On the eve of the first debate of the 2024 presidential race, trust in government is rivaling historic lows. Officials have been working hard to safeguard elections and assure citizens of their integrity. But if we want public office to have integrity, we might be better off eliminating elections altogether.
If you think that sounds anti-democratic, think again. The ancient Greeks invented democracy, and in Athens many government officials were selected through sortition — a random lottery from a pool of candidates. In the United States, we already use a version of a lottery to select jurors. What if we did the same with mayors, governors, legislators, justices and even presidents?
People expect leaders chosen at random to be less effective than those picked systematically. But in multiple experiments led by the psychologist Alexander Haslam, the opposite held true. Groups actually made smarter decisions when leaders were chosen at random than when they were elected by a group or chosen based on leadership skill.
Why were randomly chosen leaders more effective? They led more democratically. “Systematically selected leaders can undermine group goals,” Dr. Haslam and his colleagues suggest, because they have a tendency to “assert their personal superiority.” When you’re anointed by the group, it can quickly go to your head: I’m the chosen one.
When you know you’re picked at random, you don’t experience enough power to be corrupted by it. Instead, you feel a heightened sense of responsibility: I did nothing to earn this, so I need to make sure I represent the group well. And in one of the Haslam experiments, when a leader was picked at random, members were more likely to stand by the group’s decisions.
Over the past year I’ve floated the idea of sortition with a number of current members of Congress. Their immediate concern is ability: How do we make sure that citizens chosen randomly are capable of governing?
In ancient Athens, people had a choice about whether to participate in the lottery. They also had to pass an examination of their capacity to exercise public rights and duties. In America, imagine that anyone who wants to enter the pool has to pass a civics test — the same standard as immigrants applying for citizenship. We might wind up with leaders who understand the Constitution.
A lottery would also improve our odds of avoiding the worst candidates in the first place. When it comes to character, our elected officials aren’t exactly crushing it. To paraphrase William F. Buckley Jr., I’d rather be governed by the first 535 people in the phone book. That’s because the people most drawn to power are usually the least fit to wield it.
The most dangerous traits in a leader are what psychologists call the dark triad of personality traits: narcissism, Machiavellianism and psychopathy. What these traits share is a willingness to exploit others for personal gain. People with dark triad traits tend to be more politically ambitious — they’re attracted to authority for its own sake. But we often fall under their spell. Is that you, George Santos?
In a study of elections worldwide, candidates who were rated by experts as having high psychopathy scores actually did better at the ballot box. In the United States, presidents assessed as having psychopathic and narcissistic tendencies were more persuasive with the public than their peers. A common explanation is that they’re masters of fearless dominance and superficial charm, and we mistake their confidence for competence. Sadly, it starts early: Even kids who display narcissistic personality traits get more leadership nominations and claim to be better leaders. (They aren’t.)
If the dark triad wins an election, we all lose. When psychologists rated the first 42 American presidents, the narcissists were more likely to take reckless risks, make unethical decisions and get impeached. Add a dash of Machiavellianism and a pinch of psychopathy, and you get autocrats like Putin, Erdogan, Orban and Duterte.
Eliminate voting, and candidates with dark triad traits would be less likely than they are now to rise to the top. Of course, there’s also a risk that a lottery would deprive us of the chance to select a leader with distinctive skills. At this point, that’s a risk I’m willing to take. As lucky as America was to have Lincoln at the helm, it’s more important to limit our exposure to bad character than to roll the dice on the hopes of finding the best.
Besides, if Lincoln were alive now, it’s hard to imagine that he’d even put his top hat in the ring. In a world filled with divisiveness and derision, evidence shows that members of Congress are increasingly rewarded for incivility. And they know it.
A lottery would give a fair shot to people who aren’t tall enough or male enough to win. It would also open the door to people who aren’t connected or wealthy enough to run. Our broken campaign finance system lets the rich and powerful buy their way into races while preventing people without money or influence from getting on the ballot. They’re probably better candidates: Research suggests that on average, people who grow up in low-income families tend to be more effective leaders and less likely to cheat — they’re less prone to narcissism and entitlement.
Switching to sortition would save a lot of money too. The 2020 elections alone cost upward of $14 billion. And if there’s no campaign, there are no special interests offering to help pay for it.
Finally, no voting also means no boundaries to gerrymander and no Electoral College to dispute. Instead of questioning whether millions of ballots were counted accurately, we could watch the lottery live, just as we do with teams getting their lottery picks in the N.B.A. draft.
Other countries have begun to see the promise of sortition. Two decades ago, Canadian provinces and the Dutch government started using sortition to create citizens’ assemblies that generated ideas for improving democracy. In the past few years, the French, British and German governments have run lotteries to select citizens to work on climate change policies. Ireland tried a hybrid model, gathering 33 politicians and 66 randomly chosen citizens for its 2012 constitutional convention. In Bolivia, the nonprofit Democracy in Practice works with schools to replace student council elections with lotteries. Instead of elevating the usual suspects, it welcomes a wider range of students to lead and solve real problems in their schools and their communities.
As we prepare for America to turn 250 years old, it may be time to rethink and renew our approach to choosing officials. The lifeblood of a democracy is the active participation of the people. There is nothing more democratic than offering each and every citizen an equal opportunity to lead.
Adam Grant, a contributing Opinion writer, is an organizational psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, the author of “Think Again” and the host of the TED podcast “Re:Thinking.”
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