Archconservative William F. Buckley Jr. once wrote, “I am obliged to confess that I should sooner live in a society governed by the first 2,000 names in the Boston telephone directory than a society governed by the 2,000 faculty members of Harvard University.”

He was just kidding, of course. In between his tennis lessons, cruises on his yacht and speaking in whatever that accent was about, Buckley wanted us to know that he was also anti-elitist.

But maybe he was on to something.

You can change presidents and change parties in power, but some things don’t change.

Congress can come up with $700 billion a year for the Department of Defense, but it can’t find $100 billion to help families stay out of poverty.

We can let billionaires who are rich enough to own private space programs avoid paying taxes, but struggling families have to pay every dime of their student loans.

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There’s plenty of money to help out after a fire or a hurricane, but not enough to fight the climate change that causes fires and hurricanes.

(Add your own outrage here.)

The problem may be with the way we choose who goes to Washington, or more accurately, who chooses our choices, which is ultimately the candidates themselves.

I can give you a list of names of people I consider to be true public servants, and you can, too, and some of the names might match. But all of them, along with the obviously corrupt hacks, had to decide at some point that they should be in a position of power and had to work incredibly hard to get there. If only the ambitious can play, it’s going to affect the game.

This is not a new problem. It was debated at the founding of the first democracy in ancient Athens and thinkers came up with an interesting way around it. Using what’s called sortition or “lottocracy,” governments were often made up of citizens chosen at random, kind of like the way we have jury duty today.

The idea might sound ridiculous, but it is being taking seriously by academics engaged in looking at ways to revive democracy around the world. In a very good rundown published on the general interest news site Vox, Dylan Matthews quotes scholars who note that elections are not always the most democratic way to solve problems. Election results are influenced by special-interest campaign spending and various biases. Most people have had the experience of holding their noses and voting for a candidate they didn’t like because they think the opponent would be worse.

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The academics argue that the value of democracy is that it uses a wide range of perspectives outside of the elite’s to make decisions – like Buckley’s phone book. Lotteries could bring people into the decision-making process who would be normally ruled out by the election process, either because they have views that are incompatible with those of donors, or just because they are short, shy or belong to a racial or ethnic minority.

“So much discourse around ‘saving democracy’ – including President Joe Biden’s speech calling on the Senate to change the filibuster rules – revolves around protecting voting rights and access to the polls,” Matthews writes. “It feels hardly imaginable to have a functioning democracy without elections. But there’s a reason smart people are flocking to the notion.”

By “flocking to,” he mostly means “writing about,” but he cites some real-world examples of randomly selected public bodies.

Ideas for France’s national climate policy were developed by the Citizens Convention for Climate, with its 150 members chosen by lot from several demographic and regional categories.

The Canadian province of British Columbia convened a randomly selected Citizen Assembly on Electoral Reform, which produced recommendations to overhaul the electoral system. There ideas were sent out to the voters at a referendum but failed to pass the required 60 percent threshold.

Ireland has used citizen assemblies to develop proposals on a number of issues, including legalizing abortion, which was approved by national referendum in 2018.

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According to Belgian political scientist Hélène Landemore, these bodies work best when they are organized around a specific question, and their recommendations go out to the electorate for approval.

Maybe. Anyone around for the 2021 election in Maine, when corporations flooded the state with money trying influence the public vote on whether to  block a transmission line through the Maine woods, knows that issue referendums are no purer than elections with candidates.

Still, it would be interesting to find out who voters would trust more: their randomly selected fellow citizens, or the self-serving corporate interests with the money to advertise.

If a jury of our peers is what it takes to restore public confidence in institutions, maybe we should take a chance.


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