A recent essay in The New York Times prompts me once again to write about a favourite topic of mine, namely citizens’ assemblies. The essay, by Adam Grant, was entitled “The Worst People Run for Office. It’s Time for a Better Way.” Unfortunately there is a lot of truth in that heading.
The better way Grant suggests is sortition—a random lottery from a pool of candidates. He reminds us that is the way many officials in ancient Athens were chosen in that, the first, democracy.
It’s the method we use to select juries. Why not, he asks, also use it to select our political leaders. He claims multiple experiments have shown that “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.” As Mr. Grant is as an organizational psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, I will defer to him on that point.
The reason, he suggests, is that randomly chosen leaders are more democratic, less likely to be corrupted by power, less likely to think of themselves as “the one.”
Grant claims that the more politically ambitious are attracted to authority for its own sake, in other words for the wrong reasons. He mentions a global study that showed candidates who were rated by experts as having high psychopathy scores did better electorally. Masters of fearless dominance and superficial charm, their confidence is mistaken for competence.
A form of sortition the author discusses that has always been particularly appealing to me is citizens’ assemblies.
A citizens’ assembly simply means bringing together a random selection of ordinary citizens to decide an issue. They are provided with comprehensive information, access to experts and politicians from all sides, and ample opportunity to discuss and debate among themselves face to face. Immersed in the issue, they are well-equipped to make decisions.
The result is not simply what the public thinks but what the public—at least the public in microcosm—thinks after thorough deliberation. We have the opinion of an ideal citizenry.
Free of any grip of party loyalty, allowed to deal with their fellow participants on an equal, open, intimate and informal basis, they are also more willing to allow the heartfelt views of others to influence their own. The competitive, adversarial nature of conventional party politics is sharply reduced. By bringing people of all sorts together, assemblies create a more consensual, inclusive democracy as opposed to the hostile, partisan, macho democracy of party politics.
All groups in society can be equitably represented in an assembly, but they are there as individuals, not as representatives of groups, as they are with party politics.
Assemblies not only bring citizens together as individuals but as equals. They eliminate not only political inequality but social and financial inequality as well. The CEO of a large corporation sits down with the welfare mother; they can get to know each other and understand each other’s views and problems. Not only can they conclude the issue under discussion, but they can build bridges for the future. People isolated in their own domains tend to obsess on their own world views, constantly reinforcing their prejudices.
Particularly important in assemblies is the dialogue between participants. Good talk—vigorous, well-informed conversation, especially debate with those whose views differ from one’s own—is an important ingredient of healthy democracy. It not only ensures better decision-making, it engenders respect for other views and refines the art of compromise. It both educates and civilizes. It offers the possibility of a politics of shared goals rather than a politics of angry differences.
What criteria then should we apply in constructing an assembly? I suggest two:
First, participants must be chosen randomly. Anything else does not accurately represent the people.
Second, attendance must be mandatory as with jury duty. If we relied on volunteers, the voice of the assembly would be skewed toward those with a special interest or those who simply enjoy political activism.
We have used citizens’ assemblies in this country in the past but infrequently and their decisions have often been ignored. We should make much more use of them, and give their decisions legislative sanction. A good start would be an assembly to recommend a voting system that actually produces democratic representation.
Neither the Harper nor the Trudeau governments managed to get even 40 percent of the popular vote. Despite their minority positions, they talk about mandates as if they truly represented most Canadians. (Actually the current combination of the Liberals and the NDP just manages 50 percent.)
Judging by the polls, the next election will continue the tradition of 100 percent of the power with 40 percent of popular support. We could have a government most Canadians oppose trashing the CBC.
The Times’ essay is right, here as well as there—It’s time for a better way.