I grew up loving my country and believing in the advice that one of my heroes, President John F. Kennedy, offered in his inaugural address in 1961.
He said, “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.”
I believed that then and I still do.
I also see that as equally important advice for residents of the planet earth.
“Ask not what your planet can do for you. Ask what you can do for your planet.”
What I like most about that kind of thinking is that it encourages a sense of shared responsibility for what happens to our country and to our planet.
However, as I grew older I learned that greedy, power-hungry leaders dominate in governments throughout the world, even in our so-called democracies.
Politicians are willing to lie, cheat, steal, intimidate and employ violence in their pursuit of power and wealth.
Presumably they always have, but the ideal of democracy suggests that maybe things could be different.
A world run by ordinary people would be more likely to focus on our most basic requirements: food, clothing, shelter, health, peace, belonging, love.
Is it possible to create a new reality of, by and for ordinary people?
A reality where democracy prevails, not just in governance, but in everyday life.
In my teenage years I imagined becoming a political leader, maybe the first Jewish president, just like John F. Kennedy was the first Catholic president.
I will always remember in my last year of high school, walking into the guidance counselor’s office where everyone was gathered around a small television, to find out that President Kennedy was dead.
The succession of violence in the coming years stunned me and cast a dark shadow across my spirit: Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Robert Kennedy, Huff, Watts, Detroit, Chicago, Vietnam, Kent State, Jackson State.
Perhaps my most important realization in that time came from a definition provided in the very first chapter of my very first college political science textbook.
It bluntly stated that “politics is the pursuit of power.”
The textbook said nothing about altruism nor “what you can do for your country” nor a commitment to truth, justice and the American way.
The more I delved into history and politics, the more I realized the extent of the corruption in political life.
I couldn’t imagine myself saying or doing what politicians have to do to win elections, so I abandoned my political aspirations.
But I was still deeply concerned about good governance.
As a young couple, my wife Susan and I were elected as political party committee people in our small town.
We campaigned for people we cared about, but we couldn’t bring ourselves to back some of our party’s candidates who were nothing more than political hacks.
Political parties are a threat to good government.
George Washington saw that clearly.
In his 1796 Farewell Address our first President warned Americans that political parties “are likely in the course of time and things, to become potent engines, by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government.”
I backed away from active involvement in politics and instead supported non-partisan reform organizations such as Common Cause, which seeks to hold government more accountable.
At a local level I worked with a government commission that proposed changes in county government which required approval in a referendum.
As part of my doctoral dissertation in Educational Media, I produced an audiovisual presentation which was used by the commission to explain its proposal to the voters.
Nonetheless the proposal was defeated.
Partisan politics determined the outcome, not good information and thoughtful consideration.
For political parties and politicians, getting elected is all that matters.
Truth is routinely sacrificed on the altar of power.
It finally dawned on me that the kinds of reforms that I was exploring were unrealistic.
They were as likely to prevent disaster as rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.
We will need fundamental change to achieve a new reality in governance.
So I began to look for fundamental changes that might have promise.
In 1992 maverick presidential candidate Ross Perot, who won 19 percent of the popular vote in the election, advocated for a version of Athen’s original direct democracy.
His proposed “electronic town hall” was comprised of a television broadcast which presented the arguments for varying points-of-view on specific legislation — then those people who were tuned into the broadcast could vote electronically by pushing a button.
Given widespread frustration with politicians, the idea had public appeal.
But as critics pointed out, the process would make it easier for a charismatic leader to whip the crowd into a frenzy and push through rash and risky legislation.
The concept and the discussion that ensued inspired me to launch an experiment, which I called the “Electronic Congress,” and I published a book by the same name.
I wanted to experiment with a governance model that allowed the public to express it’s will on popular legislation that has been obstructed in one House of Congress or the other.
I proposed a Constitutional amendment that enabled either the Senate or the House to pass legislation in a form that would be presented to the public for a national referendum.
Any new law would still face the final step of being signed into law or rejected by the President.
Most American states have a mechanism for public referenda, at least on fiscal issues, and half of them allow citizen-initiated referenda.
But the challenge has always been getting people to make thoughtful decisions.
In referenda, which are held at the same time as elections, people are overwhelmed by the number of choices and bombarded by divisive and misleading political messaging.
I proposed separating the referenda from the elections, allowing people the opportunity to focus on just one or two issues at a time, without the distraction of also choosing among candidates.
People would vote by telephone, using an identification password number to access the system.
A computer programmer designed a system for my experiment that used my wife’s voice to guide callers in recording their votes and then the program recorded and tabulated the votes.
Individuals, college classes and one newspaper in Nebraska participated.
Of course, I couldn’t afford to create television broadcasts to air the different perspectives on an issue so I sent out a summary sheet for each set of questions and relied on people’s own attention to broadcast and print media for further information.
People enjoyed the novelty of the experience and I had fun creating and operating the Electronic Congress for a couple of years.
I received some favorable reviews of my book, did a media tour and ended up with a couple of thousand books in the hands of individuals and libraries.
As I closed down my experiment I gave my last public presentation about the Electronic Congress to an eleventh grade history class.
Although almost all of the students had concerns about politicians, most still wanted elected representatives to make legislative decisions, rather than the voters themselves.
The high school students expressed the same underlying doubt that I had encountered in adults: can we really trust ourselves to make as good or better decisions than professional legislators?
According to an annual Gallup poll, until the 1990’s thirty to forty percent of the public still expressed confidence in the United States Congress.
But that number has fallen to about ten percent.
I didn’t realize how dissatisfied voters were until 2012 when I noticed a poll in which one thousand likely U.S. voters were asked:
“Would a group of people selected at random from the phone book do a better job addressing the nation’s problems than the current Congress?”
43 percent answered “yes.”
The poll suggested to me that it was time to look into “sortition” — choosing legislators by democratic lottery rather than by election.
In ancient Athens Greece, the original democracy, they selected ninety percent of public officials by sortition, not election, thereby assuring a true representation of citizens in legislative roles and on juries.
American and British courts have carried on the Athenian tradition for hundreds of years, selecting jury members randomly from the tax rolls.
No less important than legislators, we trust juries with our most momentous decisions — whether to take freedom or even life itself from our fellow human beings.
Can we build a new reality in governance that bypasses politicians and political parties and gives ordinary citizens a direct role in decision-making?
Brett Hennig thinks so.
His book, The End of Politicians: Time for a Real Democracy points to the growing evidence that citizens’ assemblies comprised of “randomly selected, ordinary people can and do make balanced, informed and trustworthy decisions.”
The Sortition Foundation, co-founded by Hennig, advocates for a permanent change in the United Kingdom’s parliament — creating a House of Citizens selected by sortition to replace the undemocratically appointed House of Lords and to act as a counterbalance to the elected House of Commons.
Hennig and his colleagues have organized a number of sortition-selected citizens’ assemblies in Europe which have been funded by governments to address local needs, such as how to improve regional transportation in Cambridge, U.K. and Budapest, Hungary.
The danger of government-run citizen assemblies is that politicians have the ultimate say in the outcome.
Yet these assemblies have shown great promise in resolving especially divisive issues that professional politicians fear and avoid, such as abortion, same sex marriage, climate change.
Moreover, when a truly representative group of citizens decides something, it has legitimacy.
An American woman academic with a strong Catholic upbringing, who works with a conservative think tank and who was a high-ranking Republican government appointee, learned about the 2018 Irish citizens’ assembly that overturned the long-standing Irish abortion ban.
Despite opposing abortion, she reportedly said that she could live with such a decision.
I suspect because unlike Roe versus Wade, the Irish decision to allow abortion was not based on the votes of a few Supreme Court justices.
Ireland’s plan was proposed by a representative group of ordinary citizens in an assembly that heard from a wide range of experts and from women who had suffered the consequences of the ban.
Two-thirds of the delegates voted to end the abortion ban.
So did two-thirds of the Irish public in the final referendum that affirmed the assembly’s decision.
So I ask you, can the legitimacy of a truly representative form of decision-making bring about a new reality in governance?
And can such a new reality allow us to collectively improve the prospects for ordinary peoples’ lives?