The political class is useful…for something

Sortition can be seen as a backlash against a permanent political class. And yet it is hard to imagine achieving good governance without a cohesive group of elites who have the knowledge and social connections to navigate the inevitable complexities of such a vast undertaking. So if sortition is to work, some way must be found to select and develop the permanent class of decision makers who will actually pull the levers of governance on a day-to-day basis.

As I see it, there is nothing that the framers of the U.S. constitution got more wrong than in how they viewed the political elite. Their view was that political parties (“factions”) were to be avoided at all costs. Instead, individual candidates should represent the basic unit of choice presented to the voter. Unfortunately, this proved unworkable from the very beginning, and the political party of most of the founders, the Federalist party, died with the founding generation precisely because it eschewed the institutional structures needed to present voters with a coherent political worldview.

Many of our current travails stem from the fact that the Constitution does not recognize political parties in any official way. If this recognition existed, we could deal much better with issues like gerrymandering, but the pretense that we just vote for the candidate gets in the way.

So let’s go all the way in the other direction, and institutionalize political parties as a basic part of our government. First, let’s decide how many we want, and give each one the status of a ministry or department. I think 5 is the right number, since it gives voters enough choice to avoid simply voting against what they dislike, while not creating so much that voters are confused.

Second, let’s note that their entire operation—hiring, advertising, holding rallies, etc—will be funded directly through the general fund. Any attempt by political parties to raise money from outside sources should be illegal.

Third, the governance of the parties themselves is not democratic. This is absolutely essential. The purpose of a political party is to present the voters with a choice, not to be a polity in miniature. With this in mind, all parties must be governed by a central committee with no more than, say, 30 members. The chair of this committee would have the status of a cabinet secretary. Members would be replaced by the committee itself. This may strike some as undemocratic, but again, parties are the preconditions of democratic choice. Plus, as I outline below, there is a way to eliminate poor performing political parties.

And how do we vote for these parties? We rank each of the five parties. But on what topics? Surely ranking the parties on all governance matters at once is too much. A governing axis is the name I give to the various aspects on which we vote. I have 6 such axes in mind:

  • Legislative – permanent laws: Laws, such as criminal and torte law, without duration. No spending can be allocated in these laws, although clearly these laws have budgetary implications.
  • Legislative – budget: The budget is a temporary law (generally 1 or 2 years duration) to fund the government.
  • Executive – domestic policy: The agencies of domestic policy (health, education, etc.)
  • Executive – foreign policy: The agencies of foreign policy (state, defense, etc.)
  • Executive – finance: The agencies of finance (treasury, securities regulation, etc.)
  • Judicial: The courts.

In this way the ordinary voter now has 5 parties to rank, and six categories in which to express a preference. This is the “Goldilocks” realm of choice—not too much, not to little.

By some method, then, each party will get a (percentage) weight in each of these axes. The exact methods for this calculation are a topic for another post. What it means, however, is that the political power structure at any given time is essential just a 6 x 5 array of weights, representing the power each party has on each axis.

The election cycle has become a national trauma, creating both anxiety for ordinary citizens and perverse incentives for the political elite. A nice benefit of this system is that the ballot always looks the same: It is a ranking of all the political parties on each of the axes. As a result, voting can be done in a rolling fashion, rather than at a single distinct time. Voting continuously (in cohorts, to preserve ballot secrecy) eliminates a great source of instability in our current system.

Finally, what do we do with underperforming political parties? I take my cues here from European football (soccer), where a system of relegation and promotion ensures that bad teams drop out of the elite levels of play. Periodically, (say, every 4 years) the worst performing political party would be scrapped, and its position would be given to a new group of 30 board members. This could be done by petition (whoever gets the most signatures) or some other method. Obviously, prior to becoming a political party, a group would have to raise outside money, but once it becomes an official party, it will be funded from the tax base.

We now have a set of political parties measured along a number of axes, and empowered according to their share of the vote. What advantages does this have?

  • Continuity: Voting happens continuously, with approximately equal cohorts. Each moment in time is as significant as any other, at least in terms of directly choosing the political elite.
  • Parties over candidates: Parties present a more consistent choice to voters. They have persistence over time, and put out a clear platform. Individual candidates are much more volatile, and expose policy to a much greater degree of personal risk. Why should the minimum wage depend on the details of a particular candidate’s love life? Voting for parties reduces this risk.
  • Natural policy groupings: Today, many voters choose a President based on their view of the courts. They choose legislative candidates on their most important issue (say, reproductive rights) even when they disagree with that candidate on other major issues. Voting by governance axis reduces this problem.
  • End of “winner-take-all”: The worst aspect of our system is winner-take-all. As things stand in most democracies, only the governing party can actually do anything. In this system, each party has power in proportion to its share of the vote.

In a previous post, I explained how a proportional power structure can work for the judiciary. In future posts, I will go over mechanisms for the other axes. For the executive branch axes, the issue is mostly personnel, so the systems will look a lot like the system for the judiciary. For the legislative branches, power is mostly about the ability to propose laws that will then be voted on by a jurga, so the system will give a greater chance to more popular parties to propose laws. However it is important to note that smaller parties will still have some power to propose laws, avoiding the kind of gridlock we see in the U.S. where broadly popular policies never even get brought to a vote.

What then is the purpose of a political elite? It takes real professionals to run a government, but any group will become a conspiracy if left to its own devices. In my system, the elite does not run the government directly. Instead, it formulates basic political decisions to be considered by a jurga, which is the ultimate unit of sovereignty.

12 comments

  1. I have to think about that. What we have now (in Belgium) is that each party has a program covering all or most of those issues and we have to take the whole lot while we only agree with some of the points. That problem is solved more or less in your proposal. We also see another evolution to that problem and that is that the political parties are asking the citizens to evaluate or even write their program. We could think of reversing the system, write a program in a ‘democratic way’ and look for candidates who are willing to defend it.
    Financing the political parties by the way of tax money, that is already the case here. The only thing is that the politicians are voting themselves how much money they get. Be it for the party or their own wages and benefits. This makes that we have, at this moment, some very rich parties. That has to be avoided in some way. It is easy to place a cap on the amount of money they may hold on.
    We also have proportional representation (the devil is in the details) and the ‘winner takes all’ system is unknown over here. Maybe we can learn something from BC where a panel of citizens (to small to be descriptive representative) evaluated a number of systems and made a proposal.
    At this moment I can’t be in favour of any system where I am ‘represented’, I am sick and tired to be ‘represented’, and that is why I am in the first place in favour of the referendum system (the Swiss system to make it short). I can defend additional ‘democratic elements’ or improvements to the actual electoral system but for me it has to hold the perspective that I myself have the right to decide if I want to.
    Just my first thoughts.

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    1. I agree with your distrust of “representation”, which basically just means win an election by any means necessary, then turn around and do whatever you want until the next election. I take issue, however, with your claim that Belgium does not have a winner-take-all system. I don’t know the Belgian system in particular, but even in parliamentary democracies, only the governing coalition can meaningfully implement policy.

      I am not in favor of referenda, however. The idea is good, but the process is highly traumatic to the entire society. Witness Brexit, in which many of the people who voted to leave the E.U. did so more as a protest vote against the political elite. Besides, it is inevitably the political elite that formulates the questions to be put for a referendum, which is not inconsequential. I place more emphasis on creating a political elite that can actually do its job. I understand the instinct to throw a brick through the window of the political elite, but I view a political class as necessary, so the question becomes, how do we restructure it to function better?

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  2. Alex,

    Very interesting blog post. I agree with your distinction between policy proposal (by elected body) and disposal (by allotted jurga), although I hadn’t thought it through in such detail. It’s interesting to note that Madison was aware that leaving both functions in the hands of a “single body of men” would corrupt the process (see my SSJ article The Two Sides of the Representative Coin), but he didn’t come up with any solutions. It’s also ironic that the mistake of both the founding fathers and (most) sortitionists is to focus on persons rather than corporate bodies (in the sense of Burke and Hegel). I came to your blog via your comment at Equality by Lot.

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    1. Thanks for the article reference. It dovetails quite nicely with my idea. I particularly like the idea of representation through corporate bodies. My assertion, then, is that the invariant should not be the corporate bodies themselves (i.e. trade unions, estates, social classes–I think that is what you are talking about) but rather the number of corporate bodies. I set that number at 5, and their exact composition will change significantly over time.

      My primary imperative, then, is systemic, rather than metaphysical. I view the metaphysics of representation and consent as little better than the divine right of kings. There are 5 political parties (which functionally correspond to your corporate bodies, though they are chosen) because 5 is a good number of choices to present to people. It allows for ideological fluidity without diverging into atomization. This is justified on functional grounds, metaphysics be damned.

      But if I am throwing representation and consent under the bus, then why have a jurga at all? I view the jurga as an entropy filter: those who write laws for the consideration of the jurga must do their work as if they are writing for consideration of the society at large. The justification of the jurga is really about presenting the political elite with risk: write laws however you want, but be aware that they will only pass if they make more sense to ordinary citizens than the laws written by your competitors in another party.

      I am also concerned with the structure of the political elite. In particular, what is a politician’s career path? In the U.S., the career path is extremely volatile, veering between highly public but underpaid elective office, and much more highly compensated (i.e. corrupt) private sector employment. This is a filter for charismatic, narcissistic know-nothings. We blame politicians for this, but we should blame our constitution. I make political parties an official part of the government so that politicians who are not selected for office by a jurga still have continuous public sector employment with their party. And since parties propose laws and personnel for jurgas to consider, working in the bowels of a political party can be impactful. Parties become, in part, like publicly funded think tanks, but with an official role in policy. More on this in a future blog post.

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  3. This is all very challenging Alex, I’m going to have to give it some serious thought before responding (probably at the weekend). In the meantime:

    >write laws however you want, but be aware that they will only pass if they make more sense to ordinary citizens than the laws written by your competitors in another party.

    That could have been straight from my favourite political theorist, James Harrington:

    For example, two of them have a cake yet undivided which was given between them that each of them therefore may have that which is due. “Divide,” says one to the other, “and I will choose, or let me divide, and you shall choose.” If this be but once agreed upon, it is enough, for the divider dividing unequally loses in regard that the other takes the better half. Wherefore, she divides equally and so both have right.

    Commonwealth of Oceana (1656)

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  4. Alex, I’m convinced (and bear in mind the title of my first book [a suitable candidate for burning] was The Party’s Over. Hopefully some of the other folk from the sortition blog will comment, but I’m not holding my breath as the party system is anathema to most sortitionists!

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    1. Wow, that was easy! Actually, I think you have helped me, because my “parties” are much more akin to your notion of “corporate bodies” They really won’t function like political parties do now. Since my system lays out exactly what their responsibilities are, the endless sniping and back stabbing of traditional parties should be minimized (never eliminated, of course–we’re talking about human beings after all!). I think the issue is getting rid of food fight bodies like parliament and congress. Once we do that, “parties” can become productive institutions.

      I guess the question is, what should I call them. I think you are right, the name “parties” has too much baggage. But “coporate bodies” has baggage as well. Any ideas for a better name?

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      1. I hate neologisms and am always disposed to retain existing words and then have them adapt to new usage. The American founders (Madison in particular) used the term parties to refer to factional interests, the only change being that we are harnessing, rather than seeking to suppress interests. Glad Terry B has risen to your challenge on EbL.

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