my intention to go public only on election day. At which time I expected to end my life on the National Mall in an act of self immolation. I imagined this event would generate some serious internet traffic and maybe even (god willing) a precious moment of National reflection on the deep failings of our political system. What I had been unable to achieve in life I thought might possibly be realized through my destruction… 

The law enforcement authorities –  I might add – were well aware of this website. But they didn’t see fit to share this address with the media. They were much more interested in focusing on my so-called “200 lb Bomb”; a carefully designed pyrotechnic device unlikely to hurt anyone – except perhaps me. As usual, hysteria ruled the day. If my wife hadn’t graciously paid the bill at WordPress this site would have disappeared during my stay in Federal Prison. I, and this web address, both very nearly disappeared, permanently…

Yes I know, all very grandiose and quite melodramatic. And yes, I am seeing a therapist now. The Federal Judge required it as a condition of my parole. If you will, please ignore my questionable conduct and focus simply on the content of my argument instead. This is all that matters.                           

Paul Rosenfeld                          

Preface

We live in troubling times. The world is changing in ways no one fully understands. We are afraid for ourselves, our children & humanity. We seek solutions but (sadly) government appears to be part of the problem. This is a fact which demands scrutiny! It’s not credible to imagine that another free market election will fundamentally improve our society. This is why many of us no longer vote. But this doesn’t mean we must go without hope. Sane and reasonable suggestions do exist, it’s just they’re seldom heard. A few minutes of your time are all I ask.

Much of what I have to say has been said by others. Their only fault was speaking too quietly, so I have resolved to yell as loudly as possible. Those who know me will acknowledge this is out of character, but the present crisis in our society demands that someone must make noise. I hope you will hear me out.

***

Observing how the wealthy forever dominate (and debase) politics, the ancient Greeks wisely gave up the practice of elections and instituted a lottery instead1. After much painful experience they  concluded it is far better to draw names from a hat than to suffer the endless machinations of oligarchs; their government was a rotating cast of volunteers. Today we restrict this equitable practice solely to the selection of jurors but proudly describe our government as “democratic” while tipping our hats to the Athenians. Is this really honest? The average House race costs over a million dollars yet most American live paycheck to paycheck. By what twisted logic do we call this democracy? Checks and balances; legal protections; universal suffrage; none of these alter the fact that wealthy citizens win more elections and then write laws to increase that wealth (at your and my expense). How may we counter this insidious stratifying tendency except, like the Greeks, with a lottery?

I champion this practice of random selection (best known as Sortition) but don’t consider myself an extremist (or purist). I would not send 535 (or even 435) random citizens to Washington, but surely we might find some  compromise between the original Athenian approach and our contemporary practices. For example: we could choose to treat federal candidacy as a modified form of civil service; with a pass/fail examination to assess basic civic competence and sortition to determine which of the successful test takers stand for election. Talent and virtue are distributed throughout society, why not take a representative sample and then vote for our favorites? Surely this would come far closer to the ideal of fair representation than current practice, which treats candidacy as a pathetic hustle rather than a matter of vital public importance.

There are various possible alternatives to our existing electoral mechanisms. I don’t believe any of these options are a miracle cure (every aspect of our system deserves scrutiny). I only insist that the word democracy has no real meaning unless average Americans play an active role in the legislative process. Wealthy paternalism does not serve us. Ordinary citizens must be admitted to the halls of power. There will be no justice otherwise. And hopefully no peace.

***

We describe our system as “democratic” but the humans who coined this word would have disagreed. We’ve attached a meaning opposite their original. That ancient reasoning still applies and is as relevant to a nation state today as it was in Athens two millennia ago.

Better government is possible; it’s truly within reach. It isn’t rocket science, but it will require our attention. A discussion needs to take place; a public debate on the subject of basic democratic principles. Are there any among us still capable of such an open and civilized discourse?

I believe such a dialogue is possible but I’m skeptical as to whether it can happen on the internet. I think we might have to do this the old fashioned way; face to face.

1See Mogens Herman Hansen