The U.S. House of Representatives has impeached President Donald Trump for a second time, but the Senate will not conduct its trial until after Trump has left office.
The difference between political and deliberative decision-making is that one is based on winning the next election and the other is based on seeking the truth. Professional politicians do not deliberate. They calculate. With each decision, the underlying consideration is the impact it will have on votes and donations.
Republican Senators will consider convicting Trump, but most are afraid, not only of Trump supporters hurting their chances in the next election but of Trump supporters hurting them physically. Senator Lindsay Graham briefly broke with Trump, declaring that “enough is enough.” But he was soon advising the President again after being threatened by angry Trump supporters at an airport.
Few politicians have the integrity or courage of Justin Amash, the lone Republican congressman who voted to impeach President Trump in 2017, knowingly sacrificing his seat in Congress. Or the ten Republican representatives who voted for a second Trump impeachment, with Liz Cheney boldly stating that Trump “summoned this mob, assembled the mob, and lit the flame of this attack.”
While some of his opponents think Trump should be tried, convicted, and banned from holding federal office in the future, others argue that a failure to convict him in the Senate will strengthen him politically and still others claim that if he’s out of office the process is not legal.
I’d like to suggest a novel resolution. What if we let “the people” decide?
What if during the first 100 days of the Biden administration, while Congress addresses other urgent issues, the Senate voluntarily delegates its authority to a nonpartisan national citizens’ assembly that will consider the issues of the Trump impeachment and recommend actions based on balanced information and thoughtful deliberation.
Irish Citizens’ Assembly
I am especially inspired by the nonpartisan Irish Citizens’ Assembly that has been meeting since 2016 on controversial issues like abortion and climate change.
Ireland chose 99 delegates to its Citizens’ Assembly by random lottery — a process known as sortition — from among the Irish citizenry. They meet for one weekend a month for several months to recommend legislation on politically charged issues that intimidate legislators in a partisan political climate. Because the participants are selected to the assembly by sortition, not by competitive election, they are free to deliberate, achieve reasonable compromises, and vote anonymously.
In the case of the abortion issue, the Citizens’ Assembly recommended the repeal of the Irish Constitutional language that prohibited abortion and recommended new legislation which regulates abortion. The Irish legislature had previously agreed to translate anything the Assembly recommended into legislation that was ultimately approved in a 2018 referendum by two-thirds of the Irish voters.
What if our hopelessly polarized U.S. Senators agreed to delegate their decision on the impeachment of President Donald Trump to a 538-member citizens’ assembly, equivalent to the membership of the Electoral College, and to follow its recommendations. With one delegate selected randomly from the voting rolls of each congressional district, two from each state, and three from the District of Columbia, each delegate would be free from the partisan pressure that constrains elected politicians.
The Impeachment Assembly would make recommendations on whether Donald Trump should be:
• censured rather than convicted for his role in inciting his supporters to storm the Congress.
• convicted of the Impeachment charges approved by the House of Representatives.
• barred from holding any future federal office.
• not be convicted of the Impeachment charges.
Senators would voluntarily agree, in advance, to delegate their authority to the citizenry and to enact the recommendations of the Citizens’ Assembly.
Those Senators who refuse should be asked to consider the question: Why would you not trust a representative group of Americans, in an informed setting, to deliberate and provide a just decision?
Every day we trust those same citizens, selected by lottery, to serve on juries and to decide whether to imprison their fellow citizens or put them to death.
Can they not be trusted with the fate of a President?
Are they to be trusted less than politically vulnerable Senators who make most of their decisions based on what will help them win their next election?
One of the best models for conducting citizens’ assemblies is Deliberative Polling developed by James Fishkin at Stanford University’s Center for Deliberative Democracy:
A random, representative sample is first polled on the targeted issues. After this baseline poll, members of the sample are invited to gather at a single place for a weekend in order to discuss the issues. Carefully balanced briefing materials are sent to the participants and are also made publicly available. The participants engage in dialogue with competing experts and political leaders based on questions they develop in small group discussions with trained moderators. Parts of the weekend events are broadcast on television, either live or in taped and edited form. After the deliberations, the sample is again asked the original questions. The resulting changes in opinion represent the conclusions the public would reach if people had the opportunity to become more informed and more engaged by the issues.
The votes of each individual delegate remain confidential, allowing each citizen to vote his or her conscience, without fear of reprisal. When questioned whether regular citizens were capable of making sound decisions on complex and technical issues, Professor Fishkin responded:
The public is very smart if you give it a chance. If people think their voice actually matters, they’ll do the hard work, really study their briefing books, ask the experts smart questions and then make tough decisions. When they hear the experts disagreeing, they’re forced to think for themselves. About 70 percent change their minds in the process.
Three decades of Deliberative Polling, with more than 112 citizen assemblies in 29 countries, demonstrate conclusively that large groups of ordinary people can make thoughtful decisions on complex issues. From closing segregated Roma schools in Bulgaria to health care planning in Italy, Fishkin’s approach has been used to decide challenging issues.
At his most recent Deliberative Poll, in September 2019, Fishkin assembled a representative group of 526 American citizens — exactly the kind of group that would deliberate about impeachment. The assembly discussed issues related to immigration, health care, the economy, the environment, and foreign policy. The delegates made dramatic shifts in opinion. The most polarizing proposals from either the right or the left generally lost support, while the more centrist proposals gained support. Differences in opinion between citizens were reduced and their mutual understanding improved.
Most notable is the respect and civility shown by assembly participants, especially when compared to the behavior of professional politicians and their partisan supporters. As Irish Citizens’ Assembly delegate John Long noted, “Unlike some of the debates that have taken place in referenda in the past in Ireland, the Citizens’ Assembly was very respectful and very congenial to everybody’s opinion.”
The Assembly was a breakthrough moment, not just for Ireland, but as an example for the rest of the world. Watch this remarkable 17-minute film, When Citizens Assemble, to hear directly from a truck driver, a self-employed mother of three, and other interviewees who make us realize that, under the right circumstances, groups of ordinary people can make as good or better decisions than elected politicians on even the most controversial issues.
So why not let us, the people of the United States of America, deliberate and recommend the appropriate response to the second impeachment of President Donald J. Trump?
(For more information on citizens’ assemblies and sortition, my True Representation book is available in ebook and paperback.)