Ostfeld: The Case for Sortition in America

Jacob Ostfeld makes a radical, uncompromising argument for sortition in the Harvard Political Review. Some excerpts:

The political realities of 2020 have laid bare that these flaws are structural to American democracy itself and have existed since its founding. Our system is not broken; it is functioning exactly as was intended. The system was always built around undemocratic institutions. The Electoral College, which allowed President Trump to be elected despite losing the popular vote, was created to protect the interests of slaveholding aristocrats in the South. Members of Congress are able to sustain decades-long careers in Congress despite consistently low approval ratings because of millions of dollars in lawful donations from Wall Street firms — donations which were made legal in the first place by a 5-4 decision from the nine lifetime-appointed justices on the Supreme Court. None of the undemocratic systems governing us today are subversions of the Constitution. On the contrary, they are all perfectly legal.

How, then, do we save American democracy? Sortition.

In simplest terms, sortition means appointment by lottery. In America, sortition would mean replacing Congress with assemblies made up of randomly chosen American citizens; elected representatives are entirely eliminated. Almost every responsibility of the legislative branch is delegated to a randomly subset of the population. Laws are written, discussed, and passed by ordinary people. Federal judges are interviewed and confirmed by ordinary people.

An ideal American democracy is not beholden to moneyed interests before the people it serves. It dismantles unjust and undemocratic systems. It genuinely addresses the climate crisis, the coronavirus pandemic, and anti-Black police brutality. It builds empathy and fosters civic virtue among its citizens. And above all else, it seeks to allow all people to live with dignity.

Sortition is not perfect, but it is far closer to this ideal than what we have. By eliminating career politicians, sortition simultaneously curtails corruption and increases representation. By placing political power in the hands of regular people, sortition cultivates engagement, responsibility, and empathy among the populace. By putting an end to elections, sortition allows Americans to have political choices beyond the two-party binary. Sortition produces a society of informed and interested citizens, who value civic engagement and trust that their interests will be genuinely represented by the government. And if it can save American democracy, sortition is worth trying.

2 Responses

  1. […] United States, sortition got some fairly high profile exposure by Malcolm Gladwell (1, 2). On three different occasions sortition was proposed by undergraduate students as a replacement for the electoral […]


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