When Will the United States Start Taking Citizens’ Assemblies Seriously?

Citizens’ assemblies are increasingly popular in Europe and Canada. But not in the United States. How come?

June 2024
June 2024
June 23, 2024
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Last year, a headline in The Guardian asked a provocative question: “Citizens’ assemblies: Are they the future of democracy?” 

It’s a reflection of just how popular this approach to democracy has become in many parts of the (mostly Western) world. Citizens’ assemblies are random collections of people, selected by lottery from the general population, usually convened to deliberate on a specific policy question. There are currently hundreds of citizens assemblies running at the national, state or local level, from Paris’ permanent Citizens Council, to Germany’s many regional assemblies, to the increasing number of deliberative bodies forming across Latin America.

Yet, the vast majority of innovation around deliberative democracy is in Europe and Canada, with comparatively little in the United States, the world’s second largest democracy. Why is that? 

It’s certainly not because people in the United States are satisfied with the voice they have in decision-making. Two years ago, a survey found that 83% of voters believe there isn’t “an adequate system in place for the voice of the American people to be heard in Congress.” And when presented with the prospect of a politician who says they will consult with a representative sample of constituents to decide their stance, more than 4 in 10 said they would cross party lines to vote for such a person.  

So, what’s going on? Why haven’t citizens’ assemblies taken root in the United States in the same way as participatory budgeting

Back to school for America's democracy innovators

That was a question that dominated when I attended the Citizens’ Assembly School in April, a conference for democracy innovators organized by the new Federation for Innovation in Democracy-North America (FIDE-NA).

Over the course of two days, 40 academics, advocates and elected officials gathered at the DC campus of Arizona University to learn and share knowledge. Speakers included European election officials, like Art O’Leary of Ireland’s Electoral Commission and Jonathan Moskovic, innovations advisor to the Brussels Parliament, as well as American advocates like the New America Foundation's Hollie Russon Gilman. Talks like "The Secret Sauce of Citizens' Assemblies" and "Democracy & Science" explored what's working in deliberative democracy, and how to bring it into the American mainstream.

For Marjan Ehsassi, FIDE-North America’s executive director, the conference served as a launching pad for FIDE’s work in North America. The federation is historically a European institution, and has a track record of success in "bringing citizens' voices to the decision making table". Now they are trying to help crack the code in America.

For Ehsassi, the United States' resistance to democratic innovation stems from basic issues of identity. 

“Americans are perpetually thinking they're different from the rest of the world, that the problems we have are different,” she says. “Therefore, we don't look at and learn from elsewhere.”

Ehsassi took on the role to expand FIDE’s work to North America because she saw the potential for the United States to learn from other parts of the world. 

“I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard people say, ‘Oh, the polarization in [the United States] is so much worse [than in Europe],” she sighs. “But it's not, actually. Topics like abortion and assisted suicide are polarizing everywhere, yet citizens’ assemblies successfully brought people together in Ireland and France to shape policy.” 

Too many American institutions, as well as people, have lost their imagination about what democracy can look like. “We have a very minimalistic definition of what democracy is. Thinking beyond elections is just not part of our culture,” Ehsassi observers.

Engagement across the spectrum

Citizens’ assemblies do exist in the United States; they just aren’t common. Since 2008, the nonprofit Healthy Democracy has designed and convened deliberative panels in five U.S. states, including Oregon’s Citizens’ Initiative Review, which is one of the most researched deliberative processes in the world and was one of the first modern lottery-selected panels.

Linn Davis is program co-director at Healthy Democracy, where he helps municipalities design deliberative processes. When I asked him why he thinks the United States lags behind Europe in this arena, he reflected on the engagement of European grassroots activists.

“One of the things that has fueled democracy innovation in Europe,” says Davis, “is a connection to grassroots protest movements that have made process-related democratic changes core to their demands.”

He points to the Yellow Vests in France and Extinction Rebellion in the UK, which largely focuses on climate change. Extinction Rebellion is particularly unique. Its first two demands are what you'd expect: declare a climate emergency and reduce carbon emissions to net zero by 2025. The third, however, is to create a government-funded, independently run citizens’ assembly to decide how to achieve these goals. According to the group, “Only the common sense of ordinary people will help us navigate the challenging decisions ahead.”

With these activist groups on board, “old guard” civil society institutions, such as the World Society of Arts and Sciences, have slowly followed suit. “I sort of suspect they felt like they needed to remake themselves for a modern age,” he explains. “That opened up a whole new avenue of acceptance for citizens’ assemblies. It was no longer either a fringe academic idea or a radical protest darling.”

Davis is confident that citizens’ assemblies and other forms of participatory democracy will continue taking root in the United States, albeit slowly. “Even though we have some of the most ossified and impenetrable government systems,” he says, “at the local level, we already have a track record of rich innovation.”

California dreaming

One activist pushing to change ossified government systems is Michael Draskovic, one of the founders of Public Democracy Los Angeles, which is calling for a civic assembly in the country's second-most-populous city.

Draskovic worked early on in both politics and foundation-funded advocacy and saw the limits of traditional government decision-making.

“My first job out of undergrad was in Washington, DC, and I saw how policy is made at the federal and international levels,” he recalls. “And it dawned on me that every policy we work on begins with a think tank or a very small sliver of the population.”

Later, when he was living in Los Angeles, Draskovic noticed the same dynamic at the local level.  “The LA city council has only 15 members,” he observed,“with a ratio of about 250,000 residents for every one council member. Relying on advocates to lobby them is not enough. We have blind spots all the time.” 

Draskovic believes that his organization will achieve its goal of establishing a citizens’ assembly on a topic of broad public concern for Angelenos by 2026. Although getting buy-in from city leaders will be a challenge, there are about 89 cities within LA County, creating many opportunities to pilot an assembly in one of the smaller municipalities. 

“We've only been doing our outreach for the past month or so, but we're already seeing that many of the offices completely get citizens’ assemblies,” he says. “They understand what [citizens’ assemblies] do, that they work, and that the U.S. is behind. They're saying to us, ‘Here are the ideas we have. Could [an assembly] be applied to this?’” 

When I asked about pushback, Draskovic acknowledged resistance, but was still positive. “Our strategy is to show that assemblies are a complementary institution that'll help us make better public decisions together. We're not displacing elected officials, we're not displacing staff. We're merely helping them by giving them informed public decisions.”

A growing conversation

After every speaker at the citizens’ assembly school, heads nodded and seatmates shared observations. And then the subject of budget would come up. With municipal budgets tightening across the country, elected officials have grown even more reticent to pay for new experiments.

Ehsassi and the other speakers heard the concerns, but urge attendees to get creative.

“In Europe, people acknowledge it's expensive. But then they say, ‘Let’s think about how we can fund this,’” she says. “But [in the US], after a 15-minute conversation, the second or third question is "These are really expensive. How do we fund them?’” 

Ehsassi sees one untapped resource: the federal government. Although Congress allocates about $350 million a year to the National Endowment for Democracy, the organization is prohibited, by law, from funding deliberative democracy work in the United States.  “When [the Endowment] was set up, the focus was on the promotion of democracy abroad,” she says. “The assumption was that we're doing fine [in the US]; we’re the model. But we need a national endowment for our own democracy!” 

Ehsassi is adamant about getting more young people to get involved in democracy, in one way or another. “It just breaks my heart when I hear young adults say they’re not going to vote," she says. "I raise my kids in Washington, DC, and not one of their friends is interested in studying political science or going into government. That's not how this country's going to be successful.”

Michael Draskovic agrees. “Our [systems of elections] leads to a winner-take-all mentality," he says. "You get enamored with this thinking, ‘I won this position, so therefore I'm responsible for making the decisions.’ There’s a lack of faith that ordinary people can become experts and make comprehensive recommendations. We've yet to see anyone campaign on or be elected because they've said, ‘I'm not making decisions until we can all make the decision together.’”

Nevertheless, participants over the course of the two days unanimously agreed that the demand for a “better democracy” is growing. FIDE-NA is itself struggling to secure funding. but Ehsassi is bullish about its future. “The Citizens’ Assembly School was sold out. I've got 12 projects going right now, and we've got the mayor's office in New York interested,” notes Ehsassi. “The number of people who want to partner with us, who want to build alliances with us, who want to work with us in all sorts of ways has been extraordinary – to the point when I have to sit back and say, who do I work with?”

Bottom line: It’s contagious. “As soon as someone goes through this experience, they become transformed,” says Draskovic. “They now have this new, living impulse in them that says, ‘Hey, I can become an expert. I can comment on public policy. I now belong in this realm too.’”

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