What If We Made Democracy... More Democratic?

When politicians seem increasingly out of touch with the average person, perhaps the average person should make decisions instead.

In These Times Editors

Illustration by Terry Laban

sor•ti•tion

noun

“What is the use of a parliament full of highly educated lawyers if few of them know the price of bread?” —Cultural Historian David Van Reybrouck

1. the appointment of political positions by lottery, rather than election

Aren’t elections kind of what make” democracy, though?

Not according to the ancient Athenians. In fact, these early democrats worried elections would inevitably favor the wealthy and powerful sound familiar? The city-state functioned instead by having citizens randomly selected annually to serve in public office, with duties ranging from monitoring public finances to deciding foreign policy and participating as one (of 6000) jurors on the People’s Court. Women and enslaved people, among others, were excluded, so Athens might not be the best example of a full-fledged democracy; still, they had a point about elections. In the United States, wealthy donors have more impact on policy than public opinion, and Congress is far whiter, richer, older and more male than the overall population.

So, uh, you really want to trust a bunch of random people?

That’s what democracy is — and it’s good. On issues from healthcare to climate, ordinary people tend to be more progressive than career politicians. Elected congresspeople also rely on staffers, advisors and outside experts, so some support would be expected.

Has anyone actually done this since Athens?

Ever been on a jury? Ordinary citizens are semi-randomly called up for important deliberative tasks all the time, and sortition’s popularity is growing. Between 2012 and 2014, Ireland held a constitutional convention consisting of 33 elected politicians alongside a random group of 66 (selected through a demographically adjusted process). Their recommendations still required parliamentary approval and a referendum, but it led to the successful referendum on the legalization of gay marriage. Beginning in 2016, a similar advisory council — entirely by sortition — paved the way for Ireland’s vote to legalize abortion.

That all sounds nice, but could you do it on a big scale?

There are several proposals to make everyday people part of governing the United States. In 1985, authors Ernest Callenbach and Michael Phillips proposed keeping an elected Senate but transforming the House with sortition. The environmental group Extinction Rebellion has called for a citizens’ assembly” on climate policy. Others have
proposed
citizen oversight juries” for everything from redistricting to local taxes. Citizen bodies could also draft the agenda that elected legislatures then consider. (Needless to say, selected citizens must be
given a comfortable income.)

Which of these ideas would best work in the United States? Perhaps we could appoint a citizens’ assembly to draw up suggestions. 

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