In April 2019, French President Emmanuel Macron announced the formation of the Citizens Convention for Climate. This 150-member panel, composed of randomly selected citizens, was charged with creating legislation to curb France’s greenhouse emissions. After seven meetings, it came up with almost as many recommendations as there were members, 149 to be precise. Macron promised to implement 146 of them, although the climate change bill that the French parliament agreed upon in July 2021 tamed many of the provisions.
Hélène Landemore, 46, a professor of political science at Yale and a leading advocate for deliberative fora with randomly selected citizens, served as a researcher-observer for the citizens climate convention. (Full disclosure: I took a course with her in 2019.) Raised in Normandy and now a dual French and American citizen, Landemore specializes in political theory. She is a passionate advocate for citizens’ assemblies that not only offer recommendations, as did the French panel, but are also empowered to enact those policies in place of elected politicians. Landemore calls this “open democracy,” also the title of one of her books.
While the idea may seem alien to Americans used to elected representatives, Landemore’s democratic vision echoes the founders’ ideas about citizen-legislators. It has roots even before 1776—evoking images of ancient Athens—and it speaks to today’s troubled Western democracies seeking an escape valve for populist resentment stoked by the failures of traditional politics.
Two months ago, President Macron appointed Landemore to the governance committee of another citizens’ assembly, given the task of debating end-of-life policy. (This panel was modeled after its climate-focused predecessor.) The new assembly, which convened in December, aims to finalize its recommendations next month.
I talked to Landemore about her role in the recent assemblies and whether her ambitious notions of a citizen-led democracy can be applied in the United States.
This conversation has been edited and shortened for clarity.
GS: What is open democracy? Why is it preferable to our system in the United States?
HL: Open democracy is a new model of democracy that puts a legislative body made of citizens drawn by lots rather than professional politicians at the center of the system. [Currently] the people we elect are a skewed sample of the population that, ironically, is not representative in a descriptive sense. It doesn’t 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 enclose power to those capable of winning elections and raising money.
GS: What did witnessing your ideas applied in France teach you about applying them in the U.S.?
HL: I don’t see anything in the French case that cannot be replicated in the American context. The main difference is that, in the U.S., you may not have the social movement to implement [selection-by-lot] bodies, although I think it’s changing.
GS: What would you say to those who believe polarization is worse in the U. S.? Can Trump Republicans and progressive Democrats converse constructively?
HL: Polarization is partly induced by party politics. When you bring people into these arenas, they act quite differently.
[Stanford professor of communication] James Fishkin did a deliberative poll in Texas called “America in One Room.” What happened in this setting is that people de-polarized. The liberals became a bit more understanding of the conservative positions, and the conservatives came closer to the liberals. I don’t buy for a second that this cannot be done in the U.S.
GS: You mentioned you’d like to see a deliberative forum on gun violence. What would such an assembly look like?
HL: You convene a sample of, let’s say, 300 randomly selected citizens, in some symbolic place, like Uvalde or Sandy Hook. You have them listen to testimony. Maybe you can have gun lobbies make their case.
I guarantee you they’re not just going to talk about gun regulation. They’re going to talk about mental health, social and economic inequalities, and deaths of despair. They’re going to have a grand political conversation about what causes this social ill. And they’re going to come up with excellent solutions that politicians are incapable of coming up with.
GS: In France, the sample was weighted to accurately reproduce the age and locality demographics of the general population. Considering gun violence, how do you think the sample should be weighted?
HL: Depending on the issue. Say it’s police brutality. You’d want to make sure you sample ethnicity and socioeconomic indicators that typically correlate with being exposed to police brutality.
GS: Growing inequality and monopoly power in the U.S. has led to calls for increased citizen participation in economic policy. Do you believe that citizens’ assemblies would produce better policies?
HL: I am convinced of that. Every policy will have an economic dimension, and it would be fairer if it involved a more descriptive sample of the population. [Political scientists] Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page find that there is zero correlation between what majorities want and public policies once you control for the preferences of economic elites (roughly the richest 10 percent of the population), suggesting majorities have no causal influence on policies in the US.
In the Citizens’ Convention on the Climate, the biggest proposal was mandatory retrofitting public and private housing. The Convention came up with proposals for financing this transition that put more financial burden on people who can afford it and almost none on those who cannot, de facto planning for an important transfer of wealth. This may sound too socialist for Americans, but it’s probably what real climate change mitigation is going to take.
GS: What would you recommend President Joe Biden do to advance “open democracy”?
HL: Start thinking about inserting an opening for citizens’ rights within this opaque, oligarchic system. How do we convene our first nationwide citizens’ assembly on a subject that matters so that we create credibility for this process? [We] can start by creating an institution for climate. Then, as it proves its worth, you peel away some layers from Congress: electoral reform, regulation of insider trading, one by one—replacing electoral representation with another form of representation.