This Is Not a Democracy

A version of this article was first published in the run-up to the 2020 general election in Aotearoa/New Zealand by the public interest journalism platform The Dig as part of a series on Transitional Democracy. You can find the original article here.

By Alison McCulloch

Aren’t we lucky, we’re constantly told, that we live in a democracy, a government by and of and for the people. Except our system of government is none of those things. It’s certainly not by the people, it’s barely of the people and we’ve surely gathered more than enough social and economic data to show it’s not for the people.

But how could it be otherwise when it’s based on elections, given that elections are incompatible with democracy. No, that wasn’t a typo: elections are incompatible with democracy. It might seem a surprising statement on its face, given we are raised to equate the two. But one need only scratch the surface of how electoral systems like ours actually work to see the truth of the claim.

What elections actually do is elevate elites to power — those with greater than ordinary wealth, influence, connections, education, charisma, celebrity, privilege… And rule by elites is in fact the antithesis of ‘Democracy’ which properly applies only to governments where power is exercised by the people, the vast majority of whom are ordinary. Electoral systems do not do this; they cannot do this.

The Westminster-based system we live under serves us very badly. Not only is it undemocratic, it is unresponsive to ordinary people, it is cruel and divisive, and yet virtually from the cradle we are taught that it is sacrosanct, an article of religious faith, untouchable, and that while we might tinker around its edges, there is and can be no better, more democratic system of government.

But this system is a cultural product like any other, something Māori (see glossary at end for discussion of Māori terms) know only too well, having had it imposed on them as if prior to the arrival of British colonists, this land were a kind of political terra nullius. It simply wasn’t so. It’s a point the report of Matike Mai Aotearoa (the independent Māori working group on constitutional transformation) makes in setting out both a Māori critique of the current system, and proposals for a way forward.

As I read it, Matike Mai holds fast to the promise made in Te Tiriti of tino rangatiratanga for Maori, where Māori make decisions for Māori”, and offers up a “‘kāwanatanga sphere’ where the Crown will make decisions for its people” and a “relational sphere” “where the Tiriti relationship will operate.” The report adds that this latter sphere is “where a conciliatory and consensual democracy would be most needed.

It’s not surprising that Māori are better positioned than Pākehā to confront the illegitimacy of our current system of government and challenge the received Westminster wisdom, given Pākehā dominance among those very same elites that electoral systems invariably elevate. Pākehā in general also tend to have a much more ingrained belief in the superiority of this liberal democratic system over all others.

The authors of Matike Mai made clear their report “should be read as part of an ongoing dialogue into the future”, but went on to stress that for Māori, it’s not a new dialogue: “The kaupapa of constitutional transformation has been part of Māori political debate for over 170 years.”

In that spirit, and speaking to those kāwanatanga and relational spheres, this Pākehā wants democracy, true democracy, not the faux electoral kind. I want government of, by and for ordinary people. It’s not a new idea, and it turns out there’s an excellent functioning model of just the type of decision-making system we need hidden in plain sight, right in the middle of our faux democracy. We call it ‘trial by a jury of your peers’.

Juries are picked randomly, by ‘sortition’ not election, and so they’re genuinely representative of the non-elite majority. Judges monitor the presentation of evidence and testimony to ensure that juries receive only relevant, high quality information, and juries are allowed all the time they need to absorb that information and deliberate on it in the privacy of the jury room. When they’re ready, they issue a verdict that both the contesting parties and the court are obliged to respect. Add to this the fact that jurors are remunerated, allowing — in theory rather than practice, in New Zealand’s case — even the poorest members of society to do their civic duty without undue hardship.

Politics Without Politicians

Jury trials are a genuine model of true democracy in action, and one that can just as easily be applied to the government sphere. There, it goes by a few different names, but the one I’ll use here is Sortitive Representative Democracy, or SRD for short. Under SRD, societies like ours would shift political power away from career politicians to randomly chosen political juries. As a recent article in The New Yorker put it, ‘Politics Without Politicians.’

It’s true SRD would be a radical change, which is why we’d want to adopt a gradualist approach, to adapt it to our own situation, to learn what works and what doesn’t and, based on that, cautiously extend the system. A good place to start might be with legislation. Let a democratic jury decide whether a piece of legislation passed by Parliament is or is not in the general interest. If it smacks of serving special interests, the jury would have the power to veto it, which would send it back to the legislature to be rewritten or set aside. If that model proved successful, then the purview of democratic juries could be extended to the implementation side of legislation. Once SRD earns the public’s confidence, it could eventually expand to encompass all the functions of government. It can work, it has worked and there are examples of experiments like this springing up around the globe. 

But I wouldn’t stop with government. I’d like to see other institutions follow suit, particularly the news media. When journalists harp on about their importance in upholding, or safeguarding, or something, “democracy,” one can only nod in sad assent. We have an electoral system that is designed to keep ordinary people out of power, a system that can’t help but focus on adversarial party politics, on personalities, on the voices of those already at the top. The media does as it claims, upholding that status quo by narrowing the boundaries of debate around the same old elites, be they the candidates themselves or their backers. Electoral democracy and corporate media work hand in hand; neither can be reformed, both must be transformed.  

Just watch, just listen, during any election campaign. If you strip away enough of the symbolic veneer of electoral politics, it quickly becomes clear it’s not about democracy but about those who already have the power holding onto it. They’re not us. They’re not ordinary people. And this is not a democracy.


Māori: The indigenous people of Aotearoa/New Zealand
kaupapa: issue, topic, theme, matter for discussion
kāwanatanga: government, dominion, rule, authority, governorship, province.
Pākehā: New Zealander of European descent 
Te Tiriti: The Treaty of Waitangi (Māori language version), signed between representatives of the British Crown and Māori chiefs in 1840
tino rangatiratanga: self-determination, sovereignty, autonomy, self-government, control 

Alison McCulloch is a writer and former journalist. She has worked at newspapers in New Zealand and the United States, including seven years as a staff editor at The New York Times. She is the author of Fighting to Choose: The Abortion Rights Struggle in New Zealand. She and Wayne Waxman have written a book The Democracy Manifesto: A Dialogue on Why Elections Need to be Replaced with Sortition, which they plan to make available on a dedicated website. Wayne is a philosopher who has published five books on Kant and British Empiricism with Oxford, Cambridge, and Routledge. Both live in Aotearoa/New Zealand.  

14 Responses

  1. “elections are incompatible with democracy…”

    I think it is more accurate to say that political parties are incompatible. Parties were illegal from day one in Athens, which is why they were able to be so innovative in creating sortition, rotation, and so forth. Athens never had a problem with elections, but they kept elections in their place — generals or strategoi were always elected and the undignified process of campaigns was severely limited. Parties and campaigning breed partisans. The noise and divisiveness of partisanship is a poison that destroys the atmosphere in which government of, by and for the people can flourish.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for the great point, which provoked a good discussion at our end. Here’s our (mine and Wayne’s) response:

    Given the high stakes involved in the outcome of a war (plunder vs. enslavement), it is no surprise that the Greeks held elections to choose among qualified candidate generals who had the best plan for winning, rather than trust their fortunes to a random draw. Does that mean there are exceptions to the rule that elections are incompatible with democracy, and that sortition shouldn’t replace election in all circumstances? And does it mean that it is parties and partisan campaigning, not elections as such, that are incompatible with it?

    Our answer is no. When we claim that elections are incompatible with democracy we are talking about the selection of democratic representatives charged to act as surrogates for the people on decision making bodies. Generals are neither expected nor under any obligation to act as democratic representatives. That is simply not their role. It is therefore irrelevant to representative democracy whether generals and similarly non-representative offices are filled by election or another method.

    Our view is that elections are incompatible with representative democracy because representatives chosen in this manner are invariably members of elites of one kind or another (the “elect” among us), and elite rule is the antithesis of democratic rule. As this remains true even if no political parties were involved in the election, we regard parties and partisanship as matters of secondary concern. They matter only if one thinks elections central to democracy; but if, like us, ones deems elections themselves to be incompatible with democracy, they are irrelevant.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. > elections are incompatible with representative democracy because representatives chosen in this manner are invariably members of elites of one kind or another (the “elect” among us), and elite rule is the antithesis of democratic rule.


    This is not about partisanship, or “money in politics”, or this or that feature of the electoral system. All these are distractions.

    The most fundamental point is “the principle of distinction”: it is inherently impossible to have normal people elected simply because normal people are not well-known enough to have a noticeable fraction of the population vote for them. Normal people can’t even get on the ballot (unless we are talking about a ballot with millions of names), so by the time you go into the voting booth, the important selection has already occurred. This is true, of course, about the primary ballot as well. This feature is completely inherent to elections.

    So it is absolutely accurate to say that elections are incompatible with democracy. Any power that is delegated through elections is an instance of the usurpation of power by an elite.

    Liked by 4 people

  4. Better to say “representative election” is incompatible with true democracy. A democracy may elect a general to win a war; but not to decide if the war has to be fought, and which cost may be accepted. I choose a surgeon, but I decide if I undergo surgery. I choose a plane because I trust the company, but I decide where I want to go.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Our focus is on representative democracy as opposed to direct democracy (of the kind that ruled in ancient Athens). In large highly technological globally interconnected modern societies, direct democracy cannot take over all the functions of government (legislative, administrative, judicial, etc.) because people have only such time in a day they can spare from making a living and living their lives. To do the job of governance and do it well, representatives need to be chosen who can devote themselves to it full time, so that the question then becomes how to choose them. Our view is that choosing representatives by election is incompatible with democracy, and that the only kind of representative governance capable of being both democratic and effective is a system based on sortition of the kind described in our book. Selecting generals, surgeons, pilots, and the like is not relevant because it is not their job to represent the people on decision making bodies, governmental, institutional, or any other kind.


  6. Andre,

    Even in the case of generals or other technical positions, elections are not a good choice – selection by an allotted body would be better.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Alison,

    A city of 30,000 in 400 BC could not be a “direct democracy” than a nation of millions in 2020. Both must rely on delegation for all decisions other than in exceptional cases. The fact that it is the utilization of sortition, rather than mass participation, that is the crucial characteristic of democracy was, it seems from the sources, conventional wisdom in ancient Greece.

    Liked by 3 people

  8. The Athenian assembly, from what we understand, operated as a direct democracy. That doesn’t mean all the inhabitants of Attica participated. Only adult male citizens in good legal standing were eligible, and only a portion of them typically participated in assembly meetings. Estimates are of the order of 6000, a number that could be accommodated in the available venues and perform their political and judicial functions satisfactorily (other democratic Greek city states were less populous than Attica and so presumably had even less difficulty operating as direct democracies). Athens had a ruling council selected by lot as well, but the assembly was the highest authority: it could overrule anything the council decided and determine what was to be done instead. Athens thus seems to us more a direct democracy than a representative one.

    That isn’t to deny that sortition played a vital role in Athenian democracy (elections too). Nevertheless, it seems fair to say that there has yet to be a true democracy in which sortition was primary and direct democracy secondary — as would be the case if representative bodies chosen by sortition not only controlled all of government but also had the final say on referenda and elections, i.e. what, if anything, was to be voted on by the general public.


  9. > Nevertheless, it seems fair to say that there has yet to be a true democracy in which sortition was primary and direct democracy secondary

    I disagree.

    The Athenian Assembly was the “highest authority”, in the same way that the electorate in a modern Western country is the “highest authority”. Certainly, if you wish, this is the case in US states such as California where there is a “popular initiative” process, so nominally anything could be put on the ballot and decided by mass vote.

    In fact, however, the large majority of decisions cannot be made by mass participation. When the Assembly voted on something, the decision of what to vote on was made elsewhere. (As is the decision of what goes on the ballot in California.) In Athens, the agenda of the Assembly was largely controlled by the allotted Boule and it is for this reason – and for this reason alone – that Athens was democratic.

    In Sparta the assembly had final decision making power as well. But there the agenda was set by the Ephors – an elected body. Thus Sparta was very much like a modern electoralist state – an oligarchy.

    Liked by 2 people

  10. *** In 4th century Athens, the Assembly and the juries were the two channels of popular sovereignty, which were entwinned – a decree of the assembly could be crushed by a jury. The legislative process is discussed, but in all hypotheses things were entwinned too. Ekklesiastês and dikastês had both sovereign power, as says Aristotle. The famous decisive speeches of orators we have are directed some to the Assembly, some to the juries.
    *** From 5th century to 4th century the movement went to divest power from Assembly to juries, but we do not know of anybody, democrat or anti-democrat, who saw that as a lessening of democracy.
    *** To rule a 21st century, modern, very complex society, the allotted jury channel will be inevitably more important than in 4th century Athens. But that leaves some degree of freedom for a modern dêmokratia. It seems that at least the constitutional rules must be decided by the entire dêmos. Personally I think that electing and overseeing managers would be better given to juries.
    *** Discussion about the quantitative proportion of power between the two channels in 4th century Athens is not a very productive task, especially as they were entwinned. And it is not very relevant for the modern case.
    *** The devolution of power to the two channels in a modern dêmokratia is an important issue, but which must be debated from the 21st century parameters.

    Liked by 2 people

  11. Ali,
    I share your analysis about elections being incompatible with democracy. And while we shouldn’t obsess about how Athens functioned in designing a democracy for the 21st Century, I would urge you to take a serious look at this paper I wrote in 2013 that explains why thinking of Athens as a “direct” democracy (and thus having no useful lessons for a society of millions) is mistaken.
    “Democracy Through Multi-Body Sortition: Athenian Lessons for the Modern Day”
    I am quite proud of the fact that this paper has been influential, having been downloaded over ten thousand times in over 100 countries around the world.

    Liked by 3 people

  12. @tbouricius I read your article, many thanks for the link. The book (in dialogue form) that Wayne and I have written has much in common with your article, particularly the establishment of multiple deliberative bodies designed to deal with some of the conflicting objectives that arise. We also grapple with a fair number of possible ‘unintended consequences’ — these are teased out via the Q & A format, which is organised around a panel discusstion (obviously, the panel has been chosen by lot!) with the fictional author of a book on Sortitive Representative Democracy. (We’re still formatting the book for epub, mobi, pdf downloads etc and making the website.) You cover a lot in a few pages (impressive brevity!) from history to psychology to a really nicely structured set of bodies, IMHO — some of the research re the psychology of all this was new to me — and I like how some of the common concerns one hears are turned on their head, e.g. your discussion of ‘accountability’ (better under sortition than elections, per the ‘accountability’ of juries) and of the right of citizens to exercise their political rights i.e. your pointing out that the chance of serving being higher via sortition than election, and the import of being able to have your say being higher than that of having a mere vote. Thanks again for the link.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. >the right of citizens to exercise their political rights

    Whilst that is clearly desirable, what has it to do with democracy as the rule of the people? I take it by that we mean “the people” in the aggregate (rather than “persons”). By counting “mere votes” there is at least the opportunity (in principle) for the demos to choose who best represents their beliefs and preferences, whereas ho boulomenos only empowers those who choose to exercise their rights (and if everyone did we would end up with the Tower of Babel). And, of course, those who choose to exercise their rights are likely to be drawn from a privileged minority. If we are going to reference Athens we should also remember that “rights” is a very modern conception. In large modern states the principle of representation has to trump the notion of individuals exercising their rights.


  14. Terry: > thinking of Athens as a “direct” democracy … is mistaken.

    As Terry knows, I of course agree. Athens was a representative democracy, with decisions being made by randomly sampled bodies of paid volunteers representative of the demos.

    Even the Assembly is a representative body, as it was never attended by more than a fraction of the citizens, perhaps by not more than a quarter or fifth or sixth or seventh of them depending on how many citizens there were, and as no more than about 6,000 could fit into where the Assembly met.

    Assembly attendance was voluntary and paid, as was the case with the sortition-chosen bodies. The difference is that in the sortition-chosen bodies those who volunteered were winnowed down to a smaller number by sortition, whereas in the Assembly if over 6,000 wished to attend they were presumably winnowed down to 6,000 based on who got there first. However, my impression is that those who wished to attend the Assembly were generally able to do so (rather than being excluded because of the capacity limit).

    Voluntarism (with pay), and decision-making by representative bodies of paid volunteers are the basic features of Athenian democracy, for both the sortition bodies and the Assembly.

    There is of course a certain tension between Athenian voluntarism and being representative of the demos, as those who volunteer may be different from those who do not. I am not aware of anything indicating Athenians found this to be a problem.

    Unlike in a popular election, and unlike in a referendum and initiative vote, in Athens those who decided did so after a fair hearing on a level playing field, or something like it. Trials gave equal time to the two sides in the trial. Those making decisions in Assembly also, I think, heard from those for and against the proposal on a basis of equality (at least on anything controversial where there were speakers on both sides). This is different from popular vote, in which those who vote may not have bothered to listen to arguments for and against, or to all of the candidates seeking an office, or only listened to those they agreed with, or relied on the summaries of those they agree with for what the other side or the other candidate said. That is, Athenian democracy had certain epistemic virtues that are missing in popular vote.

    Everyone implicitly accepts such Athenian style epistemic virtue regarding the trial jury. That is, no one argues that trials should be decided by a popular vote of the general public rather than by the randomly sampled jury that attends the trial and is presented with the evidence and arguments by the two sides.

    For the same reasons that it is absurd for trials to be decided by popular vote rather than by jury, so too in my view is it problematic and even absurd for laws to be decided by popular vote, and for public officials to be chosen by popular vote. Specifically, popular vote is highly unsuitable for ensuring an informed decision, and highly unsuitable for ensuring the decision is based on a fair and level playing field (rather than a skewed and unfair playing field).


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