We interviewed Andreas Schäfer, research associate at the Department of Political Sociology and Social Policy of the Institute for Social Sciences at the Humboldt University of Berlin, about the crisis of representative democracy and citizens´ assemblies as a possible solution. He talked about which advantages and disadvantages citizens´ assemblies have and what has to be considered when establishing them.
There has been a lot of talk recently about the crisis of representative democracy: from citizens' declining trust in representative institutions to disenchantment with politics and decreasing voter turnout. Do citizens have more demands than in the past? Or are we dealing with a deterioration in the ability of democratic institutions to promote participation?
Andreas Schäfer: In a certain sense, the recurring diagnosis of crisis is a part of democracy, because it is also a consequence of the demanding democratic promise of equal political participation for all. Ultimately, political systems can only live up to this promise in a process of continuous innovation. In this respect, increasingly critical citizens demanding democratic values do not need to pose an existential problem for representative democracy yet. However, a serious problem emerges when disappointment and lack of trust lead to participatory abstinence and renunciation from inclusive organizations and institutions - and especially when this happens in a socially selective manner. Empirical studies show that members of underprivileged social classes tend to welcome new and alternative forms of participation, but actually (can) use them less, while better-off population groups bring their interests and values more effectively into the political process through both traditional and alternative channels.
Is the democratization of democracy the solution? Can citizens' assemblies as a relatively new form of participation be an answer to the crisis of representative democracy?
Schäfer: For the reasons just mentioned, the democratization of democracy is an ongoing political task. Democratic innovations such as citizens' assemblies can be a constructive contribution to democratisation if they are not introduced merely as a legitimizing placebo but change existing structures. Unlike traditional representative bodies, citizens' assemblies are not based on elections, but lottery procedures. This introduces a new logic into the political process alongside the electoral competition. Classical representative institutions and organizations such as parties must then redefine their role concerning drawn bodies such as citizens' assemblies. Ideally, this will lead to a complementary relationship in which parties are inspired by citizens' assemblies, but also provide them with critical support.
What are the main advantages and disadvantages of citizens’ assemblies?
Schäfer: Citizens’ assemblies can create an inclusive representation of the population through their stratified lottery procedure. They also provide a procedure in which participants can process relevant information and deliberate constructively with each other. In this way, the perspectives of average people are reflected and fed into the political process. On the other hand, citizens’ assemblies cost time and money. Moreover, unlike elected bodies, legitimacy is less self-evident to the outside world. Furthermore, citizens’ assemblies could compete with activist forms of participation or, in the worst case, be misused to symbolically legitimize the status quo.
How do you manage that the inequalities of the existing representative system are not reproduced in citizens´ assemblies?
Schäfer: First, the lottery and invitation procedure must be designed in such a way that people from all social classes participate. To balance out existing inequalities, it may also make sense to use supplementary formats in which initially only participatively disadvantaged people are invited to develop their positions in collective consultation before discussing them in socially heterogeneous arenas. Second, the internal communication process must be designed and moderated in such a way that all participants, regardless of their social background and habitus, can contribute and be heard on an equal footing. Subtle exclusion mechanisms must also be constantly monitored here. Thirdly - and this is still the biggest challenge – citizens’ assemblies must be embedded in the democratic political system as an independent and influential factor. They should be able to influence their individual agendas to some extent and effectively bring their deliberations and their results into the public decision-making process. However, citizens’ assemblies can ultimately only unleash their full democratizing potential if they become part of the political culture. If, at some point in time, every citizen could realistically expect to be drawn by lot to participate in a citizens’ assembly at least once, in his or her lifetime, this form of participation could develop great democratic integration power.
Dr Andreas Schäfer is a research associate at the Department of Political Sociology and Social Policy of the Institute for Social Sciences at the Humboldt University of Berlin. In his research and teaching, he focuses primarily on the interface between political communication and decision-making processes. He is also co-author of our recently published study on citizens’ councils.
The questions were asked by Filip Milačić.
This interview was originally published in the latest issue of the FES Info (in German). Access the full magazine here.