Citizen assemblies reinvigorate democracies



Nathan Gardels is the editor of Noema Magazine.

“The great promise of strong citizen participation,” notes the Berggruen Institute’s 2020 report on “Renewing Democracy in the Digital Age,” “is that it can generate innovative solutions to pressing public concerns and break the establishment of “organized special interest insiders” who tend to dominate representative government chosen through periodic elections.

Similarly, as Kalypso Nicolaïdis writes in Noema, “Collective intelligence magnifies our understanding and our capacity for social innovation. Inclusiveness buys intelligence.

However, such increased citizen engagement can only be effective if it is equipped with the ability to bring knowledge and expertise to address ongoing issues while being embedded in institutional arrangements that enable and encourage practices reasoned negotiation and compromise. In short, participation that eschews populism through informed deliberation conducted in a non-partisan space free from the fever of electoral contests.

Writing in Noema this week, Claudia Chwalisz examines the wave of experiences in this “new, non-electoral understanding of democratic representation” sweeping across the West.

“The current democratic system of public decision-making – rooted in the short-termism of elections and the inward-looking logic of political parties – has perverse incentives that inhibit action, exacerbate polarization and fuel mistrust,” she writes.

For Chwalisz, the alternative route to forging consensus in power would be widespread citizen assemblies, as we have seen in Ireland on abortion or in France on climate action. Instead of running for office, citizens are selected through a random process that reflects the profile of the body politic as a whole, much like a jury, to deal with issues that elected legislatures are too mired in immediacy or too torn apart by partisanship to be resolved.

“Over the past four decades,” she reports, “hundreds of thousands of people around the world have been invited by heads of state, ministers, mayors and other public authorities to sit in as members of over 500 citizens’ assemblies and other deliberative processes to inform policy-making. Important decisions have been made by ordinary people on 10-year $5 billion strategic plans, 30-year infrastructure investment strategies, tackling hate speech and online harassment, taking preventative measures against increasing flood risk, improving air quality, reducing greenhouse gas emissions and many more. other issues.”

Taking into account these best practices around the world, Chwalisz argues that there is now enough experience under the belt to institutionalize citizens’ assemblies as a permanent feature of democracies that would stand alongside elected legislatures.

“While citizens’ assemblies are now widely consultative and complementary to our existing electoral institutions,” says she, “it is not impossible to imagine a future in which binding powers to pass these institutions – or they replace perhaps the governing bodies established in the longer term. term. Recent polls in France, Germany, Italy and the UK suggest that we get there. While about one third of people in these countries now believe that deliberative democracy should be institutionalized, about two-thirds are in favor of it mandatory for the government to implement the recommendations of the citizens’ assemblies.

Indeed, as Chwalisz reports, in 2021 the city of Paris appointed a vice-mayor for citizen participation and set up a permanent citizens’ assembly to examine budgetary and urban planning issues. Belgium’s Ostbelgien region has also set up a permanent citizens’ council to set the agenda for convening ad hoc citizens’ assemblies which, so far, have proposed policies ranging from health during COVID to affordable and sustainable housing. In the Belgian case, the elected parliament is obliged either to implement the recommendations of the citizens or to explain publicly the reasons why it does not do so.

A new iteration of non-electoral representation should be considered in those places, like California, where direct democracy — recall of elected officials, referendums to repeal laws, and initiatives to make laws — dominates political life. In this case, the public vote is binding. But the lack of deliberation on proposed measures to the public, for example through a citizen review committee or agenda-setting assemblies, means that the process is most often hijacked either by short-term populist passions, or by organized special interests that have the power of time and money to influence an uninformed electorate of the consequences of their vote.

Another kind of democratic future through deliberative practices that strengthen the collective intelligence of citizens takes root in the shadow of dysfunctional electoral politics. As these practices intensify in the years to come in response to more demands for social inclusion, they will surely become as integral to the practice of liberal democracy as elections have been.


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