‘Parliaments project a distorted image of people and their problems’

A drawing showing a political gathering in Aargau, Switzerland, in 1798. Photopress-archiv / Str

The idea that citizens could play a bigger role in taking political decisions – via randomly selected assemblies – has attracted a lot of attention in recent years.

This content was published on December 2, 2020

Hélène LandemoreExternal link, associate professor of politics at Yale University, is a leading scholar on democratic deliberation and citizen assemblies, and author of the recent Open Democracy: Reinventing Popular Rule for the Twenty-First Century. SWI spoke to her about this book and about some of the issues facing democracies today.

SWI To start simply, are humans democratic by nature?

Hélène Landemore: Ah, that’s like asking if humans are good or bad by nature... We have empathy, but so much is determined in infancy and youth. I think it depends on the society you’re born into. In some places, like the US, Iceland, Scandinavia – I suspect also in Switzerland – social equality is strong, you sense it in interactions. And hierarchies aren’t as apparent as they are in France or the UK, for example. Ultimately, it’s a question of educating people out of the context they were born into, and that I think can be done.

SWI: What got you into deliberation and representation as an area of study?

H.L.: A few years ago, I realised that societies are based on the idea that in order to have a smart group, you need to put lot of smart people in it – measured by the usual metrics, like IQ. In fact, social science tells us we’re better off having slightly fewer smart people but more people who think differently.

If you have ten Einsteins who use the same mental framework to approach a problem, they might get stuck. Whereas if you have a varied group of citizens – a poet, a mathematician, a cook – and you give them a range of issues, they manage to identify a theme and build on their different strengths. Obviously if you’re doing surgery, you don’t want a poet or a cook; this is a precise and delimited field. But for politics and handling the future you’re better off as a diverse group.

Originally from France, Landemore is associate professor of political science at Yale. As well as Open Democracy, published in October, she is the author of Democratic Reason and Hume. Stephanie Anestis

SWI: Can you give us an elevator pitch for your book Open Democracy?

H.L.: There’s a lot of dissatisfaction right now about how democracy works, and there are a lot of books about why this is the case. MineExternal link offers a blueprint for a more authentically democratic form of self-rule which opens up the centre of power – legislative power – to ordinary citizens. The crucial institution is the randomly selected mini-public, a body made up of citizens chosen at random, which would have legislative or agenda-setting power, and which would supplement or even replace elected institutions as a source of law-making.

SWI: How would “mini-publics” improve on the elected bodies currently in democracies?

H.L.: The thing that strikes me – and I hope it strikes the reader as well – is how biased the representation of the polity is in elected assemblies. Parliaments project a very distorted image of the population and its problems. I think you get a much better vision of what society needs and wants through a randomly selected mini-public. Take our brains: their job is to reflect the world for us, which they do in a more or less distorted way. The question is, are they doing a good job in helping us navigate the world? Our political institutions should be judged by the same criteria. At the moment they are not doing it well, and that’s why we’re having all kinds of trouble, and democracies are under threat.

SWI: Would these mini-publics, as you describe them, be focused on specific issues or regions?

H.L. There could be a generalist body focused on law-making, or at the very least agenda-setting, which would discuss the main societal problems for the next ten or 15 years, as well as the priorities for addressing them. The task of fine-tuning answers could then be delegated to another mini-public, which would be more single-issue. The open mini-public is like a building block: you can combine it with others.

SWI: Parliaments, administrations and ministries would not disappear, they would just be governed by a different deliberative structure?

H.L.: Yes. The point is not to throw away everything, it’s to rethink the key structures and the meaning of representation. We could start by carving out a space for this new open legislative body, a “People’s Assembly” or “House of the People”. It would have its own jurisdiction, say, environmental issues. We could gradually redistribute power from elected assemblies to this third chamber before we eventually find an equilibrium where they collaborate in fruitful ways.

But I think we’re far from this. The only place it’s really been tried is in the German-speaking region of Belgium, where the local parliament willingly surrendered some power to a council of 24 randomly selected citizens. They said “ok, we’re going to feel morally obliged to implement whatever you say you want”. This is one way to go, but it depends on a lot of goodwill on the part of the people who are already in power.

SWI: Do you think such bodies should have real legislative power rather than being purely advisory?

H.L.: I don't think it’s tenable to have them as purely advisory. People aren’t going to invest time and energy into something that has no effect.

SWI: There are a lot of protests and popular anger around at the moment, including in Switzerland. Is the connecting thread really a desire for more democracy and more involvement?

H.L.: I think it’s a desire for better representation. I’m not sure people are dying to be involved in politics every day, but when they see they’re not getting what they need, then they feel like they need to snatch power from whoever rules right now.

SWI: Take back control...

H.L.: Exactly. And some people say, “well let’s do direct democracy”. But I’m not sure that’s the answer, because direct democracy is only feasible for specific issues. You can’t get all people involved all the time; mass voting is something special, not necessarily done on a daily basis.

SWI: Speaking of direct democracy, you write that it’s a “mistake to think democratic sovereignty is merely about having the final power of ratification”. Where then does real democratic sovereignty lie?

H.L.: In having the first say, the last say, and the say in the middle! There’s a constitutional theorist in France, Dominique Rousseau, who talks about “continuous democracy”. I disagree with his specific institutional vision, but I like the temporal notion. My own metaphor is spatial, it’s about openness and including people as much as possible. But it’s not just about vetoing or sanctioning decisions: it’s about initiating them, supervising them, taking part in them, then eventually having the final say.

SWI: What about the Swiss model? In the book, you refer to Switzerland as a kind of exception.

H.L.: I never got to study Switzerland first-hand. In the US, it’s presented as an extreme outlier, an exception to the rule that can’t teach us much. But it is an excellent example of what I have in mind, though what’s missing in the Swiss model is the open mini-public. You don’t have a randomly selected body that’s demographically representative of the population.

SWI: Representation is also linked to trust, which is something we talk about a lot these days, also in relation to Covid-19. Is trust something built up more through good outcomes or through inclusive outcomes?

H.L.: I’m not an expert on this. But what I saw from open mini-publics in France – a society characterised by wide social distrust, both vertical (towards power) and horizontal (among citizens) – is that distrust melted away weekend after weekend in the encounters between people from all backgrounds. [In 2019, Landemore observed the French Citizens’ convention for climate, an assembly of 150 citizens tasked with formulating ideas to reduce the country’s greenhouse gas emissions.] Even distrust toward government subsided, although it’s back now that politicians are not implementing the measures as extensively as promised.

Basically, the first thing such assemblies do is trust people on the basis of nothing but their citizenship. You don’t need to show that you’re competent, you don’t need to show loyalty to a particular party. You’re just a human, part of the community, plucked at random and trusted to do something for the rest. It’s extraordinarily empowering. The party system on the other hand is antagonistic, it creates a friend-foe distinction. What people do is either drop out of this race between parties and end up not wanting to talk about politics anymore, or they become partisans that can’t listen to the other side.

SWI: Is social trust a factor in how well countries have dealt with the pandemic?

H.L.: Countries that have done well had experience with previous pandemics; Asian nations had already dealt with SARS, for example. I’m not sure if how well nations have done has much to do with their political systems, and I’m not sure it has much to do with social trust either. I’m very cautious about the lessons we can take from Covid-19, at this point.

SWI: What about people protesting against measures in your country, France, or in Switzerland? Some may be conspiracy theorists, but some are also protesting because they feel the law is curbing their freedoms. Do they have a point?

H.L.: They do have a point. Right now, in France at least, everything is decided by experts or the government, without much debate in parliament or input from citizens. Are we sure we need to ground the economy and stunt the prospects of youth to save the lives of people who are on average older than 80? I’m not even sure these 80-year-olds would think this is fair. It’s a terrible question to raise, but maybe it’s necessary. As long as we don’t have an explicit conversation about it, I understand the frustrations.

SWI: Where could such a conversation happen?

H.L.: A citizen convention on the pandemic and the rebuilding of the world after it. There are a lot of horrible stories coming out now, about young people with mental health issues, domestic abuse, and so on. We need to hear those voices. Maybe the conclusion would be that the right call was to confine everyone, but my sense is that we haven’t really opened the conversation. What kind of life is worth living and for how long? I don’t know the answer, but I think the inclusive deliberation process is lacking. We’ve just assumed experts know better. But they don’t know everything.

SWI: A lot of book titles at the moment are fairly dismal about the future of democracy. Do you also lose sleep about this?

H.L.: Well, I can’t believe what’s happening in the US. I’m not cynical by nature, but I’m very worried about it. To me, it seems like the Republican side has given up on democracy as such. It’s just about winning, and that’s very dangerous. But I also think democracy and the desire for self-rule still motivates: we see it in Belarus now, or in Poland, where women are protesting against restrictions on abortion. I think people want freedom, and they know the closest they can get to that is through democratic procedures.

Correction: The article previously stated "in the German-speaking region of Belgium, where the local parliament willingly surrendered some power to a council of 49 randomly selected citizens"; the correct figure is 24 randomly selected citizens.

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