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.
4. Citizens are more collaborative, and willing to change their minds, than elected legislators.
Two years ago, I brought a couple of dozen Trump and Clinton supporters together for a conversation. At the close of the 3-hour event, a Trump supporter said, “I was surprised, and very pleasantly so, that people with such widely diverse backgrounds and positions were able to come together and have amazingly civil discourse.”
In September, 2017, Oprah Winfrey convened a panel of seven Clinton supporters and seven Trump supporters, to discuss their political differences. Much to all of their surprise, despite difficult conversations, they discovered that they liked each other. One liberal member of the panel commented, “I actually can get along with Trump supporters. I didn’t think that was possible, at all. Especially on social media…but now, some of my closest friends in this focus group are Trump supporters. There is hope.”
In May, 2018, a similarly diverse group from a Milwaukee suburb realized that, despite their political differences, they agreed on two basic things: they wanted more civility and more truthfulness.
Given the right context, people with differences can get along—but rarely politicians. Sadly, the use of adversarial elections to choose decision-makers fosters conflict, not conversation. Election campaigns are political warfare. When the election is won, after beating each other up for many months, the legislators return to the line of scrimmage. They immediately position themselves for the next election, raising money for their next campaign and attacking one another in an endless partisan struggle.
Distortion, exaggeration and outright lies are normal; insult, blame and ridicule are routine. All that matters is winning. Truth and civility have been sacrificed on the altar of power. There is something fundamentally wrong when a country’s approach to governance provokes so much discord and alienation.
Danielle Allen of Harvard University, in a recent interview on The Ezra Klein Show podcast, explained that U.S. Congressional politics has become so bitter because now, either party can win control of either House. Until 1994, Democrats held the House for 58 of the prior 62 years and the Senate for 34 of 40 years. Republicans lacked Congressional power, so it made sense for Republicans to play nice and cross the aisle to collaborate on varied legislation. But no longer.
Since the 1994 Republican victory in Congress, both Representatives and Senators are held to account by their respective political parties, in their fierce competition for power. Today they almost always vote in partisan lockstep with their colleagues. Strict party discipline doesn’t only interfere with thoughtful deliberation—it makes any meaningful conversation impossible.
There Is Hope
Ordinary citizens, however, are not so burdened by political party affiliation. They are more willing to compromise and to change their minds, based on what they learn.
James Fishkin of Stanford University has conducted than 109 citizen assemblies in 28 countries that demonstrate the potential for public policy-making.
Fishkin says, “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.”
That’s why citizens’ assemblies offer great promise in addressing our crisis in governance.