January 10, 2021
Pearl River These are some rough days for putative democracies. Some political scientists have dusted off the notion of something called “democratic assemblies,” as a possible shot in the arm to revive some level of credibility and legitimacy to the process. Maybe, but I doubt it.
Here’s what they are according to the advocates. Usually about 100 people from a diverse array, based on gender, race, income, and whatever, are invited, and over a period time, weeks or months, they debate gnarly subjects. They hear from experts. In some cases, once they come to some conclusions, they make recommendations to governments and hope they listen. That’s the basic drill. Ireland used assemblies to consider abortion and same-sex marriage. France has tried them out on climate change. Scotland and England have given them a whirl on this and that recently as well. Canada and the Netherlands were fans at the turn of the 21st century.
This on again, off again, experiment is part of what undergirds my skepticism. I can remember something similar in the late 1970s called the Virginia Assemblies. A fellow had spent time in the United Kingdom, and came back a huge fan of the parliamentary system. He organized various chapters of these assemblies in cities in his state and raised quite a bit of money to do so. They debated, then recommended, and then what?
Well, that’s part of the problem not only in the United States, but wherever this has come into fad or fashion. Like it or not, representative democracy requires politics, and, as most of us know, that’s not necessarily a deliberative process on the order of a debate contest. Furthermore, moving from policy recommendations, no matter how arrived, to enactment, requires push-and-shove pressure way more than the light of sweet reason usually. Without politics, legislative bodies are where good ideas go to die.
That’s especially true of the work of these kinds of assemblies, because of who the participants are and how they work. These are not New England town meetings for one and all or Hannah Arendt’s argument for ward government structure as the heart of democracy, these are events where people self-select, since their participation isn’t mandatory. That already means that people have to have the time and energy to do the meetings, and the patience, god love them. I’ve spent a lifetime in meetings, and unless there is some equalizing or moderating element, such debates and discussions, whether in church halls or jury chambers, are always subject to being dominated by the more elite debaters in the body based on money, status, education, or whatever. Trying to leaven the discussion with facilitators and other experts, often transfers the power and outcome to them, rather than the participants, unless everyone is equally prepared and privileged.
There’s no dispute that democracy is in trouble and polling more poorly than we can imagine and breaking down more often in practice. The real solutions likely lie in more of it with better access to voting and input from citizens, and, perhaps more importantly, a politics that rewards leadership and listening, not speeches and posturing. There’s the old line about how the sausage is made of course, but for it to work better, we all have to have our hands in the process.