Scialabba: Plutocratic vistas: America’s crisis of democracy

George Scialabba writes in the LA Review of Books and in Salon about the history of plutocratic control of elections in the U.S. and offers sortition as an alternative.

Scialabba has the following excerpt from the 1897 book Equality by Edward Bellamy:

“But why did not the people elect officials and representatives of their own class, who would look out for the interests of the masses?” […]

“The people who voted had little choice for whom they should vote. That question was determined by the political party organizations, which were beggars to the capitalists for pecuniary support. No man who was opposed to capitalist interests was permitted the opportunity as a candidate to appeal to the people. For a public official to support the people’s interest as against that of the capitalists would be a sure way of sacrificing his career. […] His public position he held only from election to election, and rarely long. His permanent, lifelong, and all-controlling interest, like that of us all, was his livelihood, and that was dependent not on the applause of the people but on the favor and patronage of capital, and this he could not afford to imperil in the pursuit of the bubbles of popularity. These circumstances, even if there had been no instances of direct bribery, sufficiently explained why our politicians and officeholders with few exceptions were vassals and tools of the capitalists.”

Scialabba concludes that any system of electoral competition inevitably leads to plutocratic control and suggests:

Perhaps we should replace competition with sortition, i.e., drawing lots. What is the purpose of political competition, anyway? According to the founders of the Republic, it is to produce a legislative body that represents — i.e., speaks with the same mind as — the populace. According to James Madison: “The government ought to possess not only, first, the force, but secondly, the mind or sense of the people at large. The legislature ought to be the most exact transcript of the whole society.”

Scialabba offers the proposals of Callenbach and Phillips, discusses briefly the Athenian system, counters some of the standard objections and suggests that sortition may foster a culture of widespread political involvement:

We can scarcely do worse than what we have; on this the country seems agreed. How would sortition work? Fortunately, there is a blueprint to hand: a short book called A Citizen Legislature by Ernest Callenbach (author of Ecotopia, one of the finest utopian novels ever written) and Michael Phillips. The process is not complicated. Every county in America maintains a list of prospective jurors. Combine these lists in one national master list, and a computer may easily be programmed to choose a random sample of 435 (the size of the present House of Representatives). The same categories of people would be excluded from the selection pool: felons, non-citizens, the institutionalized. The resulting Representative House would (unlike the House of Representatives) be an exact, or near-exact, transcript of the society: roughly the same proportion of women, minorities, academics, professionals, blue-and-white-collar workers, homemakers, millionaires, and unemployed persons as in the general population. The representatives would train intensively for three months, would serve three years, and would then return to their communities (or stay in Washington as lobbyists, though perhaps less as a matter of course than at present).

Would sortition rule out government by the “best”? This question, too, can scarcely be considered with a straight face. We all know what Mark Twain said about Congressmen, and matters have not notably improved since. Besides, as Callenbach and Phillips write, “pure intelligence — if there is such a thing — is certainly not directly related to political wisdom. The only reasonable assumption is that both are broadly distributed through the population.”

The Athenians […] entrusted their civic destiny not to experts or professionals (though they made use of them) but to ordinary citizens, selected at random in order to produce a faithful representation of the society as a whole. There is no reason why the United States should not do the same. The only alternative is elections, and the American electoral process is fundamentally, irredeemably corrupt.

Voters, like consumers, exercise only an unavoidable and irreducible minimum of choice at the very end of a process from which their self-organized and unmanipulated input is entirely absent.

What might a live political culture look like? It would no doubt feature some version of the “committees of correspondence” that flourished in the American colonial period, only more permanent and less ad hoc. There would be continuous discussion, in small groups, in living rooms, church halls, school buildings, workplace lounges, libraries, municipal buildings, and other venues of political issues, organized by ordinary citizens, employees, neighbors, etc.

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