Citizens’ Assemblies and Beyond11-12-2023
As the Middle East war rages and democracies reel from populist and illiberal movements, I spent Friday and Saturday at the Hannah Arendt Center's Democracy Innovation Workshop: Citizens' Assemblies and Beyond. Organized by the Arendt Center's Democracy Innovation Hub, the workshop gathered scholars, organizers, and government officials in New York City to learn about, explore and plan how to use deliberative democratic innovations to rethink and reinspire the tradition of American self-government. At a moment when hope is a rare word in politics, the growing interest in citizen assemblies offers real possibilities for a revival of empowered citizenship and meaningful self-government.
Much of the recent practice and writing on deliberative civic assemblies has come from Europe and has been influenced by European ideas and practices of democracy. We see this in the Habermasian justification for citizen assemblies as tools to reach better and more rational decisions. The Arendt Center's engagement with Citizen Assemblies has brought to the practice an alternate and specifically American foundation, one grounded in the American tradition of republicanism.
We do a disservice if we frame the United States and its political tradition simply as a democracy. Democracy is not mentioned in the Constitution. In fact, the Federalists, who were the people who helped write the US Constitution, were suspicious of democracy. As James Madison wrote in Federalist X: “A pure democracy, by which I mean a society, consisting of a small number of citizens, who assemble and administer the government in person, can admit of no cure for the mischiefs of faction.” Alexander Hamilton said much the same in Federalist IX, that it is "impossible to read the history of the petty democratic republics of Greece and Italy without feeling sensations of horror and disgust at the state of perpetual vibration between the extremes of tyranny and anarchy."
The American founders didn’t establish either a direct or even a representative democracy. Instead of democracy, the United States is best described as a constitutional-federal-Republic with democratic elements. What this means is that republicanism is at the core of the American constitutional tradition. Article IV of the U.S. Constitution guarantees the people of the United States a "republican form of government." Republicanism, the idea that people should govern themselves in the public interest, means that power lies in the people. Republicanism is the political form that sets the public interest above private interest; it stands for self-government by the people in the people’s interest. For Montesquieu, John Adams, and Hannah Arendt, the republican form of government depends on the virtue of the people to act in the public interest. In turning to republicanism, the American founders sought to correct for and prevent what they saw as the evils of democracy while still trying to hold on to the republican tradition of self-government and empowerment of the people.
The crisis in so-called democratic governments today is best understood as a crisis of disempowerment. Instead of feeling empowered to govern themselves, citizens and non-citizens alike experience government as a vast bureaucracy impervious to popular control. The corruption of elections by obscene amounts of money, the sprawling administrative state that is not answerable to public criticism, and the use of gerrymandering to protect incumbents mean that individual citizens have little if any real power in American politics.
Citizen Assemblies, Civic Assemblies, Citizen Juries and other practices of deliberative self-government are best understood as a response to the experience of disempowerment in politics. In that way, they are attempts to revive American democratic self-government within the tradition of republicanism. The "deliberative wave" behind the turn to citizen assemblies seeks to re-engage citizens in the active practice of self-government.
Hannah Arendt argued that the most important innovation in American constitutional and republican government was the elevation of federalism to a core principle of government. The federalist principle of the distribution of power is based on a quintessentially American experience, what she calls the new American experience of power. It started with Puritans fleeing religious intolerance in England. These Puritans, before landing at Plymouth Rock, met to determine and write down a constitution of liberties and powers that would determine the government of the future colony. Arendt allows herself to be struck by the fact that these poor travelers took upon themselves the right and the power to govern themselves — “The really astounding fact in the whole story is that their obvious fear of one another was accompanied by the no less obvious confidence they had in their own power, granted and confirmed by no one and as yet unsupported by any means of violence, to combine themselves into a ‘civil Body Politick.’” This feeling of empowerment for self-government was, Arendt argues, the ground of a truly new experience of power.
Alongside the American experience of power was the American “discovery of the federal principle for the foundation of large republics. Arendt called this federal principle the “greatest revolutionary innovation” in the United States Revolution. What the American Revolution and US Constitution actually did was to institutionalize the new American experience of federated powers as a new form of republican government. Arendt was not some starry-eyed “America first” booster. She revered the American experiment in republican government; yet she also came to believe that the American experiment failed. She traces the failure of the American experiment as a federalist republic to the loss of American institutions of local power, institutions that at once would nurture the spirit of self-government and the American experience of power. She writes: “The Failure of the founders to incorporate the township and the town-hall meeting into the Constitution, or rather their failure to find ways and means to transform them under radically changed circumstances, was understandable enough.”
The failure of the American Revolution had profound consequences with regards to the founding of freedom: “[Jefferson] knew, however dimly, that the Revolution, while it had given freedom to the people, had failed to provide a space where this freedom could be exercised.”
Or Arendt, “The failure of post-revolutionary thought to remember the revolutionary spirit and to understand it conceptually was preceded by the failure of the revolution to provide it with a lasting institution.” In short, Arendt saw the failure of post-revolutionary thought to remember the revolutionary spirit and understand its foundation in power. Jefferson knew that the US Constitution had failed to provide a space where this freedom and power could be experienced and exercised.
The Constitution failed to establish freedom, the fundamental experience of American power — which was found in townships, in the fact that people got together and talked to one another and governed themselves on local levels. Because of this failure, the people withdrew from public action and the public spirit was diminished. Since the Constitution itself provided a public space only for the representatives of the people and not for the people themselves, it is not surprising that the people would retreat from public engagement into their private and social lives.
The real danger Arendt saw was that we would lose spaces of freedom, spaces of power where people could get together and talk. And so, she writes, the whole question of representation — the focus on electoral representation in lieu of popular self-government — actually implies no less than a decision on the very dignity of the political realm itself. Madison, Hamilton, Jefferson and the founders innovated an idea of republican government distinct from mere democracy. They embraced representation but did so amidst the experience of local participatory self-rule; for this reason, they imagined the United States to be a republic and not a democracy. And it is in this context that Arendt saw representation as a problem. It is an affront to the dignity of the political realm because if you let representation replace people engaging in self-government, they will lose the dignity of being self-governing citizens.
The reason the Hannah Arendt Center is engaged today in the effort to think about and revive citizen assemblies is that civic assemblies are in many ways the lost space of republican freedom that Jefferson and Arendt so deeply valued. Citizen assemblies can be a new way to create institutional spaces for the people to engage in a dignified act of politics.
One model for this is the jury. Sometimes what we call civic assemblies are called civic juries. I like that term as an American political theorist because it speaks to the role of the jury, which we all here in the United States understand. I turn to Alexis de Tocqueville, who writes that “the jury serves to communicate the spirit of the judges to the minds of all citizens, and this spirit with the habits which attend to it is the soundest preparations for free institutions.”
If America failed to create a space for the people to discuss politics, it did create a space for people to discuss right and wrong, the jury. The jury is an institutional space where Americans habitually come together to discuss what we should do in matters of right or wrong, who should be punished and who not. The jury inculcates the habit to engage in the spirit of judging outside of one’s personal interest, of judging according to the public interest, according to the law, or what is right.
The great promise of citizen assemblies understood as republican institutions is that they can provide a space for people to gather together and engage in the spirit of public deliberation, of compromising and governing not according to one’s personal interest. They can thus resist what Arendt calls “the crisis of representative government.” She says representative government is in crisis today, partly because it has lost in the course of time all institutions that permitted the citizens actual participation and partly because it is now gravely affected by the disease from which the party system suffers bureaucracy and the two parties' tendency to represent nobody except the party machines.
It is in these new councils, these new citizen assemblies or civic juries, where we can find what Arendt calls the spaces of freedom. She writes, “The councils obviously were spaces of freedom. Councils where people came together and talked.” Because when you talk, you express your viewpoint and people listen. It’s called appearing in public. It’s what makes you human for Hannah Arendt. And so, the issue at stake, she says, was representation versus action and participation. The councils were organs of action, the revolutionary parties were organs of representation.
What I’m trying to suggest is that what we need to think of today is these citizen assemblies as part of a self-government tradition of citizen action of participation, a restoration and revival of the American republican tradition. That’s not just American. That’s happening around the world. We need to create new spaces of freedom.