The recent storming of the national Capitol to disrupt the peaceful transfer of power from Trump to President-Elect Joe Biden widened “democracy’s crisis of trust” in the United States.
Western democracies fall, in part, because of a lack of trust and a loss in faith. Citizens no longer trust the government and its officials to have the people’s best interests at heart. They lose faith in societal and governmental institutions such as banks, scientists, public education, and law enforcement to carry out their functions.
This crisis of trust is further enflamed by demagogic elected officials, conspiracy theorists, and others who seek to preserve a status quo that benefits the few at the expense of the many.
We, at Building a New Reality, wholeheartedly condemn such actions. But we have and are doing more than wagging a finger at the bad political actors on the world stage. We advocate for democracy in everyday life. We believe participatory decision-making and learning at the nexus of each of society’s facets – governance, learning, enterprise, justice, spirit, and care – will “build a new reality.”
Citizens assemblies are key to ushering in this new reality. We have been tracking their progress in Texas, Washington State, Ireland, France, and other countries for the past five years.
We caught up with Brett Hennig, co-founder of the Sortition Foundation and Building a New Reality contributor, shortly after the U.S. elections in November to ask about the status of citizens assemblies in 2021.
Q: What are the latest developments in citizens’ assemblies around the world? What are you seeing?
Brett: National citizens’ assemblies are always the most interesting. There have been a couple that have finished – (French President Emmanuel) Macron’s climate convention in France and the U.K. Climate Assembly. Carnegie Europe recently published an article about them. I also helped organize the first citizens’ assembly in Budapest, Hungary!
Q: How has COVID changed citizens’ assemblies? Are you doing more of them online?
All the citizens’ assemblies froze during the “first wave” of COVID, but then came back online more or less. We are now recruiting for two (citizens’ assemblies in Scotland and Bristol) and there are still more on climate change. Now in (the Island of) Jersey there is a “citizens’ jury” on whether assisted dying should be legalized there.
The biggest shift is from paying accommodations, travel, and catering expenses to (providing) tech support (including loaning equipment) and helping those with fewer digital skills feel able and confident online.
Q: How do you foster online the spirit of cooperation and understanding that happens during in-person citizens’ assemblies where people can speak and be heard?
Brett: Even online people can “speak and be heard” while staring at each other. But there’s no doubt it’s more difficult to create empathy and a sense of shared responsibility online. It’s also slower and harder to get things done online. But please be aware that we are not delivering any of these. We only recruit for citizens’ assemblies. So, this (perspective) is just what we hear from talking to the delivery team.
Q: Has the growing distrust of government in the U.S. and elsewhere generating more interest in citizens’ assemblies?
The U.S. is more or less unique in its lack of interest in citizens’ assemblies than in OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) countries. But there is also Washington State Climate Assembly.
Q: One of the most common criticisms in the U.S. about citizens’ assemblies is, “How can I trust others (with different political beliefs) to make decisions that affect me and my family?” Is that element of distrust prevalent in other countries? If so, how do you overcome it to convince people that citizens’ assemblies can work?
Brett: The best way to convince people that they work is to let them see one happen. Nearly everyone walks away from observing a citizens’ assembly impressed. James Fishkin’s “America in One Room” is an impressive example of how people change when they get a chance to talk to “the other side” of the political divide e. There is a really inspiring YouTube video about that project that sent shivers down the spine.
Q: What role do you see citizens’ assemblies playing in 2021?
Brett: In the U.K. and Europe, they will continue to become more important. I’m unsure if they’ll take off in the U.S. We will be launching a campaign to make a permanent citizens’ assembly in
Scotland that acts as a second chamber of legislative scrutiny ahead of (parliamentary) elections there in May.
Q: Is there anything else I didn’t ask that you would like to offer?
Brett: Watch out next year for a “global” or world citizens’ assembly, probably on climate change. The idea is in the air and a few organizations are seeking funding to push forward the idea. There has already been a first attempt at this, although I’m not sure how it worked.
For more information about Citizens’ Assemblies, please join our monthly “Second Saturdays” event. The lively 75-minute presentation and conversation series is an in-depth exploration of citizens’ assemblies. You can follow us on Eventbrite or sign-up for our weekly newsletter to get updates.