“A Random Group of People” editorial in Seattle and town hall on Citizens’ Assemblies

the Stranger, perhaps Seattle’s most widely read newspaper, has recently published an editorial by Ansel Herz, a former Congressional staffer in DC, now serving as communications director for Democracy Next, recently founded by Claudia Chwalisz (of OECD & Parisian Citizens’ Assembly fame).

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.

After introducing sortition, Herz mentioned America in One Room, the Irish Citizens’ Assembly, and Brussels’s recent introduction of its own permanent CA.

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.

I also want to mention another sign of the beginning of the mainstream acceptance of sortition–less so in the US, but certainly in Europe–of lottery based citizens’ assemblies or panels, Claudia Chwalisz was named a 2023 Global Leader by the Obama Foundation.

I also want to mention another sign of the beginning of the mainstream acceptance of sortition–less so in the US, but certainly in Europe–of lottery based citizens’ assemblies or panels: Claudia Chwalisz was named a 2023 Global Leader by the Obama Foundation. She spoke at a place called The Town Hall in Seattle last Friday, March 3rd in a ticketed event with two local Seattle journalists.

9 Responses

  1. If you are interested in some typical internet reactions to this article, I posted it on Reddit here:

    Liked by 1 person

  2. John,

    Note how arguing about expertise is a losing proposition. We must emphasize that the entire expertise issue is fake. The is not about competence, it is about representativity. If someone is promoting interests that are not mine, their expertise does not work for me.


  3. The comments on the article at the Stranger was nothing less than a shit show, forgive my language. There seems to be some local things happening with the city council that has devolved into partisan verbal brawling and a Seattle specific culture war. Of course the elephant in the room there that they do not about is that Seattle went from being an affordable city to a den of 10s of thousands of homeless, bc of Amazon, Microsoft, Google, & co., not to mention Boeing. I lived in Seattle at the “beginning of the end” in the early 2010s.


  4. The only reason I mention this is that the enormous and rapid inequality in the city colors every discussion, whether it is about sortition or anything else.


  5. Regarding Chwalisz, you can see from her Twitter account that she is on a world tour right now–I would guess sponsored by her Obama Foundation award–promoting the idea of citizens’ assemblies & sortition. It would be interesting to hear how the “Town Hall” talk went. Town Hall is an event space not an actual open town hall. It, like much that is Seattle now, reflects a weird kind of posh exclusive fake progressivsim. I guess this reflects the state of the “left” in the US at large: anti-worker, anti-poor, boutique cultural “leftism” that is actually the epitome of neoliberal capitalism.
    Sorry, for the aside, anybody who was actually there, please comment.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Thanks for posting my piece – this blog has been a great resource. I share some of your concerns about the left Ahmed. If possible, I’d ask that you try to judge DemNext’s work not so much on the aesthetics or who we work with. In our statement on Claudia’s recognition as an Obama Foundation Leader, we stressed that DemNext is non-partisan and we want to work with anyone – established or not, left right center or anyone – who is interested in these ideas. It’s in that spirit that Claudia is participating in the Obama program.

    I’m waiting on video of the event and can share it here once I get it.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. On the issue of expertise, here is the response I typically give. Politicians are almost never actual policy experts. They are experts in campaign strategy and propaganda. When they do consult experts, it is primarily campaign experts and only policy experts as it relates to figuring out how proposals might impact campaign donations and their re-election prospects. Ordinary people in an assembly drawn by democratic lottery are the ones who have an overwhelming incentive to consult a variety of true policy experts rather than public relations experts.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. No one is judging Democracy Next. I was referring to the toxic online comments on Stranger article that simply ignored what was actually in the article.


  9. Why mention the Obama Foundation? It points to the doubled-edged nature of the coming acceptance of sortition. US elites, who Obama has always been a proxy for–note for example how he picked his cabinet, what he did / did not do with the opportunity that the financial crisis together with complete control of the popular branches of government. He used that moment and political capital to protect the 0.1% from the people, to protect the police from the BLM protests, to ignore / crack down on the Occupy movement, to defend and EXPAND the national security state, to drop more bombs than any post WWII president, to liberate-by-destruction a handful of countries on the other side of the world….So, when Elitist Oligarchy inc. endorses an idea it presents both a signal that CAs could become a more common feature of public life in the US soon but ALSO that the oligarchy DOES NOT CARE.
    Double-edged. An opportunity but also also a signal that it may not matter on the most important of questions: war, poverty, police state, national security state.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: