Beyond Electoral Democracy

The radical democracy of the future requires more than just elections. We need a legislature by lot.

Bo Jayatilaka / Flickr

Across the globe, democracy is in retreat. From every direction, authoritarians have sprung to power — be it Trump in the US, Putin in Russia, Xi in China, or Modi in India. There are many reasons for the ebbing of the democratic tide, but a central one is the widespread disillusionment that many of the world’s people feel towards their purportedly democratic systems. Between the lofty ideals of democracy that politicians extol, and the bitter reality of spin doctors and cabinets of billionaires, a wide chasm exists.

Today the American system of democracy exists in name more than in substance. The institutions continue to be wrapped in the symbols and ribboned in the ornaments of self-government. Yet the truth, widely known yet rarely acknowledged, is that the American political system is increasingly run not by the people, but by the rich. Plutocracy. Leading scholars of American politics Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page conclude their recent study with the observation that “the majority does not rule — at least not in the causal sense of actually determining policy outcomes. When a majority of citizens disagrees with economic elites or with organized interests, they generally lose.”

What, then, is to be done? There has long been a conventional answer on the center-left: proportional representation and campaign finance reform — the former to enhance the representativeness of elections and the latter to reduce the distorting effects of money. This intuitive belief that the answer to our democratic problems is enhanced elections runs so deep that it is like an article of faith.

Yet should reformed electoral democracy really be the ultimate aim of our democratic hopes and dreams? Consider some of the places that are much closer to achieving an equitable electoral system, such as Canada, the UK, and particularly Western Europe. Such systems tend to function much more democratically than the US, but they run into the same basic problems with elections.

Money continues to play an important role, biasing elections towards the wealthy. Governments continue to be incredibly unrepresentative of the population — almost always composed of rich, white, middle-aged men. Even in Sweden, the young, the less educated, and the working class continue to be dramatically underrepresented (for instance, blue-collar workers make up about 9 percent of members of parliament despite comprising 41 percent of the electorate). And while more women now hold parliamentary seats, other groups have seen no improvement at all. In fact, over the last fifty years, the number of working-class members of the Swedish parliament has actually decreased.

Beyond this, political decision-making continues to be deeply partisan and divisive with precious little deliberation. Whether it is Norway’s Storting or Britain’s parliament, the typical scene is about as far from open, sincere debate as possible. The mudslinging, booing, clapping, stomping — the arrogance, rudeness, and bitter partisanship — resemble nothing so much as young boys in a schoolyard fight. Yet these are boys with armies and jails at their disposal.

This is not to minimize the important differences that do exist between political systems. Proportional representation and campaign finance regulations do improve the vitality of electoral systems. Nevertheless, the fundamental question remains: is electoral democracy really as good as it gets? Is this the “real utopia” that socialists should be striving for?

I think not.

Elections and Democracy

Everywhere that electoral democracy has been practiced — from the US to Brazil, from ancient Athens to the medieval Italian city-states — the same basic problems continually reemerge.

The first is that the electoral process is inherently biased in favor of the rich — thereby undermining the cherished democratic ideal of political equality — because the precondition to winning an election is having the time and resources to communicate with the public and mobilize support, and that will always be done more effectively by those who have more money. This means that electoral democracy, regardless of campaign finance rules, will always be somewhat tilted towards the affluent.

The second problem is that the logic of competitive elections undermines the conditions for meaningful deliberation. Electoral competition creates strong incentives to score points, to speak in slogans and soundbites and dog whistles, to pander in order to build support for one’s own legislative agenda, and to actively stir up mistrust in one’s opponents through mudslinging and focussing on wedge issues. Electoral competition also undermines learning because politicians who have taken a confident stand on an issue for many years will find it embarrassing (as well as disloyal to their party and constituents) to change their minds. Yet those who cannot change their minds in the face of new evidence are precisely the people we do not want making important political decisions.

These two problems are not the result of bad luck or poor institutional design. They flow from the inherent logic of the electoral mechanism itself. In other words, the electoral system actually undermines two central democratic values: political equality and deliberation.

This is not to say that elections serve no purpose. When they work well, as they sometimes do, elections can promote other democratic values. Most importantly, they can facilitate accountability, directly incentivizing the government to be responsive to the governed. Elections can also deliver a decent level of political competency, since working one’s way up a party apparatus and convincing thousands of strangers to vote for you tends to weed out the grossly incompetent (the current US president notwithstanding).

Still, the inherent limitations of elections should cause us to look for alternatives. So what kind of mechanism would work better?

Democracy by Lot

If you lived in any previous historical era and told your neighbor that you believed in democracy, they would have understood what you meant. Yet if you had said that you believed in democracy and elections, they would have thought you’d lost your marbles.

For more than two thousand years, it was common knowledge that the only people who wanted elections were the rich and the powerful, since they were the ones who invariably benefitted from them. Those who genuinely believed in democracy, on the other hand, believed that political power must be kept in the hands of regular people and typically advocated the selecting of political positions by lot.

For us moderns, the idea of essentially drawing names out of a hat to fill important political offices seems naïve at best, dangerous at worst. Yet such a conclusion is far too hasty. The whole point of a lottery is that it purposefully introduces what political scientists call a “blind break” into decision-making procedures. The fact that lotteries are based on randomness does not make them irrational. Quite the contrary: it makes them a useful and often supremely rational tool for those areas of social life where you want the impartiality, balance, and fairness that randomness generates.

Today the idea of choosing politicians by lot is making a comeback because of two developments. First, the mathematical innovation of the representative sample — the idea that if you randomly sample a large population you can create a “mini-public” that is a statistically representative, miniature version of the whole. And second, the emergence of what theorists call deliberative democracy — particularly the notion that regular people can make good, competent, political decisions if (and this is a big if) they are immersed in a well-designed deliberative context: a space with equal participation, access to pertinent information, skillful moderation, small group discussion, and the absence of all types of coercion and force except that which the preeminent philosopher Jürgen Habermas called the “unforced force of the better argument.”

If we combine the modern mathematical notion of a representative mini-public with the new insights about the democratic potential of deliberation, what we get is a political epiphany: a novel kind of democratic mechanism that provides us with something that elections never can — a clear indication of what the considered judgement of the entire adult population would be if they were able to deliberate on issues thoroughly, freely, and in an informed manner.

Recent years have witnessed a remarkable explosion of interest in the use of random selection to solve political problems. A number of social movements have advocated random selection, such as the 15-M movement in Spain, Syntagma square in Greece, Nuit debout in France, and the G1000 in Belgium. Progressive parties like Podemos have begun introducing random selection into their internal procedures. Perhaps most importantly, random selection has started to appear in formal political settings, such as the Citizens’ Initiative Review in Oregon, the Icelandic constitutional reform, the Citizens’ Assemblies in Canada, and the Irish Constitutional Convention, which resulted in the legalization of gay marriage.

We now have a wealth of practical knowledge about the efficacy of random selection, spanning more than three decades, from the pioneering work of Ned Crosby’s Citizens Juries to Lyn Carson’s newDemocracy Foundation to Jim Fishkin’s Deliberative Polling. While the details vary, the experiments all point to the real potential for regular people to deliberate well and arrive at reasoned judgements.

Probably the most well-known experiment is that of the Citizens’ Assemblies — two in Canada and one in the Netherlands — which were established to consider the possibility of electoral reform.

The British Columbia case has been the most thoroughly studied. There, 160 people were selected at near random (by choosing one man and woman from each of the 79 geographical ridings, drawn randomly from the voter lists, supplemented with two indigenous people as none were randomly selected). Over the course of a year, participants met to hash out the pros and cons of electoral reform. The first part of the process was a learning phase, where facilitators brought in a range of experts to explain the issues and defend various points of view. The second phase involved public consultations. The final phase was built around deliberation, mainly small-group discussion. At the end of the process, the Assembly proposed changing the province’s electoral system to a more proportional system. In a subsequent general referendum, their position was backed by 58 percent of the electorate, falling short of the 60 percent threshold the government had established.

Nevertheless, academic evaluations of the Citizens’ Assembly have been strongly positive. “Observing the assemblies,” one scholar wrote, “it was hard not to be impressed with the capacity of citizens to learn, absorb, and understand the intricacies of a subject to which most had given little, if any, prior thought.”

The experience with the BC Citizens’ Assembly suggests that regular people can not only tackle complicated issues, but that they can discuss them fairly and impartially, without the usual partisan bickering or factionalism. The tantalizing next step is to take the idea of a Citizens’ Assembly to its logical conclusion: a national legislature chosen by lot.

Legislature by Lot

Imagine a People’s House composed of, say, one thousand people chosen at random (and stratified to ensure accurate representation along gender, race, class, and other important lines). These members could serve four-year terms. The first two years they’d lack legislative power, during which time they’d receive substantial training in issues of budgets, taxation, and distributive justice; be exposed to the various fields of government; take classes in how to deliberate rationally, empathetically, and with a sense of the common good; and “intern” in a specific policy department, such as Health or Energy or the Environment.

In the second half of their term, members would have legislative power, perhaps divided into ten departments with one hundred members each. Each department would deliberate on issues within its purview (in a similar manner to the Citizens’ Assemblies), before submitting legislative proposals to be voted on by the entire body to become law.

To perform well, a People’s House would require a carefully managed infrastructure of resources and support, including skilled facilitators and a number of administrators to support the needs of the deliberators. Such administration would need to be neutral on all ideological and policy questions, concerning itself entirely with the practical matters of deliberation (for example, procuring experts from a wide variety of perspectives). There would also need to be ways for members to remove anyone who is manifestly incompetent, disrespectful, or disruptive, as well as strict rules preventing corruption or bribery.

Such a body would not perform perfectly — no human institution ever does. But there are good reasons to believe that it could operate significantly better than elections in a number of respects.

In terms of equality, consider the remarkable transformation that would ensue if the current US Senate were replaced with a People’s House. The number of male representatives would drop from 79 percent to 49 percent, while the number of female ones would jump from 21 percent to 51 percent. The number of white representatives would fall from 90 percent to 77 percent, and the number of black and Hispanic ones would go from 3 percent and 4 percent to 13 percent and 18 percent. The new House would be significantly younger (the average senator is sixty-two years old) and significantly less class-stratified (the median senator is worth $3,100,000). No longer a club for elder millionaires, the new House would be comprised of regular people, with a median net worth of $45,000. Instead of government by elderly, rich, white, male, lawyers and businessmen, we would for the first time have a government of mostly caregivers and workers — removing one of the most intransigent problems of our society: the capture of state power by the rich and powerful. No longer would there be any systemic bias among representatives towards the interests of the wealthy (since randomly selected members would not be continually campaigning and fundraising for election or reelection).

Consider also the deliberative benefits of such a body. Without the handcuffs of party discipline, or the restraints of needing to pander to one’s constituency for reelection, members would be free to actually listen to one another — to learn, change their minds, allow their initial opinions to evolve into informed judgements, and be guided by the force of the better (and I would hope more caring) argument — rather than simply following orders from party chiefs and striving to embarrass their opponents. This would not magically transform conservatives into socialists, or patriarchs into feminists, but exposure to other points of view, and spending significant time getting to know and working with different kinds of people, could well broaden horizons and uproot prejudices.

A Real Utopian Solution

Legislature by lot is not a democratic panacea. Such a body would clearly perform poorly in terms of accountability – without elections, regular people would have no formal means to express their political preferences and “throw the scoundrels out.” In addition, there’s the lingering doubts one might have about political competency. Can regular people really make complicated political decisions? I suspect that many of the difficulties of competency could be resolved through good institutional design (including training, educational supports, and ways to weed out the truly unfit). Nevertheless, competency is another democratic value that we might think is ultimately served better through elections.

What this suggests is that we cannot realize all of our democratic values — equality, deliberation, accountability, competency — through any one particular mechanism. Elections and lotteries each have their respective strengths and weaknesses. But the fact that their strengths and weaknesses are so complementary implies an ideal solution: combine them.

An optimal, “real utopian” vision for the political system of a future democratic socialist society could therefore be a bicameral legislature comprised of one elected House and one House chosen by lot. The electoral House would provide accountability and ensure political competency, while the randomly selected People’s House would enhance equality and improve deliberation.

Of course, such a system is not on the immediate political horizon. In the US in particular, reforming the Constitution would be a gargantuan task (it would perhaps be somewhat easier in places like Canada and the UK, where mainstream parties have long called for radical reform of the undemocratic Senate and House of Lords). Nevertheless, having a goal to strive for, a north point on our compass, is crucial to orienting our activism, even if the final destination remains distant. Today we can and should support incremental moves in this direction, such as increased use of Citizens’ Assemblies and experiments with random selection in city councils.

In short, elections are not the only game in town. As a means, a lottery-based system would be more likely to produce other kinds of progressive changes in society (from redistribution to democratization of the economy) because it would reduce the inherent bias of elections towards the wealthy and limit elite representation in government. As an end in itself, a legislature by lot would better reflect our fundamental democratic values, particularly the belief in real equality: that regular people, in non-coercive situations of learning and deliberation, can arrive at smart and caring decisions for the common good.

As Marx once said, echoing Bakunin, “the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes.” This is as true today as it ever was. The old electoral machinery is ill-suited for our radically democratic purposes. A true democracy requires more.