Guest columnist Phil Wilson: Let us pick local town officials by sortition

Glenn Carstens-Peters/StockSnap

Glenn Carstens-Peters/StockSnap Glenn Carstens-Peters/StockSnap


Published: 05-09-2024 9:17 AM

Here is a way for Northampton, Amherst, or any local town to become the cutting edge of democracy: Do away with elections.

People who consciously scheme to obtain power tend to be, well … power hungry. If you don’t want narcissists and psychopaths ruling over us — people who feel no guilt taking money from armaments and oil lobbyists — we need to fill legislatures with people who have no particular affinity for the limelight.

Now, it might be safe to say local city council members don’t take bribes from the Koch foundation or The American Institute for Economic Research, but if we are to launch an epic experiment in participatory democracy, local systems will be the most likely to take the first steps.

The problem is that now that we’ve arrived at the precipice of mass extinction, the perpetrators of environmental collapse have busily purchased the souls of politicians as if they were so many rolls of pandemic toilet tissue. The corporate/political machinery of doom cannot be deprogrammed with minor tinkering — we need something transformative. We need … sortition!

Most people have never heard of sortition — the practice of using random selection to choose political officials — but it has a noble history. We already use random selection to procure jury pools. The ancient Athenians employed sortition to fill assembly seats, while a rural Indigenous tribe, the Adivasi of eastern India, pick new village rulers every three years using a colorful ritual that involves sending a blindfolded volunteer into each village to stumble by accident into a random house.

A member of that household thus becomes the head of the village. The Adivasi have created one of the most equalitarian societies on earth. The Athenians categorized three levels of government — rule by one, rule by some, and rule by all — and only sortition belonged in the last category.

A town government of randomly selected residents would reflect, via the laws of chance, a rough version of local demographics — half of those serving would be women, few would be lawyers and some would be school dropouts, people living in poverty, or the unhoused, while others would be bus drivers, plumbers, teachers, musicians, professional dog walkers or clerks at one of the local pot dispensaries.

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Representatives of the great panoply of human possibility would be working together at the task of creating the common good despite their enormous diversity. LGBTQ people would hold approximately 8% of our leadership positions. Altogether, these would not be people who have perfected the talent of lying to gullible voters — for voting, along with political parties, would become a historical curiosity like public floggings and medical leeches.

On the national level, while less than one in 200 people in the U.S. hold Ivy League diplomas, half of our lawmakers have Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Brown, Columbia, Dartmouth, Cornell or UPenn parchment hanging on their Washington walls. I don’t wish to offend Ivy grads — some, I assume, are very fine people — but most of our most notorious genocidaires have applied their academic credentials toward the art of industrial murder. Think of Henry Kissinger (Harvard class of 1950) or James Taiclet (Princeton class of 1984). We barely have to mention Kissinger’s bloody fingers from Cambodian bombing and Latin American fascist death squads, but the lesser known Taiclet, the current CEO of Lockheed Martin, both supplies murderous planes to eviscerate Gazan innocents, and stuffs the pockets of Washington officials with campaign funding.

The Ivy League death count would humble Hitler, but these two examples will have to do for now. Sortition would amputate the Ivy League from American politics.

On a state or federal level, neither the oil cartels nor any other corporate bureaucracy would allow sortition to impede their grift. But if Amherst, Northampton, Easthampton or Hadley somehow took their cues from Athenian philosophers or Adivasi tribal traditions, who would stand in the way? The forces of ecological survival might just get their collective foot in the doorway with little corporate scrutiny. What do we have to lose?

Phil Wilson is a retired mental health worker living in Northampton. His writing has been published on many platforms including Counterpunch, Resilience, Current Affairs, Common Dreams and Mother Pelican.