An alternative approach

Democracy Without Elections


Many years ago I was on a listserv and one of the other members, a priest, suggested that elections should be abolished in favor of drawing straws. At the time, I disagreed vehemently and thought it was the dumbest thing I had ever heard. Since that time I have run for office, (losing consistently), attended political conventions (democratic and libertarian), taken candidate training by DFA (Democracy for America), and have attended various events covering politics and economics. I also joined my local democratic town committee, and have generally attempted to be more actively involved in the polis. Through a strange twist of fate, I have also chauffeured my musician daughter who was the background entertainment at many Republican campaign events. This gave me a unique opportunity to meet and watch many Republicans in action. They are not very different from Democrats. Nor are they very different from Progressives or Libertarians. 

While the one on the pulpit tends to blame opposing parties and politicians, everyone’s basic complaints and desires are almost universally the same: peace and prosperity. It is often said that that which unites us is greater than what divides us. It is likely true, across a very broad spectrum from Nazis and Communists to Islamic Jihadists. False accusations are common in lies big and small, and self-righteousness exists everywhere. Similarly, I have attended church services outside of my Catholic upbringing, and have likewise found pretty much all the same things going on. Hierarchy, the status quo, and inertia are ubiquitous. While there is nothing new under the Sun, people seem increasingly adept at splitting hairs. The tools of mass communication have accelerated an ability to miscommunicate. The original enduring hope of democracy was as a method for solving problems. The question must be asked: Is it now the cause of them? More heat is generated over small differences than anything else. This is because everyone filters and transforms everything they see and hear to fit their political bias. How do we get past political prejudice to discuss the substantive nature of real problems?

As mentioned, one idea is to eliminate elections in favor of drawing straws. This is what Jesus did to replace Judas. Another is Ranked Choice Voting, which attempts to make political leaders more representative of a wider range of opinions by weakening the strength of incumbents and the two-party system. That question was recently put to the people of Massachusetts via a ballot question and was rejected. Of course, the fact that it needed to go to a ballot reveals just how entrenched the status quo of partisan politics reigns. The Democrats on Beacon Hill could make that change tomorrow with their super majority, but they fear giving any potential advantage to anyone to their left or right. Despite all political parties sharing similar desires, they only accept policies which originate from their own ranks. It is generally only possible to pass through the gauntlet of electability and party approval by doing, acting, and saying the same things as the person you attempt to replace. There is nothing original: raise or lower taxes, spend more or less, regulate or deregulate. There is a perpetual whip for every dead horse, and infinite promise of change and improvement and claim of crisis. In reality, new ideas generate fear, and only groupthink can provide enough political cover for guardians of the status quo to have courage. Like the morning news traffic report, it is just rote memorization and repetition. In the halls of power and responsibility, the rank-and-file sit on their hands and wait until their body leader tells them what to do next. Rank Choice Voting threatened the inertia of many feathered nests and the political truces that preserve them.

Some have wondered if the election of Speaker would be the same if the votes were confidential. This question presents a strange juxtaposition of history. The votes of citizens are cast in private to prevent retaliation by those more powerful. And, as a representative government, we expect these votes to be held publicly. We want to know how our representative votes, and who is doing what. This is regarded as being in “the public interest,” a catch-all phrase for an idea that currently seems archaic. Yet, because the votes for a legislative leader are not private, our representatives are denied a basic protection of democracy.  Seniority corrupts statehouses with the same merciless as the next generation is exploited by the earlier arrivals. The sins of the fathers rule. Can democracy exist if our institutions are fundamentally unequal, undemocratic, and if an autocrat can control the agenda of what votes can be held on the floor of the assembly? One person, one vote, is meaningless if your representative has no power. It’s like a being in a restaurant where you cannot order any food.

When democracy was invented 2500 years ago, Anarchus immediately recognized two flaws. One, that it was a system where the wise speak and the fools decide. Two, that the law was like a spider web. It captures only the small and weak, while the strong break right through. There are so many examples of this that I doubt the reader needs me to supply any. However, I think Anarchus may have been overly optimistic. It is more like the fools speak and the fools decide. The wise are drowned out by all the noise of rancor and sport and commercial temptation. 

The issue is not who is in charge, but how power is wielded and for what purpose. Is it enlightened or corrupted? Can it see, act and solve problems, or is it in a state of perpetual denial and paralyzed and confused by fear and dogma? Corruption can be intellectual as well as factual through bribes.  Quantity and quality are two very different things. There is nothing inherently virtuous about a majority or a minority. Process alone cannot prevent corruption, or make the unwise wise. Yet, when it is universally agreed that things are not working, we must begin somewhere to discuss and reform the broken status quo. Many things needs to change, but one goal should be to remove all the political bias that has been institutionalized.  We can accomplish this by creating a democracy without elections. 

Drawing straws, it turns out, may be significantly better approach than elections for maintaining a democracy. Consider what a dramatic change it would be if representatives were found without elections. Political Science, as currently taught, would almost cease to exist. Instead of the focus being on winning, the focus would be on governing. Currently, Political Science seeks to be more manipulative than business marketing. It is more like a military psychological operation against an enemy for mass mind control. Lies and fear-mongering dominate the field. Control, not freedom or a virtuous society, is the goal. 

There is also the problem of money in politics. Even before the lame Citizens United decision, which granted the powerful still more privileges, congressmen spent a large part of every day seeking funds for their reelection. With more funds in the pool, the threat to their seats increased and multiplied, driving them farther away from statesmanship and towards immediate political expediency. If corporations have a fault in thinking of only the short-term, the short-term thinking of partisan politicians is significantly worse and more dangerous. Demagoguery in the public pulpit is by far the norm, and it is all this irrationality in the public discourse that has made an autocratic chamber leader necessary. Yet, as we have seen, these leaders are finding it increasing difficult to maintain control. Democracy is on the verge of collapse.

Covid-19 has made us cognizant of what has been too long ignored: much of what passes as normal and necessary is petty, absurd and non-essential. In fact, if we were more capable of separating indispensable from the allegedly essential, we would have done a much better job of controlling the pandemic. “Shutting down” was never a plan; it was a panic response. “Freeze!” says fear. After centuries of miseducation, malfeasance, and misplaced priorities, it is hardly a surprise that we failed the challenge. What is truly non-essential are elections: the signs, the rallies, the press coverage, the crimes, the accusations, the gerrymandering, the recounts, the lawyers, the court cases, the social media, the get out the vote efforts, the time and resources spent to create a gigantic flammable haystack of idiocy, all under the guise of choosing a needle. It is a simple and obvious fact that whoever runs has self-selected themselves for the office they seek. Put everyone who wants the job into a single room. Let them draw straws. It will immediately expand the pool of choice beyond the ambitious, gregarious, wealthy, famous or well-connected. Much like a jury trial, if a random pool of people can apply the law, then they can just as easily craft the laws, if that is where their interest lies. Allow the people with the appetite for governing to govern, and those who have little interest to remain uninterested. A frenzy serves no one.

With the idea that random selections for representatives accepted, other new safeguards would need to be put in place. Perhaps longer terms, term limits, or any laws passed by one body would need to be affirmed by the seating of the next body. Power still corrupts and checks and balances need to be maintained. In the end, policy discourse should improve, and posturing, wasting time and corruption should decrease.

The Constitution would need to be changed, and for it to be meaningful, we would need to change our understanding of economics and capitalism. When Solon created democracy it was because they were unable to trade efficiently, equally and peaceably. Tribalism is primarily economic, not cultural. All our political battles have their roots in economic theory, which at this point are two failed and corrupted religions. There is a better alternative, and we likely need to save democracy and economics together, but creating a democracy without elections is an important step, and we can start now at the town and state level. Massachusetts can lead, if it has the wisdom and courage to do so. The fate of our nation is in our hands.

Tuesday January 26th, 2021