Yale political theorist advises French lawmakers on inclusive democracy

Yale political scientist Hélène Landemore addresses the French National Assembly on July 4.
In a July 4 address to members of the French National Assembly, Yale political scientist Hélène Landemore shared ideas for integrating the public into the legislative process.

During a July 4 address to members of the French National Assembly in Paris, Yale political scientist Hélène Landemore presented a quote by American civil rights advocate, writer, and historian W.E.B. Du Bois:  

The vast and wonderful knowledge of this marvelous universe is locked in the bosoms of its individual souls. To tap this mighty reservoir of experience, knowledge, beauty, love, and deed we must appeal not to the few, not to some souls, but to all.”

The quote, from Du Bois’s 1920 book, “Darkwater: Voices from Within the Veil,” captured the theme of Landemore’s message to the French lawmakers, who were gathered to discuss ways to involve the public in governing. She argued that including people from all corners of society in policy deliberations provides “cognitive diversity” that will produce better decisions and give policies greater legitimacy. 

The theory I presented concerns collective intelligence — the idea that the more kinds of people you include in a discussion, the more diversity you have, the more likely you are to figure out the best answer to a given problem,” said Landemore, an associate professor of political science, during an interview in her office in Yale’s Rosenkranz Hall. “Each individual brings a unique perspective and interpretation of the world to the conversation. Combining those perspectives exponentially increases a group’s ability to reach the best solutions.” 

The event, held at the Hôtel de Lassay, was organized and moderated by Stephen Boucher, author of “The Little Manual of Political Creativity.” It was sponsored by La République En Marche! (LaREM), the political party founded in 2016 by French President Emmanuel Macron that swept into power in last year’s legislative elections. Many of the party’s candidates had been seeking public office for the first time. Half were women. The party promised a more open and shared approach to governing, supporting ideas like participatory budgeting — allowing ordinary citizens to have a role in allocating parts of the national budget.

Landemore delivered the keynote address. She was followed by political scientist Lex Paulson ’02 B.A., who shared examples from across the globe of governments engaging in initiatives that seek to include more diverse perspectives in setting policy. It ended with a group exercise on harnessing collective intelligence to solve a policy problem led by Nikola Forster and Ivo Scherrer, representing the think tanks Foraus and Argo, respectively

They are very young and open minded,” Landemore, who was born and raised in France, said of the LaREM lawmakers. “They seem to believe in ideas like collective intelligence, bottom-up democracy, and listening to the people. That’s how they ran their campaign.”

Landemore’s 2013 book, “Democratic Reason,” argues for the superiority of democracy to other forms of government based on its ability to harness the collective intelligence of citizens to produce the best decisions. Her follow up book, “Open Democracy: Reinventing Popular Rule for the 21st Century,” develops new institutional principles for democracy meant to empower ordinary citizens in the legislative process and provide an alternative to representative democracy.

Landemore argues that representative democracies, being based on elections, inevitably entrench power among an elite to the exclusion of the poor and other marginalized groups.

Elections do not provide everyone equal access to power,” she said. “They only give access to power to people who are capable of winning elections. By definition, those people tend to be an elite. They will be citizens who stand out because they are rich, savvy, charismatic, etc. You end up with a group of people in power who do not capture the collective wisdom of the public.”

Hélène Landemore
Hélène Landemore

To make democracies more inclusive and, therefore, better functioning, Landemore advocates the development of randomly selected deliberative bodies composed of a representative sample of the population to set the legislative agenda or provide guidance on issues of national importance.

We would need a lot more experimentation to determine their proper function, but these assemblies would provide the diversity that is missing from the current system,” she said. “They would remind the decision makers, if they remain the decision makers, to consider the needs of the poor, minorities, the losers in globalization — all the groups who are typically left out of the legislative process.”

Randomly selecting lawmakers, a concept called “sortition,” is rooted in the origins of democracy. Ancient Greek city-states, such as Classical Athens, chose public officials by lot. The Athenians were skeptical of elections, which they believed would entrench power within an oligarchy. Representative democracy developed thousands of years later in the 18th century.

We have to be realistic: Nobody is going to support replacing Congress or Parliament with a randomly selected assembly,” she said. “Perhaps we could supplement existing systems with randomly selected assemblies, either for one-shot issues the parliament doesn’t feel equipped to address or to make recommendations about controversial issues, like abortion, as has just been successfully done in Ireland. We could also give the randomly selected bodies the power to set the legislative agenda.”

Several Western democracies have experimented with using citizens’ assemblies to guide decision-making. In 2010, Iceland’s government created an assembly of 950 randomly selected citizens to set guiding principles for the drafting of a new national constitution. The assembly produced several ideas, such as nationalizing ownership of Iceland’s natural resources, that were enshrined in Iceland’s new constitution.

The process showed that it’s possible to do things completely differently and ignore political scientists’ long-standing dogmas, such as the need to insulate the drafting of a constitution from popular pressure,” Landemore said.

Ireland has twice relied on citizens’ assemblies to weigh in on highly contentious constitutional issues. In 2014, an assembly composed of 66 randomly selected people and 34 professional politicians recommended a national referendum legalizing same-sex marriage. The referendum passed with 69% of the vote.

Last year, an assembly composed of 99 randomly selected individuals recommended repealing the Eighth Amendment to Ireland’s Constitution, which criminalized abortion. The assembly’s deliberations were made public and disseminated through the news media. In a May 2018 referendum, 69% of voters supported the assembly’s recommendation to repeal the amendment.

Landemore said the experience in Ireland shows that a citizen’s assembly can trigger an informed debate among the general public on even the most divisive issues. 

When the referendum came, you had a feeling the decision was informed by an assembly that was genuinely representative of the diversity of views in the larger country,” she said.

Deliberation within a randomly selected assembly enables people with opposing views to resolve conflicts in a controlled setting, said Landemore, comparing the process to a jury deliberation.

You can bring Trump voters together with people on the left and try to work out conflicts instead of letting them play out in ways that polarize us further,” she said. “It may encourage productive conversations, not shouting matches. The discussion moves beyond insults and accusations. People realize it is not about them but about what’s best for the country.”

Fostering productive deliberation is challenging, as people tend to want to stand their ground in an argument, which can lead them to become frustrated or angry, Landemore said.

People don’t know how to deliberate,” she said. “To do it right, you have to prepare them psychologically and let them know that it is going to be long and painful at times. It is going to mean sacrificing closely held ideas and beliefs. It means putting your ego aside and accepting that you might have to reshuffle your way of thinking. It can be painful psychologically.”

The group exercise at the end of the session gave the members of parliament an opportunity to deliberate among themselves on ways to use technology to better integrate the public into the legislative process. 

Landemore said the lawmakers seemed willing to consider her ideas.

A lot of them are enamored with participatory budgeting and crowdsourcing, but those approaches, while very interesting, can only be used at the margin because they are based on self-selection, which can potentially yield even less diverse assemblies than elections,” she said. “By emphasizing sortition, I wanted to shift the conversation toward a more ambitious reimagining of institutions. I think some of them got it. We’ll see.”

Media Contact

Mike Cummings: michael.cummings@yale.edu, 203-432-9548