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Attending a Citizens’ Assembly in Paris

December 21, 2022 Leave a comment

How often do any of us study a single topic for 27 working days, spread over four months of reflection? Backed by the full support of a government and briefings by experts, officials, civil society and academics? Helped by regular deliberation with fellow citizens from all parts of our community? And in our conclusions, responsible to nobody but our individual conscience?

On 9 December, France embarked on exactly that to find answers to fraught questions around its ban on assisted suicide. As the centre of a national debate on the issue, it convened 185 people, randomly selected from all over the country and its overseas territories, to research, discuss and propose answers to the question: “Is the framework for end-of-life support suited to all situations or should changes be introduced?”

This article was originally published on 19 December in English and German on the website buergerrat.de, part of Mehr Demokratie, one of the biggest national organisations supporting the cause of sortition and other innovations in deliberative democracy. I was particularly happy to be invited to observe the assembly because “mercy killings” were identified by my late father in his upcoming book The Keys to Democracy as exactly the kind of topic ideally suited to a citizens’ assembly.

Time will tell where the Citizen Convention on the end of life’s work leads to by the time it wraps up in March. But the first of nine long weekends of intense discussions was already remarkable, at least as seen from my position as one of 25 researchers and students invited to observe the assembly.

Most extraordinary was the depth of French government support for this second iteration of a radical experiment in democracy by lot. (The first was a similarly constituted Citizen Convention on Climate in 2019-20). When President Emmanuel Macron summoned the new Citizen Convention into existence in September, the job was again assigned to France’s Economic, Social and Environmental Council, a little-known constitutional body known by its French acronym CESE, which acts as a link to the broader population for the National Assembly and the Senate.

CESE thus coordinated the random selection of participants, found experts, prepared briefing papers and organized the convention’s three main phases: research, deliberation and summing up. The Convention also takes place in CESE’s fine Palais d’Iéna, which looks over the Seine to the Eiffel Tower. Ironically, an early revelation was how the building’s great spaces done in 1930s rational modernism are fine for top-down speeches to 150-250 people, but lack the subdivisions needed for deliberation in small groups that is a key part of today’s participatory democratic process.

“A place in which new forms of democracy are being invented”

“You are here in a place in which new forms of democracy are being invented and developed … and of them the Citizen Convention is without doubt the most ambitious, the most demanding and the most engaging,” participants were told by CESE’s president, Thierry Beaudet. “It’s impossible to do this [deliberation] on the scale of a country, so you’re going to do it for us, for the whole of society … This is the basis of both your legitimacy and our trust in you.”

The randomly selected audience hardly looked revolutionary. Participants had only some of the youth and diversity of, say, the crowds travelling in the nearby Paris metro; they also had very few of the confident smiles and neat, conservative clothes that are the hallmark of elected politicians. At the same time, every element of society and France’s geography seemed present: a cheese farmer from the Alps, a professor of Greek and a retired teacher from Lille were joined by an immigrant from Niger, people of Algerian and Moroccan heritage and Muslim women in headscarves.

A true mirror of a country’s whole population

It was unique to see a true mirror of a country’s whole population in one place: France came across as predominantly middle-aged, paler-skinned, polite, attentive and – after some initial shyness – articulate, collaborative and ready to challenge authority.

All whom I met were delighted to take part, even if, before they got the phone call inviting them to the Convention, few had given much prior thought to civic action or end-of-life issues. Even fewer had heard of random selection. “I can’t believe how lucky I was to be selected!” said one. “I’m very proud to be here,” said another. “I feel like for once my voice will be heard,” said a third.

The way people reflected the actual diversity of France was praised repeatedly in speeches to the Convention by French Prime Minister Élisabeth Borne and President of the National Assembly Yaël Braun-Pivet. The two elected politicians thanked the conventioneers and promised to take their work into account in deciding how to shape a likely future change in French law on accompanying the end of life.

“The level of government support and organisation is so different this time,” said Mélanie Blanchetot, one of the participants in the 2019-20 Climate Convention, who was invited back to brief the new assembly on what had for her been a life-changing awakening to political activism. “When we started, there were members of parliament who said: ‘What legitimacy do you have?’”

On their first weekend, the new participants mostly got orientation: on how a citizens’ assembly is chosen by random selection, how to get access to digital information and what the 25 observers sitting near their tables are researching. Belgian and Swiss practitioners took the floor in a sombre session to discuss what administrating assisted suicide feels like in practice. Jean-François Delfraissy, president of France’s National Council of the Ethics of Life Sciences and Health, reminded all that there was no one right answer. “You won’t get the last word, so be humble,” Delfraissy said. “I predict there’ll be another group just like you revisiting the issue within a decade.”

The quality of much of the information was striking, like a 102-page report from France’s National Centre for End of Life-Palliative Care. With scrupulous neutrality, the document gives participants examples of end-of-life dilemmas cases and a list of arguments for and against actively assisted death. It outlines French law and gives examples from 10 other countries where assisted suicide is possible. It shows how France is growing older and therefore more people are dying in absolute terms each year; and how most French people want to die at home, but only 25 per cent manage to, with more than half dying in hospital. It ends with a list of relevant official reports, books, documentaries, theatrical productions and films.

Most of these documents and speeches are being made public on CESE’s website to allow the rest of France to inform itself alongside the Convention. The participants’ deliberation, however, is private. This took place in between the briefings at tables of about 10 people, whose make-up was shuffled between sessions through repeated selection by lot. Here the role of facilitators was key, especially in making sure everyone’s voice was heard. Sometimes the discussions stumbled when it wasn’t clear what was being asked of the group. By the third day, however, most people were making sensible, lively and acute contributions.

Absent from the Convention was any sign of the polarization one might expect given the political, religious and ethical sensitivity surrounding end-of-life dilemmas; all the main religions were invited to say their part on the second weekend. “There’s the same mix of views on assisted suicide within the group that feels religious convictions as among those who say they’re atheists,” one participant remarked.

One unexpectedly lively area of private discussion among participants was the politics behind President Macron calling the Convention into existence. Some thought it might be an attempt to score a popular goal without losing the support of people with strong views, since the most recent poll in February 2022 shows that 94 per cent of French people agree with euthanasia in cases of extreme suffering and 89 per cent agree with assisted suicide.

Perhaps alluding to politicians’ perceived need to renew their legitimacy before an electorate alienated from politics – about one quarter of French voters abstained from last presidential elections – Prime Minister Borne hoped that the Convention would play a “central role” in a new national debate, bypassing polarizing debates in electoral campaigns.

The issue of what would happen to the Convention’s findings triggered the only moment of tension on the first weekend. In response to critical questions from the Convention floor, the president of the National Assembly sharply defended her conviction that while the conventioneers might have valuable inputs and reflect French society, the elected parliament had the final word.

“You are free, but so are we … even if you reflect greater diversity than parliament, you don’t represent the people! You are a foundation stone and we will all build the wall together,” Braun-Pivet said. “There is no question that random selection will replace elections.”

“Collective intelligence can produce tremendous things”

Even if this put-down grated with some – one participant grumbled about feeling like a commoner at the last Estates-General of Louis XVI’s crumbling regime, convened just before it collapsed in the 1789 French revolution – the atmosphere in the convention remained highly collaborative. As Prime Minister Borne pointed out, “few countries in the world would give such responsibility to randomly selected people and commit to collective deliberation.” After all, 27 days of work amid four months of reflection is “much longer than the time available to most members of parliament debating and reflecting on the writing of a new law”, the CESE’s Beaudet reminded participants. “The Citizen Convention is a wonderful tool that shows how being perfectly informed and taking time to deliberate, collective intelligence can produce tremendous things.”

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Setting a course for a better-run future

September 13, 2022 Leave a comment

One question often nagged me in my four decades as a reporter, writer and conflict prevention analyst: Is the occasional vote for a politician or party truly the best system to choose who runs a country?

Over the past year, I was delighted to learn I wasn’t the only one puzzling over the answer. I was even happier to discover a group of like-minded idealists who are working on DemocracyNext, an independent non-profit dedicated to researching and bringing to life a better-designed paradigm for future governance. Here’s their public online launch event on 15 September 2022 (International Democracy Day).

I’m also very proud that DemocracyNext has asked me to join their Advisory Board. At last, I feel that I have found a political ideal I can believe in and work for.

Learning to love sortition

The key innovation that DemocracyNext is looking into is how to bring people into decision-making through selection by lot, as in jury service. This is also called sortition and is inspired by the classical golden age of Athens, whose definition of democracy was a government by randomly selected citizens. All were equal and took turns, first to deliberate on problems, and then to legislate, judge and act as the executive in the name of the city.

DemocracyNext is one of a number of groups that have sprung up in recent years to promote aspects of sortition. All share many values and principles, but most focus mainly on one country: for example, Sortition Foundation in the UK, Equality by Lot in the US, Mehr Demokratie and its Citizens’ Assembly project in Germany, Tegen Verkiezingen in the Netherlands, G1000 in Belgium, WeDoDemocracy in Denmark, Deliberativa in Spain and newDemocracy in Australia. DemocracyNext adds a more international and radical vision: to put sortition “at the heart of a new democratic system,” not just in government but in the workplace too.

DemocracyNext aims to create brand new institutions, not to bring the sixth century BC back to life or have a lottery to choose the president or prime minister. The approach builds on a growing wave of Citizens’ Assemblies, which are randomly selected so that representatives are a true sample or reflection of their communities or countries. In the past decade, more than five hundred such assemblies in dozens of countries have been finding original solutions to problems that have long stumped politicians: climate change in the UK, France and elsewhere; conflict resolution in the Philippines and Bosnia; and in Ireland, breaking the logjam on abortion and same sex marriage.

Are these assemblies really different from elected parliaments? Two sets of pictures speak volumes to me. One symbolises the current system in the United States, showing the eight top Congressional officials in the Senate and the House. I know that individually some of them – notably Sen. Dick Durbin, whom I’ve interviewed – are wonderfully effective people. But the problem is that collectively, they all look exactly the same. Charismatic, good at raising money, old, male, mostly of one skin colour and likely all pretty well off.

The members of Citizens’ Assemblies, on the other hand, seem exactly like people you might meet on a bus, train or plane. They represent the full, balanced diversity of the community or population. The pictures below – from Citizens’ Assemblies in France, the UK and Germany – also capture both the intense concentration on discussing expert evidence and also the joyful sense of engagement that are characteristic of these gatherings.

Until now, Citizens’ Assemblies have mostly been convened in an advisory capacity. While some politicians have embraced them or joined them, others have stood in their way, seeing them as unqualified or as a threat to their lock on power. In future, such assemblies could achieve much more. At the top of DemocracyNext’s to-do list is the design of and advocacy for sortition-based institutions with real authority.

Why bother?

Personally, I feel many reasons to gravitate towards democracy activism.

I’ve never believed in elections, for a start. They have long struck me as the root cause of the political dead end that delivers government-by-pantomime in my native Britain, the worst polarisation in generations in the United States and multiplying numbers of authoritarian leaders around the world. I’m not alone in thinking that something is deeply wrong: a global survey in 2021 by the Pew Research Center found that almost everywhere people have less respect than ever for politicians and are hungry for change.

I’ve never felt that people involved in politics had a special call on my admiration or loyalty. At Oxford University four decades ago – breeding ground of many of the country’s parliamentary leaders – I remember being put off by the stressed and hungry looks of the politically ambitious as they plotted and partied for support. (The parties were fun, though).

I left England a month after graduating to become a reporter and writer. I spent decades criss-crossing the eastern Mediterranean and greater Middle East, from crisis to conflict to economic collapse. Yes, people wanted a better life, including justice, freedom, equality and more. But elections – whether real, faked or only promised – rarely made much difference to what was really going on in most people’s lives. And I never solved the equation that posits: elections equals democracy equals better government.

Take Malta, for instance. In the 1987 elections, an 0.2 per cent swing away from the previous left-wing ruling party triggered a 180-degree about-turn in the small island nation’s rulers. As a young reporter for Reuters news agency, I remember standing bewildered on a midnight pavement in central Valetta as supporters of the triumphant right-wing nationalists went mad around me. For the Maltese, and perhaps many others, it seemed perfectly normal. I however was completely confused by the logic of a system in which a country could so radically change course only because a tiny proportion of the people changed their votes.

Or look at Turkey. In recent decades, the technical side of the electoral process has been generally clean, with lots of parties competing and people able to vote freely. Yet the results are gravely distorted by vote-share thresholds that exclude smaller parties, monopolisation of media by the party in power and the locking up of dissidents. And, in the end, just one man rules.

Iraqi man writes “Yes, yes to the leader” in his own blood on his arm in Mosul, northern Iraq in 2002.

Or Iraq. There was no doubt in my mind, when I observed Saddam Hussein’s referendum on his presidency in 2002, that the process did deliver him something close to the 99 per cent support he claimed. But looking at the traumatised faces of the ‘voters’ being watched every step of the way from the electoral roll to the ballot box, it was clear that the legitimacy Hussein sought was a brittle charade.

Referendums in a much freer country, the United Kingdom, look suspect to me too. How can a decision as serious and multi-faceted as Britain leaving the European Union or Scotland leaving the United Kingdom be left to a majority achieved by a razor-thin number of voters, after a process that is thoroughly politicised and open to all kinds of domestic and foreign manipulation?

Meeting Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, then prime minister, in 2004.

Then there are the professional politicians. I have met and interviewed dozens of heads of state and government, almost all winners of elections. Only rarely, I found, did what they said leave a lasting impact or memory. When I did occasionally admire a politician, it was because of their achievements in life or the charisma of their personality, not because I felt that they deserved to be in charge of so many details of other people’s lives.

All that is before we take conflict into account. When I worked for the International Crisis Group, I once did a back of the envelope reckoning and found that nearly one third of the conflict prevention reports we wrote in one six-month period in 2015 were about violence before, during, or after elections. I wondered: were elections the symptom, or the cause?

Blanking out at the ballot box

As a result, I’ve only voted once in my life, in my Brussels neighbourhood, and I did that because it is a legal obligation in Belgium. I felt so overwhelmed that I just voted for the mayor, probably because he seemed familiar from the monthly commune newspaper. And maybe a bit because he had cancelled a plan for a carpark under our local square that everyone protested about. But I had nothing against the other faces on the voting slip. Compared to the commitment and seriousness of the voting station workers, I felt silly. But I also felt frustrated: as a former reporter, I knew that I would have to do days of work to know if the mayor was really the best candidate, days I just didn’t have.

Perhaps electoral politics and voting never had a chance with me. Growing up, my late classicist father Maurice Pope lampooned politics and elections from the head of the family dining table. He even wrote a book in the 1980s, advocating a completely new democratic framework based on sortition. When I read it back then, I teased him about how unrealistic it all sounded. His publishers rejected the work as too outlandish. He put it aside. Years later, the work seemed to be actually lost.

Over the decades, much changed and not just with me. A decade ago, there was only a trickle of books on sortition; it is now a torrent. As frustrations with politicians, corruption and political dysfunction mounted, academics and publishers began rediscovering the democracy by lot that made ancient Athens one of the greatest civilisations the world has ever seen. Looking at ever-more extreme inequalities of wealth in countries with electoral systems, they remembered what Aristotle and many other Greek thinkers took as self-evident: elections create oligarchies, and only the random selection of citizen decision-makers, or sortition, qualifies as democracy.

Those who support electoral systems often quote Winston Churchill in their defence. Britain’s World War II leader famously said in 1947 that: “democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”’

Britain’s electoral democracy may have been freer and more accountable than many others in the mid-twentieth-century – probably a generous view – but such thinking is too complacent and sets the bar too low for us today. Is our democratic ideal really only to be a bit better than dictators, absolute monarchs and monopolists of religion and ideology? Surely, we can at least try to take decisions for the common good in ways that give much fairer weight to principles like equality, participation and justice?

That’s why I’m glad to be a small part of DemocracyNext, contributing something to a real and growing wave of activism in support of sortition-based, deliberative democracy. In the same spirit, after my Dad’s death in 2019, my mother found the manuscript of his lost book in his library; finally able to understand its importance, I was inspired to edit it, with help from my brother Quentin, and pitch it for publication. A noted UK publisher, Imprint Academic, has now taken it on. Watch out for publication next spring: The Keys to Democracy: Sortition as a New Model for Citizen Power.

This text was updated on 19 September after the actual launch of DemocracyNext

“The Keys to Democracy” Has a Publisher

September 11, 2022 Leave a comment

Good news! The UK’s Imprint Academic will be publishing my late father and classicist Maurice Pope’s last and long-lost book, which I and my brother Quentin been busy editing for the past several months. It will appear in Spring 2023 as “The Keys to Democracy: Sortition as a Model for Citizen Power.”

Three decades ago, my father’s then publishers turned down the text. They found his proposals for political innovation too radical, utopian and implausible, even though they were inspired by ancient Athenian democracy. He turned to other projects. The book disappeared into what we thought was an irreparably corrupted 1980s computer file.

Then, after my father’s death in 2019, my mother Johanna found the typescript in his library. Time changes points of view! Back in the 1980s I too thought the text wasn’t very realistic. But now I see how much politics-as-usual needs to change, his argument for decision-makers selected like juries looks fresh, relevant, clear & compelling.

The project to revive the book would have got nowhere unless others had felt the same.

Huge thanks for a generous Foreword to Prof. Dr. Hélène Landemore of Yale University, whose 2021 book “Open Democracy: Reinventing Popular Rule for the 21st Century” sets a gold standard for academic studies of sortition. She calls my Dad’s book “visionary … a prescient and self-assured argument for democracy by lot before pretty much anyone else.”

I much appreciated too a scene-setting Introduction by classicist Prof. Dr. Paul Cartledge of Cambridge, author of the masterful “Democracy: A Life.” Here’s part of what he says: “The Keys to Democracy remains unique in its philosophical breadth and scope. And in its vision it is still bolder than many on offer.”

Many thanks as well for early endorsements from Dr. Brett Hennig of Sortition Foundation, Claudia Chwalisz of DemocracyNext, Dr. Heather Grabbe of Open Society Foundations, Michael Keating, executive director of the European Institute of Peace and ex-UN envoy to Somalia and Prof. Richard Youngs of Warwick University and Carnegie Europe. They have variously supported the book as “Incredibly knowledgeable”; “Gives us hope”; “Required reading”; “Learned and entertaining”; and “[A] masterful tract”.

Much gratitude too to pioneering political scientist Prof. Dr. Peter Stone of Trinity College Dublin, who connected us to sortition guru and publisher Keith Sutherland. Imprint Academic is placing “The Keys to Democracy” in its series on Sortition and Public Policy.

Over the years, we also owe much to the moral and real support of Jonathan McVity, an author and student of philosophy who helped my father in trying to interest US publishers in the text in the 1980s; he tells the story in one afterword. And also Dr. Michael Potter, Professor of Logic at Cambridge’s Faculty of Philosophy, who shared rooms with me when we were undergraduates at Oxford. Michael often discussed sortition with my father, and in another afterword describes what he would have liked to have had out with my father about the use of juries (and my father did love a good argument).

The conclusion of The Keys to Democracy, Maurice Pope’s 2nd draft

It’s been a busy year of typing out the manuscript, editing, reaching out and researching footnotes. But it’s been wonderfully motivating to meet leaders of the new wave of innovators trying to upgrade our democracies, and above all to feel their selfless support.

Personally, I felt a great sense of closure when I pressed the button and sent the final manuscript to the publishers on Thursday.

I’m also so glad too to think that my father – silently but deeply disappointed, I believe, that this culmination of his life’s work didn’t see the light of day – can rest in peace. His ideas will now live on.