The system is not unlike jury duty. With facilitators in place to provide background information on the issue at hand and encourage everyone’s participation, the group meets over the course of several days to learn about a problem, hear from a range of stakeholders and experts, and come up with recommendations for new legislation.
Claudia Chwalisz, founder of the Paris-based international research institute DemocracyNext, has dedicated her career to promoting this resurrected model of democracy. “As the ancient Greeks and others recognized, elections are a way of constituting an oligarchy,” she says. “When the French and American revolutions led to the establishment of the institutions that today we call democratic, the word ‘democracy’ was never used – the intent was for them to be oligarchic, concentrating power in the hands of the few.”
Today, when a run for Congress can come with a price tag starting at $400,000 (Senator Raphael Warnock of Georgia raised a whopping $26.4m for his run in the third quarter of 2022), the notion that government is run by the elite is pretty much a given. More than half of the members of the US Congress are millionaires. The same cannot be said of the participants in an average citizens’ assembly.
And yet, more than 500 citizens’ assemblies have informed policymaking in recent years, with permanent citizens’ councils now in place in Paris, London and Ostbelgien, Belgium. These groups have deliberated on everything from affordable housing in Switzerland and taxes on corporate income in Oregon to population decline in Japan. Wherever it’s practiced, sortition facilitates meaningful conversations among everyday people, and has the potential to help fractured societies not only work on complicated problems, but learn how to live with one another. According to Peter MacLeod, founder of MASS LBP, a Toronto-based firm that works on a number of citizens’ assembly projects, “Getting opinions is not difficult. Finding common ground, however – that’s the art of the process.”