Representation and the Power of Randomness
A natural experiment with political lotteries points to the benefits of ensuring that candidates fully represent the demographics of their communities.
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Power and Representation
If you study power, as I do—or, if you have eyes—you might notice a depressing fact about modern society: the people in charge aren’t representative of who they lead.
This is true in every conceivable way: our leaders are far richer, of course, but they’re also from a tiny slice of professional backgrounds, life experiences, and upbringings. More bad news: they’re more likely to be psychopaths, too.
But there are also alarming racial and gender skews.
If you just look at gender, for example, the average percentage of women in national legislatures globally is 26 percent. Across the world, only 1 in 4 elected officials is a woman.
Toward the bottom of the league table, there are some truly atrocious cases of gender imbalance: Oman at 2%; Nigeria at 4%; Sri Lanka at 5%; and Japan at 10%.
But the United States isn’t doing great either. As of 2022, the figure stood at 29%, just three points above the global average. Canada is marginally better at 30%; the UK at 35%; and Australia at 38%.
(The highest proportion is in Rwanda—61%. Depressingly, it’s a dictatorship run by a man, Paul Kagame, who has packed his rubber-stamp parliament with women who aren’t allowed to challenge him, in the hopes that his commitment to faux gender representation will dupe donors into giving him more foreign aid money and ease pressure on him to resolve other glaring human rights issues. His gamble has paid off).
The power representation problem is dire in the business world. When I crunched the numbers for the US a few years ago, the figures were staggering. About thirty percent of the US population are white men, but of the Fortune 500 CEOs, 431 out of 500 were white men. The number of white male Fortune 500 CEOs named John or Jon (27) equaled the number of Asian CEOs (16) and Latino CEOs (11) combined. There were four black CEOs. None of the Latino or Black CEOs were women. Here’s the data for the Fortune 500 CEOs (from 2020), from my book Corruptible.
It’s not just about these easily measured demographic factors, though. There are other aspects that aren’t represented. Do we feel that our leader is one of us? Do they have similar experiences, or at least understand our plight? Are they actually part of the community, or do they cloister themselves off in a townhouse in DC, only to flit back for parades and handshakes?
The problem is clear. So, what’s the solution?
One question has nagged at me, but it’s been impossible to answer: what would happen to our political system if the people in charge of us were representative of the broader community they represent?
To find out, it would be great if we could do an experiment. That seemed impossible. How would you do it? You can’t just wave a magic wand and *poof*: Mitch McConnell gets replaced by a nurse who’s also a pillar of his/her local community.
Imagine my surprise, then, when I read a fascinating new study of one country who has done exactly that—experimented with making their politicians fully representative of their communities through random selection. The results were astonishing, providing a roadmap for the rest of us, on how we might make political representation work for everyone.
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