Saturday, June 18, 2011

A simple way to fix politics

Although I have great respect for the framers of the U.S. Constitution, I doubt very much that they'd be pleased with the political evolution that's taken place since the end of the 18th century. It's become commonplace to view politicians as lying, cheating, hypocritical swine robbing the public treasury to feather their own nests and caring not a fig for truth, justice, and the American way. We've become a nation divided by the silly label of which political party has our unswerving allegiance, indulging in the counterproductive tribalism of opposing everything carrying the label of our political "opponent." The majority of Americans seems to be adrift in a sea of ignorance about the important issues that confront us as a nation, confused and misinformed about those issues, and even about the very principles of individual freedom upon which our nation is supposed to be based. And political parties have become a handicap to moving the U.S. toward solutions to its very real problems.

So I have a modest proposal for a solution. Let's abolish the system of voting for political officeholders!! Rather than having a bunch of whores painting themselves the color of the day in order to attract votes, all government offices (at all levels of government, from town councils up to and including the U.S. President) now occupied by elected officials will be filled according to a random selection from the general public. I picture it as resembling how people are selected for jury duty or military service (when conscription is implemented). Every public office would be filled by ordinary citizens, selected at random -- not professional politicians. They would be paid a wage comparable to that of our military officers, with their pay grade determined by the level of the position they fill.

All people selected would be screened to eliminate certified lunatics, felonious criminals, terrorists, and peabrains. No one under 21 or over 61 would be selected. At this point, we're already ahead of the game, since there's clearly no such screening of those running for public office (witness the debates ongoing for the christian nationalist [a.k.a. the GOP] candidate for president or the Weiner scandal). Once the selectees pass the screening, they're given a mandatory leave of absence from any other employment they had, with that job guaranteed when their term of service is over. Anyone serving in the military or other forms of national service, say, the Peace Corps, would be given an automatic exemption for life. College students would be exempt during their time in college (including graduate school) and for 3 years thereafter (so they can find a job and hold it for a while).

All selectees would have a single 4-year term, during which they'd actually have a glorious civics lesson - an opportunity to see how government really works, with access to all the "inside" information about decision-making in government being required. Transparency at its finest! It would be pretty difficult for dirty little secrets to accumulate in smoke-filled backrooms and political party caucuses. Aha, so that's how it works, eh? Ordinary people would become informed about what is going on and so would be much more understanding of how their representatives make difficult and important decisions.

Since only one term in office is permitted, the professional politician will vanish from the face of the nation, to be replaced by ordinary folks from all walks of life, who would have their chance to serve their nation for a time, and then return to their important real lives. Everyone's professed desire to serve their nation when called upon would be satisfied for most Americans at some time or another in their lives. Most of us would have the honor of being able to say When I was called to serve my nation, I did my duty! And the public would be much more informed about what goes on -- much of which is now behind closed doors.

I can imagine the howls of protest regarding this modest proposal now -- But-but-but  -- I can hear the naysayers spluttering -- These people wouldn't be experienced enough to run the country! First of all, this is true of every last elected official when they take their first public office. And how do politicians gain experience in how things work? From experienced politicians and I think we all know what that means!! Corruption is learned behavior, taught to newcomers by their mentors. The more venal the new politician is, the easier it is for that self-service and hypocrisy to creep in from their peers wallowing in the political mud.

But-but-but ... would you want your country represented in the halls of power around the world by an amateur? All one has to do is look at Ronald Reagan or Arnold Schwarzenegger or Jesse Ventura to realize that amateurs have been elected to public office many times over the years. This is nothing new, actually. Could the use of ordinary citizens to represent us all be so bad? Isn't that what politicians try to present themselves as? They claim to be just like us in order to get our vote, but when elected, they behave as if they're the privileged elite and don't give a shit about the problems that ordinary people have anymore (if they ever really did care!). Could non-professional politicians do any worse than the politicians? Without the incentive of permanent power and lots of perks for life to drive their decision-making, I believe most ordinary citizens would do the best they can for their country and their fellow citizens during their term of service and yet be eager, for the most part, to return to their lives at the end of their 4 years in office. I've served on juries and been in the military and that's pretty much how ordinary citizens behave when asked to serve!!

But-but-but ... wouldn't your plan exclude those who are serving or have served in the military? Yes, it would. Although I respect those who have served or are serving in the military, I'm not a fan of those ex-servicefolks holding public office. It's an honorable profession but doesn't necessarily make for a qualified public officeholder. For one thing, they've done their duty and should be going about their ordinary lives outside of the military, allowing others the opportunity to serve in a different way. For another, the record of famous military men in public office isn't a very compelling argument for having more of them, however popular they may have been at the time. The qualities needed for military leadership don't necessarily overlap much with those needed to lead the nation.


jimmyc said...

Interesting thought experiment. I would like it more if all positions, not just elected were via random selection. As you identified, new politicians learn from other politicians, but they also hire a staff with political experience.

The term limit is another good point to be made. They spend so much time running for office once elected that it is a complete distraction. Most of their motives arise from being re-elected, though we also must realize that politics can be incremental like science. However, I find politicians to be very risk averse because of re-election, and the electorate also tends be risk averse with any change to the ways they already know. So I couldn't agree more with identifying that as a nation we need some serious improvements to the electorate's education, and politician's motivations.

In the end, absolute power corrupts absolutely.

Scott said...

Interesting idea. Getting rid of the political parties and getting rid of career politicians would be of enormous benefit.

Your plan also gives those who would never have thought about political office a chance to serve.

The problem now is the career politicians and the two political parties. There is no party that does a good job of representing those who work for a living.

Instead of two parties, one at each end of the spectrum, the lack of any political party would be better.

Anything that we can do to marginalize the extremists at either end would be a huge benefit.

Anonymous said...

Very interesting proposal Chuck. I agree. It should be the responsibility of all citizens to take an active role in government. If not they should be given the choice of leaving the United States freely. (I use the word "freely" very cautiously as some would like to leave but simply are unable to meet the income and/or skilled labor requirements in place to gain citizenship elsewhere.)

Anonymous said...

Okay, wait a minute. If I can make the assumption that most politicians are by in large well trained in either business or law, then removing so-called politicians in place of amateurs would be similar to removing all scientists in place amateurs?. Then maybe "chem trail" and "harp" research would take off! The problem is that most Americans are just as oblivious to science as politics!

Chuck Doswell said...

Anon ...

There's a big difference between holding a government position as an elected official representing the general public and having a job as a scientist! You actually have to know something to be a scientist.

I want to take this opportunity to add a couple of thoughts to this blog ...

1. Who better to represent the general public within government than selectees drawn from the general public? They'd need advisers to help them resolve issues within which their own knowledge base is inadequate. This is also true today, but the big litmus test for most politicians is the political beliefs of their advisers. Politicians tend to treat advisory positions as political patronage, and so often don't get input they need from people without regard to their political persuasion.

2. If the selection process brought in someone who wasn't willing to work hard to do their duty, they'd have to be aware that when they went back to their lives, they'd have to live with whatever they'd done while in office. Unlike today's professional politicians, who've created exemptions for themselves from the legislation they create and implement, if someone screwed up something in government while in office, they'd be on the receiving end of that when they got out!!

Scott said...

Hello Chuck,

I don't fully agree with your proposal but do at the least value it as a thought experiment and think it should be expanded by political "science" and political philosophy (in the formal sense of a subdiscipline within philosophy). I doubt its efficacy and its practicality. Essentially, I analyze society in power terms; and those vested in the system would still wield their influence under your proposed system. Those advisers would be necessary and they would be a weakness to exploit, the money would still be influential, lay people are more susceptible to persuasion because they don't know what to look for (not because they're intrinsically incapable), etc. Entrenched money runs the show and would find the cracks in the system. Any solution to our woes must address this directly or will be co-opted.

My main reason for commenting, however, is to alert you that something like this is playing out as a real case in Canada; so if you want a test with real world examples for comparison and study, look north. The big news was that the Conservative government won, but the secondary story is that the hitherto mostly unknown NDP went from 1 to 59 seats (a tertiary and scarcely reported story is that the left Liberal MPs mostly won whereas moderates mostly lost and that a Green Party member was elected to a national legislature in North America for the first time).

Because they were not well known, they did not run vetted (by the establishment) or seasoned candidates. Those that know they cannot win are often the most honest (be it Nader, Gravel, or at least in the debates, Sharpton, and so on as prominent recent US examples) and some are actually very engaged and knowledgeable people so I affirm no special background (business, law, medicine) is required for effective office.

So the NDP actually has amassed quite a list of impressive people with knowledge and work in social policies but that didn't take subservient positions to power so as to be accepted as viable. Everyone who gets funded and gets respect and airtime/pagespace in the press subverts to this position, it's a nearly universal rule. Those that slip by and get elected are marginalized and in most, perhaps all, cases have made some deals with the devil.

Anyway, some "off the street" people also got on the ticket and then unexpectedly won and some of these people include college students, or in one case a 19 year old MP, and in another case a bartender, among others. The news media focuses on this aspect in a decidedly British tabloid like fashion. It boils down to there are a variety of people elected as MPs - a broad section of society - that typically would not be permitted to run or to win and that these people consist of more or less regular people, if not a random sampling. The press has been after their lack of experience but most of the NDP MPs are people like human rights, labor, environmental, and similar lawyers, organizers, and planners with experience, but of the kind that is effective in ways that are not of interest to ruling elites. They are politically interested but have not had seats at the tables of power.

Bearing directly on your position, insofar as the NDP assimilates these new MPs into politicians perceived as "suitable for office", they undermine what potential there is for good. Knowledge, ability to learn and to evaluate information, good intent (or at least accountability to the people to incentivize good action), and willingness and technical ability to work with people are what I require --the rest, at last what you will as attempted changes of the newly elected-- is hogwash (and in actuality deliberately counterproductive).

Scott said...

By the way, it's noteworthy that among the rulers and upper bureaucracy of China (and a few other small countries that are doing well) are many engineers and scientists, a much larger portion than within the US especially and the West generally, which consist primarily of political types (lawyers, mostly, some businesspeople too) in leadership positions and a technocracy of economists (the neoliberal model has been followed the last ~35 years) as advisers and planners. Other than to say I support more scientists and engineers in policy and planning roles, I'll leave interpretation to the reader and any elaboration for another venue.

Scott said...

Chuck, your last paragraph of this blog is utter hogwash :)

Essentially you're saying that those in the military would be worse than the average Joe selected at random.

It's quite an insult to have such low qualifications and then exclude those from the military with the weak and totally bogus excuse that they have already "done their duty". Maybe they want to serve.

It's clear that you simply don't want them in office otherwise you'd suggest that they have the option of not serving if they don't want to.

Those who are in or have been in a military are a minority. You can judge a lot by a country by the way it treats it's minorities.

I say that the idea of excluding the military has no basis than your apparent bias against them as civilian leaders.

Unscientific and not based on facts, very unusual for you. I suspect that the sample size of former military leaders in civilian posts is too small to draw any meaningful conclusions.

If you're going to draw people at random there is no compelling reason to rule out those who have been in the military.

Besides, with a random selection, it isn't likely that there will be too many in office at any one time.

Take care and have a good rest of the weekend.

Chuck Doswell said...


I find it somewhat ambiguous when you call my content into question and then follow that up with a smiley-face icon. Given your comments, I can only assume that you're interpreting my blog in ways that seriously distort my intent. The only true hogwash here is the belief that my blog disrespects those who are now or ever have served in the military! In case you're unaware of it, that includes myself!!

Scott said...

Thank you for the reply Chuck. I apologize for misinterpreting your blog post. Please be aware that I'm not likely to be the only one.

Let me briefly explain why.

You set the requirements for serving in office very low. Slightly above breathing.

You exempt military people because they have already served their country.

Ulterior motive? Well, possibly, if you were concerned about the military people with no ulterior motive then you would give them the option.

You confirm the ulterior motive when you say that you feel that those in the military probably won't make good leaders and then go on to make mention that some past politicians prove your point.

When you set the bar or the qualifications to near zero then exclude a group, it's likely that that is going to be viewed as an insult.

I don't know how else to interpret what you've said. Call me cynical.

If you had said that those in the military could opt out if they wanted to then it would not appear as though you were trying to exclude them. If you did not say that you didn't think that they would make good leaders then you would not have confirmed your ulterior motive of excluding them from serving in government.

It is what it is.

If I am misinterpreting what you have said, you may consider changing your blog so it reads that they have the option of serving but may opt out if they wish.

Take care and as always thanks for taking the time to reply to my comments.

Chuck Doswell said...


One last try ...

I want as many people as possible to have the chance to serve their country. If we allow ex-military to have the option, it reduces the opportunities for others to serve. Thus, I've done my service and have no wish (or need) to do any more.

As for your interpretation of disrespect for ex-military serving in public office, why would someone who has served in the military WANT to be in public office? What aspect of their service makes their opinion more valuable than those who have NOT served? I think the history of ex-military in public office includes a mixed bag: Grant versus Washington, for instance. But I suspect the motives of ANYONE who wants to be in public office under today's system. Washington served as both a general and a president but he never WANTED to be president (like Colin Powell).

Scott said...

Well, Chuck, I'm with you now. I get aggravated receiving a jury duty notice even though if I even have to show up it will probably be for less than a day.

I do not like career politicians either and suspect people who want to be politicians above a certain level.

Local politicians I believe are more likely to have the right motives as opposed to those with statewide or nationwide offices.

Thanks for the reply, have a good evening.