Give Political Power to Ordinary People

Give Political Power to Ordinary People

To fight elite capture of the state, it’s time to consider sortition, or the assignment of political power through lotteries.

A stele depicting the crowning of the Demos

In response to the mounting public anger about inequality and the climate crisis in the United States, the left has seized the initiative, proposing higher taxes on the rich to fund transformative government programs like Medicare for All and the Green New Deal. But parallel concerns about the domination of government institutions by unaccountable technocrats and wealthy elites—a danger that could derail all those plans—have so far failed to generate a similar stream of ambitious proposals.

A strong, radically democratic vision for the left must combine advocacy of growing state power with demands for more effective citizen oversight and participation. The left needs more than good policy. It needs serious, creative proposals for how to drain the swamp.

Our broken campaign finance system is a longstanding target of progressive ire. And as Republican state legislatures have made increasingly aggressive moves to entrench minority rule, many people are beginning to see a broader defense of democratic integrity as a crucial part of any left agenda. Yet most of the attention of reformers has been limited to the electoral process—perhaps because we tend to assume that getting “our people” into office will solve the problem.

It won’t. Elite capture of the state extends far beyond the influence of large donors on elections. Ever since the original New Deal gave birth to the modern administrative state, powerful private interests have sought to make it work in their favor. They have often been successful, influencing everything from state and federal legislative agendas to international treaties and arcane regulatory rulings. As a result, corporations—and the plutocrats who run them—are often able to neutralize or coopt the very agencies designed to keep them in check.

Sometimes, this results in highly publicized disasters like the Deepwater Horizon oil spill or the 2008 financial crisis, both of which were widely blamed on regulators in thrall to the industries they were tasked with overseeing. In the wake of crashes involving the Boeing 737 Max aircraft, more recently, critics noted that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) had actually outsourced its responsibility to perform safety evaluations to none other than Boeing itself.

More often, however, the effects of capture are less spectacular, taking the form of U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) guidelines that advantage large industrial farms, or Federal Communications Commission (FCC) rulings that privilege the interests of telecom giants over their customers. Even when rulemaking is not obviously captured by any particular corporate or industry interest, an isolated technocratic elite is bound to become removed from the concerns of ordinary people.

We cannot expect to avert the dangers of capture and corruption simply by hiring smarter experts or electing fresh-faced representatives with noble intentions. A changing of the guard is not enough. Truly transformative reforms must be motivated by a robustly democratic vision, in which ordinary citizens are empowered to hold government officials accountable and break self-perpetuating cycles of capture. And one promising way to move toward that goal is sortition, or the assignment of political power through lotteries.

The use of randomly selected citizen councils to protect fragile institutions of self-government dates back to classical Greece and medieval Italy. There are promising recent precedents from Canada and Ireland as well. And as the limits of electoral representation become more apparent, interest in lottery-based alternatives is growing rapidly among political theorists. So far, though, sortition has received virtually no extended treatment in mainstream U.S. political discourse. That needs to change.

Americans already have a familiar, traditional model of sortition in the trial jury system. Every day, courts across the country use lotteries to generate a pool of potential jurors, who are then sorted—admittedly through less-than-random methods—into panels that judge fellow citizens.

Randomly selected juries reflect all the shortcomings of the people who serve on them. Their principal advantage, however, is that they are resistant to certain forms of manipulation. Because ordinary citizens selected more or less at random have nothing at stake in the outcome of most trials, their judgment can be trusted to be relatively impartial. And because their participation is limited to a particular case, they are relatively immune to outside influence. They do not become entrenched in their positions, so they are not susceptible to the kinds of distorting incentives facing career politicians, government officials, and judges.

Those same advantages would apply outside the courtroom. Popular election and meritocratic appointment have distinct advantages as methods of distributing political office, but they are also inevitably subject to influence by those with concentrated power through lobbying, campaign contributions, career incentives, and a host of subtler means. By contrast, councils consisting of randomly selected citizens would be more resistant to these pressures. Oversight juries empowered to scrutinize important government decisions could therefore exert a meaningful check on the power of wealth in a wide range of contexts.

This is what sets sortition apart from more familiar technocratic fixes to the problems of capture. The random selection process inserts a blind break that interrupts all of the normal channels of influence. It ensures that participants are mostly ordinary people without strong pre-existing loyalties. And it gives real decision-making power to members of marginalized groups that are normally excluded from politics.

What would this look like in practice? Consider the merger approval process, which is opaque to the vast majority of us but generates intense lobbying pressure from corporate actors with billions of dollars on the line. According to Tim Wu and other legal scholars, this regulatory process has succumbed to capture and corruption for decades, permitting the rise of monopolistic corporations like Google and Facebook.

To grapple with this problem, an incoming Democratic Congress might demand that whenever the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) decides to approve a merger deal worth more than $1 billion, it has to submit that decision to a citizen oversight jury. The jury would hear cases for both sides—just like a trial jury—and then choose to approve the merger, reject it outright, or send it back to the FTC for further review. The process would invite public scrutiny on decisions that affect the lives of millions.

Other state and federal agencies would also benefit from the regular scrutiny of a citizen jury. Imagine democratic participation in the rules that permit the use of complex financial instruments like derivatives, oversight over defense contracts, or scrutiny over Federal Reserve rulings. The idea is not that ordinary citizens know better than experts or have the ability to channel some pure Will of the People. Rather, their role would be to force policymakers to demonstrate to a plausibly neutral audience how their decisions benefit ordinary people.

In that vein, citizen oversight juries could also be powerful tools for improving election regulations at the state level, reining in the excesses of gerrymandering and helping to prevent situations like the debacle in Georgia last November, when a gubernatorial candidate was tasked with overseeing his own election. Especially now that federal courts are forbidden from doing so, citizen oversight juries should wield veto power over districting decisions. More generally, they should review election policy and scrutinize interactions between lobbyists and legislators—precisely the sort of tasks that officials elected under the current system are unlikely to perform.

Citizen oversight could even play an important role at the municipal level. Juries could review policies in police departments or sheriff’s offices, or plans to give large tax incentives to corporations—as in the recent failed deal between Amazon and New York City.

Finally, councils of randomly selected citizens could help set the agenda for elected legislatures. They could draft agenda items and force legislatures to vote on issues they are unlikely to pursue because they are politically risky (such as criminal justice reform), unpopular among donors (financial regulations), or invisible to the wealthier people who dominate our political system (payday lending).

None of these institutions need eliminate experts from decision-making. As in criminal trials, jurors on an oversight council would be given sufficient time in a sufficiently deliberative context to get a handle on a discrete, specific question. Experts would help them understand the question and the stakes, but the adversarial format would ensure that jurors aren’t hoodwinked, and citizens themselves would have the final say.

As in criminal cases, this process will sometimes misfire, and special interests may find ways to influence juries. No system is perfect, and the specific details of a sortition-centered citizen oversight model would require a lot of work—and some experimentation—to pin down. But given how badly the current system is failing, that work and experimentation should not scare us off. Citizen oversight councils offer a radically democratic process to hold policymakers accountable to the public interest.

The model of sortition that we’re imagining has radical ambitions, but it is also pragmatic, and has promising real-world precedents. In 2003, for instance, the province of British Columbia randomly selected 160 citizens and convened a Citizens’ Assembly to set the agenda on the question of electoral reform. The citizens heard from a range of experts and policy advocates, helped host public hearings, and deliberated during weekend sessions at a special facility in Vancouver. They reviewed systemic problems with the provincial election system and debated possible solutions. At the end of the process, they proposed a new, customized single transferable vote system for elections in the province. Their proposal was approved by 58 percent of voters in a province-wide referendum—just shy of the 60 percent required to pass. But the experiment was radical—and, for many of the people who witnessed it, deeply moving.

More recently, the Irish Parliament brought together ninety-nine randomly selected citizens to prepare a public report about five social issues, including whether the country should reconsider its longstanding ban on abortion—a high-voltage issue that the leadership class had been hesitant to touch. At the end of the process, the assembly pushed for parliament to take up abortion anyway, endorsing a much more liberal policy than anyone expected. Analysts of Irish politics have widely credited the assembly with helping to bring about the 2018 referendum that legalized abortion in the country.

These are the most high-profile recent cases, but they are hardly the only ones. In the past decade, municipalities across Canada have started using citizen reference panels, selected by lottery, to provide input on major city planning questions and other complex municipal decisions. In the lead up to the election of Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador last year, his MORENA party selected a number of candidates for its parliamentary list by lot. And just in the last few months, national initiatives employing sortition have been announced in Belgium and Scotland.

These preliminary steps only scratch the surface of sortition’s full political potential, but they have generated significant momentum behind the idea. It’s time to put it on the agenda in the United States, where it has potential for broad political appeal. An emphasis on citizen oversight addresses conservative concerns about an unaccountable bureaucracy. At the same time, it answers widespread calls among liberals and the left to defend democratic integrity.

Sortition need not await the arrival of a deep blue wave in Congress. Citizen oversight juries can and should be implemented at local and state levels immediately. Doing so will help to ameliorate the effects of capture on the ground, while familiarizing people with the practice and serving as a trial run for federal implementation.

Far more than a policy fix, sortition is a profound rejoinder to an era of distant, managerial state power and spectator-sport politics. Neoliberal dogma asserts that we only have two choices: either we get rule by unaccountable technocrats, or we get the conspiracy theorizing and indiscriminate mistrust of all expertise peddled by the populist right. Oversight juries reject this false choice. Instead, they model a healthier relationship between experts and ordinary people, in which both have a crucial role to play.

Organized parties and competent bureaucrats are a necessary foundation for any realistic vision of left politics. But sometimes, justice requires that we blind ourselves to faction and rank. Though a citizen oversight movement will never resolve democracy’s challenges all on its own, it can help to weaken the grip of concentrated wealth on our political system. And unlike so many supposed solutions to our present travails, it casts ordinary people, rather than elites, in the role of democracy’s saviors.

Michael Schulson is a freelance journalist who writes about religion, science, technology, and politics.

Samuel Bagg is a democratic theorist at McGill University and an incoming fellow at Nuffield College, Oxford.