A New Way of Governing
For readers who missed part 1 of this series of posts, I am summarizing a fictional novel written almost forty years ago.
Since only 2 percent of Americans had “Capability Quotients” above 130, that meant that 98 percent of citizens would never hold public office. And that meant, in turn, that Grace Atkinson’s selection-by-lot idea was a nonstarter. That is, it seemed that way until Senator George Aiken spoke up.
“You see,” Senator Aiken told the group assembled in the Roosevelt Room, “Vermont has always had a proud tradition of citizen-politicians. In other words, people who simultaneously hold public office and also hold down ordinary jobs just like everybody else. We don’t cotton to professional politicians.”
“But, George!” Jenny Leader blurted. “You’re the very definition of a professional politician! I happen to know you’ve held public office—so far—for 48 years!”
“True enough,” Aiken said. “But for most of that time I also grew fruits, berries and wildflowers, following in the footsteps of my parents. I farmed 500 acres and wrote two books about horticulture and agriculture. I’ve served on the Senate Agriculture and Forestry Committee for almost thirty years.”
It turned out, in fact, that many states—27 of them, to be precise—were interested enough in Grace’s idea to put it to a vote. Despite the almost unanimous opposition of elected politicians in those states, nine states approved the idea and in the other 18 states the vote was very close.
Interim President Leader, however, was worried that if the selection-by-lot experiment went badly, it could destabilize the states that tried it. He therefore allowed only the three states that had approved the plan most enthusiastically to proceed. Those states were Vermont, Wyoming, and Tennessee.
In the novel a great deal of space is devoted to following the experiment in those three states, but in the blog we’ll cut to the chase. In Vermont and Wyoming the experiment was a great success, probably because they were mainly rural states with no large, complex cities to manage.
In fact, Vermont has fewer cities than any other state—namely, none. The largest settled place in the state is Burlington, which in 1968 had a population of about 37,000. As George Leader supposedly remarked, “Back in Boston we’ve got apartment buildings that big!”
Matters were more complicated in Tennessee, which had several quite large and diverse cities (Memphis and Nashville), as well as four other cities with more than 100,000 people (Knoxville, Chattanooga, Clarksville and Murfreesboro).
For example, the person selected by lot to be the Mayor of Memphis, then the state’s largest city, was a 39-year-old high school history teacher named Evelyn Baxter. Evelyn was a bright lady but she had never held public office and her first two years as mayor were, to say the least, chaotic.
By the end of her six-year term Evelyn had gotten the hang of the job, but at that point she returned to her high school. One of the lessons learned from the Tennessee experience was that newly appointed public officials should undergo a training process so that they could get a handle on their responsibilities more quickly.
Given the overall positive experience of Vermont, Wyoming, and Tennessee, the other six states that had approved selection-by-lot were also allowed to proceed. Those states also had generally good experiences, and that built up enough momentum so that most states eventually voted to abolish the ballot and substitute selection-by-lot.
The holdouts were New York and California, where elected officials had required that voters approve selection-by-lot by a two-thirds majority. A majority of voters in both states approved the initiative, but the votes didn’t reach the required two-thirds majority. It was only after the federal Constitution was modified to abolish the ballot that New York and California had to give in.
* * *
You may recall that the conceit of the book was that a very old man was recounting the history of selection-by-lot in the United States many years after the events described in the novel.
The old man—who was being interviewed by a young female journalist—had been a not-very-significant member of the Georgetown Convention, but he had also served in Interim President Leader’s kitchen cabinet. He’d been present-at-the-creation and knew all the details of how it had all gone down.
The journalist knew her history, of course. She knew that America’s astonishing decision to abandon the ballot and substitute selection-by-lot had been remarkably successful. She knew that most of the other democracies in the world had, after much foot-dragging, followed suit.
But she was interested in several things. She wanted the inside story of how the Georgetown Convention members had taken control of the country. She wanted details about how the decision was made to adopt selection-by-lot—something, she knew, that hadn’t been contemplated in the Convention’s earlier deliberations.
Finally, since the old man was one of the very few Americans still alive who had been an adult in the old voting-by-ballot days, she wanted to know what was different in the United States after the ballot had been eliminated and what had pretty much remained the same.
In these blog posts we’ve covered the journalist’s first two issues. We know how George and Jenny Leader and their small group of plotters holed up on the eastern shore of Maryland managed to mount a successful coup against the Johnson Administration.
We also know the details of how the selection-by-lot idea had arisen. The idea had first seen the light of day in Grace Atkinson’s disease-riddled brain, its feasibility had been demonstrated by Grace’s friend, Michael Solomon, and it had won the day after Senator George Aiken had backed it.
What we don’t know is how America was changed by elimination of the ballot. Did selection by lot save liberal democracy? After all, in a prior series of blog posts I had concluded that liberal democracy was doomed. Or did selection-by-lot invent something entirely new—for better or worse?
We’ll look into those issues in the last two posts in this (long) series, beginning next week.