Thursday, August 20, 2009

Citizens' Assembly -- Is California dreaming?

Recently, we were regretting the disasters that direct democracy has wrought in California. In the current New Yorker, Hedrik Hertzberg provides an abundance of detail on all the ways that ill-considered and mutually contradictory initiatives, propositions and plebiscites have hamstruck the elected legislature and made it impossible for the state to plan or budget effectively.

Hertzberg reports an attempt to solve the crisis wrought by direct democracy by... more direct democracy. There is an ballot initiative in California to create a citizens' constitutional assembly to review and probably rewrite the state constitution. Members of the assembly will be chosen at random from among the citizens of the state.

"To have faith in such a process requires a faith in the good sense and sincerity of ordinary people — a faith that just about everybody professes," Hertzberg writes. In Canada, we have had some experience with these citizens' assemblies. In both Ontario and British Columbia, the proposals for new voting systems came from assemblies of this kind. I can't say the experience is promising.

What was most striking (though indeed it seemed to strike very few) was the Stalinist levels of agreement the citizens' assemblies achieved. In both provinces, the assemblies were close to unanimous in the proposals they supported. Yet the B.C. and Ontario proposals were strikingly different.

The B.C electoral reform assembly was directed by Gordon Gibson, a political veteran. Gibson's experince had made him deeply concerned about the power imbalance between parties and elected representatives, so he has long advocated a complicated single-transferable-vote system intended to strengthen individual candidates against party-line domination. The Ontario assembly, by contrast, was guided by conventional political scientists who, like most political scientists, were attracted by the mathematical symplicity of the mixed-member-proportional system, in which many of the legislative members would be appointed by the parties in proportion to the parties' share of the popular vote.

What should have caused alarm about how citizen assemblies work is the way that the randomly selected B.C. citizens were almost unanimous behind Gibson's STV ideas -- while the randomly selected Ontario citizens were equally unanimous in support of their advisors' MMP views. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that a kind of Stockholm syndrome took charge in these assemblies. The citizens, well-meaning but ill-prepared, did not provide the kind of vigorous debate among competing alternatives that we hope to find in representative legislatures. There were, let us say, no loyal oppositions arguing divergent views. Instead they became one mass seeking consensus, and so they became sheep to be driven, herded in a flock toward the program that was presented to them most enthusiastically.

(The machine-like unanimity of the randomly chosen citizens hardly proved, however, that the population they were chosen from was equally certain about what it wanted. Both the B.C. proposal and the Ontario proposal went down to massive defeats when put to the electorate in plebiscites.)

Hertzberg in the New Yorker thinks the citizens' assembly is California's only hope. Indeed, change has to come from somewhere. And given the liveliness of political debate in the United States, and the money available to underwrite political ideas of all kinds, it is possible the California version will not become so easily captured by whatever fashionable consensus its experts present to it.
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