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 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. That’s how the National Rifle Association wields disproportionate power in opposing gun control. But in the modern era of expensive media campaigns, the NRA’s financial clout is just as important as the votes of its 4 million members.
That’s particularly true for the most influential minority group in America: the one percent of Americans who own 43 percent of all U.S. wealth. While too few in number to swing an election, the wealthy fund expensive advertising campaigns that persuade the so-called “low information voters” to choose a candidate for what are often superficial reasons.
In past elections, for example, low information voters admired Bill Clinton because he ate at McDonald’s, but saw John Kerry and Barack Obama as elitist because they wind-surfed or golfed. Negative attack ads, which range from exaggeration to outright lies, are most effective with the people who are least informed and most undecided. They bridge the gap at the middle between the more informed voters and decide the election based on their irrational choices.
Sadly, the idea that an informed electorate will decide elections with thoughtful decision-making is a myth. That’s why a growing number of political scientists are looking to Athens, the original democracy, which selected 90 percent of its public officials by lottery. As strange as it might sound, it deserves serious consideration. Known as sortition or lottocracy, it would completely remove money from the selection process and ensure, by mathematical probability, that our legislatures would be truly representative of the citizenry.
With a U.S. Supreme Court decision that has eliminated any chance of campaign finance reform, Americans could pressure Congress to take a bold step to test the lottery approach. Let’s create a one-time, single-issue lottocratic Congress of 435 U.S. representatives—each from a Congressional district and selected at random from the tax rolls—like we select jurors for court.
With extensive media coverage, dedicated staff and sufficient funding, this experimental legislature would tackle a single controversial issue, such as gun control, fostering a real national conversation.
Whether randomly selected citizens are competent to make decisions is a question for another day, but there are precedents to suggest that such an approach would work.
Let’s not compare such reform proposals against perfection. Legislators around the world are already corrupted by the influence of money. The need for a remedy is urgent.
Consider the comments of eight-term U.S. Congressman Steve Israel, who recently chose not to run again. He said,
“I don’t think I can spend another day…begging for money. I always knew the system was dysfunctional. Now it is beyond broken.”