"Elections are the fossil fuel of politics." This incendiary sentence comes form a fascinating book, Against Elections, by David van Reybrouck. What he is attacking is what might be termed a certain kind of "fetishism" that views our standard reliance on certain forms of election as the one true way of selecting leaders in a "representative democracy.' To be sure, Reybrouck can be read in part as a critic of "representative democracy" in favor of more direct democracy, as seen in America in such different states as Maine or California (with lots of others as well). But I think the real importance of his argument, and what makes it worth discussing in a far greater context than the debate about direct democracy versus representatives democracy is that he accurately suggests that our present system of elections is not even the best way of producing truly "representative" leaders. For starters, they are snapshots taken on a given day of the constellation of pubic opinion of those who show up and vote for a restricted list of candidates. We could obviously discuss at length the degree to which the restricted list generates truly "representative" candidates, given the role played by money or well-located interest groups. That's the subject for other postings. Rather, let's assume for the moment that the candidate-selection process is acceptable, and we're concerned only with how we should structure the choice by the citizenry of who should occupy the offices in question.
I read van Reybrouck to suggest, a la Jim Fishkin, whose work both he and I deeply admire and believe should have far more impact than it has had up to now, that the actual choice be determined by a process of genuine deliberation among a random sample of the American electorate, chosen in accordance with the most advanced methods by which Gallup and other respected pollsters do their own polling. The actual voters would be less likely to meet the objections raised by Ilya Somin and others about the palpable "ignorance" of many voters. If, for example, they that they were part of a carefully chosen (albeit random) group of, say, 2000 Americans, to pick the next president, and if in addition there were "hearings" at which the candidates would speak and be subject to careful cross-examination concerning their views, there is every reason to trust that the choice would be well within the "margins of error" that we in fact accept, albeit without giving any genuine thought to it in our "ordinary" election process.
Such an approach to elections would immediately obviate the kind of all-out partisan warfare now occurring in Wisconsin and, many people fear, that is on the horizon and Donald Trump and his GOP minions will do almost literally whatever they think it will take to hang on to power in November. It would also render close to irrelevant the role of big money at least following the nomination process. So what's the problem?
The quick and dirty answer is that this exposes the chasm between "thinking like a social scientist" and "thinking like a layperson." I.e, I am assuming that any and all trained social scientists would agree that a well-chosen representative sample will produce more "representative" outcomes, whether one is testing the distribution of public opinion or, as in the hypothetical case the selection of a president, than does the baroque process by which we conduct elections. The laity, on the other hand, I suspect would be appalled at this suggestion because we have built up over the years a true mystique about elections per se. Instead of a truly serious discussion about what a "republican form of government" requires of all of us, we instead have sacralized the particular process as a form of social communion. WE all believe that we're better citizens because we get up early and stand in long lines or stand in long lines at the end of a days work, perhaps with children in tow who are told that this is the very essence of "American democracy." That is an epic piece of false consciousness, with extraordinarily important consequences for the actual reality of what we ideologically label "American democracy."
We are told that we ought to grant legitimacy to the winners of any and all elections. But why, exactly? If and only if we truly have a reason to believe that the election process is truly fair in sufficient respect. There is good reason to have more and more doubt as to whether that is true in the US today, in part thanks to obtuse decisions by the US Supreme Court.
There is a perhaps paradoxical connection between van Reybrouck's (and Fishkin's) arguments and some of those that originally justified the electoral college. (There are no good arguments that justify the current operation of the electoral college.) That is, it was thought desirable to place selection in the hands of a group of people who would presumably exercise better and more informed choices than the people at large. The difference is that this defense of the electoral college is elitist through and through. There is nothing elitist in Fishkin's and van Reybroucks arguments, however. A random sample, a "national citizen jury" in effect, would be full of the hoi polloi. There would obviously be some elites within the overall sample, but they would play no special role. It would truly be a one-person/one-vote system where the voting pool would be, of course, a minuscule percentage of the national population. For me that is no problem. I suspect that many of you would find it a fatal defect. But the question is why.