The True Representation Pledge

This is the final chapter from my book published last year entitled “True Representation: How Citizens’ Assemblies and Sortition Will Save Democracy.”

What if we were to demand that every candidate for President, Senate and House of Representatives sign a True Representation Pledge? The pledge strategy can be used in any election, in any country, at the national, state, provincial or local level, wherever people want to demonstrate the potential of sortition and citizens’ assemblies, by targeting an important issue that politicians cannot resolve.

In signing the pledge, each candidate would promise, upon being elected to office, that:

  • They would quickly enact legislation to authorize and fund a national (or state, provincial or local) citizens’ assembly to decide an important issue, identified for the pledge.
  • The citizens’ assembly would be conducted with a briefing book prepared to fairly represent the pros and cons of a wide range of views on the chosen issue.
  • In the case of a U.S. citizens’ assembly, for example, 435 American citizens, one from each Congressional district, would be selected by sortition.
  • Funding would cover the selection process and each delegate’s expenses.
    • funding would provide staff to support the process and the drafting of a law to reflect the assembly’s decisions.
  • Funding would cover the cost of a venue and live-streaming so that the public can view the deliberative process.
  • Each Senator, Representative and the President (or relevant elected officials and candidates in other jurisdictions) would wholly support and promptly enact whatever decisions are made by this truly representative group of their fellow citizens.
Why do we think this True Representation Pledge strategy will work?

How The Flaw in Elections Foisted Prohibition on America

In 1920, on the first day of Prohibition, people must have looked around and thought, “How the hell did this happen?”

Wayne Wheeler, leader of the National Anti-Saloon League, knew exactly how it happened. He got America to give up its booze and shut down its fifth-biggest industry by exploiting the flaw at the center of the election process —the gap between winning and losing.

He boasted that he did it the way the political party bosses did it. He built loyalty among a unified bloc of voters who, although a small minority, could control a close election. Any candidate with 45 percent of the electorate could win with the help of the league’s voting bloc. But if the candidate refused to support Prohibition, Wheeler would have the bloc shift its votes to the opponent.

In 1903 the league decided to oppose 70 Ohio legislators and defeated every one of them. In 1905 the league challenged the Ohio governor who had previously been elected with the largest plurality in state history. Although Republicans won every other statewide race in Ohio, the Republican governor was defeated and his political career ruined. The league’s display of power in Ohio allowed it to intimidate politicians in every state until Prohibition was enacted at a national level through an amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

What Wayne Wheeler perfected was a strategy that allows a small group of single-issue voters to impose its will on the rest of the nation. What if we were to use Wayne Wheeler’s strategy to save democracies everywhere, at every level of government, from their current partisan quagmire?

Those of us who want to explore the possibility of a more deliberative democracy can exploit the flaw in elections, in the same way that Wayne Wheeler pressured legislators to support his cause. With only a small percentage of determined voters, we can decide any close election in favor of candidates who agree to take to take the True Representation Pledge.

The True Representation Petition

First, we must launch a petition drive to secure enough voter signatures to pose a credible threat to politicians who resist signing. We don’t have to change governments or constitutions to take the first step. We just have to get candidates to agree to voluntarily delegate their authority and enact legislation that provides adequate funding for the expenses of conducting and live-streaming a citizens’ assembly, and subsequently honor the assembly’s decisions by voting them into law.

As the number of names on the petition grows, the threat will become more credible. If candidates agree to support us, they can use our True Representation logo on their campaign literature and websites. A successful True Representation effort will pave the way for future citizens’ assemblies to deal with other controversial issues that politicians are afraid to tackle.

This is a pragmatic first step. We’re not proposing a permanent change in government. Rather, we want to give people around the globe a chance to see how sortition and participatory decision-making can work in practice.

Ending James Madison’s American Nightmare

James Madison trusted the American people to a point, but he worried about when they became a mob. He wanted to find a way to slow things down when that happened, creating mechanisms for calm deliberation. He had envisioned a Senate chosen by state legislatures, not by direct election and an Electoral College that chose the President, instead of voters. But it hasn’t worked out the way that he hoped. Yet the use of citizens’ assemblies chosen by sortition, an old idea in a modern context, will create a deliberative process absolutely consistent with the intentions of Madison and the other founders.

When Benjamin Franklin emerged from the Constitutional Convention in 1787 and was asked what kind of government was proposed, he said, “A republic, if you can keep it.” He was talking to us. And so was John F. Kennedy when he urged us to ask what we can do for our country. His words touched my fourteen-year-old spirit. I have since grown to understand that if we want more voice and choice, which is the promise of democracy, then we must take more responsibility.

Perhaps Americans can set an example and inspire others, as we have done in the past, to overcome adversity and embrace a renewed spirit of democracy.

One might question whether the proposed reform, sortition rather than election, is relevant to America because it was developed in ancient Athens, an imperfect democracy in which men without property, women and slaves were not allowed to participate. But that exactly matches the American democracy of Franklin’s time—men without property, women and slaves were not allowed to participate.

However, in the two centuries since the founding of the American republic, we have evolved.

We can continue to do so.

We must.

8 Responses

  1. Ted,

    You would be telling the electoral candidate that you would support them so long as they sign their own death warrant. Is that the strategically and/or morally right thing to do? And the unintended consequences of Prohibition should make us wonder if the same might also be true for Sortition.


  2. Keith:

    The Irish citizens’ assembly experience so far suggests that legislators don’t see the phenomenon as a death warrant, but rather as a good way to escape the consequences of dealing with political “hot potatoes.”

    The unintended consequences of Prohibition did not result from giving citizens more power — but less. Telling people that they can’t have what they want, when they’re willing to pay whatever they must to get it, gave organized crime a financial bonanza that has only been rivaled by the second Prohibition — this time making illegal drugs into another bonanza.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. As a strategy in a FPTP electoral system, this makes a great deal of sense. I suggest you go do it!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Oliver Milne: Thanks. Will you help?


  5. I’m based in Ireland and heavily involved in the UK’s Northern Independence Party, which is pursuing a wedge strategy very similar to the one you describe. One of my aims acting within the party is to make sortitional democracy part of the Northern Independence cause. I really don’t have the time to offer you assistance in terms of movement-building legwork, I’m afraid, but I’d be happy to share what I’ve learned so far.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. You are already helping. :)

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Your appeal to founding fathers may be an effective rhetorical tool, but also misleading, since most of them were opponents of democracy. I myself have resorted to quoting John Adams in my advocacy of sortition (a legislature “should be in miniature, an exact portrait of the people at large. It should think, feel, reason, and act like them”) even though he expressly excluded women and men who did not own property from his concept of “the people.” And while not a supporter of slavery, he was no abolitionist, preferring a gradualist approach.

    As for Madison, we must always remember that his writing in the Federalist Papers was not necessarily sincere. Those articles reflect motivated reasoning. They were intended as persuasion pieces, so glossed over his own frustrations about how bad he thought the final draft of the Constitution was (merely the best they could manage in the circumstances). We can get some insights about his opinions on elections from other writings of his. His lack of trust in the voters was matched by his lack of trust in those who would seek election.

    Here is a quote I like to use about his assessment of men who seek election, and how elections cannot genuinely enable the people to hold those who are elected accountable. In a 1787 essay setting forth the failings of the Articles of Confederation, entitled “Vices of the Political System of the United States,” Madison presented this troubling dynamic of elective representation:

    “Representative appointments are sought from 3 motives. 1. ambition 2. personal interest. 3. public good. Unhappily the two first are proved by experience to be most prevalent. Hence the candidates who feel them, particularly, the second, are most industrious, and most successful in pursuing their object: and forming often a majority in the legislative Councils, with interested views, contrary to the interest, and views, of their Constituents, join in a perfidious sacrifice of the latter to the former. A succeeding election it might be supposed, would displace the offenders, and repair the mischief. But how easily are base and selfish measures, masked by pretexts of public good and apparent expediency? How frequently will a repetition of the same arts and industry which succeeded in the first instance, again prevail on the unwary to misplace their confidence?” []

    Liked by 2 people

  8. You are right. It was a rhetorical tool. However, In other chapters and in other writing I observe that the founders weren’t calling it a democracy — but a republic.

    Sent from my iPhone



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