Why you should care
Because those who don’t want to get into politics are precisely those who should.
If the idea of being a politician makes you want to yawn or puke — sound bites! selling out!! politicians as your colleagues!!! — your country might need you to be one.
Correct. We’re arguing that the cure for democracy’s ills might be a more thoroughgoing representativeness than you’ve ever imagined: you, president. Or you, senator, or you, mayor, or you, whatever. In other words, maybe democracies should be structured to require regular citizens to be politicians the same way we require regular citizens to sit on juries. A polity of our peers.
The idea of a citizen-led democracy sounds weird, but in fact, it’s as old as democracy itself. In 500 B.C., Athens was governed through a similar, randomized system — an “aleatory” democracy. One theory behind it was a skepticism of politicians: People who seek power tend to be more prone than the average citizen to selfishness and corruption, went the reasoning, and therefore are the least fit to govern. So Athenians of old put their names on a ballot, and elections were basically a randomized drawing. Every person picked had to rule for a set amount of time.
There was another idea behind randomized democracy, according to Joseph Wood, a professor at the Institute of World Politics in Washington, D.C. Plato and Aristotle believed that man is a political and social animal, and that “without participating in politics, we cannot be fully happy.” Evidence for the proposition: Most of us have looked at our politicians at some point and thought, “I could do better.” (But seriously, folks, democracy is in trouble, in case you didn’t get the memo: Just 24 percent of Americans trust the political system, and millennials are more detached from organized politics than previous generations.)
Of course, there’s always the risk of ending up with a KKK member or a pothead in office. And while many legislators would welcome a wider cross section of people in politics, they point out that running a country does require certain preparation. “[L]earning the legislative rules alone takes so much time,” says Oregon state Rep. Brent Barton, and “you need experience to improve.” Plus, much like jury duty, forced mandates would be extremely inconvenient. Imagine saying, “Sorry, boss, that project will need to wait because I’m going to be the mayor for the next six months.” Or having to run the State Department with newborn twins.
Still, the advantages are many. For starters, aleatory democracy would instantly make the political arena much more representative. Look at the numbers in the U.S.: Women hold only 19 percent of the seats in Congress but constitute half the population, African-Americans hold 9 percent of the seats but account for 15 percent of the population and Latinos constitute 17 percent of the population and only 7 percent of the seats. What’s more, the average age of congresspeople is 57; the national median age is 37.2 years.
Randomized elections would also eliminate a major cause of global political alienation: money. There would simply be no point in promoting a candidate with millions of dollars. So as the U.S. gets ready for its next multibillion-dollar electoral campaign season, maybe instead of trying to pick amongst a handful of mostly rich, mostly white, mostly male candidates, every single citizen could rise to the occasion and ask to add her name to the ballot. If you want something done well, you should probably do it yourself.
Aleatory democracy no longer exists, but the soapbox in the comments section is all yours.