BALJINDER SHARMA

Politicians, rich, elites and intellectuals often dismiss common men as morons – people with little knowledge of the affairs of the state – prone to misunderstanding democratic functioning and making mistakes. The burden of ensuring that the ‘common good’ and ‘progress’ of the society, be maintained, falls, therefore, on the ‘responsible shoulders’ of these elites. Their ‘leadership’ of the society, suddenly becomes an inevitable moral force – the threat of anarchy and Hobbesian mob rule, lurking in the shadows.

 Let us admit – justice, fairness and equality – the ideals of democracy – appeal only in thought. In real life human beings are driven by power and greed. Political success is mostly obtained, not by following the path of merit, equality, fairness and convention but through a deliberative manipulation of the system – the realpolitik. The worst ruler will justify his excesses by pointing to the still worse treatment that people may be exposed at the hands of his adversary if elected to rule.

 Our lived experience confirms that democracies invariably descend into the hands of the few. Yet, elections – a process by which democracy is put in place is not only an incredibly expensive exercise but in practice offers the possibility of an extremely limited choice – from amongst a small pool of entrenched politicians and elites. Once power is captured, institutions are unashamedly abused to ensure that it is retained. Obviously all this is legitimized through manufactured public approval and consent.

 The most striking characteristic of Greek democracies that prospered in 4th and 5th century BC was that government officials were chosen by a method that amounted to drawing names from a lot. The idea that any ordinary citizen selected at random could do the work of an elected representative looks outrageous and forlorn, but that was precisely the guiding principle of Greek Democracy. And this form of government is the government under which flourished the greatest civilization the world has ever known.

« A true representation of its people »

 The process of ‘Sortition’ – a form of election of government officials, eliminates not only gender, ethnic, economic, religious and political discrimination, it goes a big step further by obliterating considerations of “resume”, “education”, “intelligence”, “beauty” or  even “charisma”.  Sortition produces, mathematically and scientifically – a true representation of its people – in societies both small and large.

 Dr. Roslyn Fuller, the author of « Beasts and Gods: How Democracy Changed its Meaning and Lost its Purpose » claims ‘When I first started researching ancient, democratic Athens, I was struck by the layers of randomness built into the political system. ‘Lottery selection for most office-holders, as well as for Athens’ enormous juries was one aspect of that randomness. The Athenians were clearly determined to bastard-proof their system. Their paranoia was justified, and represented nothing more than healthy respect for the criminal (or oligarchic) mind’.

 It is widely believed that the electoral techniques employed by representative governments today had their origins in medieval elections, both those of “Assemblies of Estates” and those practiced by the Church” and had anything to do with popular pressure, as Manin and Pitkin, in their seminal work on ‘Political Representation’ argue that ‘that election was preferred by Monarchs for purely ascriptive purposes: “you elected these representatives so you must abide by their decisions”’.

 Elections very often produce undesirable results and people are forced to live with them. Sortition may also produce such undesirable results, perhaps, but there is no way that they can be statistically worse off. Compare Sortition to blindfolded monkeys throwing darts at a newspaper’s financial page. In repeated experiments it has been proved that they end up selecting a portfolio of investments that would do just as well as one carefully selected by experts.

 In his book Democracy: A life”, Paul Cartledge – a Cambridge professor explains how historians and statesmen conspired to paint Greek democracy as a horrible mistake, the unworkable aspirations of dreamers, destined to fail and end in chaos. Centuries of propaganda and conditioning have relegated the idea of ‘equality’ as a myth and the notion of ‘collective people holding power’ to be shunned. « The truth was that democracy itself was a dangerous idea — to the kings, emperors, and high clergy who controlled information in the centuries after it ceased to be a living form of government ».

That idea has remained unchanged in modern times.

 Yet, there is a hope that enlightened politicians (of which there are unfortunately few) in some remote future would consider small application of Sortition perhaps at Municipal Elections – drawing a lottery from interested eligible candidates to rule. Citizens could thereafter demand that the ‘Sortitioned’ government rules under advice of a Senate that it may later elect with popular vote. Such exercise would be able to incorporate both ‘randomness’,  ‘considered will’ and ‘individual preferences’ in the results.

 Public apathy and widespread disinterest, as politicians claim is ruinous to the spirit of democracy. The gap between the rulers and the ruled is widening by the day. By allowing some form of ‘Election by Lot’ – such concerns could be addressed and more ordinary citizens allowed to co-opt and contribute. Unless these are disingenuous claims, of course – hidden behind an agenda to continue to manipulate politics and keep power under their permanent control.

 Sortition could be an effective reform that start-up political parties and concerned citizens could demand. But they are unlikely to do so. Sortition requires an enlightened electorate and a political class that is willing to look beyond its nose. And courage to experiment and face its consequences; most of all.