The Case for Direct Democracy: Citizens’ Assemblies

Article In The Thread
Students gather at Massachusetts State House to use their voice and protest.
pietrorizzatoph /
March 5, 2024

“I just remember getting so upset in 2020 with how everything in the world just [seemed] so chaotic and nobody could see eye-to-eye anymore.”

When Alejandro Salazar thinks about being on a college campus during the 2016 presidential election, he remembers feeling frustrated by increasing divides between people and communities. “When it came to politics, it was ‘my way or the highway,’ and that was very evident,” Alejandro continues.

He’s not alone in his frustration. Trust in the government has plummeted to its lowest point in nearly seven decades. Two-in-three Americans say they consistently feel "exhausted" by politics. The top two words they use to describe U.S. politics are “divisive” and “corrupt.” Even young people are feeling disillusioned. There is a general sense of pessimism in regards to our country’s future.

Where does this leave the state of civic engagement in America? Despite their dissatisfaction in electoral politics, there is consensus among Americans on two fronts: the urgency to address climate change, and faith in local governments over federal oversight. Although views generally differ across partisan lines, nearly three quarters of Americans “support U.S. participation in international efforts to reduce the effects of climate change.” And 67 percent trust their local governments to handle local issues, which is over double the percentage of Americans who trust the federal government.

As a way to build on these sentiments, many localities are turning to citizens’ assemblies to help engage people locally on the issues they care about, and engage them in the long-haul rather than in a one-off election year. These assemblies bring together a randomly selected and demographically diverse group of individuals to participate in a democratic decision-making process, discussing specific issues facing their communities.

Alejandro Salazar participated in the Unify Montrose assembly in 2023 to deliberate childcare solutions in his community of Montrose, Colorado. His experience completely changed his orientation toward politics. “I was just in complete awe…there was never any conflict in the groups, and there was disagreement, but there was no animosity. And we were just able to talk.”

Unify Montrose hosted an assembly of randomly selected citizens to represent the demographic diversity of the community, who spent 12 weeks deliberating on how to improve the state of childcare in their community. Sixty-four delegates were paid $15 per hour for their time, and ultimately voted on a number of actions to improve the community.

Citizens’ assemblies focused on climate, or “climate assemblies,” are also gaining traction. Washington state hosted a climate assembly in 2021, and in their 2024 proposed budget, they have suggested the state’s Department of Social and Health Services facilitate public assemblies in partnership with community-based organizations to help decide on policy solutions and funding allotments for climate-resiliency.

In Colorado, RadicalXChange helped the Office of Climate Preparedness and Disaster Recovery (CPO) host public deliberation on CPO’s roadmap for responsiveness to climate impacts in the state. RadicalXChange hosted online deliberations and plural voting with a lottery-selected cohort of citizens, where they discussed “their anxieties, fears, challenges… and then their hopes and what they want to see, what a better future would look like, what services they want to see from the state.” Participants ranked their climate priorities, which will ultimately influence the state agency’s roadmap.

While climate assemblies are just gaining traction here in the United States, Europe and the U.K. have implemented climate assemblies for years. In the mid 2010s, a randomly selected group of 100 Irish citizens deliberated climate change among other issues. In 2022, Brussels launched a permanent citizens’ assembly on climate. To build on these efforts at a global level, DemocracyNext is convening an international task force on democratizing city planning, with an eye toward how urban planning decision-making processes could influence policy issues like climate change.

Globally, 2024 is a big year for elections. More than two billion voters across 50 countries will head to the polls in a record-breaking number of elections around the world, deciding the fate of over four billion people.

But our current expectations around democracy—voting every two to four years for a candidate who, evidence shows, does not adhere to what Americans expect—does not empower citizens to regularly make choices for themselves and their communities. Citizen assemblies provide an opportunity for Americans to deliberate among one another on pressing issues like climate change and to produce actionable recommendations toward a more hopeful future.

Of his experience in a citizens’ assembly, Alejandro says, “Everybody's life story gives meaning to their decisions… You can still work together to make a solution even though you might disagree on the details.”

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