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HomeDemocracy in DecayDemocracy in Decay: Citizens’ assemblies take power from the people

Democracy in Decay: Citizens’ assemblies take power from the people


Against Sortition? The Problem with Citizens’ Assemblies edited by Geoffrey Grandjean; Imprint Academic May 2024

A WORD we may soon be hearing more often is ‘sortition’. This is a way of selecting political representatives to make decisions on our behalf by drawing lots or selecting them at random. It has a reputable history, going back to ancient Athens, and was used in later mediaeval Italian city states to resolve the claims of competing elites. Much more recently, though, it has been used to set up ‘mini-publics’ such as the Conference on the Future of Europe, Ireland’s Constitutional Convention and the Climate Assemblies in France and the UK. This collection of essays – a response to David Van Reybrouck’s Against Elections – explores the arguments for and against sortition.

The Constitutional Convention, including 66 randomly selected Irish citizens, was successful in so far as its proposals were taken to referendum, and resulted in the legalisation of same-sex marriage and the removal of the offence of blasphemy from the country’s constitution. However, the Citizens’ Assembly on Gender Equality was rather less so, with their proposals on widening the definition of the family and removing constitutional references to women’s ‘life within the home’ overwhelmingly rejected in two disastrous referendums earlier this year. This was one of the more recent examples of the legitimacy crisis affecting our political institutions, and the widening chasm between citizens and the political class. It is a theme that comes up a number of times in Against Sortition? 

We learn that the Conference on the Future of Europe was a response to Brexit and that France’s Citizen’s Convention on Climate was a response to the popular rise of the gilets jaunes. Yet, while these attempts to resolve profound political problems through glorified focus groups are easily dismissed as wishful thinking, does that mean we should dismiss sortition too? There is something compelling about it. Clarisse Van Belleghem, in her chapter, argues that the return to sortition in the guise of citizens’ assemblies, ‘restores the idea of an equal distribution of political competencies and recognises citizens as the locus of politics’. Rather than a ruling elite establishing itself over us, it gives us all (eventually!) a chance to rule. 

But it soon runs into problems. Purists advocate a model of sortition that is entirely random. But without compulsion there is an inevitable self-selection bias. People take part because they have the time or the means, or because they have a positive orientation to the topic being discussed. On the other hand, attempts to ‘neutralise’ assemblies or make them more inclusive or representative, as the book’s editor Geoffrey Grandjean puts it, ‘locks citizens into boxes’. They are no longer there as individuals making up their own minds but as representatives (statistically speaking) of this gender or that race, who must therefore have these opinions. Either way, it is the expert guiding proceedings, not the citizen, who is truly empowered. In his chapter, Pierre Etienne Vandamme makes the case for a hybrid system combining sortition and direct democracy. But still he worries about the ‘atomistic’ character of a society governed by lotteries. 

While some contributors to the book see these failings as design faults, there is so much more going on beyond the academic debate featured here. It seems to me that the whole point of citizens’ assemblies is to exclude the vast majority of us from the decision-making process. Today’s interest in sortition betrays the low regard in which the mass of citizens are held, and expresses an underlying hostility to the democratic principle that the most popular ideas and politicians should win. A Labour government will doubtless make use of citizens’ assemblies. Not just because Sir Keir Starmer’s chief of staff, Sue Gray, is keen, and not just because they are a way of avoiding taking policy positions on thorny issues. But precisely because the government we’re expecting to have in a matter of months, like the one we’re currently enduring, is already out of ideas. 

The political class would much rather insulate themselves from the populist demands or, worse, the withering contempt of those they rule over. They want to make a virtue of what Grandjean describes as the ‘anaesthesia of political conflicts’. It is so much easier, after all, just to curate and control, to have contained discussion and create a fake consensus, than it is to engage citizens in the real world and persuade them that you have a vision for society. This interest in so-called ‘deliberative democracy’ – as if we can’t think without expert supervision – is a doomed attempt to manage broken politics through technocratic engagement techniques.

Trying to create what Alex Kovner and Keith Sutherland describe, in their chapter, as a ‘snow globe version of democracy’ is a dead end. Rather, we need to shake things up. A new culture of democracy is not going to emerge from these assemblies. They can only inhibit the arguments that we need to be having in these increasingly censorious times. For all the talk of citizens being given the opportunity to make decisions about the big issues of the day, in truth the aversion to free and open-ended debate has only hardened. All the more reason, this bumper election year, to extend democratic accountability into every nook and cranny of institutional and public life. This book is an invaluable contribution to thinking about what that might look like.

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Dave Clements
Dave Clements
Dave Clements is a policy adviser, freelance writer, co-editor of The Future of Community (2008) and a contributor to The Future of the Welfare State (2017).

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