INTERVIEW | 11.03.2021

Simone Chambers on the Voice of the People

Deliberative democracy is an innovative concept to redefine and reinvigorate the reality of citizenship in the 21st century – and Simone Chambers, Professor of Political Science at the University of California Irvine and a future fellow at THE NEW INSTITUTE in the programme "The Future of Democracy" is one of the leading academics in this field. In the interview, Chambers discusses the role of citizens’ assemblies, now to avoid partisanship and poisonous debates and the technological challenges to the public sphere.

What is deliberative democracy?

Deliberation is a process in which we weigh the reasons or considerations for making a decision. We do this as individuals, for example, when making a decision like “Should I buy a car or not?” When you bring this idea together with democracy, you have a process in which we deliberate together. We give reasons, we have an equal standing. It gives a more compelling and substantive picture of what equal citizenship involves.

Would deliberation replace elections as the main democratic practice?

The idea is not to get rid of voting – it is about a richer view of equal citizenship. When I vote, I can lose the vote and I feel bad – but in deliberation, even if I put forward an argument that people don't find persuasive, they have to give me reasons and justifications and try to persuade. The process respects my opinions in a way that simple voting doesn't. This leads to a picture of democracy as collective problem solving, not as collective competition.

And this works?

The outcomes are actually better. It can translate into some really exciting, innovative and actually realistic reforms within democracy.

One recent example is the citizens’ assembly convened by French president Emmanuel Macron to solve the impasse on climate change. Why is this controversial topic particularly suited for a deliberative process?

Climate change is very interesting. The democratic system that we have now is structurally shortsighted because parties are looking at election cycles. The system has not produced the bold actions that we would like to see. Some people say, what we really need is more technocracy, more experts. But that's not a very democratic solution. Citizens in general actually are very worried about climate change and want action. The problem is that they don't trust governments.

When citizens come together just to deliberate, they are really good at problem solving.

Can you explain how a citizens’ assembly works?

The people are chosen at random, like for a jury. This is called lottocracy. Ideally you have a sample that reflects the population, equal numbers of men and women, minorities. There's no campaigning, no money, no parties. The idea is that the deliberation in these assemblies is somewhat impartial and not hierarchical – very different from our parliaments right now where the people who debate are all tied to partisan causes and platforms. There is a lot of empirical evidence that shows: when citizens come together just to deliberate, they are really good at problem solving.

The French example is somewhat problematic as the outcomes were subsequently not implemented by parliament.

The citizens’ assembly came forward with some fairly radical proposals, 149 altogether. Emmanuel Macron at first said: Great. I love it. I am going to take most of them. Then as he tried to move forward within the traditional democratic institutional system, he got pushback from the industry and some unions. The problem is when the opinions of the citizens’ assembly get funneled into politics as usual. It is not a legislative assembly – its power really is in its public support. This happened in France, this is why I am optimistic that we will have more and more of them.

Do you see citizen assemblies replacing elected assemblies?

It's really hard to imagine, certainly not in the short term or even medium term. I am not convinced that a pure citizen assembly system would be the best system, but I think it is a very positive corrective to some of the partisan leanings in our present representative assemblies.

Would you say that deliberative democracy has a more positive or optimistic view of human nature than does representative democracy?

In the 18th century, in the United States or in France, democracy had a bad name. There was a fear of mob rule. Of particular concern was the fact that the majority of the people were economically in the lower half. There was the specter of the rule of the poor. The idea was to have a system in which citizens get to ratify, get to choose, but they don't actually get to rule. This is in contrast to the ancient Greek view, which is a direct democracy in which people directly rule.

What is the problem with elections?

Elections have a tendency to be oligarchic. Powerful people and people with money are more likely to run for office, more likely to win office, more likely to make decisions. Citizens don't have equal access to the candidacy – but we can find ways for them to have more equal access and for the representatives to be responsive to them. I really don't see us getting rid of elections in mass democracy. It's just not feasible.

What is your ideal system then?

I endorse the vision of a mixed system in which you have different institutions, from referendums to citizens’ assemblies to elections, that work together to try to maximize the responsiveness of the state to the concerns of all citizens. I really hesitate to say that deliberative democracy stands against representative democracy. I think they perform different functions.

How important is truth for a functioning democracy? You say that politics is not really about truth, but about truth-seeking. Can you explain that?

This thought comes out of the pragmatist tradition. The idea is: We don't have immediate access to the truth. Even in science, what we want are procedures – people make claims, put forward theories, then we have the scientific community test and try to disprove them. If we could recreate in our public sphere this process of critical interrogation of policies and claims, we could have outcomes that are not true in a strong sense, but truth-tracking. What we need is an active pluralist, critical public sphere – the press and the media play a huge role in the replication of this truth-tracking process.

This is, of course, not how the public sphere is structured these days. There is a lot of discussion about misinformation and the monopolies of tech giants like Facebook or Google.

We are indeed in a situation that could be called epistemic pollution. We have a lot of bad information circulating among citizens. From a deliberative democracy point of view, this is one of the biggest threats to democracy. All democracies have had the problem of manipulation and disinformation. The digital transformation of the public sphere has created the ability to do this at great speed.

Could deliberative democracy be the starting point for thinking about a different, more citizen-driven information ecosystem?

There definitely are lessons to be learned. A citizens’ assembly is very structured. Everybody gets an equal chance. Facebook is not a place for structured deliberation. On the other hand, you need a space for new ideas to come up, for a kind of free-for-all. Take, for example, the question of transgender rights. This is something that bubbled up from civil society into the public sphere. There is a general recognition that the public sphere is going through a transformation. In ten years, the digital landscape will look very different.

What is necessary to get to that understanding of a common good?

In multicultural and multi-ethnic societies, we have to build a curriculum that prepares us for the complex tasks of recognizing the creative possibilities of the differences amongst diverse demographic and ethnic groups. The social experience of political change is often experienced as “flux” or “transition”. Societies that engage with “differences” do not homogenize of appropriate “otherness”. Toleration is commendable, but it is an insufficient ethic of identification. Let me put it like this: we talk a great deal about “the good society” and spend much of our time lauding “social virtue.” This is necessary. In a complex post-colonial world, beset by the displacement of peoples for a whole host of structural and geopolitical reasons, we are compelled to commit ourselves to civil rights and human rights. But that is not all. Migration and displacement demand that we create a pedagogy of civility and hospitality that engages with the vulnerability that we see in the current world-order, where civility and barbarism are bi-polar aspects that exist within the democratic project. This is Hannah Arendt’s closing argument in The Origins of Totalitarianism.

Can these forces align to democratize the internet and to democratize democracy itself?

I am optimistic but I am not utopian. I don't think we are ever going to reach true democracy. As for the internet, I do think that it can be democratized. Crowdsourcing has a great potential. There are ways of crowdsourcing and using algorithms to have citizens participate more in the actual construction of the digital public sphere. I don't think there is going to be a silver bullet or a perfect solution. But I do think that we can avoid the doomsday scenarios of the techno-dystopian defeatism.

(The interview was edited for length and clarity. You can watch the recording of the whole conversation here.)


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