Kick ‘em all out! Citizens’ Assemblies and the next democratic revolution

It appears that the demand for citizens’ assemblies is crossing cultural barriers and being promoted as the preferred democratic tool of a new generation of activists, Brett Hennig writes.

Is this the beginning of another winter of discontent? The Extinction Rebellion that hit London in the weeks around 17 November might be the spark that lights the tinder box of our democratic malaise. Thousands of people blockaded bridges, disrupted traffic, and engaged in non-violent acts of civil disobedience to demand the UK government truthfully address climate change, and convene a national citizens’ assembly to create ‘a democracy fit for purpose’.

Meanwhile, across the channel, the ‘Gilets Jaunes’ (Yellow Vests) protestors have grabbed enough attention – perhaps by causing enough havoc – to get an invitation to meet the French Prime Minister. Their demands? Initially that the government address the rising cost of living (specifically a rise in fuel tax), but the protest has morphed into a broad movement that has, according to several reports, also demanded ‘the creation of a citizens' assembly to replace the [French] Senate’ or ‘the creation of a citizens assembly to put forward demands that would then be submitted to referendum’, among many other disparate propositions.

Whatever the diverse causes of, and messages from, these two very different protests, it appears that the demand for a citizens’ assembly is crossing cultural barriers and being promoted as the preferred democratic tool of a new generation of activists.

Is the citizens’ assemblies model merely a useful tool or is there something deeper behind the current demands?

Why now?

It’s easy to understand why this is on the radar now; we need only look towards Ireland, its recent citizens’ assembly and resulting referendum which successfully removed that country’s constitutional ban on abortion. The Irish citizens’ assembly, which met for the last time in early 2018, had 99 randomly selected citizens deliberating for one weekend a month over the course of more than 18 months. It has been a game changer for the Irish government, delivering options where before there seemed none. After the process of informed deliberation the assembly ‘stunned the country by proposing exceptionally liberal changes’ to the abortion regime, at least according to the Irish Sun.

Ireland is now the unlikely poster-child of democratic innovators. Before the citizens’ assembly they also used sortition (the technical name for random selection) to populate two-thirds of a constitutional convention that led directly to the successful referendum on same-sex marriage. That both Irish assemblies led (in at least these two instances) to successful referendums has made politicians and government officials sit up and take notice.

Both assemblies opened up the political space for dramatic change – and, interestingly, politicians happily stepped into those spaces, basking in the legitimacy for their stances provided by these assemblies populated by ‘everyday people’. These progressive political outcomes are surely one key aspect of the appeal of sortition and citizens’ assemblies to the Gilets Jaunes and the Extinction Rebellion.

A representative microcosm

This curious word, sortition, actually refers to a simple concept whose source of legitimacy is easy to grasp: you randomly select a representative microcosm of people to fill a deliberative assembly (who make political decisions, or at least recommendations). It’s the well-established and trusted practice of legal juries, shifted to the political sphere, which is why they are also sometimes called policy juries. Academic research also shows that people trust citizens’ assemblies. Whereas no one trusts politicians.

Obviously it is not only the Irish example that has suddenly stimulated the resurgent interest in sortition. The level of disaffection with politics continues to escalate – and sortition is nothing if not a radically different way of doing politics. Yet there is probably even more to it than this.

According to the postulated ‘false-consensus bias’ most people believe everyone else thinks like they do. Presumably, this means that if you fill a chamber with randomly selected citizens, including people like you, then these people will think like you, and make decisions that you like. Hence, perhaps, the broad appeal of sortition and citizens’ assemblies from across the political spectrum.

There is also a distinct strategic benefit for any social movement demanding a citizens’ assembly. Any truly grassroots social movement, comprised of diverse individuals, perhaps from across the political spectrum, even if they all agree on the problem, may have very different ideas of what exactly is the best solution. One oft repeated accusation made towards movements such as Occupy was that it was hard to understand exactly what it wanted – people knew what Occupy was against but few could articulate what it was for. Developing a list of demands can be a long, slow process, and is often a divisive one. However, the call for a citizens’ assembly cleverly sidesteps any internal movement bickering. It says, instead, that what we want is for the people to decide what to do. It says: we know what the problem is and we want a more legitimate, more democratic way of solving it – we want a citizens’ assembly. The essential demand is for a better, different democracy.

But is the citizens’ assemblies model merely a useful tool – to be employed judiciously only when needed – or is there something deeper behind the current demands? Perhaps, as the Sortition Foundation has been promoting (of which I am co-founder and director), citizens’ assemblies better encapsulate our democratic ideals of fairness, popular control and political equality than our electoral system? Perhaps they are the harbingers of the next democratic revolution.

Perhaps this is the fundamental premise underneath the apparently benign demand for citizens’ assemblies: that a random, representative sample of people should wield political power instead of elected politicians. If citizens’ assemblies are used on an ad hoc basis (as in Ireland) then they can indeed be powerful, but the true power (and revolutionary potential) is in how such assemblies demonstrate that a randomly selected, representative sample of everyday people, given the chance to deliberate in an informed and respectful environment, can come up with trusted and nuanced proposals.

A global movement

The true power (and revolutionary potential) is in how such assemblies demonstrate that a randomly selected, representative sample of everyday people, given the chance to deliberate in an informed and respectful environment, can come up with trusted and nuanced proposals

That these assemblies are now happening all across the globe is surely no coincidence. Just under a year ago (January 2018) the first international network of sortition practitioners, Democracy R&D, met in Madrid for their inaugural network meeting. We are at the historical juncture when sortition assemblies are happening regularly across the planet – but what is next? Phase two of this progression, as outlined in the Sortition Foundation’s recent strategic plan, is to institutionalize sortition assemblies.

One recurrent proposal, coming from many pundits, is to replace the Senate (in Canada or France or the US) or the House of Lords (in the UK) with a representative chamber of randomly selected people – to make the upper house a ‘citizens’ senate’. This would give us a chance to compare what our politicians think (and how they act) with what an informed, deliberating, representative sample of citizens do and think. It’s interesting that a few politicians support the idea (see below), though I’m not so sure the comparison will come off in their favour. An institutionalized citizens’ chamber in our parliament could be, potentially, a step towards the end of politicians and the transfer of political power to representative citizens’ assemblies.

Most people have many questions about the proposal to replace elected politicians with representative, randomly selected citizens’ assemblies. Below only two key questions are addressed.

The first is about the kind of decisions such assemblies make. Geoff Lloyd, Ed Milliband’s regular podcast co-host, gets straight to the point when he asks Professor James Fishkin from Stanford University, ‘one of the founding fathers of deliberative democracy’, if there is any evidence that sortition and deliberation ‘tips people in either a more progressive or more conservative direction’? For many of us, this is the crux: would instituting sortition be a progressive change? If we gave power to the people would they turn around and row us backwards?

Anecdotally, progressive outcomes are easy to find. The Irish assemblies’ proposals on same-sex marriage and abortion, or South Australia’s citizen jury rejection of allowing a nuclear waste dump in their state, or the near unanimous decision of the British Columbian citizens’ assembly to propose the replacement of the first-past-the-post electoral system of that province in 2005, or the many other examples that measure attitude change as a result of sortition and deliberation. In academia the question has received little attention, but Professor John Gastil, from Pennsylvania State University, addresses it directly in his paper, ‘Is Deliberation Neutral?’ and concludes that participants ‘tend to move toward more cosmopolitan, egalitarian, and collectivist value orientations.’ The sample is small, but it’s a clear start. The jury (so to speak) is still out on whether sortition and deliberation are progressive, but I know where I’d place my bet.

Another important question is, of course, ‘Is it feasible?’ Could a broad political movement lead to the institutionalization of sortition and deliberative democracy? Could we replace the House of Lords or the Canadian or French Senate with a House of the People? Inserting ‘everyday people’ into the political process will certainly undermine the elite capture of politics and thus has obvious populist appeal. And given the false-consensus bias mentioned above it just might be possible to build the political alliances needed for such a dramatic change. There is certainly the beginnings of an impressive (and in some instances infamous) line-up of supporters: Richard Askwith, former executive editor of the Independent, Stephen Fry, Irvine Welsh, and both Mary Beard and Arron Banks, seem to like the idea. Kofi Annan, in September 2017 at the Athens Democracy Forum, called it ‘an interesting idea’ that would ‘make our democracies more inclusive’. Indeed, the UN Democracy Fund, founded by Annan, has just announced a pilot sortition programme called Democracy Beyond Elections. It may be that the false-consensus bias is our political ally.

Historically, the demand for greater access and equality in the exercise of political power has many precedents. Democracy, since its difficult and haphazard modern resurrection throughout the nineteenth century, has seen periodic revolutions that followed fairly predictable phases: the demand for greater political equality is made, some making this demand resort to direct action and civil disobedience to make their point, and, eventually, the protestors are victorious. The suffragettes in the UK used bombs, arson and property damage to draw attention to their cause. It took from at least 1903 until 1918 before legislation was passed and some women in the UK won the right to vote. Full equality was granted in 1928, except in the House of Lords, where equality was only granted in 1958.

In the US civil rights movement of the late 1950s and 1960s there were many arguments about strategy and tactics, ranging from Martin Luther King’s insistence on non-violent civil disobedience, to those arguing for the need to ‘meet violence with violence’. The resulting struggle was deeply divisive (both in the movement and across the US) and it is only in subsequent decades that ‘King went from ignominy to icon’. Similar to the battles waged by the suffragettes, eventually African Americans won the legal right to vote, and both movements are now, in historical hindsight only, seen as shining examples of groups of people demanding (and eventually winning) political equality.

Is the predictably shocked reaction to the looting and property damage of a small section of the Gilets Jaunes, and the more limited frustration expressed towards the Extinction Rebellion just more of the same? Are all movements that include a demand for a fundamental re-think of democracy bound to be dismissed as ‘radical’ at first, and will they, like their predecessors, ultimately end up victorious, and decades into the future their leaders even mythologized? In the years to come, when we look back on the winter of 2018-19 will we see it as the turning point where the most recent democratic revolution began? You have two options: wait and see, or go and join the protestors in the streets and make it so.

Brett Hennig is the author of The End of Politicians: Time for a Real Democracy, and directs and co-founded the Sortition Foundation. Watch his TED Talk, ‘What if we replaced politicians with randomly selected people?