America 2.0, Part 16: The Final Installment
For readers who missed early parts of this series of posts, I am summarizing a novel written almost forty years ago.
We are listening in as a young woman journalist interviews a very old man about the changes in America occasioned by the switch from voting to selecting public officials by lot.
Journalist: Good morning, sir. You’re looking well! Can I get you a cup of coffee?
Very Old Man: Only if you’d like a swift punch in the kisser. Irish coffee for me, extra whipped cream.
She gets him his Irish coffee and pushes his wheelchair into a quiet corner.
The worst change
J: Sir, we began yesterday by discussing the best thing that had come out of the switch to selection-by-lot: No more politicians. Let’s start this morning with the worst thing to come out of the switch. How is America worse today than it was before the change?
VOM: This will be a short conversation. I can’t think of a single thing!
J: Just to refresh your recollection, I have two words for you: Major Marshall.
VOM, taking a long sip of his Irish coffee, wiping the whipped cream off the tip of his nose, and chuckling: Technically, we are speaking of Marshall Major.
J: I stand corrected. But was he or was he not an inner city drug dealer in Kansas City who became Governor of Missouri?
VOM: Ah yes, Major Marshall! Age 38, head of a violent inner city drug gang, arrested at least 20 times beginning when he was 14, CQ of 156.
J: Did you say 156?
VOM: Higher than 99.99 percent of all the people in the world.
J: Unbelievable. I suppose that explains why, after two decades dealing drugs, he was never convicted of a felony—which would have made him ineligible for public office. But the outrage must have been extreme when he was selected.
VOM: A veritable tsunami of outrage! Even before Marshall Major took office, a recall petition was circulated. Also, the Missouri legislature introduced bills to amend the state Constitution to prevent people like Marshall from holding public office.
J: But he was never recalled!
VOM: The Constitutional amendment process in Missouri is intentionally long and convoluted. And, after many months, the Missouri Supreme Court ruled that the recall petition was invalid. Want to know why?
J: I can hardly wait to hear.
VOM: A recall petition has to be based on misconduct in office, but the petition to recall Marshall Major was launched before he was even sworn in.
J: Sounds like a legal technicality to me.
VOM: In the meantime people began to notice something. Marshall Major wasn’t a half-bad governor!
J: Oh, please. A drug lord?
VOM: He was a smart guy, and a charismatic guy, and he got along famously with the state legislators.
J: Probably supplied them with all their favorite designer drugs.
VOM: Maybe so. Marshall had to pay attention to the family business until he could get back to Kansas City. But my point is simple. On the surface of it, the selection of a drug dealer would seem to prove that selection-by-lot was crazy. In fact, it turns out that there are tens of thousands of people who would be good public officials but who, in the old days, could never, ever have been elected.
The bottom line
J: Okay, okay, forget Major Marshall, or whatever his name was. Let’s face one fact. For thousands of years—really, since the days of ancient Athens—everyone has known that democracy was, though hardly perfect, the best of all the options for governing a country.
VOM: Can’t argue with that!
J: Then America improved on democracy, creating in 1789 what we think of as “liberal democracy,” which is democracy with all sorts of protections against tyranny of the majority.
VOM: Truer words were never spoken!
J: And yet, as a country, we abandoned liberal democracy, which seemed to have worked incredibly well for almost 200 years.
VOM: You suppose they have any more Irish coffee back there?
J: No. And you’re ignoring my question again.
VOM: Okay, okay. Get comfortable because I’m going to give you a sociopolitical history lesson.
J: I bet you’re going to talk about the turmoil of the 1960s. But, come on, that’s ancient history. You may be the only American who was actually alive back then!
VOM: Turmoil is right. But it’s the implications of that turmoil that I want to talk about. Two extraordinary things happened in the United States in the 1960s: The civil rights legislation passed into law and the birth control pill became widely available, vastly changing the role of women.
J: Everybody knows that.
VOM: They know the facts, but not the implications. For nearly 200 years liberal democracy in America was, like all democracies, really an aristocracy or oligarchy—the country’s public officials were overwhelmingly male and white. Meanwhile, half the citizens were female and the United States was, even in the 1960s, rapidly becoming a minority-majority society.
J: But, over time, power in the society would have shifted, along with the those changes, don’t you think?
VOM: Maybe over a century. Remember that if you’re a minority representing 15 percent of the population, you could conceivably never elect a single public official. And while surely more women would have run for public office over time, given their role in child care I doubt that they would ever have approached 50 percent of elected officials.
J: And you’re suggesting that people—women and minority groups—wouldn’t have tolerated that situation for long.
VOM: Look around at other democracies, where elected officials were overwhelmingly male and white well into the twenty-first century. In those societies the response was for everything—everything—to be seen through a lens of race and/or gender. It was a powder keg that would have exploded if those societies hadn’t, belatedly, followed our example and switched to selection by lot. The world dodged a bullet!
J: Says you.
VOM: Youth is so wasted on the young.