🔮 Reclaiming democracy: The deliberative wave

Hi everyone,

The UK has a plethora of public holidays this week to celebrate the seventieth anniversary of the reign of Elizabeth II. I’ve taken the opportunity to enjoy the sun and watch Top Gun: Maverick (a couple of times, by the time you read this).

Our member Claudia Chwalisz has kindly agreed to step in and look after the wondermissive this week. Claudia’s work focuses on democracy and citizen participation, a subject of huge contemporary relevance.

Thanks Claudia!

Back to the regular newsletter next week.

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Dear Exponential View readers,

I’m delighted to guest-edit this week’s newsletter, and grateful for the chance to share some ideas I’ve been exploring about the future of democracy with this community.

I established and led the OECD’s work on innovative citizen participation and the ‘deliberative wave’ for the past four years. I am stepping down at the end of June and will be launching a new initiative this summer that builds on the ideas in this essay - watch this space!

I was involved in designing the permanent Paris Citizens’ Assembly, the world’s first permanent Citizens’ Council in Ostbelgien, Belgium, as well as numerous citizens’ assemblies. I am the author of The People’s Verdict (2017) and The Populist Signal (2015), and the co-editor of New Routes to Social Justice (2017) and The Predistribution Agenda (2015). I am also on the Advisory Board of the Federation for Innovation in Democracy - Europe (FIDE) and a member of the international Democracy R&D Network.

You can find me on Twitter @ClaudiaChwalisz or reach via email at cchwalisz@pm.me.

Reclaiming democracy

My starting premise for this short essay is that we need to reclaim ‘democracy’. Democracy has become synonymous with elections. Yet, this is a relatively recent marrying of terms and concepts. And it’s wrong.

Prior to the French and American Revolutions, political philosophy clearly defined three types of constitution and their respective forms of choosing officials to carry out government:

  • Monarchy: rule by one person, selected by appointment.
  • Oligarchy: rule of the few, selected by election.
  • And democracy: rule by the collective body of the people, selected by lot (sortition).

The term ‘democracy’ wasn’t used in the late 18th century to describe newly established institutions. What was labelled ‘representative government’ came to be called representative democracy as the franchise expanded, and then simply democracy.

As the late classicist Maurice Pope eloquently writes in his forthcoming book (published posthumously), “The Keys to Democracy: Why Randomly Selected Citizens Rule Better than Elected Politicians”:

At first sight, the claim has some colour. For if political power depends on getting people’s votes, as it evidently does, and if everybody has an equal vote, as they evidently do (apart from the small irregularities introduced by differing sizes of constituency), then surely everyone must have equal power? And if people do not all have equal power (as a quick look round at the state of play in the various countries of the western world all too evidently suggests), then this must be because they do not wish to or perhaps because they do not deserve to. After all, they have the opportunity, guaranteed by the constitution, and if they do not use it, that is their fault.

The argument is neat, but not convincing. Can we really believe that so many people are underdogs by choice or by their own deserts, especially when, come a national crisis or a war, they are suddenly revealed as being capable of holding far more responsible posts than they had had in ordinary times? There must be another way of looking at the problem. If we put on for a moment the spectacles of the classical theory of the three possible forms of constitution, we shall see what it is. Looked at through these spectacles, our modern representative governments, depending as they do on the principle of election, are suddenly shown up as typical oligarchies. Their democratic appearance of a moment before vanishes, like an optical illusion.

It takes some time to contemplate these ideas. That the democratic appearance of our governance systems is like a vanishing optical illusion. However, once it sinks in, it gives ground for hope that another, genuinely democratic, political system could be possible.

An old idea can gain ground again.

There is a mechanism that can create the conditions for convening broadly representative groups of people, for overcoming polarisation, reaching collective public judgement, and achieving political equality — sortition.

As Aristotle wrote in Book III of his Politics, “although each individual separately will be a worse judge than the experts, the whole of them assembled together will be better or at least as good judges.” Today we refer to this idea as ‘collective intelligence’. Another Exponential View member Gianni Giacomelli dedicated his guest edition to the concept of collective intelligence a couple of weeks ago.

Modern random sampling theory gives us an additional theoretical underpinning that was missing in antiquity or in the Renaissance. And we now have many hundreds of contemporary examples in the form of citizens’ assemblies - democratic bodies constituted by people selected by lottery that grapple with complex policy issues, weigh evidence, deliberate, and find common ground.

One such example is the 2016-18 Irish Citizens’ Assemblies that have led to constitutional changes on polarising issues like abortion and same-sex marriage. Another is the 2019-20 French Citizens’ Convention on Climate that brought 150 randomly selected people together for 9 months to propose recommendations to the French government on how France could reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 40% by 2030 in a spirit of social justice. The 2020-22 Canadian Citizens’ Assemblies on Democratic Expression have convened 120 Canadians selected by lot to examine the impact of digital technologies on Canadian society. Using the knowledge gleaned, they are proposing public policies and regulation that safeguard democratic speech and public interest.

And many, many others. With my team at the OECD, we have documented around 600 examples since the 1980s, calling this trend the “deliberative wave”. We have a fair deal of modern evidence that sortition allows for real democracy to be possible.

The ripple effects

Reclaiming democracy can have ripple effects — it forces us to reconsider how we govern other major institutions.

In most other institutions — from firms to schools, trade unions, political parties, cooperatives, banks, etc. — we have replicated the oligarchic governance arrangements with which we are familiar. When we talk about democratising their governance, we tend to think about creating ways to elect members, or to vote fairly and transparently on decisions.

However, we could imagine democratisation passing rather through new sortition-based processes, where deliberative space allows for complexity to sit, for multiple perspectives to be weighed, for people to be free of re-election concerns, and for common ground to be reached.

For example, Mike McCarthy recently proposed ways to democratise finance by designing the governance of public banks to involve groups of randomly selected citizens to deliberate on where public investment should go.

And Aviv Ovadya argues in a compelling paper about “platform democracy” published by Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center that randomly selected groups of platform users could, through ‘platform assemblies’, be taking the decisions that are currently primarily in the hands of CEOs, influenced by the pressure of partisan and authoritarian governments.

Similarly, we can think about these democratic principles and processes in relation to new institutions, like DAOs, and in broader thinking about the ‘metaverse’. A great deal is discussed in this space about decentralisation and ownership; a16z published this week “7 essential ingredients of a metaverse”. But governance was notably missing. And when it is discussed, we tend to go back to what we know with elections and voting.

But what if we thought about how to democratise the governance of new organisations underpinned by blockchain technology, using the principles of sortition, rotation, and deliberation? As far as I am aware, there aren’t any examples of this yet. If you know of any, please share! And if anyone would like to explore how this could work, I’d be keen to work together.

Concluding thoughts

Perhaps it feels risky to be questioning elections at a time when it feels like democracy is under threat and authoritarianism creeps.

But there’s an even bigger risk if we don’t seriously try to make our ‘democracies’ genuinely democratic. In Pew Research Center’s December 2021 “Global Public Opinion Audit in an Era of Democratic Anxiety”, a median of 56% across 17 advanced economies say their political system needs major changes or needs to be completely reformed.

While the task of building new democratic institutions feels daunting, bringing sortition and deliberation into the governance of the institutions and organisations we’re part of is also an important stepping stone towards another democratic paradigm.

There is another democratic future beyond broken electoral politics or autocracy. As I wrote recently in Noema, “While citizens’ assemblies today are largely advisory and complementary to our existing electoral institutions, it is not impossible to imagine a future where binding powers shift to these institutions— or where they perhaps even replace established governing bodies in the longer term.”

Further reading and resources

End note

It’s Azeem here again.

I’m a big fan of citizen assemblies and deliberative approaches to enhance democracy… and re-decouple democracy from the idea that it is just about “voting”. If you enjoyed Claudia’s essay today, share it on Twitter or comment here.

There are a few previous bits in Exponential View on this topic you may want to look back on:

Have a great week!


Members’ comments from last week’s Sunday newsletter:

Paola Bonomo: “One thing that isn't widely known is that community currencies predate cryptocurrencies and can be made to work regardless of crypto. One case that might be of interest is the Sardex in Sardinia: https://www.sardexpay.net/”.

Juan Avellan: “Thanks for today’s issue. As always, very insightful! A few comments on Matt Prewitt’s piece on “Let’s Use New Forms of Money to Commit to Our Communities”. As I read through it (and unless I misunderstood his arguments), I kept coming back to the idea that he seems to be proposing to apply in the cryptocurrency space the mechanisms that governments in developing countries have been trying to solve for a long time through exchange control, taxes, export control, and others to avoid their currency being devalued and economy being sustainable over time. People in those countries frequently struggle with the problem of earning local currency while it devalues or is subject to certain controls that limit the amount of local currency that can be converted other currencies. The winners are usually those that are able to produce goods or services that are competitive outside of the country/community (and hence more easily exportable), while those that cannot are stuck in the local market frequently competing with the importers of internationally competitive products (e.g. local soft drink vs Pepsi Cola).”

See comments and respond.


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