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Space the Nation: Beyond democracy, what choices do we have?

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Nov 20, 2018, 3:00 PM EST

The unprecedented level of voter participation in this year’s midterm elections revealed something startling about American democracy: It doesn’t work very well.

I don’t mean this in the general sense, that it elects the wrong leaders. That’s what the 2016 election proved, anyway. What I mean is that American democracy has some pretty serious mechanical and procedural issues — nuts and bolts stuff, really, like badly designed ballots, broken voting machines, and intolerably long lines at polling places. That’s in addition to actively harmful policies like Jim Crow-esque voter suppression tactics and the tyranny of non-proportional representation. (Feel free to spend a fun half-hour looking at European publications trying to explain to their readers how “more votes” did not translate into Democrats winning more seats in the Senate.)

The common response to complaints about democracy is to reference Winston Churchill (who was himself quoting someone else): “Democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

And perhaps democracy is the best form of government that’s ever been “tried from time to time” — but what about those forms of government that have been tried outside of time? Those forms of government that exist only on the page or screen, in an imaginary past or future or alternate world? Surely, even “strange women lying in ponds distributing swords” is a better basis for a system of government than, let’s say, racist legislators using the exclusionary voter ID laws to “target African Americans with almost surgical precision.” One of those is technically democracy while the other is a farcical aquatic ceremony but I know which one seems more honest.

World-building demands that creators give at least some thought to how leaders are chosen, so it’s no surprise that science fiction and fantasy authors have generated almost as many methods as there are worlds. Here’s a partial list from someone with apparently unlimited time of all the various forms of government he’s encountered, including, “pantisocracy,” which I disappointed to learn is not a description of the manifestly unjust notion that one must wear pants in order to lead. It is, rather, rule by “pleasant consensus.” There’s also magocracy (rule by mages), quearchy (rule by every citizen, one at a time, for a set period), and pharoanic deitocracy (rule by a hereditary leader revered as a god). Some of these have been tried in real life (like pharoanic deitocracy), and some have not (meritocracy).

In any case, it’s a good time to survey a few of the options for governance proposed by authors more imaginative than Thomas Jefferson.

Rule by those who have defeated other contenders — usually by force — also known as the “Thunderdome theory of leadership.” As seen in: Black Panther, among the Klingons, the Fremen of Dune, and the Dothraki.
Pros: More entertaining than a debate, presumably.
Cons: High death toll, pretty consistent churn in leadership, society’s best leader might have a tummy ache that day and… oops.
If we tried in America: Hello, President The Rock!

Rule by “the wise,” originally proposed by Plato. As befitting a genre full of smarty-pants authors, this idea gets played with a lot. Granddaddy of the form, H.G. Wells, proposed it in Things to Come. It can be almost an “intellectual kratocracy,” in which the wise are determined by a test of some sort: See Iain Banks’ The Player of Games. The Aiel Wise Women in The Wheel of Time have to survive being told the truth of their people. In The Stormlight Archives, the Azish people have an essay contest to determine the Prime Aqasix — though they run into trouble when several Primes are assassinated, leading applicants to submit terrible essays.
Pros: Don’t you love the idea of a leader that uses proper grammar?
Cons: But who determines what “wise” means?
If we tried it in America: Ken Jennings, I guess?

Rule by artificial intelligence — whether invited by the citizens or not. The hostile AI takeovers are the ones we tend to focus on: Skynet, the Matrix, the villain of Harlan Ellison’s “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream.” The Cylons, of course. The president in Fallout 3 is an amalgam of all the US presidents but somehow still not a good guy. On the other hand, Asimov was fascinated by the idea of a purely logical government and The Foundation series’ best-outcome-generating “psychohistory” is determined by calculations if not an actual computer. Iain Banks (again) created the Minds, who arrange automate society for benefit of humans even if they think very little of them.
Pros: It is nice not to have to think for yourself.
Cons: We would always be second-class citizens.
If we tried it in America: How do you know it hasn’t already happened?

Rule by the genetically superior. Presumably, this is the reasoning behind hereditary dynasties in general, but just ask the Habsburgs how this worked out. Fortunately, science fiction and/or magic would allow for the emergence of the genetically superior without the pitfalls of inbreeding deformities. That’s the case in Gattaca, and for the Sleepless in the Beggars in Spain series. We think of the Jedis as heroes but they’re basically genetic lottery winners, too.
Pros: Pretty to look at.
Cons: No room to move.
If we tried it in America: Did you enjoy the Bush years? Either segment?

Also known as “lottocracy.” Rule by randomly selected leaders. Kim Stanley Robinson’s Martian government’s lower house is selected by sortition. In the New York of The Years of the City, there’s a kind of draft for government officials among average citizens; there’s something similar in Arthur C. Clarke’s Songs of Distant Earth. You know more about sortition than you realize! Juries are an example of sortition, and, um, they work ok? The thing about juries is that no one wants to be on one, and this is a theme in those genre works featuring sortition, including another one by Clarke, Imperial Earth, in which all top political appointments are randomly determined among those qualified, because “some jobs that should never be given to the people who volunteered for them, especially if they showed too much enthusiasm.” This hypothesis is illustrated somewhat more vividly in L. Sprague de Camp’s The Reluctant King: the Xylarians' government is led by a king who rules for five years, after which he is executed and his head tossed into a crowd—the man who catches it becomes the next king.
Pros: No more worrying about campaign finance reform!
Cons: Have you met a random person?
If we tried it in America: A thriving market in trading away one’s chance.

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