Most of us are glad to live in a democracy. Yet, we may also think that our democracy is not representing us, or not functioning well. So, can democracy be done better?
The “Iron Law of Oligarchy,” is a political theory developed by German sociologist Robert Michels, to explain how complex organizations, regardless of how democratic when started, inevitably develop into oligarchies. Representative democracies deteriorate into elite rule as a result of this “iron law.”
According to Michels, the tactical and technical necessities of organizations require that they come to be run by a leadership class. This leadership class ends up dominating the organization’s power structures. Representative democracies can not avoid rule by elite.
We have also come to believe that electing representatives by popular vote is a sacrosanct element of democratic governance. Yet, there are several thought provoking arguments that reimagine democracy by replacing the traditional voting process. An intriguing proposal for a democracy of the future is governance by “sortition.”
Sortition-also known as demarchy or allotment- is a democratic form of government where representative members of the government are selected randomly rather than by election. This concept of selecting public officials at random from a larger pool of candidates has a distinguished pedigree beginning in the Athenian democracy (507-232 BCE), Venice (697-1797), Florence (1328-1434 and 1494-1512) and Switzerland (1640-1837).
Modern examples are mostly found in the selection of juries where potential jurors are selected at random from a qualified population and then are further examined to determine their qualifications and impartiality in a voir dire process. Also, random selection has been used to create assemblies of citizens to advice on policy proposals.
Sortition is more democratic than elections because a sample selected at random mirrors more accurately the composition of the population with respect to personal characteristics, political preferences and economic circumstances. Consequently, the lawmaking of a random selected parliament is more likely to reflect the views of the population as a whole.
Sortition is a less corruptible selection process for political office because it is not easily manipulated by money, power, or status. The Athenians believed elections to be aristocratic and corrupt. As Aristotle put it: “It is accepted as democratic when public officials are allocated by lot [sortition]; and as oligarchic when they are filled by election.”
Modern advocates of sortition also point out the phenomenon of cognitive diversity. Studies show that cognitive diversity is more important to developing successful ideas than the ability level of a group. Simply put, persons of average intelligence selected at random perform better than a collection of the most talented problem solvers.
Most elected legislative assemblies display various demographic biases in race, religion, sex, etc. Under a citizen-wide sortition scheme for public office, ordinary citizens would not have to compete against powerful adversaries favored by socioeconomic or political advantages. Thus, sortition is inherently more egalitarian than elections, and provides all citizens an equal chance of serving in office. It overcomes societal biases, and the problem of overrepresentation in elections by the more politically active groups.
Under most election systems, elected representatives rely on political parties to gain office, and are likely to cast their votes along party lines. Their loyalty is split between the party and their personal views. Representatives selected by sortition are not indebted to anyone for their position. Their loyalty is strictly to their conscience.
Before a random selection can be made, the pool of candidates must be defined. Many methods have been advanced to select from the population at large, or from subsets screened by education, experience, testing, etc. Modern computer technologies enable such qualification systems making sortition technically viable. Had these computer systems existed when the Founding Fathers designed our democracy, I suspect Thomas Jefferson would have argued for sortition.
Democracy progressed when we abandoned the notion that kings had been anointed by God. Similarly, sortition is a modernization of democracy that makes us uncomfortable because it requires that we rethink the concept of voting. But consider that we use sortition to select juries empowered to make life and death decisions. And that sortition embodies an extremely attractive characteristic: It gets rid of politicians.
What do you think?
Jose Azel PhD is a senior scholar at the Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies at the University of Miami and the author of the book Mañana in Cuba, among other books.