SORTITION: A Democratic Alternative to Burning Down the House

During an interview with David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker, Pete Buttigieg said this about his fellow Midwesterners voting for Trump:

“They know he’s not a good guy. They aren’t stupid. But they voted to burn the house down.”

What does that mean — “burn the house down”?

  • It means “draining the swamp” of Washington insiders — lobbyists, corporate heads, and career politicians — who often seek to enrich themselves by overseeing the very bureaus and agencies charged with supervising the industries and businesses these insiders came from. Here Trump has demonstrably failed, since his cabinet is loaded with millionaires, billionaires, lobbyists, and ex-pols.
  • It means ridding our political institutions — the intelligence agencies, FBI, and State Department in particular — of “careerists” who might possibly belong to a so-called “deep state” seeking to overthrow Trump, so they can further their own ambitions to take over the country. This is a form of Trumpian paranoia since, outside the Trumposphere, there is no evidence for any such coup. Trump has in many ways succeeded in burning down this wing of the house, as he hollows out many of our federal departments by firing or forcing the resignations of career civil servants.
  • It means undermining Americans’ confidence in the accuracy and intentions of our media, who are accused daily by Trump of peddling only “fake news.” Here, again, Trump seems successful, as many Republicans, in and out of office, have taken up his cry and broadcast their disdain for all mainstream outlets but Fox News, Breitbart, the Washington Examiner, and any other outlet that is unreservedly loyal to Trump.
  • It means undermining Americans’ confidence that our judiciary is fair and temperate, as judges are pictured as partisans legislating from the bench according to their own agendas and based on their prejudices. Of course, such legislating is fine provided the judges rule according to Republican principles and interests. Trump has now filled nearly one-quarter of the federal bench with his own appointments. Perhaps these conservative jurists reside in a guesthouse separate from the house now burning down.

Is all of this what those Midwestern Trump voters wanted? Did they want the inferno that I described above? But did they also want a decline in manufacturing in this country and the continuation of plant closings and jobs heading overseas? Did they want a trade war with China that jeopardizes most of our farmers and bankrupts many? How about continued stagnant wage growth? Precarious health coverage for workers? Repeal of clean water and clean air regulations? Betrayal of our allies such as the Kurds and closer relations with thuggish autocrats like Erdoğan, Kim Jong-Un, Orbán, and Putin?

One part of the burning house seems to have escaped destruction. That part is the ongoing need for politicians from both political parties to placate their constituents, their bases. In a clear sign of abuse of power, Trump confessed that he demanded a quid pro quo from President Zelenskyy. But Republicans in Congress, both in the House and the Senate, first denied that Trump made the demand and then, in the light of both the call notes with Zelenskyy and the testimony by federal officials, admitted the quid pro quo, but dismissed it as “no big deal.” They did so, because they fear that if they turn on Trump, their constituents, enjoying the flames spurting out of Trump’s flamethrower, will turn on them and “primary” them out of office.

Meanwhile in the face of this clear abuse of power — this clear example of bribery by our arsonist president — too many Democrats wrung their hands over whether to start impeachment proceedings. Eventually, all but two of them in the House of Representatives voted to move forward with impeachment. That is only because many sensed that public sentiment, especially among Independents, had begun to shift against the president. Otherwise, if the polls had not turned, it is uncertain how many of those Democrats would be able to stand the idea of their constituents turning on them.

This is not just sad. It is quite possibly the death knell of our democracy. Too often for members of Congress, doing what is right, what the Constitution demands, takes a back seat to doing what is expedient in sheer electoral terms. Better to win my Congressional race than to do what is morally, legally, and constitutionally mandated.

Our Constitution is clear on which abuses of office mandate the removal of the president: Article 2, Section 4 states: the president “shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.”

Many politicians like to play with “high crimes and misdemeanors” because the terms are vague. But bribery isn’t vague. Here is a standard definition: “to influence the judgment or conduct of (someone) with or as if with offers of money or favor; to induce or influence by or as if by money or favor given or promised.”

When Ukrainian President Zelenskyy tells President Trump that Ukraine can really use the $391 million of military aid that Congress has appropriated and the State Department has approved, Trump responds, “I’d like you to do us a favor, though…” There is no world, not even Bizarro-world, where this is anything but a bribe: You’ll get your aid when you investigate Biden for us. The polite term for this is “quid pro quo.” But using Latin doesn’t disguise the bribe.

In light of this bribe and the Impeachment Clause of our Constitution, removal of President Trump should be evident and should be immediate. Yet Democrats in Congress dithered, while Republicans refused even to support an impeachment inquiry. All for the sake of re-election.

The problem is that members of Congress have become career politicians. The root cause of the problem is the “professionalization” of political offices.

The problem is that members of Congress have become career politicians. They don’t want to lose the perks and prestige, the influence and power, of that career. You may hear frequent complaints by pundits and ordinary citizens about money in politics. Money is certainly part of the problem. But the root cause of the problem is the “professionalization” of political offices.

Do we need careerists and professional politicians to do democracy’s work? Staff lawyers (and sometimes lobbyists), not members of Congress, write most significant bills; Congressional staffs, not members of Congress, sometimes read bills and inform their bosses on how to vote. Could ordinary citizens, selected at random, do Congress’s work? Yes, they could…and should.

The term for the random selecting of officeholders is sortition. In ancient Athens, for example, citizens appointed through lotteries rotated through all political offices except for those of military generals. Renaissance Florence did something similar.

Yet those were ancient city-states with limited populations. Could such a scheme work in contemporary American politics?

Random selection seems to work for our jury system. So why not for Congress? Are the issues beyond the average Americans’ comprehension? We wouldn’t permit our doctor or dentist to be randomly selected for us. Why, then, our members of Congress?

Political decisions and public policies don’t rest on technical and bureaucratic expertise, as much as they rely upon political and moral judgments. The value of deliberative democracy is having participants discuss in detail the assumptions behind policies and the consequences of enacting them. As jury deliberations show, average citizens can make good decisions.

It turns out that America’s citizens are quite capable of understanding and dealing with the social and political issues that face our nation. Citizen summits, citizen juries, participatory budgeting, and citizen assemblies — all happening throughout the country — provide evidence that this is so. And in many cases, participants in such forums are randomly selected.

Dozens of organizations exist in the United States that promote, run, and record deliberative participatory forums across the country. One such organization is the National Issues Forum, sponsored by the Kettering Foundation. David Mathews, the president and CEO of Kettering, has spent over 20 years overseeing hundreds of forums where regular citizens, with strong and differing political orientations and positions, have met together to deliberate on thorny economic, social, and political issues.

After all of this experience, Mathews concludes that citizens are not only willing to deliberate, but are also fully capable of doing so on complex and controversial issues such as gun control, American foreign policy, physician-assisted suicide, the legalization of marijuana, and nuclear proliferation.

On one issue dealing with energy policy, Mathews found that average citizens could engage deeply with subjects that were full of scientific and technical considerations. Such considerations did not overwhelm the citizen-participants, none of whom had any scientific or technical background or expertise. For example, a study by Holton and LaFollette through the Public Agenda Foundation found that a randomly selected group of 70 participants, divided into six groups, could deliberate well on research projects involving complex technical issues with large data collections. These groups of citizens came to the same decisions and the same judgments as the scientists involved with the projects.

Certainly it is fair to say that a Congress of randomly selected representatives would more closely reflect the public’s sentiments and judgments than would a body composed primarily of lawyers and business executives.

How would sortition work in practice? First and most important, citizen-members of Congress would deliberate. Congress is supposed to be our deliberative branch — not a debating society with each side giving its opinions, but a deliberative body where members together weigh evidence and assess the consequences of different options. This isn’t what Congress is now, but citizen-members, without party whips to herd them into voting particular ways, would welcome deliberation. Indeed, they might well insist on it. So should all voters.

Second, in each state citizen-members could be selected by a method similar to calling citizens to jury duty. Or each state could compile a large pool of candidates who have agreed to participate if selected. Making participation voluntary rather than mandatory seems more appealing, because selected volunteers would be both motivated and dedicated.

Once selected, every member would face term limits. Each Representative would be given at least three years and no more than five years. Every year, beginning in the third year after the first Congress is sworn in, a quarter of the House is rotated out and new members are brought in. This assures continuity.

Likewise in the Senate, each member would be given a fixed term of no more than eight years, with one-third rotated out every couple of years. House members would be selected at random from pools within Congressional districts; Senate members, selected at random from a pool of candidates within each state.

The structure of the system would look very much as it does today: Each member would have an office and staff. The staff could be a combination of new employees and continuing staff, so that a new member should feel comfortable bringing on some of his/her own people. Each member would be assigned to committees, which would continue to have their own staffs. Advisers, experts, bureaucrats, and lawyers would continue to propose and shape bills. Lobbyists and special interests would not disappear, as they continue to advocate for their concerns.

What would disappear is any need to raise money to finance campaigns. Most Senators spend two-thirds of their last two years in office raising money. Most days, Congressional Representatives spend a few hours on the phone, like a telemarketer, asking for money.

With sortition those phone hours each week could be used to talk and consult with constituents. Members could use such programs as Zoom for video conferencing with constituents. Before the call or on the spot the constituents could deliberate together and with their Congress members about some issue important to their district, to their state, or to the nation. They could also use the call to question the members about their votes or their positions.

Gone, too, would be Congressional campaigns, media advertising, and party involvement. Indeed, using the federal government as a model, sortition might well supplant campaigns and elections at every level.

So, we can remodel the house without needing to burn it down. Keep the structural walls — keep the Senate and the House — but gut the place. Remove the old Senators and Representatives and replace them with new citizens randomly selected. Judges can remain in the guesthouse…for now.

Now Professor Emeritus at Arizona State University after 30 years of teaching political theory; looking to galvanize human empowerment and potential