While Californians in general and San Franciscans in particular are likely to be pleased by the result of the recent elections, one mustn't let complacency stand in the way of critical analysis. So now that the storms have passed and we can put the Team Red and Team Blue signs away for another few years, let's take time to ask: do elections really work? Do they produce representative leaders, and succeed in holding them accountable? Are they even really democratic?
The original democrats, the ancient Athenians, would say no; election was considered the method of aristocracies, and the only way to ensure the rule of the people--democracy--was to pick officials by random lottery. The reasoning is straightforward: what all elected officials share is the ability to get others to support them, which implies some sort of preeminence, whether derived from personal charisma, demonstrated excellence in some other field of activity, or merely having enough money or power to buy or command votes. To put it bluntly, people who win elections are winners, and what makes them winners is precisely that they are not typical citizens.
This has ugly consequences: political scientist Martin Gilens shows in his recent book "Affluence & Influence" that, while the American political system is reasonably responsive to the policy preferences of the top 10% of the income spectrum, the views of middle-class and poor citizens (50% and bottom 10% income, respectively) have approximately no impact on the likelihood of policy change. The bottom 90%, in other words, simply don't matter. And in a world where changes in both national and global economies have increased the economic distance between the affluent and the rest, no amount of tinkering around the edges is likely to prove immune to society's winners reclaiming their place at the head of the table.
The only way to stop this is to choose randomly. Advances in statistical sampling mean that even a legislature as small as the current Congress would reflect America much better than any election could. Using similar methods to fill out a large pool of officials from which smaller groups self-selected into particular responsibilities, we could have a government genuinely of, by, and for the people.
Against this bleak radicalism, one could counterpoise some words of cautious moderation: sure, the system isn't perfect, but we needn't throw out the electoral baby with the unresponsive bathwater. Abolishing elections, for all the talk about empowering the people, means silencing the political voice of everyone who doesn't win the government-official lottery--which means almost everyone. Even if not perfectly representative, electoral democracy provides accountability, the ability to punish bad officials, a crucial tool that random selection would lack. Recent Supreme Court rulings may have made thoroughgoing campaign finance reform difficult, but publicly financed elections would still be much easier to achieve than randomly chosen legislatures; why not try that, or proportional representation, or a parliamentary system, first? Nor should one ignore the important fact that ordinary citizens do have a large role in directly setting policy in many states, most notably our own. Has California's experience with recalls and initiatives really been a strong argument for an order of magnitude more direct democracy? Ultimately, don't expertise, ability, and character matter; shouldn't we want those who determine policy to be more than ordinary?
What do you think? Come to the debate Tuesday, November 13 and share your views!
NOTE: would you like to moderate this debate? If so, please contact the event organizer, Peter. Moderating is fun and it gives you skills that are useful at work and more...
Wikipedia entry on political uses of random selection: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sortition
A "Boston Review" symposium on Martin Gilens' "Affluence & Influence": http://www.bostonreview.net/BR37.4/ndf_martin_gilens_money_politics_democracy.php
George Scialabba's "LA Review of Books" essay recommending random lot as a cure for oligarchy: http://lareviewofbooks.org/print.php?id=795