Bringing democracy back to life

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Bringing democracy back to life

Rich Wilson and Claire Mellier write about how citizens’ assemblies can bring democracy back to life.


Malawi Citizens’ Assembly in Salima South, Lake Malawi. MADALITSO BANDA/ALL HANDS ON

‘In this time of crisis, there are two important choices. The first is the choice between totalitarian surveillance and giving power to people. The second choice is between nationalist isolation and global solidarity,’ wrote Yuval Noah Harari as the first Covid-19 lockdowns came.

We think Yuval wasn’t thinking about citizens’ assemblies when he wrote that, but we believe these new democratic ideas are a practical way for us to choose giving power to people and solidarity. Here’s how.

Citizens’ assemblies are groups of people (usually 100-150), chosen to truly represent a place, for example, a country or a city. They are chosen for gender, age, income, and education, etc.

The citizens are chosen in the same way as a jury and it is very important that anyone can participate. This means paying for attending, childcare, and accessibility for people with disabilities. They usually meet over a number of weekends to discuss an important and difficult problem and to make suggestions.

Citizens’ assemblies usually make policies more ambitious than politicians do. For example, the 2020 French climate assembly voted to make ‘ecocide’ crime a law, ban the rent of energy-inefficient housing, and to make sure all buildings meet new environmental standards. People also usually trust citizens’ assemblies to act in the public interest much more than politicians.

And so this kind of democracy is becoming more and more popular to find solutions to important and difficult problems such as waste management in Brazil, constitutional change in Mongolia, environmental disasters in Uganda, and abortion in Ireland.

Citizens’ assemblies also help to stop fake news and the big disagreements on social-media. They help people with very different opinions to have respect for each other. Louise Caldwell is a participant of Ireland’s Citizens’ Assembly on abortion. She says, ‘I felt empowered and informed – it helped me to have difficult discussions. In a room of 100 people, only a few people tried to create division or build walls among us. I think most people want to find things to agree on. In this way we can always learn new ways to go forward.’

The problem is not enough people experience these benefits and politicians often ignore the suggestions.

Public imagination

But that is changing. The climate assemblies across the world now - in places such as the UK, France, Scotland, Denmark, and the US - are really getting public interest and imagination like never before.

Seventy per cent of French people knew about the Citizen Convention for Climate (CCC). Of those, 62 per cent supported most of its suggestions. This gave a strong mandate for change and was a shock for the French political system.

President Emmanuel Macron is breaking his promise to support the citizens’ suggestions in parliament, in a referendum, or as an executive order. Nearly 500,000 people have signed an e-petition asking him to keep his promise, but some politicians agree with Macron. This is not surprising. This would be the first time for a national leader to give so much power to a citizens’ assembly.

This is also not too disappointing because this is the kind of important, difficult public debate we need in every country about the future of democracy.

The struggle is to make democracy more than only electing politicians. It wants democracy to include making policies and acting on them. It’s going to be difficult – renegotiating democracy always is – but that’s a good thing. It’s only authoritarianism that represents simplicity and order.

Some people see similarities between today’s climate activists and the Suffragettes, because of their use of civil disobedience and the big number of women campaigners. But not many people notice that the climate campaign is changing into a democratic movement.

One of Extinction Rebellion’s main demands is a citizens’ assembly. It is one example. Co-founder Gail Bradbrook said, ‘Extinction Rebellion is more than a climate campaign; it’s a campaign for a functioning democracy because the climate and ecological emergency comes from our broken democracy.’


Citizens take part in the 2020 French climate assembly. Their suggestions should help their country’s policies move to a zero-carbon future. KATRIN BAUMANN

Going global

So how can citizens’ assemblies help to bring democracy back to life?

First, they need to change from small events to big public debates to help understanding between people who disagree. The more people feel part of an assembly, the more solidarity there is, the harder it is for politicians to ignore them, and the more powerful the shock they send to the political system. This is what we are seeing in France.

We can make the public debate bigger by using traditional and digital media to communicate the citizens’ discussions. In a way this involves the public in the citizens’ discussions. This is what happened in Ireland and France and helps to explain the big political impact of these two examples.

Another way is by encouraging many more people to participate directly in the assembly through events online or in person. These events could be in communities, businesses, and schools, anywhere that people want to have one.

Local events are a key part of the Global Citizens’ Assembly project. It started in December 2020, and the assembly is planned to take place before November’s 2021 UN Climate Talks in Glasgow. The heart of the assembly will be a group of people who represent the world’s population as closely as possible. This means that 60 per cent of participants will come from Asia and 17 per cent from Africa, half will be women, and 70 per cent will be those who earn $10 a day or less.

As organizers our aim is to bring the benefits of citizens’ assemblies to millions of people across the world. It will be the first time that anyone on Earth can join, by having or attending a local event. There will be cultural activities, too, from Senegalese rappers to British rock stars, to encourage as many people as possible to participate. The other key challenge for citizens’ assemblies is to make sure governments do not ignore their suggestions. One way is to make sure that suggestions go to a referendum. This happened with the assemblies on same-sex marriage and abortion in Ireland. Another way is for politicians to commit legally in advance to take action on citizens’ suggestions. This happened with assemblies on flood defences in Gdańsk, Poland.

We’ve learnt from 2020 that all our actions matter. We may not want to see autocratic responses to either coronavirus or the climate emergency, but authoritarianism is ready to act if enough people start to believe it is necessary. This is one of the reasons why our government system needs changing, to respect that we all have to play a part. In 1859 John Stewart Mill said the first purpose of government is to keep citizens safe. It’s clear that democracy today is simply not doing that job.

That’s why we need a new way for politicians to share power with citizens on key issues where politician are struggling to keep us safe and where citizens have an active part in any solution.

But until then, there are other things we can do to increase the chances of action on suggestions. We can encourage people to campaign for the suggestions they believe in and we can make sure media and government present citizens’ assemblies as important political assemblies.

This is what we are trying to do with the Global Citizens’ Assembly. We don’t have all the answers; it’s simply our best guess at how to give many more people a voice at the most important UN Climate Conference so far.

Participant Sumana Nandi from India says, ‘Usually governments or parliaments start citizens’ assemblies but with many other citizens across the world, we were invited to be part of the design of the Global Citizens’ Assembly right from the start. The Global Citizens’ Assembly is the first time someone like me will know they will hear us at a UN climate conference.’

We don’t yet have that new situation where citizens and politicians share power on key issues, so we don’t know what effect Sumana’s voice will have. That’s not surprising because this is the first time we have a way to invite everyone on the planet to global decision-making and change the relationship between people and politicians. By the end of 2021, hopefully, that will change when for the first time we hear the voice of people everywhere and bring back governments and democracy to life..


(This article is in easier English so it is possible that we changed the words, the text structure, and the quotes.)