‘Expect the unexpected’ would not be an inaccurate political maxim of late, as the destabilising forces of polarisation, populism, nationalism and emotionality increasingly become the norm. Citizens’ assemblies, however, offer a unique opportunity for democratic and social rejuvenation. By emphasising the multifaceted nature of political issues and problems, citizens and decision-makers are brought into respectful dialogue, and democratic decision-making as a process of deliberation is affirmed and recognised.
While many political ‘truths’ are currently contested, it is broadly accepted that these are challenging times for democracy and its legitimacy. Political institutions have struggled in recent years to adapt as extraordinary and rapid changes take place in society, and are thus failing to deliver on core promises of providing citizens with dignity and results. While political challenges are plentiful, apathy is scarce, however. Citizens are engaged, but frustrated — and this frustration is increasingly being expressed by unprecedented, and at times destabilising, choices at the polls. Low trust in politicians; lack of confidence in the ability of democratic institutions to respond to challenges effectively; polarisation; populism; fragmentation; fake news; emotions trumping facts — these problems exist in varying degrees across the West, and are both symptoms and causes of the increasing struggle of democratic institutions and actors to meet the expectations and needs of their electorates.
Times of crisis are, however, also often the times of greatest innovation. Last week’s report on referendums from UCL’s Constitution Unit raises an important question about the challenge of reconciling parliamentary and popular sovereignty. Ireland’s use of citizens’ assemblies as a democratic scaffold during recent referendums exemplifies one example of how those two sovereign bodies may go hand-in-hand. Ireland has been exploring various models of deliberative democracy since 2012 — first of all, with its Convention on the Constitution (2013-2016), and more recently, the Citizens’ Assembly (2016-present). The positive national experience during May 2018’s abortion referendum bears testament to the worthiness of such experiments. Initially a campaign and topic that was both highly moralised and contentious, the use of a citizens’ assembly played an integral role in shaping the parameters of the debate (abortion upon request until 12 weeks), the informed nature of the vote, the shift in public opinion, and the respectful acceptance of the result.
A citizens’ assembly is an advisory body made up of citizens, chosen at random from the electoral register to accurately represent the socioeconomic and geographic backgrounds of the general population. Participants meet and are presented with evidence and arguments from various sources on specific social issues, which they then deliberate, and subsequently make recommendations to the national parliament or decision-makers. Citizens’ assemblies realise the democratic promises of both dignity and results — the opinions and inputs of citizens are respected, and their recommendations are considered by politicians, facilitating a form of collective problem-solving.
Due to the cooperation and interaction between the ‘establishment’, the electorate and experts which they facilitate, citizens’ assemblies are well positioned to offer antidotes to several of democracy’s current ills. First of all, citizens’ assemblies counteract the subversion or undercutting of fact or collective truth which can lead to polarisation, political fragmentation, and a decline in trust in fellow citizens, institutions, and experts. Citizens’ assemblies redress political trends driven by emotion or notions of identity by making consultation, research and fact-based evidence integral to its structure and decision-making process. The modus operandi of the assembly is, in essence, a collective truth-seeking exercise based on evidence-collection and debate. The topics at issue are often of moral or constitutional concern, and thus cross-cut party-political lines. In the privileging of research and data, citizens’ assemblies accept that some things (evidence and fact-based research) are more true than others. Nonetheless, since deliberation, cooperation and debate is at its core, it is also acknowledged that there is seldom a single or obvious ‘right’ answer. Rather, what is sought is the most favourable option, as determined by rigorous collective consultation.
Citizens’ assemblies also reinstate an understanding of democracy as a process, and combat the simplification of complex issues. Soundbites, attention-grabbing headlines, fast-paced news and social media can also lead to the erosion of nuance – as can the black-and-white, binary standpoints favoured by populists. Stand-alone referendums as the expression of ‘the people’s will’ are another example of the dichotomisation or simplification of democratic decision-making. Citizens’ assemblies, per contra, are by nature an exercise in reflection. Participants do not come with fully-formed or rigid opinions — rather, they are encouraged to be open-minded, and to change their minds over the consultation period, upon the revelation of further information and debate.
A common criticism of citizens’ assemblies is that they undermine the role of politicians as representatives. However, as we have seen in Ireland in recent months, the deliberative process of a citizens’ assembly can lead to a change in public opinion. Therefore, polling and politicians’ understanding of public opinion may not suffice when making decisions on moral or social issues — citizens, through the assemblies, are instead given a chance for their initial opinions to evolve and to become more informed. Citizens’ assemblies also allow for the involvement of a broader proportion of the population in democratic decision-making processes. The past decades have seen a narrowing of the socio-economic backgrounds of politicians, and the rise of the ‘career politician’. Elected representatives remain better informed than the average citizen on technocratic matters, and have a far greater portion of time to dedicate to political and policy matters. Nonetheless, when called on social or moral rather than technical matters, citizens’ assemblies provide an opportunity to reestablish trust and communication between representatives and electorates on matters of broad societal concern. They afford dignity to citizens by trusting their capacity to make informed, considered conclusions on complex matters and by giving due consideration to their findings. By listening directly to these proposals, politicians can demonstrate that they have the interests of the public at heart — they are not merely ‘in it for themselves’. Furthermore, a respectful, inclusive, cross-societal exchange is established amongst the general population on issues of gravity and common concern.
This model could be effective within the EU too, were assemblies to be held in each country on the same topic, and the issue later debated at a European level. Emmanuel Macron has already launched an initiative to hold ‘citizens’ consultations’ across the continent. However, it is the specific focus of the citizens’ assembly and the emphasis on collective truth-seeking which brings citizens together, and in concert with politicians. Furthermore, assemblies are not tools for the collection of opinion, but rather have the capacity to inform and influence it.
It is true that the problems facing democracy are varied, nebulous and evolving, and they require far greater response than the implementation of citizens’ assemblies on certain social issues. Nonetheless, citizens’ assemblies can act as a democratic scaffold which helps institutions and decision-makers to meet democracy’s dual promise of dignity and decision-making. They establish communication and trust between electorates and representatives on specific issues, which can allow for the rejuvenation of the broader values and outlooks necessary to a healthy political system. While political actors face a considerable task in addressing the political challenges of today, the positive effects of citizens’ assemblies may be invaluable in creating the political capital needed to enact that reform.
Grace McLoughlin is head of Torc Think Tank in Dublin. She is also currently a student of English Literature at Trinity College, Dublin.