Elections are not democratic

AgoraIt’s becoming increasingly clear that our so-called democracies really are plutocracies and always have been. But, I hear you ask, aren’t elections the guarantee that we the people are getting represented properly? Of course not.

To get elected, you need to be a candidate. To be a candidate, you had to belong to a very specific category of individuals who actually desire power. It’s very easy to see how this can result in elected assemblies that are constituted exclusively of rich people: they are the ones who desire power and can afford to spend the money to get there. And like it or not, the rich are not necessarily the most caring of people. After all, how many of your own caring, decent low or middle-class friends want to become politicians? My bet, which coincides with my personal experience, is precisely zero.

How is that representative? Doesn’t this show clearly that elections result in precisely the opposite of democracy? More importantly, what would work better than that? Isn’t democracy the least bad of all systems?

Democracy means power by the people. Part of the problem is that we the people let that term get hijacked by a system that is anything but. When a system results in the exact opposite of representation, assemblies that are statistical aberrations with no correlation whatsoever with the general population, that cannot possibly be called a democracy. When the people in power are systematically the rich -elected or not- that is the definition of a plutocracy.

I understand that some are perfectly fine with a plutocracy, but can we at least call things by their names and stop pretending to live in a democracy?

So what would be a real democracy then, you may ask? Well, that’s easy, the Greek had it all figured out (except for the part about women and slaves of course, but come on it was 2,500 years ago).

The only truly democratic system is one where the assembly is not elected but randomly selected. Only chance can select a sample of the population that is truly representative.

Think about it.

More on this later. This text was inspired by a TEDx talk by Etienne Chouard, unfortunately in French, but nonetheless one of the most inspiring things I’ve heard in years.

Archived comments

  • Alice said on Wednesday, April 18, 2012

    Here is another talk that touches the same problem: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A2P19zK6t1M
  • bleroy said on Wednesday, April 18, 2012

    @Alice: that's quite amazing: I used to work with Tarik!
  • jasperd said on Friday, May 4, 2012

    I have some questions: - Are you talking about politics/politicians in general or about U.S. elections? I think that your observations don’t match European reality. - If we select politicians randomly, doesn't that imply that we could end up with a parliament of poor/rich or highly/poorly educated individuals (or whatever the (most important) property of politicians is)? In other words: How would you ensure that the actual result matches the expected result (it's random, isn't it)? - What happens if some of our selected follow citizens don't want to be a politician? If he/she doesn't have to become a politician we will end up with professional politicians (people who strive for power), if he/she has to, how can we ensure that he/she does a good job? - And why are you suggesting that only rich people strive for power? Have you ever talked to a unionist (I assume you have)?
  • Hazza said on Saturday, May 19, 2012

    Don't we live in a representative democracy, and not a direct democracy? The rich are the only people who can get into politics, everyone else has to go to work. You obviously have an interest in politics and such, but would you say you had the time and resources to become a politician? I certainly don't. And maybe the reason Ancient Greece had this truly direct democracy was because they did have the time. But only because they had slaves. And women were pretty much excluded from politics, and all the freedoms of men, from what we know anyway, if I remember correctly, so they didn't really have it right. Plus, excusing them for having slaves because it was 2,500 years ago doesn't sound right ^^ but that is a different discussion completely. However I agree, governing bodies run by wealthy, educated individuals are more likely to want to maintain the current social order. But yeah, I'm not sure a true "democracy" is achievable in this day and age, and just because the majority of our elected rulers are rich doesn't mean the less well-off cant gain power, it is just less likely they will. Once we have robots doing everything for us, we can all put on our togas, randomly elect people, and argue the finer points of politics.
  • bleroy said on Tuesday, June 26, 2012

    @JasperD: I'm mostly talking about the US, but I grew up in Europe and I think it applies there as well, although to a lesser extent as corruption is not institutionalized like it is in the US with lobbies and PACs. If you select randomly, the result *will* be representative on the average. That's just mathematics. Today we have jury duty in most democracies, and it's your duty as a citizen to accept that call. This would be no different. It wouldn't be for several years. The reason why I'm suggesting that only rich people strive for power, or at least get to positions of power are the facts: http://www.opensecrets.org/pfds/averages.php Also, I don't see many unionists in elected positions of power. They exist but are a minority. @Hazza: no, we don't live in representative democracies. That's the point, our elected officials are not representative. I acknowledged the problem of women and slaves in the post. Today we have much better than that, we have technology, that gets us much more free time on average than the Greek could enjoy, even with slaves. I'm not excusing their behavior, just mentioning context. Slavery is inexcusable in my book no matter what. Straw man. Of course the less well-off *can* reach positions of power in principle. The whole point is that they don't. It's not a problem of rights, it's a problem of representation. We do have the possibility of achieving true democracy: we have the help of modern technology, and if we can mobilize people for jury duty, I don't see why we couldn't mobilize them for government duty. If we compensate people anywhere near the current level of remuneration we give elected officials, most people wouldn't mind I'm sure...
  • Kamran said on Saturday, July 28, 2012

    Sounds similar to how juries are created, and makes perfect sense. Thanks.