Not long ago, I wrote a column in which I suggested we select our leaders through a lottery. We would avoid tiresome campaigns and the lies and misrepresentations therein, and we would rid ourselves of campaign contributions and the time-honored practice of buying influence and favors.
It was a whimsical idea. Or so I thought. But one of the joys of writing a newspaper column is hearing from people who know more than I do about the subjects I write about.
David C. sent me this note: "Today's column made me think of ancient Athens, one of the most thoroughgoing democracies in western history (at least for those who weren't slaves). They had a system of government very similar to your idea of government by lottery. As the Marxist historian C.L.R. James wrote in his essay, 'Every Cook Can Govern': 'Perhaps the most striking thing about Greek democracy was that the administration (and there were immense administrative problems) was organized upon the basis of what is known as sortition, or, more easily, selection by lot. The vast majority of Greek officials were chosen by a method which amounted to putting names into a hat and appointing the ones whose names came out.'"
That is something, isn't it? It's almost enough to make me forget about the lottery system and vote for David C.
How many of our elected officials know anything about the Athenian style of governance? How many read essays?
Actually, the notion of selecting leaders through a lottery system has been on my mind lately because of the debt crisis.
Average citizens could solve the "crisis" in an hour. I really believe that.
Conservatives want the government to spend less. Liberals want the government to raise taxes on the rich. So you do some of each. That is not complicated.
Why can't our elected leaders accomplish such a simple thing? Mostly, it's because they are elected.
This is especially true in the House of Representatives. Over the course of many years, congressional districts have been engineered in such a way as to be made 'safe" for one party or another. The result is that nobody has to play to the middle. A Republican mainly has to worry about a primary challenge from the right. A Democrat mainly has to worry about a challenge from the left.
When ideological purity becomes the goal, compromise becomes almost impossible.
Plus, of course, there is the ongoing battle for the White House. Like quarterbacks, presidents get too much blame and too much credit.
In this instance, Republicans understood that had the two sides reached a so-called grand bargain, President Obama would have looked, well, presidential.
I remember when Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said his main goal was to ensure that Obama be a one-term president. I admired the senator's candor but thought it was an indication of a broken system. There is no longer even a pretense of putting the welfare of the country above politics.
How did things become this poisonous? I don't know. Maybe part of it has to do with the 24-hour news cycle and the constant shouting that is required to fill the time. People listen to the shouting and get caught up in it. I've written about that, too. Compulsive Outrage Disorder. Some people are angry all the time.
This outrage is welcomed by partisans on both sides. Anger motivates people, a politician told me over coffee not long ago.
Well, yes, it does motivate people but not in a good way. Remember the town hall meetings of two years ago? The Tea Party people went to the meetings to shout down the speakers. The other side had union guys countering the Tea Party people.
It was more reminiscent of the Weimar Republic than ancient Athens.
Our democracy is not headed in a good direction. The public has been getting a sense of that during this so-called debt crisis. Ordinary citizens could have solved this long ago.
Plus, ordinary citizens could have taken some simple steps to make sure we don't get in this hole again. That would be easy, too. From now on, if the government decides to wage war, it has to pay for that war as it is fought. No more putting wars on the credit card. For that matter, if we're going to have a war, let's have a draft. If the cause is that vital to the national interest, everybody ought to be willing to participate. No more making a few military families bear the entire cost while the rest of the country goes to the mall.
Why can't our elected leaders do these things?