My Turn: Towns could abolish elections and embrace real democracy: Sortition

Yan Krukau/via Pexels

By PHIL WILSON

Published: 05-14-2024 5:02 PM

It ought to be universally understood that our American perversion of democracy completely ignores the needs of most people and caters with slavish and subservient enthusiasm to the demands of corporate lobbyists. We are on a treadmill of meaningless elections as we either vote for the lesser of two evils, pull the levers for fascism, or just skip the November theatrics entirely as a matter of burnt-out indifference.

There is a much better way, but, if you live in the cultural fog of American distraction, you probably have never heard of sortition. In this obscure, long-lost method of participatory democracy, political officials do not campaign for your vote, they are selected by lottery. In our current self-destructive electoral farce, over half of our national legislators have Ivy League diplomas, even though only one out of every 200 Americans has such a blessing of privilege.

If we simply picked random U.S. residents (much as we do jury pool selection) to fill those congressional chairs, your aunt, your plumber or the homeless folks hunkered down in the nearest tent city would be just as likely to occupy a decision-making niche as the silver spoon Yale graduates who grab high office positions with monotonous predictability.

Sortition will summon the scrutiny and ire of the ruling elites, so you will not ever see a segment on participatory democracy on either MSNBC or Fox News. Only the heroic courage of local activism will ever dust off sortition and bring it forth into the light of our contemporary vision.

In local towns, corporate resistance would be less imposing than at a state or national level. Citizens of Greenfield, Northampton, Montague or Amherst could demand that local political institutions be staffed in the same manner as political assemblies in ancient Athens. The Athenians recognized three levels of power distribution: 1) rule by one; 2) rule by some; and 3) rule by all. The last category could only be achieved via sortition.

What would a government look like if we opened up the institutions of power to all the people? For starters, we’d rid ourselves of the gnarly and eternal problem of narcissists and psychopaths who home in on electoral systems as a means to gratify the urges characteristic of their mental illness.

Psychologist Robert Hare observes: “They are social predators and like all predators they are looking for feeding grounds. Wherever you get power, prestige and money, you will find them.”

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The demographics of a political body selected by sortition would closely approximate the characteristics of the larger community — half would be women, while all racial, ethnic and sexual identities would have proportional representation. Nationally, half of our political representatives would be living within or on the cusp of poverty. Officeholders might have no medical insurance, just like 12% of Americans. We would have political representation by people who understand, in the most intimate way, exactly what it feels like to suffer the day-to-day insults of living on the wrong side of American inequity.

These are ominous times. Climate scientists warn us that we might be soon overwhelmed by the rapidly approaching tipping points achieved from years of corporate/political brainwashing designed to neutralize voters with fossil fuel narratives.

The UK organization Extinction Rebellion has demanded that climate solutions be formulated by citizens assemblies selected via sortition. People in Greenfield, Northampton, Hadley, Montague, or anywhere in western Massachusetts could reinvent town government as a cutting edge for democracy. This would provide for a more responsive means of resolving local issues while modeling ways to attend to climate overheating and inequality — issues that elitist U.S. electoral systems cannot possibly remediate.

Phil Wilson is a retired mental health worker from Northampton. His writing has appeared in Resilience, Counterpunch, Mother Pelican, Current Affairs, Common Dreams and on other platforms.