Athenian Assembly

True Democracy: No Politicians, No Parties, No Problem

The idea of a Citizen’s Assembly, or Sortition is often seen as using a lottery system to select people at random to make up, or supplement our typical political structures. What’s left out of this definition is that Representative Democracy - what the vast majority of Western Democracies have at present, is a distortion and dilution of how Democracy originated, and how it was intended to work.

In Representative Democracy, the people choose who will work on their behalf to introduce policies and enact political change in their society. In democracy, as it originated in Ancient Greece, the people exerted this change themselves — without political parties, and without politicians. Citizens were chosen at random, much like how a jury is selected today, to oversee debate, and much like a jury, these citizens decided the fate of law moving forward. Why we are more comfortable having a small group of citizens decide, in some cases, literally whether someone spends the rest of their life behind bars, but not that a proportionate selection of citizens oversee tax implementation, foreign policy, or food quality control — when presented with expert debate, and all information at hand, speaks to a fear that is utterly unfounded.

We the people fear the people.

We fear we’re too dumb, too busy, too biased, too irrational to make decisions, even when given ample time, help and information to do so. My aim by the end of this article is to convince you that not only is the fear untrue, but that Sortition is already proving itself a legitimate, realistic proposal — in the real world. And, it’s already begun.

Abortion and Gay Marriage: Hot Potato Topics in Ireland

It takes an immensely hot potato topic for politicians to throw up their hands and admit they have no clue how to proceed — and perhaps the public should be called upon to help via referendum. Recently in Ireland this eventuality arose when tackling the abortion issue, Ireland being one of the last countries in Europe that still banned abortions. Before opting for referendum, Ireland did something radically different. In 2016, 100 citizens were chosen by lottery to hear experts debate and present the data on the issues at hand, with one of the 100 acting as head, chairing the meetings. And after months of deliberation, these 100 people representative of the population as a whole - with varying backgrounds, religions and political beliefs - proposed what should be done.

They found vastly in favour of legalising abortion without exception, and with immediacy. This was no small feat in a country, little over fifty years shy of exiting arguably full-on theocracy under the Catholic church. Ireland is a country who’s constitution was literally co-written by the archbishop of Dublin in the nineteen-twenties, with the formation of the Republic of Ireland. Such a drastic change to abortion law represented an utter u-turn in the fabric of political thought and society. The proposed changes were presented by the Citizen’s Assembly - the name given to the group of randomly selected citizens, and put to referendum. These proposals passed without exception, to be implemented with immediacy.

An issue that has plagued political debate in Ireland for decades was resolved within a year. One main reason presented why it passed with such flying colours was simply the people trusted the findings of the Citizens’ Assembly over politicians. 100 people listened to the debates and made informed decisions — in many cases erasing their previously held beliefs on the topic. The population understood the Citizens’ Assembly had no dog in the fight, so to speak. They had no financial gain to be had from doing their duty, and no political power or career prospects influencing their train of thought. Their pay was supplemented by the state for any work they missed during the proceedings. The CA were granted anonymity so no press attention was given to them. They had nothing to gain but the truth.

Conservative & Progressive Change

This worked so well Ireland used Sortition when another hot potato topic was risen in parliament: Gay Marriage. Again the Citizens’ Assembly were called upon to hear all manner of affected parties and experts debate. Finally the CA proposed that Gay Marriage should be legalised. Keep in mind, the CA is a lottery system and members from all over the nation and with all manners of biases and prejudices were, no doubt, members of the group and still the group found vastly in favour of the progressive stance.

The idea of a CA is not progressive, but inherently conservative — being an idea as old as democracy itself. When democracy originated in Ancient Greece, citizens were chosen at random by lottery to decide upon the legislation proposed for the upcoming years. They were gathered into a political hearing called an Ecclesia where another group of citizens (also chosen by lottery) along with experts debated over the issues at hand. Once a clear side was seen to be winning, they’d take a vote and legislation was passed and democracy was born.

Representative Democracy

In truth, if you live in a Western country you don’t live in a democracy, in the true sense of of the word, but rather a Representative Democracy. A representative democracy chooses leaders on the citizen’s behalves to debate, propose and pass legislation in their place. For the vast majority, civic duty means voting on the individuals who take these seats to represent you, along with the odd referendum vote. In the case of UK and Ireland, this means citizens lack a say on the person who takes the head office of State— such as the Prime Minister, who’s chosen by the winning party. In short, you vote for a party not a person in most Representative Democracies.

A Whip System Curbs Change

The problem with Party Politics is that change is sluggishly slow, and often impossible. The reason for this is the Party Whip system many countries have in place in States such as the UK & Ireland. This means any new representative elected to parliament who has incredible ideas they wish to propose will fall on deaf ears, unless they toe the party’s line. You may have an excellent proposal for healthcare or pension plans, but if that issue is not in keeping with the party‘s agenda you won’t be allowed even propose it as a bill. The party whip is the term used for the member of the party who ensures all members of the party keep with the agendas being pushed. Raising a bill that steps out of line with the party risks expulsion.

And such a system, Representative Democracy, has worked somewhat well for us for some time, until recently. Looking at the state of the world, which is truly reeling in globalised traumas collecting speed such as climate change, pandemics, up-risings and authoritarianism, if not outright fascism — real change is necessary.

Covid-19 Response

What the world’s proven during its response to the Covid-19 crisis is that our better angels alone won’t save us. For all the early talk of egalitarian vaccine distribution among countries, and banding together as communities to protect our elderly and vulnerable — the death rate, and slow vaccine implementation in undeveloped countries, speaks louder.

Simply put, greed won. Companies chose profit over lives. Countries and citizens suffered. The USA infamously disbanded its Pandemic Response Committee mere months before the epidemic. But, all countries were proven ill-prepared. What this has shown us is that politicians are not superior, or somehow more equipped for the job. When it really mattered, their pettiness, their bias, their inability to restrain the greed of pharmaceutical companies, and to follow a solid plan, shows blatantly that their ineptitude handling the unexpected was universal. Some exceptions like New Zealand’s Jacinta Ardern showed how a level-headed, academic approach and how listening to the science, rather than ego or career prospects can give rise to real, tangible relief for millions.

Calculating The Risk

Why Jacinta Ardern stands out is she had a plan based in science, and did not waver from it. Under the Citizen’s Assembly the people are given the facts as they are— undiluted by bias or miss-information — and decide accordingly. The power of people under the CA is demonstrable in so far as it cannot be corrupted by lobbyists, by careers, or by bias. It expects bias, but its risk influencing results dissipates by the sheer proportionality of people represented from all backgrounds and ages. On the other hand, politicians are renown for attending the same top schools such as Eton in the UK before taking their place in parliament, for example.

How do we negate this form of elitism and bias? In short, you don’t. Bias is part and parcel of being human. I’m biased toward my favourite football team, and toward chocolate-chip ice-cream. Dictatorships don’t work precisely because one person calls the shots, Representative Democracies are failing because only one type of person wants to call the shots.

Never trust someone who wants to be in power. In The Republic, Plato says in his day those who sought power were shamed. This is because power should be something you’re placed in by duty, by obligation — not a career prospect, or a last badge of honour for an ageing egomaniac. The people who want to be in power are the least equipped to be there, but, as Plato tells us “the greatest punishment for being unwilling to rule is being ruled by someone worse than oneself”. If being called to oversee politics is a duty, and career prospects an impossibility — the result is consensus brought about through deliberation, not ego, career, or bias. When presented with facts — distilled through information, debate, and time— you either believe we the people can make the right decision, or believe only the few deserve that position of power.

Unfortunately, only one of those possibilities is defined Democratic.

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