Seattle voters are staring down the barrel of a big shake-up on the City Council. But does anyone believe that a new group of inevitably self-promoting individuals, each scheming against the others to try to win the empty seats, can deliver the solutions the city needs?
As a former journalist and Congressional staffer who’s had a close view of the electoral machinery, I’d like to propose a novel solution: Take Seattle’s political class out of the equation.
And, as a corollary, no more hand-wringing from citizens about whoever they voted for not fixing everything for them.
What do I mean by this? While ranked-choice voting might be a modest improvement on the existing system, there’s a deeper, truer form of democracy that we should consider, one that is rapidly gaining traction in Europe and elsewhere.
While some might try to cast this proposal as a radical change, it’s really a return to democracy’s roots.
Among its greatest strengths is that it is extremely easy for anyone to understand. It guarantees interest groups cannot secretly influence outcomes; it contains no bickering politicians or parties; it does not favor the telegenic, rich, well-connected, or highly-educated. Votes cannot be bought or sold, and big piles of campaign cash have no place in it. The potential for corruption is massively reduced.
If this sounds too good to be true… well, it isn’t.
The idea is called a Citizens’ Assembly—also known in political theory as sortition, democracy by lottery, or deliberative democracy. Citizens are chosen by stratified random selection, creating a miniature representative sample of our society without bias or favor, to rotate into lawmaking bodies, in much the same way as they are selected for juries in our court system.
We are given the chance to represent others, and to be represented in turn. It is democracy by your peers—and if selected by chance—by you.
In fact, this is what “democracy” actually is. In the 5th century B.C., the Greeks of ancient Athens coined demokratia to describe their carefully designed lottery system, under which any citizen was able to serve in parliamentary, administrative, and judicial bodies. Demokratia is not politicians, elections, and parties; the Greeks would have abhorred those, as many ordinary people—perhaps even you—do to this day.
“Their greatest gift was their passion for democracy,” observed the Trinidadian writer C.L.R. James in his 1956 essay, “Every Cook Can Govern.” The Athenians believed that elections were undemocratic; Aristotle called them “oligarchic.” It’s common sense that when only a handful of people can hold power, corruption is likely.
The Greeks recognized that whoever runs for elected office in the first place usually projects a peculiar power-seeking personality type. Having spent a lot of time around candidates who’ve won and lost, let me tell you: the Greeks were right.
Why did we stop paying attention to the insights of the Greeks? They seem universal to the human experience, from Nelson Mandela’s formative experience of how his Thembu tribe made decisions (“democracy meant all men were to be heard, and a decision was taken together as a people”) to Hannah Arendt (“representative government has in fact become oligarchic”).
By their design, Citizens’ Assemblies work against the current doom-spiral of political polarization and isolation. They force us out of our bunkers to recognize and to enter into discussion with the people around us, and also to take responsibility for one another.
I’m proud to have worked for both Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal and Senator Bernie Sanders. But the unfortunate reality is that my efforts were largely confined to building up “my side” in order to defeat the “other side.”
The party system, from the Democrats and Republicans and even to fledgling parties such as Socialist Alternative—each with its own rules, hierarchies, and insular cliques—does nothing but make politics tribal, opaque to the average person, and prone to infighting both between and within organizations. If there were a way to exercise power and make our voices heard without having anything to do with parties and ideological labels, most of us would prefer it, wouldn’t we?
But can a Citizens’ Assembly work in a modern context? According to data compiled by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the answer is yes: a so-called “deliberative wave” has been growing over the past decade. The wave has led to more than 600 citizens’ assemblies around the world.
In 2019’s “America In One Room,” for example, Stanford researchers organized an assembly of 526 Americans to deliberate for a long weekend. The group did not combust from anger and tension, nor did the participants retreat to their bubbles and cling to their beliefs. They found common ground around issues of trade, wages, immigration, and more. Democrats reported a 13-point increase in positive feelings toward Republicans; Republicans felt 14 points more favorably toward Democrats. Ninety-five percent of participants said they “learned a lot about people very different from me,” and 98 percent said they found the experience “valuable.”
A reporter who observed the assembly remarked, “The arguments are heated but not insulting. The questions are probing with a purpose.” That’s democracy.
In Ireland, they are pioneering what is becoming known as the Irish model—tapping citizens’ assemblies to resolve long-simmering controversies. Assemblies deliberated on the hot-button issues of abortion and same-sex marriage, then their recommendations were ratified by popular referendum, resulting in major Constitutional changes. Art O’Leary, Secretary General to the Irish President, says this democratic method has transformed Irish society: “It is a way of getting hard jobs done.”
In November, Brussels, Belgium—a city comparable in size to Seattle—went a step further: it made history by launching the first modern, permanent citizens’ assembly as part of its governance structure.
There’s more to say about how assemblies work and how we could set them up, not as impotent advisory one-offs but as a real part of city government. Wouldn’t it be nice to get out of the cycle of politicians who inevitably disappoint us, and to govern with and for one another? Let us pick an issue, perhaps the seemingly intractable issue of homelessness. Then, let’s create a randomized selection process and really empower those citizens, a sample representative of all of us, to truly exercise their power.
Could a random group of Seattleites do better than the mayor and city council? I’ll bet my house the answer is yes.
On Friday, March 3 at 7:30 pm, DemocracyNext Founder and CEO Claudia Chwalisz, one of the world’s foremost experts on Citizens Assemblies, will speak at Town Hall in conversation with Marcus Green and Brandi Kruse. Tickets here.
Ansel Herz is the communications director for DemocracyNext and a former unpaid intern at The Stranger.