In April 2019, French President Emmanuel Macron announced the creation of the Citizens’ Conference for Climate. This 150-member panel, composed of randomly selected citizens, was charged with creating laws to curb France’s greenhouse emissions. After seven meetings, it came up with recommendations as many as 149 members. Macron has promised to implement 146 of them, although the climate change bill that the French parliament agreed to in July 2021 rules out many of the provisions.
Helen Landmore, 46, a professor of political science at Yale and a leading advocate for deliberative forums with randomly selected citizens, served as a researcher-observer for the Citizen Climate Conference. (Full disclosure: I took a course with him in 2019.) Raised in Normandy and now a dual French and American citizen, Landmore specializes in political theory. He is a passionate advocate for citizens’ assemblies that not only make recommendations, as the French panel did, but also have the power to implement those policies in place of elected politicians. Landmore calls it “open democracy”, also the title of one of his books.
Although the concept may seem alien to Americans for elected representatives, Landmore’s democratic vision echoes the Founders’ conception of citizen-legislators. It has roots even before 1776—conjuring up ancient Athens—and speaks to today’s troubled Western democracies seeking relief from populist discontent over the failure of traditional politics.
Two months ago, President Macron appointed Landmore to another civic assembly, tasked with debating end-of-life policies. (The panel was modeled after its climate-focused predecessor.) The new assembly, which convened in December, aims to finalize its recommendations next month.
I spoke with Landmore about his role in recent rallies and whether his ambitious idea of citizen-led democracy could be applied in the United States.
This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity
GS: What is open democracy? Why is it preferable to our system in the US?
HL: Open democracy is a new model of democracy that places a legislative body made up of a large number of citizens rather than professional politicians at the center of the system. [Currently] The people we select are a skewed sample of the population which, ironically, is not representative in the descriptive sense. It does not add up to good lawmaking and it skews the representation of people’s problems and what their solutions should be. Unlike representative democracy, open democracy does not bind the power of those who are able to win elections and raise money.
GS: What did applying your ideas in France teach you about applying them to the United States?
HL: I don’t see anything in the French case that can’t be replicated in the American context. The main difference is that, in the US, you may not have a social movement to implement [selection-by-lot] The body, though I think it’s changing.
GS: What would you say to people who think polarization is worse in the US? Can Trump Republicans and Progressive Democrats Talk Constructively?
HL: Polarization is partly induced by party politics. When you bring people into this arena, they act quite differently.
[Stanford professor of communication] James Fishkin conducted a deliberate survey in Texas called “America in One Room.” What has happened in this setting is that people are de-polarized. Liberals have come to understand a little more about the conservative position, and conservatives have come closer to liberals. I don’t buy for a second that it can’t be done in the US
GS: You’ve mentioned that you’d like to see an intentional forum on gun violence. What would such a gathering look like?
HL: You call a sample of 300 randomly selected citizens to a symbolic location such as Uvalde or Sandy Hook. You have to hear their testimony. Maybe you can sue them in the gun lobby.
I guarantee you they won’t just talk about gun control. They are going to talk about mental health, social and economic inequality and the death of depression. They are going to have a great political conversation about what causes this social ill. And they will come up with excellent solutions that politicians are unable to come up with.
GS: In France, the sample was weighted to accurately reproduce the age of the general population and the local population. Considering gun violence, how do you think the sample should be weighted?
HL: Depends on the subject. Say it’s police brutality. You want to make sure you sample racial and socioeconomic indicators that are commonly associated with exposure to police brutality.
GS: Growing inequality and monopoly power in the United States has led to calls for increased citizen participation in economic policy. Do you believe that citizen assemblies produce better policy?
HL: I am sure of it. Every policy will have an economic dimension and will be fairer if it involves a more descriptive sample of the population. [Political scientists] Martin Gillens and Benjamin I. Page finds that there is zero correlation between what the majority wants and public policy once you control for laws that reflect the interests of a powerful minority, the preferences of the wealthiest 10 percent of the population.
At the Citizens’ Convention on Climate Change, the biggest proposal was mandatory retrofitting of public and private housing. [To finance this,] The convention came up with the idea of redistribution from the rich to the least well off.
GS: What would you advise President Joe Biden to do to advance “open democracy”?
HL: Start thinking about inserting an opening for citizens’ rights into this opaque, oligarchic system. How do we convene our first nationwide citizen assembly on an issue so important to building credibility for this process? [We] Can start by creating an institution for the climate. Then, as it proves its worth, you peel back some layers from Congress: electoral reform, insider trading controls, one after another—a different kind of representation than electoral representation.