Can Citizens' Assemblies Reset Democracy? - OZY | A Modern Media Company

Can Citizens' Assemblies Reset Democracy?

Overall view of the Bundestag, the lower house of Parliament, on October 29, 2020 in Berlin.
SourceTOBIAS SCHWARZ/AFP via Getty

Can Citizens' Assemblies Reset Democracy?

By Emily Schultheis

WHY YOU SHOULD CARE

At a time when populism and polarization are tearing democracy apart, giving citizens a sense of greater involvement in policymaking could be the antidote.

By Emily Schultheis

  • Rising populism around the world is an indicator of declining trust among people in traditional instruments of democracy.
  • Now so-called citizens’ assemblies are meeting to outline an agenda for the next German government when it takes office in September.
  • Germany’s assemblies are part of a growing phenomenon, also including Ireland

On a Wednesday evening in May, Alexandra North logged onto Zoom from her apartment in Berlin. The 30-year-old translator from the United States, who moved to Germany five years ago, wasn’t there for work or to catch up with friends: She was discussing whether and when the government in Berlin should make it mandatory to have solar panels on the roofs of homes and government buildings.

How soon would it be reasonable to put new regulations in place? How can government officials convince regular Germans that combating climate change will need bold action? Discussing these questions with North were seven other German citizens and residents of different ages and backgrounds, scattered across the country yet logged on together. The meeting was part of a new initiative called the Bürgerrat Klima: A 160-person citizens’ assembly designed to take the pulse of the population on climate issues and help shape the country’s climate policy.

Organized by leading German nonprofit, the BürgerBegehren Klimaschutz association, and Scientists for Future, a group of top researchers who have been arguing for the centrality of climate change in public policy, the initiative has seen a dozen sessions from April to June. Among their recommendations, released after the final session in June, are the phaseout of coal in Germany by 2030 (the country’s current deadline is 2038); a requirement that all government buildings be climate-neutral by 2036; and the step-by-step introduction of required rooftop solar panels starting next year. The recommendations will be handed to Germany’s new government when it takes over this fall.

There aren’t really any regular people there [Germany’s parliament] — the majority of the people aren’t being represented.

Ludwig Reichert, a local politician in northwest Germany’s Nordwalde

It’s only the latest in a growing set of such citizens’ assemblies that have taken root across Europe, which experts believe might prove a vital innovation to resuscitate the legitimacy of representative democracy.  

“Voting is the really sacred, highest symbol of democracy, but it has so little impact on laws that get passed: We don’t actually have any say in the effects, we’re just giving our consent to be represented,” says North. “This just seemed like really a once-in-a-lifetime chance to have a different kind of influence.”

As populist, illiberal parties and politicians gain support across the globe, a big factor in their success has been a lack of faith in the political system: Many people don’t feel their voices are really heard by those in power. Citizens’ assemblies could change that.

The first modern example of a national-level citizens’ assembly was in Ireland in 2012: There, a hybrid group — 66 citizens and 33 politicians — were tasked with figuring out a way forward on the issue of marriage equality. The assembly worked so well that Ireland’s government planned another one, this time made up entirely of citizens, to discuss abortion policy in 2016.

France held a climate-focused citizens’ assembly in 2019 and 2020, and Germany has already completed two citizens’ assemblies (one was a test run focused on democracy; the other was about foreign policy and Germany’s role in the world).

Such an initiative, especially one focused on climate issues, couldn’t come at a better time in Germany. Earlier this year, the country’s constitutional court rejected the parliament’s recent climate legislation because it doesn’t go far enough to protect future generations from the effects of global warming. And an increased focus on climate issues has helped give momentum to Germany’s Greens; when the country goes to the polls for its federal elections in September, the Greens are likely to be part of any future government.

For the just-concluded climate assembly, organizers randomly dialed German residents, then narrowed their participant list down to best reflect the demographics of the country. The 160 participants are 51% female and 49% male; they come from 138 different cities and towns, and 27% of them have a parent or grandparent who was born outside of Germany. And while young people are typically underrepresented in politics, 12% of the citizens’ assembly participants are between 16 and 24 years old.

TOPSHOT-GERMANY-POLITICS-CLIMATE-PROTEST

Earlier this year, the country’s constitutional court rejected the parliament’s recent climate legislation because it doesn’t go far enough to protect future generations from the effects of global warming. And an increased focus on climate issues has helped give momentum to Germany’s Greens; when the country goes to the polls for its federal elections in September, the Greens are likely to be part of any future government.

Source John MACDOUGALL / Getty

Those participants were then split up into four groups of 40, each of which dealt with a different sector of climate policy: Energy, mobility, heating and living and nutrition. Within those four groups, participants then were divided into even smaller groups of just eight people, where they discussed very specific policy proposals (like rooftop solar panels).

Ludwig Reichert, a recent retiree and local-level politician from the northwestern German city of Nordwalde who also participated, says he understands why people are frustrated with politics: The German parliament is full of academics, bureaucrats, and others who don’t necessarily understand the lives and concerns of the people they represent.

“There aren’t really any regular people there — the majority of the people aren’t being represented,” he says. “And in the end, that’s why political apathy in Germany is such a big problem.”

But the small-group sessions of the citizens’ assembly were more like a casual evening at a pub or café with a group of acquaintances, he says. “It’s almost as if I’m sitting down with a group of normal people from different ages, backgrounds and interests, talking with them and trying to find a solution to this problem.”

The benefits of such assemblies for democratic revitalization could be significant, says Hélène Landemore, a political scientist at Yale who’s written extensively about these initiatives. If countries introduce them at all levels, everyone who comes in contact with them could see that it’s possible to have a true say in politics.

But there are potential pitfalls as well: If participants are told their recommendations will have a tangible impact on policy but eventually get dismissed or overlooked by politicians, it could ultimately have the opposite effect.

“What we need to talk about is how these bodies are actually new forms of representation,” says Landemore. “The idea is that they should have a status, a legal status comparable to the status of elected representatives, with their own jurisdiction.”

Still, Reichert and North are optimistic that recommendations from the climate assembly will be taken seriously by top politicians — and at the very least will serve as proof that regular citizens are ready and willing to make difficult changes to combat climate change.

“I hope that this will give the new government a lot of momentum to make these changes,” says North. “Because they are urgent.”

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