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Re-Thinking Representation

Wednesday, June 15, 2011
For some time now I’ve been kicking around the idea of selection of public officials by lottery. The technical term for it is “sortition,” which is pretty unwieldy. Whenever I use the word BH makes a face. Whatever we want to call it, I’m beginning to think that any serious effort to re-think our political paralysis is going to have to involve much greater attention to how we choose the people that represent us, and that the changes required are going to be much more dramatic than we realize.

I’ve always believed that the political system required strong campaign finance reform laws to operate effectively. This is for several reasons. First, the high price of political campaigns, especially in the wake of the Citizens United Decision, slews the public dialogue towards the interests of the rich (and very rich). I have to believe the necessity of winning Wall Street donations is a big reason for the milquetoast Obama presidency. Second, the importance of money makes it extremely unlikely that a broad cross-section of individuals will have a fair chance at serving in government. The current political obsession with deficits in a time of 9% unemployment, or with cutting social security, medicare, and medicaid, is almost inevitably related to the fact that those in the political elite don’t know anybody who’s unemployed or needs medical insurance or don’t have enough to retire on. There’s also the problem of corruption, but I’ll set that aside for now, other than to say that even if there isn’t actually a great deal of graft at any one time (and there’s some evidence that there in fact is corruption of a sort), the appearance of corruption fostered by all the cash flowing around can undermine the legitimacy of the system.

For years I’ve been of the opinion that with a regime of strong campaign finance laws we might be able to improve the quality of political representation. Now I’m not so sure. I’ve been reading lately about the historical development of institutions in republics, and until the 17th century all of them included some element of random selection of public officials. Doing so guarantees that a broader number of perspectives will be heard, and assuming the term of service is brief, makes it clearer that government is not something “out there” acting upon us but something that we control. Now I’m not saying that we need to abolish the House of Representatives, but would it really be so ridiculous to a legislative chamber selected by lot to serve for a year that has to approve legislation?

It sounds radical, I know. And it wouldn’t necessarily solve the problem of corruption after the fact (like Evan Bayh’s sell-out to the chamber or the so-called “Shadow Congress” of ex-members becoming lobbyists). Yet as the country’s population continues to rise, we still have legislative bodies that are almost exclusively composed of people from born in the top ten or twenty percent of the income scale - people who have every reason to support the interests of the rentiers (as Krugman has called them) because they are rentiers themselves, immune to the awful challenges facing the rest of us. Conservatives talk a lot about the democracies being in trouble when the people realize that they can vote themselves goodies at the expense of the rich. Regrettably, what’s more often a problem are political elites who do nothing but enrich themselves and their benefactors - who are most definitely NOT the voters they purport to represent.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 7:35 AM
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