I am pleased to introduce David Heekin, retired Continental Airlines and former United States Air Force pilot, occasional writer and frequent curmudgeon. I trust you’ll enjoy his humor and willingness to challenge. I asked him to write his reaction to our recent series of BANR blogposts on using “sortition” to bring a new reality to governance.
Pie in the Sky
by David Heekin
“Sortition” was a new term to me when Ted Wachtel brought it to my attention. It’s a theory that espouses replacing our current elections of candidates to political office with an entirely new system of random appointments of the citizenry to defined terms of office, much like jury selection. You put yourself in a pool, you’re tapped for duty, and—like Cincinnatus of old Rome—you drop your plow and go off to save the Republic.
I recently watched a TED talk on the merits of sortition by Brett Hennig, given to a very well-dressed audience near Budapest. They looked very much like sponsors of NPR and PBS: uniformly Caucasian couples, responding to Hennig’s points with polite tennis claps. Hennig’s creds are interesting to say the least; taxi driver, software engineer, math tutor and a Ph.D. in astrophysics, to name just a few. In a perfect world, his utopian ideas and ideals would make this country and the world a better place for all. But in my own little humble opinion, they are just that—idealistic and utopian—and I am having trouble visualizing sortition in today’s world.
Hennig fixates on the ancient Greek city-states. Sortition worked in Athens, why not here?
One reason is that city-states were quite insular, and had almost no contact with anyone else, unless they were fighting with them or trading with them. And citizens randomly selected were all men, all from the “productive” classes, and had the time to be well-informed and deliberative.
Demographically, our world differs from Athens and Sparta. We interact with the entire world, and we don’t have the luxury of time in most of our lives. Ilya Somin said it quite well in Democracy and Political Ignorance:
“Most voters devote little time and effort to acquiring information about government and public policy.”
That’s not what I want sent off to Washington to run my life.
Hennig also points to Ireland and Bolivia as two places where sortition has shown signs of working. My read on that is that Ireland has been under the heel of the Catholic Church since St. Paddy drove out the last snake. It is only in this calendar year that the Irish electorate defied Rome (and I say this with passion, because I’m Irish). Ireland has no political history of its own prior to 1921, and time will tell for its political future.
As for Bolivia, I can think of few countries whose indigenous people have been more abused and misused. One dictatorship after another has kept people in “their proper place,” until Evo Morales was elected president. Morales is of the Aymara tribe of indigenous people, and is the first Indian president of that country. Bravo! But he is also a Cocadero, a coca grower who feels strongly that U.S. and government efforts to eradicate coca is American imperialism. Bolivia has the right to grow coca and sell it to anyone, and he was quoted as saying that all he does is grow the plant that produces cocaine. Once he takes it to market, his responsibility ends.
He is also a committed socialist, and I really want to see what he does when his term of office ends in a couple of years. I may be wrong, but I can’t think of another socialist nation whose leader has ever voluntarily stepped down.
Okay: In Nicaragua in the ’70s, Daniel Ortega did step down after he was so sure he would be re-elected that he invited journalists from all over the world to watch the vote count. Jimmy Carter was there, too, and Ortega lost. I’m still waiting to see people braving 90 miles of shark-infested waters in an inner tube, or dying on barbed wire, trying to get into a socialist workers’ paradise. Ortega had to go, but guess what? He’s baa-aack! Democracy AND sortition are irrelevant under one-man rule. Again, time will tell.
The prospect of sortition in this country scares me to death. Two of the requirements I mentioned earlier, for random selection in Athens, were for the people to be informed and deliberative. They have to be involved. I’m a crotchety old geezer, probably, but I look around me and I see people who are more interested who gets voted off the island than they are in who represents them. Do they have shows like Naked and Afraid and Jersey Shore in Europe? Are folks like the Kardashians and Miley Cyrus hero figures elsewhere?
Of course, that’s hyperbole. But my legitimate concerns include these:
- From whom will random selectees be drawn? Everyone? Voters only? Those with jobs and/or education?
- Random selectees will be unlikely to be knowledgeable in anything but a small fraction of issues.
- This could lead to numerous small groups, leading to masses of communication issues amongst them, and poor coordination.
- Defined terms lead to large turnovers every selection cycle, and the problems will just repeat themselves in a never-ending learning curve.
- If you don’t have term limits, you just have a different elite, who will do their best to stay in power, and you will no longer have random, ordinary people. In essence, you will not have drained the swamp; you will merely have replaced the fish.
- If you think our current crop of millionaire, privileged lawmakers is susceptible to bribes and lobbying from influence buyers, wait until you get a new group struggling with bills, mortgages and college costs…fish in a barrel!
There is a chance that sortition could succeed here, but I think it would have to start at a very low level, such as town government, or school boards, if you can keep a leash on some parents or the NEA. If it works, step it up to county level, then state level. But speaking in a Hungarian Opera House to a refined, polite audience is one thing, especially in a country just emerging from 50 years of socialist benevolence. Selling that vision in a land of The Burning Man Festival, NASCAR races, and Dancing with the Stars is another, indeed.
Please—convince me otherwise.