Citizens’ juries can help fix democracy

Citizens’ juries can help fix democracy
Western polities are ailing — deliberative assemblies would revivify them

By Martin Wolf

“Brexit has failed.” This is now the view of Nigel Farage, the man who arguably bears more responsibility for the UK’s decision to leave the EU than anybody else. He is right, not because the Tories messed it up, as he thinks, but because it was bound to go wrong. The question is why the country made this mistake. The answer is that our democratic processes do not work very well. Adding referendums to elections does not solve the problem. But adding citizens’ assemblies might.

In his farewell address, George Washington warned against the spirit of faction. He argued that the “alternate domination of one faction over another . . . is itself a frightful despotism. But . . . The disorders and miseries which result gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual”. If one looks at the US today, that peril is evident. In current electoral politics, manipulation of the emotions of a rationally ill-informed electorate is the path to power. The outcome is likely to be rule by those with the greatest talent for demagogy.

Elections are necessary. But unbridled majoritarianism is a disaster. A successful liberal democracy requires constraining institutions: independent oversight over elections, an independent judiciary and an independent bureaucracy. But are they enough? No. In my book, The Crisis of Democratic Capitalism, I follow the Australian economist Nicholas Gruen in arguing for the addition of citizens’ assemblies or citizens’ juries. These would insert an important element of ancient Greek democracy into the parliamentary tradition.

There are two arguments for introducing sortition (lottery) into the political process. First, these assemblies would be more representative than professional politicians can ever be. Second, it would temper the impact of political campaigning, nowadays made more distorting by the arts of advertising and the algorithms of social media.

A modest way to do this is to introduce citizens’ juries to advise on contentious issues. These juries would be time-limited, compensated for their time and be advised by experts. One of the best examples was on the vexed topic of abortion in Ireland. A deliberative assembly of 100 people, made up of one appointed chair and 99 ordinary people chosen by lot, was established in 2016. It advised the Irish parliament on abortion (coming out in favour of “repeal and replace” of the ban then in force), and on the question to be put to the people in a referendum.

There are other difficult issues that might be (or might have been) handled in such a way: carbon taxation; nuclear power; and immigration. In these cases, a citizens’ jury would be empanelled to listen to witnesses and discuss the issues in depth. There is evidence that such a citizens’ jury would have come to a different decision on Brexit than in the referendum, since Leavers will change their minds in response to the evidence. These juries would be advisory. But, as the Irish example suggests, the advice would matter because of who gave it.

One could go much further, by selecting a people’s branch of the legislature. This, too, could be advisory. But it could decide to investigate particularly contentious issues or even legislation. If it did the latter, it might ask for the legislation to be returned to the legislature for secret votes, thus reducing the control of factional party politics. The people’s house might even have oversight of such issues as electoral redistricting or selection of judges and officials.

Another possibility would be to leave to this house the oversight of referendums. It would analyse the underlying issues, deliver a report and agree on an appropriate motion. This would remove the greatest historic danger with referendums: their use to establish despotic control over politics under the rubric “the will of the people”.

The introduction of citizens directly into the political process, in the way that is familiar from juries, could introduce the common sense of the public into politics in a way that would be complementary to elections of political leaders.

Citizens’ assemblies could be started on a purely private basis. Donations would be needed to get some going on particularly significant issues. In the UK, I suggest one on immigration. Participants would need financial compensation and resources would need to be found to run them. Gruen suggests that a fully funded citizen assembly of 100 people meeting 26 days a year and receiving an honorarium of $150 for each day’s sitting would cost around $15mn annually in the US or EU. Suppose a citizens’ assembly had fully investigated the claims in the Brexit debate — how much cost it might have prevented!

There is a lively debate among political scientists over whose preferences are reflected in democratic politics. The evidence is that the preferences of the wealthiest are over-represented. But, as important, is how far manipulation influences how preferences are formed.

This is where the assemblies could be most helpful. After my experiences as a juror, I have come to share the view of Alexis de Tocqueville that juries are a fundamental institution of citizenship. Given time and open debate, ordinary people show great perspicacity. Lacking the ambition for power, they could contribute hugely to our public debates.

Washington was right: factional conflict is not the only way to implement democracy. We should add the voices of ordinary people, on whose behalf democracies are supposedly governed.
Follow Martin Wolf with myFT and on Twitter

Scroll to top