Questioning a Trump-making system

The election of Donald Trump has triggered a huge level of opposition. But should the focus be on Trump or the system that enabled him to become president?

            In the US, there is a continual preoccupation with the presidency. News media regularly report on the president’s statements and activities and on speculation about the next election. When people oppose the president’s actions, they usually think of who else might be president. Trump’s election has accentuated angst over who holds the office.

What is remarkable is that there is so little consideration of alternatives to electing a president, an official national leader. Why should one person be granted so much power, indeed the most power of anyone in the world? The usual answer is that this is democracy. But it is a very limited, indeed distorted, conception of democracy.

            Winston Churchill famously referred to the view that democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others. The quote doesn’t specify the other forms of government, which might be taken to be fascism, state socialism and other dictatorial systems. Churchill didn’t mention participatory alternatives in which there would be no single individual with extraordinary powers.

            In many domains, there are tremendous efforts to innovate. Think of communications technology, in which radio, television, computers and smartphones have transformed the way people interact. Think of transportation, with trains, bicycles, cars, and aeroplanes. Think also of social relationships, with campaigns to overthrow slavery, provide safe working conditions and promote equality for women.

Why not consider innovation in political systems? There is a strange sort of complacency about politics. Like Churchill, most people assume that representative government is the best possible system. This is analogous to not bothering to look at alternatives to radio or to sexual discrimination.

Random selection

The word “democracy” means rule by the people, but it has been hijacked and applied to systems that are actually rule by elected officials. The pioneering democracy, ancient Athens, offers a different picture. There were meetings of the assembly, in which all citizens could participate. More importantly, for practical purposes the most significant mechanism for choosing public officials was random selection, using a device called the kleroterion.


            David van Reybrouck in his book Against Elections describes the role of random selection in politics beginning in ancient Greece and continuing in Italy and other parts of Europe. He notes that for centuries, selecting public officials randomly was considered democratic, whereas using elections was the aristocratic approach. Then, as pressures for popular participation increased, elections were rebadged as democracy, thus constraining the more authentic approach.

David van Reybrouck

            Critics of democracy in ancient Athens point to groups excluded from participation: women, slaves and aliens. True enough. But similarly, early voting systems excluded women, slaves and men without property. The point is that a system can evolve. However, nearly all the effort to innovate has been within one model, elections. Innovation in the use of random selection has been rare — at least until recent years.

There is one venue where randomly selected decision-makers have maintained a role: court juries. However, judges and governments have constrained the roles of juries and limited the expansion of jury-style decision-making.

In the past few decades, there has been an upsurge in experiments with policy juries: groups of people, randomly chosen to address a policy issue, who listen to evidence on all sides of the issue and then seek to reach an agreed recommendation. Studies show that policy juries, also called citizens’ juries, usually lead to sensible recommendations. Members take the process extremely seriously and most find it engrossing and empowering. The experience with policy juries shows they are a reliable means of harnessing people’s concerns for the collective good.

            Expansion of the role of policy juries is one possible alternative to representative government. Yet governments, the ones now holding all the power to make policy, are usually resistant to introducing, or even testing, this alternative. And policy juries are only one example. There are other participatory options, such as workers’ control and Gandhian-style village democracy, that could be tested.

Learning from mistakes

Testing and learning from experience are the keys to improvement. Scientific research is one of the most dynamic systems in the world today. It relies on experiments and open publication of results, allowing scrutiny and testing of claims. This is a competitive system in which ideas are championed but all can be challenged. Although there are many shortcomings in this system, for example the influence of vested interests on research priorities, the system of scientific investigation is a model for dynamic improvement.

Testing and learning from experience are also central to the production of consumer goods. Again, there are many shortcomings in the system, for example the manipulation of needs through advertising, but competition has enabled dynamism. There are also dynamic non-capitalist production systems, for example the system for production of free software and the free encyclopaedia Wikipedia. Like science and consumer goods, they build on testing and learning from experience.

In contrast, political systems usually run as monopolies. Electing leaders is a great improvement on dictatorship, but it can hardly be claimed to be the best possible system when there is no testing of alternatives. It would be straightforward to set up a variety of political-system alternatives in local communities, letting them run long enough to see how they operate, and to study them to learn their strengths and weaknesses. This would be expensive, at least in the short term, but not compared to the potential benefits.

            So why aren’t political alternatives being tested? The obvious answer is that current power-holders don’t want things to change. They want to keep their power. Examining alternatives is a threat.

The lesson from the study of systems capable of dynamic improvement is that testing of alternatives and learning from both success and failure are crucial. Complaining about current politicians and their political decisions will remain important, but also needed is more effort to explore and test alternatives.

Brian Martin