Tom Atlee: Doing Democracy Differently

Civil Society, Culture, Ethics, Government
Tom Atlee
Tom Atlee

Doing democracy differently

In Is Democracy in Trouble? E.J. Dionne describes major studies suggesting that “Across most of the democratic world, there is an impatience bordering on exhaustion with electoral systems and political classes” because governments don’t follow the will of “the people”.

It would be one thing if governments made wiser decisions than what “the people” want. But they so seldom do. Usually they make decisions that favor special interests regardless of the common good.

It saddens me that this is framed as people losing faith in democracy. I don’t think governments that act this way are good examples of democracy. I’m also not sure that such a system can be fixed within a corrupted democratic process.

There are other ways to do democracy. Most people don’t realize that ancient Athenians – our alleged democratic forebears – were radically in favor of random selection and opposed to voting for representatives. They figured that aristocrats would dominate any electoral system. (Sound familiar?) Aristotle summarized their view, saying “It is accepted as democratic when public offices are allocated by lot [random selection]; and as oligarchic when they are filled by election.”

Although John Adams and James Madison (the first and fourth US Presidents) may not have been aware of the use of random selection in democracy, they did make statements that sound like it. Adams said that a legislature “should be an exact portrait, in miniature, of the people at large, as it should think, feel, reason, and act like them.” And Madison added that “The government ought to possess… the mind or sense of the people at large. The legislature ought to be the most exact transcript of the whole society.”

How do you achieve “an exact portrait, in miniature, of the people at large” or “the most exact transcript of the whole society” except by random selection, perhaps modified – as the pollsters do – with scientific “stratified sampling” to ensure a microcosm or “minipublic” with a diversity profile just like “the people’s” diversity.

A number of scholars and visionaries have explored the possibility of a randomly selected “citizen legislature” – notably Ernest Callenbach (of ECOTOPIA fame) and Michael Phillips in their A CITIZEN LEGISLATURE and Ethan J. Leib’s DELIBERATIVE DEMOCRACY IN AMERICA: A PROPOSAL FOR A POPULAR BRANCH OF GOVERNMENT, as well as my Chapter 13 “Citizen Legislature: A New Branch of Government” in EMPOWERING PUBLIC WISDOM: A PRACTICAL VISION OF CITIZEN-LED POLITICS.*

Random selection serves both to impede manipulation and to embody the real diversity of a community or country. Admittedly, planning for such a major change in how we govern ourselves is a long-term proposition. But I offer it for consideration by anyone who has concluded that what we have now not only doesn’t work very well, but is a big obstacle to addressing the urgent issues of our time. I also suggest that there are many ways short of a “citizen legislature” where we could begin experimenting with random selection in our politics, notably citizen deliberative councils.

In any case, I think it is becoming clearer to more and more of us that above and beyond every other issue is our need to have a political and governmental system that handles ALL OUR ISSUES more effectively and wisely.

Blessings on our journeys in that direction.

Coheartedly,
Tom

* EMPOWERING PUBLIC WISDOM also covers many other democracy-enhancing initiatives, from new approaches to public conversation and journalism to dealing with corporate personhood, campaign finance, and the integrity of the electoral process.