This series, by BANR founder Ted Wachtel, applies the concept of citizens’ assemblies to an urgent need that the U.S. Congress avoids — gun violence and how to prevent it. Wachtel identifies the reasons legislators can’t do it and why a diverse group of citizens can. No longer theoretical, in the last few years citizens’ assemblies have been used around the world to make thoughtful decisions about challenging and often controversial problems.
3. Ordinary citizens are as capable of making thoughtful decisions on complex issues as elected legislators.
Sortition Versus Election
In the democracy of ancient Athens, every citizen was expected to serve in a variety of civic roles, from magistrate to juror to legislator. Women, men without property, and slaves were excluded, but those men who were citizens routinely volunteered for service and were selected for their roles by sortition. Sortition is a random lottery, which ensures that all interested parties have an equal chance of holding public office.
Ironically, the universal use of elections for selecting representatives in modern democracies is in direct conflict with the democratic tradition of ancient Athens. Elections had only limited use in Athens, because they were considered undemocratic; a tool of the wealthy, who could manipulate the process to their own advantage. Sortition, on the other hand, prevented manipulation of the outcome, and was considered democratic.
Despite the Greek tradition, modern democracies now use elections to choose all their legislators and many other government officials. But candidates need lots of money from donors to run their election campaigns, resulting in the widespread corruption of democracies throughout the world. The Greeks were definitely right about elections being undemocratic.
The Right Conditions for Large Group Decision-Making
But the question remains: Are ordinary citizens chosen by sortition as capable of making thoughtful decisions on complex issues as elected legislators?
James Surowiecki, in his award-winning “best business book of 2004,” The Wisdom of Crowds, answers that question with its subtitle: Why the Many Are Smarter Than the Few and How Collective Wisdom Shapes Business, Economics, Societies and Nations.
Surowiecki explains that, under the right conditions, large groups of ordinary people make better decisions than the experts. He defines three conditions for an intelligent, large group decision-making process. The group must have:
- diversity of opinion
- independence of judgment, and
- decentralized decision-making.
Let’s see if our U.S. Congress or state legislatures can meet those three critical conditions:
Diversity of opinion – The average state legislator in the United States is a white, male Protestant in his sixties, with a graduate degree and a business background. In the current U.S. Congress, more than half of all Senators, and more than a third of all Representatives, are lawyers.
No, our state and national legislatures lack the diversity of perspective that comes from people of varied age, gender, occupation, income, religious belief and ethnicity.
Independence of Judgment – In every legislative body in America, there is a specialized party official called “the whip,” whose job is to keep individual legislators from exercising their own judgment and straying from their political party’s position on any issue. They are even authorized to threaten lawmakers with the loss of campaign funding in the next election.
No, our legislators are constrained from voting independently by their political party.
Decentralized Decision-making – Political parties hold caucuses to keep tabs on their own members. Party leaders carefully hand out committee assignments to legislators who will enforce decision-making along party lines.
No, the simple and sad truth is that the leaders of political parties cannot allow the right conditions for good group decision-making. Diversity, independence and decentralization jeopardize their control of the legislative machinery, and the financial rewards it brings them.
Just Not Measuring Up
Because of the combative, costly and corrupt election process we use to select our decision-makers, we fail to achieve true representation. Citizens’ assemblies chosen by sortition, on the other hand, completely match Surowiecki’s criteria for good large group decision-making. They focus on legislation, rather than re-election.
So, trying out citizens’ assemblies on an experimental basis makes good sense.