By Kerra L. Bolton
The state of modern politics in the western world is in disarray.
United States President Donald Trump faces impeachment as of this writing. The rhetoric around Brexit has created a series of fault lines that have further divided the United Kingdom by race, gender, class, generation, and geography. Arguments over reforming the national pension system in France have resulted in massive protests and a distrust of politics and politicians that threaten to rattle its democracy.
There is a better way.
Since the founding of Building a New Reality (BANR) in 2015, founder Ted Wachtel has argued for decentralized power and participatory decision-making in the form of citizens’ assemblies. Given that 2020 promises to be a watershed year in global politics, we decided to revisit the idea of citizens’ assemblies.
True Representation, which aims to take the politics out of policy by implementing citizen-led, decision-making models, is our primary focus this year. Ted recently made the case about the need for a citizens’ assembly around gun control. We now bring you a Q & A with Brett Hennig.
Brett is a former astrophysicist turned social revolutionary, though he might bristle at me calling him that. As the co-founder and director of the Sortition Foundation, Brett is spearheading campaigns throughout Europe and the U.K. to “institute the use of stratified, random selection (also called ‘sortition’) in government.
Inspired by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negril’s trilogy on political philosophy, Brett wrote The End of Politicians: Time for a Real Democracy. The book was the culmination of his intense investigation and research into forms of democracy. Brett wrote about sortition for BANR and was a featured speaker at last year’s International Institute for Restorative Practices (IIRP) conference in Belgium.
At this critical juncture in history, now seemed like a good time to sit down with Brett and talk about the state of modern, western politics and the role of citizens’ assemblies in repairing our broken democracies.
Q: How does an astrophysicist become the head of the Sortition Foundation?
Brett: The first thing that got me on the streets was the Iraq War. I started linking things up and got involved with a refugee justice group. I joined a political party, saw the insides of that, and got disillusioned by the dominance of ego. I saw that it was really about keeping and maintaining political power above all else. Anything considered an ethical consideration was rejected in the name of keeping political power. This was in Australia, although I lived in the U.K. and Europe.
In 2006, I was reading Multitudes (War and Democracy in the Age of Empire by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negril) and had an “Ah-ha!” moment. I said, “Okay, democracy can be done differently.” The history of democracy is always changing and evolving.
I was also looking for an organization or something to join and looking for a book to read. I couldn’t find one, so I wrote my own. As I kept reading more and more about it, I put it (the book) together. It took me over 10 years to get it published. It was published in 2017. In 2015, I set up the Sortition Foundation as the book was going through the editorial process. If you like the book, you could join the foundation.
Q: What is sortition?
Brett: It’s the random selection of people to political positions or citizens’ assemblies. “Citizens’ assemblies’ is becoming a mainstream term used more and more, especially in Europe.
Q: Has the idea caught on?
Brett: Many people dismiss it (sortition) as a crazy idea. People who are attracted by it are often disillusioned with modern politics. They see modern, electoral politics as corrupted and disrupted by money and egos. Many of these people are already politicized and come to the conclusion that things need to change dramatically.
Q: What is the hardest part about convincing people that sortition/citizens assemblies work?
Brett: Convincing people who are relatively political that it works, that it functions. The first comment is, “People are stupid.” They (respondents) have axes to grind. You have to get beyond the first, knee-jerk reactions.
Q: What do you say to people like me—a black woman from the United States—whose ancestors fought and risked their lives to vote, who have concerns that we will be left behind if sortition is instituted?
Brett: The fight for the vote was absolutely crucial in establishing the principle of political equality among all people, especially in the US for men and women of color. This was preceded by the fight for the vote for women in various countries, which was preceded by the fight to extend the vote beyond only wealthy men, both in the US and elsewhere. All these struggles were immensely important, however, although we have won the right to vote and theoretical political equality we have lost the battle for political equality in practice – wealthy, white men overwhelmingly still hold power in the US. What sortition would achieve is demographic representation – the number of people of color in such a legislature or congress would match the census statistics, which I’m fairly confident would mean there would be more people of color in such a legislative chamber than there are currently.
Q: Is western democracy at a crossroads today?
Brett: Something has happened in Europe, specifically in the U.K. Democracy has been in crisis for years. Nearly everyone you ask says democracy is broken – Trump, Brexit, the rise of populism in Europe. People say something is wrong.
Q: Where are the “hotbeds” of citizens’ assemblies now?
Brett: There has been a very well-publicized citizens’ assembly in Ireland that led to the referendum that removed the country’s constitutional ban on abortion. In France, (President Emmanuel) Macron is holding a citizens’ assembly on climate change. Scotland is in the process of organizing two citizens’ assemblies, and Ireland is holding its third on gender equality. Among other reasons, the Irish example has led to around 10 city councils in the UK holding citizens’ assemblies on climate change. These things are overlapping, and everyone is taking notice.
Q: When you mention those things to an American, the first thing they say is, “Well, that’s nice for Europe, but it can never happen in the United States.” How do you respond to that sense of American exceptionalism?
Brett: They can and do happen in the United States, but on a smaller scale. There are lots of examples of citizens’ assemblies happening in the United States. For example, there is Healthy Democracy in Portland, Oregon. They call them “citizens’ juries” or “policy juries.” They also include a smaller number of people, around 20 or sometimes less. They are doing one (citizens’ assembly) on the city council’s wages in Milwaukie, Oregon. The Jefferson Center in Michigan also runs citizens’ or policy juries. There’s James Fishkin’s work, “America in One Room,” which was really large, though I don’t believe it was connected to political power.
The whole idea that the U.S. is the birthplace of democracy is also completely false. You can look at quotes from Madison and others arguing against “pure democracy” and arguing for a republican government. There were, for example, property qualifications on the right to vote that resulted in only rich, white, men being allowed to vote. In the first election in the U.S., only about 6 percent of the population could vote, which is why they called it a republic and not a democracy. Nevertheless, most Americans think the system is broken. They have a low trust in government, and think money and vested interests have corrupted—or at least grossly distorted—the system.
Q: Does a citizens’ assembly remove responsibility from elected officials?
Brett: Some people would see it as an abdication of responsibility. One of the most common comments we receive is, “We already have a citizens’ assembly. It’s called Parliament or Congress.”
But many politicians like citizens’ assemblies because it gets them out of the fire. When voting on a complex, emotional issue such as abortion in Ireland, politicians can say, “We are following the informed will of the people.” The same could be said of Macron’s citizens’ assembly in response to the yellow-vest, climate change protests.
Citizens’ assemblies are not an opinion poll. You have to deliberate and discuss the issue in an informed and fair environment. Politicians are using it as a tool to gain legitimacy for some decisions they finally take.
Q: Are there upcoming citizens’ assemblies we should watch?
Brett: There are so many citizens’ assemblies happening in the U.K. and Europe. There is a national citizens’ assembly starting this Friday (January 24) on climate change and how to get the UK to net zero emissions by 2050.
This citizens’ assembly is meeting in Birmingham (England) for four weekends. There is another citizens’ assembly on the rise of hate crimes in a borough of London. Other citizens’ assemblies were about redeveloping town centers and having a healthy relationship with alcohol.
There is also another Irish Citizens’ Assembly on gender equality. The French citizens’ assembly is still going on—we’ll see what happens and how Macron responds, but he has promised much. Will he actually listen and respond, or will he use it as a cover or talking point?
Q: How do you see citizens’ assemblies interacting with existing political, electoral structures?
Brett: We want to see citizens’ assemblies become a permanent, institutionalized part of democracy. We want to see them move from “one-off” events to permanent chambers or standing committees. The Sortition Foundation is possibly about to launch a campaign to replace the House of Lords with a citizens’ assembly.
In the German-speaking region of east Belgium, their elected chamber set up a second, randomly-selected “citizens’ council” to sit alongside the elected chamber.
Q: What do you see as the future for citizens’ assemblies?
Brett: I doubt that in the near future people would move to a pure sortition model, without elections at all. I foresee, at first, a bicameral system where one chamber is elected, and another is randomly-selected. Then, you could compare the behavior and decisions coming from the two chambers. I think I know which chamber people would trust more. Then I believe we would move to a randomly-selected model. That’s what I think is a sensible strategy to push this idea forward.