We often confuse democracy with voting in elections. True representation is the bullseye of democracy—but cannot be achieved through elections.
Democracy When the People Are Thinking
The author of Democracy When the People Are Thinking, Stanford University professor James Fishkin, has conducted more than 109 citizens’ assemblies in 28 countries using a “deliberative poll” process that demonstrates the ordinary citizen’s potential for public policy-making.
How do citizen participants compare to legislators?
Fishkin’s three decades of research reveal that, “The public is very smart if you give it a chance…If people think their voice actually matters, they’ll do the hard work, really study their briefing books, ask the experts smart questions and then make tough decisions. When they hear the experts disagreeing, they’re forced to think for themselves. About 70 percent change their minds in the process.”
Two thousand years ago the Greeks realized that elections were flawed. Aristotle warned that wealthy oligarchs could manipulate the election process to their own benefit—a problem which currently plagues all of the world’s democracies. Instead of elections, the original democracy in ancient Athens, Greece, achieved true representation by randomly selecting citizens by lottery to serve as legislators, magistrates, administrators and jurors—a process called sortition.
Sortition guarantees, through scientific sampling, that those chosen for public service represent a true cross-section of citizens and their collective interests.
Elections fail to do so. Instead, elected representatives are beholden to those who fund their political campaigns. In contrast, jurors chosen for court trials are truly representative of the populace because they are chosen by sortition from taxpayer, voter or licensed driver lists.
The Wisdom of Crowds
The question always arises: Are ordinary citizens as competent to serve as legislators as professional politicians?
How ironic that we trust jurors selected by lottery to decide on taking freedom or life itself from their fellow citizens, but we doubt whether they are capable of making thoughtful decisions on legislative matters.
James Surowiecki, in his award-winning book, The Wisdom of Crowds, defined the three conditions necessary for good large group decision-making. The group must have diversity of opinion, independence of judgement and decentralized decision-making.
Do American legislatures meet that standard?
The average elected state legislator in the United States is a white male Protestant in his sixties, while more than half the Senators and a third of Representatives in the U.S. Congress are lawyers. Certainly not diverse.
In every legislature body in America, a specialized party official called “the whip” keeps individual legislators from exercising their own judgment and straying from their political party’s position on any issue. Certainly not independent nor decentralized.
Political parties—and those who fund them—will not allow diversity, independence or decentralization to jeopardize their control of the legislative machinery and the financial rewards that it brings them. Citizens’ assemblies selected by sortition, on the other hand, meet all the criteria for good large group decision-making, without the pressure of private political obligations.
In truth, the citizen participants put in more time and become more knowledgable than most legislators. John Long, a 56-year-old participant in the 2016 Irish Citizens’Assembly that proposed new abortion policies, explains:
“Five weekends, probably of 15 or 20 hours of sessions, papers, debates…and then dozens and dozens of hours of research, and reading, and analysis. So I would say we probably put a couple of hundred hours of total time into it, which is more than any parliamentary party committee would have put into it.”
A growing number of citizens’ assemblies and similar participatory processes are being considered to resolve local, regional and national issues:
The Lottocratic Alternative is a proposal by Alexander Guerrero at Rutgers University, that democracies use small specialized legislatures, chosen by lottery, each focusing on a single area, such as agriculture. Rather than one general body legislating about everything, a narrow focus allows legislators to more quickly acquire an understanding and knowledge of the issues.
Community Processing developed by Anke Siegers and Gert Van Slump in the Netherlands, brings together all stakeholders to solve complex problems and disputes.
Sortition Foundation, based in the U.K., advocates for sortition, provides technical assistance to those organizing citizens’ assemblies, and proposes replacing the existing House of Lords with a “House of Citizens.”
Governance in a new reality will gradually decrease the number of elected positions and increase the role of sortition across a menu of possibilities.
When Ted Wachtel, founder of Building a New Reality (BANR), first mentioned “sortition,” I thought he was referring to the magical hat in the Harry Potter novels and movies, used to sort Hogwarts students into their appropriate houses.
Turns out sortition is “the use of random selection to populate assemblies or fill political positions.” Or as my BANR colleague and Sortition Foundation co-founder and director, Brett Hennig, explained, “An assembly that uses sortition would be composed of people just like you and me. It would be a representative random sample of people, making decisions in an informed, fair, and deliberative setting.”
Over the course of 18 months, from October 2016 to April 2018, ninety-nine randomly selected Irish citizens did an incredible thing: They made policy recommendations to their government. And what’s more, the government listened and responded.
In his award-winning book, The Wisdom of Crowds, James Surowiecki explains that the many are smarter than the few—but only under the right conditions. Political scientist James Fishkin’s deliberative democracy experiments persuasively prove that ordinary citizens can deal with complex problems and make thoughtful decisions. “The public is very smart if you give it a chance…If people think their voice actually matters, they’ll do the hard work.”