IT IS A melancholy object to those who consider themselves politically informed to see the studies that show elections by ballot are not a means to a democratic end, but simply a spectacle loosely tied to popular will by default. In 2014, political scientists Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page published a study of national surveys of the general public concerning 1,779 proposed policy changes from 1981 to 2002 that concluded that “the preferences of the average American appear to have only a minuscule, near-zero, statistically, non-significant impact upon public policy.” America holds up elections as the high-water mark of a political lineage that started with Plato; but a more accurate lineage would be advertising.
Elections put those who consider themselves informed in a bind: When you do support a candidate for ideas, you’re lambasted for not thinking politically. When you support a candidate for politics, however, you concede that your ideas matter squat. The informed might find solace in the reasonable suspicion that this two billion dollar electoral brouhaha is all just for show. There might indeed only be a choice between a candidate with power but no principle, one with policies but no facts and one with principle, policies and facts but no chance, say the informed, but as long as the Establishment holds, the spectacle’s too much fun to look away, right? Well, there are times, like Trump 2016, when we should look away. We must permanently sever the circus spectacle from democracy.
In order to do so, we must ban the election of public officials by ballot and instead elect them by lot, like the Ancient Athenians who appointed a random selection of citizens to even the most powerful public offices.
But didn’t the ballot box give America a president who abolished slavery, another who helped kick the Nazis out of France, and the hundreds of forgotten public servants who set-up the many dull but revolutionary institutions like schools, firehouses, toilets, running water, and garbage pick-up for every neighborhood? Yes, indeed. But think of what the shock of actual responsibility of governance in our lives would accomplish!
This shock would not only build a serious and sober democracy, but would also — and most importantly — release a potential within us that has never been released, a potential that can forge a new and improved American character, mind, and culture befitting a new Athens. A letter selection process similar to jury selection could elect any citizen with sound physical and mental health to public office. If a computerized version seems too uninspiring, perhaps the Attorneys General could draw names from the Met’s ancient Greek urns, like the Archon of Athens once did, in an ode to the world’s first democracy. Sure, Athenian democracy crumbled into despotism and war, but what other society has produced a Socrates?
It must be said that selection by lot from a Hellenic urn could send a “You’re the next POTUS” letter to one of America’s many Trump-supporting bigots. But even if we don’t really trust our neighbor — a racist, 9/11 Truther who thinks Obama established Sharia Law and that the Earth is two thousand years old — with signing a bill into law, we trust him or her to judge whether or not we are guilty of a crime. The jury selection process, supervised by highly educated lawyers and judges, could reasonably be applied to public service.
To prove this, let the Hypotheticals of an American election by lot be submitted to a candid world:
- Real checks and balances
Everyday Americans thrown into the Oval Office would immediately be horrified at the bloated power of the Executive Branch, and they would probably call a convention to curtail its dominion.
2. New Enlightenment
If people knew that they might be called on one day to lead the most powerful government in the world, thrust onto History at random, you would probably want better inspiration. The threat of public responsibility would inspire a popular culture that could deal with existential crisis, dread, and tragedy. We would solemnly conclude that two-thirds of media has become so rotten and jejune that it should be ignored out of business. Americans would have to drop unrelenting optimism and chauvinism and learn to deal with the moral ambiguities and lack of certainty in the modern world that the electoral spectacle obfuscates.
3. World-class education
We revel in laughing at dumb politicians, but no one wants to be that dumb politician manning the state like an idiot. If we knew that any one of us might be called at random to hold public office, we might stop letting ourselves get away with being ignorant little snots. Election by lot would require America to fully fund public education, from kindergarten through college, while the youth will gladly sit through “Moby Dick” or “Citizen Kane” on the regular. In an America free of elections, we’d ensure that everyone has the greatest education imaginable to avoid the shame of causing utter disaster while in charge.
4. Return to Reason
The two parties make the absurd claim that the selection of the president is the most important decision of our lives, a choice between transcendental change on a scale that has never actually happened in the history of Man or a sharp turn towards the depths of hell. Worse, the two-year electoral spectacle dumbs down every single political concept that has resulted from centuries of subversive examination and courageous thinking into a simple litmus test of what box you will check next November. Both Democrats and Republicans hinge their candidate’s victory on a tiny sliver of the voting public that has proven to be the least informed and therefore the most moldable. The national committees rely on these voters to make irrational decisions based on which presidential candidate they’d like to down a Coors with. The two-year electoral spectacle inculcates a politics based on irrationality, not Reason. Election by lot would allow us to think of more pressing matters and return Reason to the driver’s seat of our collective fate.
Election by ballot favors sociopathic personalities like Trump, Clinton, Obama, and Bush who have a burning lust to rule others. Those of us in the majority, who aren’t as shameless or self-involved, rely on our wits and gut, not egos, to make decisions. This is exactly the type of character we would likely adopt writ large in an America where each one of us might one day have to make decisions that affect the lives of millions.
If we got rid of elections, entire legions of young people would leave the machinery of Washington D.C. and pursue more productive occupations, which would consist of literally any other profession.
7. True representation
An America free of the ballot could have presidents from the Bronx, Appalachia, East Los Angeles and all the other communities that have been historically disenfranchised. Election by lot would break up the Harvard-Yale-Princeton presidential caste system.
8. Real social security
If a politician can afford to be elected in Washington D.C., then she can afford to live in an America without a social safety net or regulations. Because these nets and regulations are not her problem, or the problem of any of her friends, children, or her friends’ children, ‘then screw it,’ she often says. Those with the means to run a billion dollar campaign have the means to weather the consequences of their awful policies, while electing someone by lot from the lower rungs of American society would rebuild the social fabric of good jobs and schools, safe neighborhoods, healthcare, and public pensions that elected politicians can afford to ignore or shred.
9. Death to Pseudo-Party Politics
The Parties have turned politics into shopping. Party members have about as much participation in their party’s priorities or platform as Walmart customers do in Sam Walton’s company. The chief executive officer C. Douglas McMillon knows his customers his customers prefer Toshiba over Cannon, but as far as what effect this choice has on the customer’s actual lives, Walton has no incentive to give a hoot. Democratic presidents deregulated banks, reduced taxes on the rich, slashed welfare, built prisons, and imposed draconian crime laws, while Republican presidents raised taxes, enlarged government, built failed nation states abroad and nationalized banks. It’s the Parties who don’t know what they stand for or want, not the public. Banning elections would be the final push that would end the two dominant political parties whose only requirement of its members are to click the “donate” button and to vote for the photogenic white man who works out (most the time) the national committee selected.
10. True savings
Instead of spending two billion dollars on all of those miserable ads and pop-ups that interrupt our Hulu or YouTube streaming, banning elections would cap the cost of the presidency to say $200,000 dollars, or enough salary and benefits to keep someone below or around the median income level motivated when the inevitable despair of becoming an ubermensch kicks in.
11. Real democracy
Even if election by lot does not save the succeeding generations from making the same mistakes as we do today, at the very least, it would force Americans to think about democracy as more than a sacred cow.
The real democracy that should replace the electoral spectacle would be an actual practical force in society more attuned to that of philosopher John Dewey, who defined democratic sensibility as that of experimentation of the scientific mind in politics—something anathema both to the electoral spectacle and to America’s fear-ridden and conformist sensibilities. “Men have got used to an experimental method in physical and technical matters,” Dewey wrote nearly a century ago, but “they are still afraid of it in human concerns. … like all deep-lying fears it is covered up and disguised by all kinds of rationalizations.”
A modernized version of the Athenian’s urn-based selection process would free our minds from having to pay attention to the damn electoral spectacle that has become a complete waste of human intelligence and manpower; and it would obviate the reasonable suspicion that this presidential election might destroy the Republic.