How to get people to talk to one another again? Citizens’ assemblies

Interview with Jane Mansbridge, Adams Professor of Political Leadership and Democratic Values Emerita at the Harvard Kennedy School, is the author of “Beyond Adversary Democracy.” Her current work revolves around representation, democratic deliberation, and everyday activism:

GAZETTE: How might we get citizens who are so polarized to listen to one another?

MANSBRIDGE: One proven practice is the technique of citizens’ assemblies or deliberative polls. These are groups of citizens drawn randomly, through a democratic lottery, from a particular population. It could be an entire country, a state, a city, or even a neighborhood, from which you bring together a group of citizens to talk about an issue that is of concern to their community. For this technique to be successful, the group has to be random, meaning that you have to have good representation from everyone, not just the white retirees who don’t have much to do and would love to come to this sort of thing. To get a random group, you ought to able to pay the participants because you want to be able to get the poor, the less educated, and people who, for one reason or another, would not give up a weekend otherwise to come together with other citizens to deliberate about some major issue.

GAZETTE: How do we know these assemblies foster civil dialogue?

MANSBRIDGE: Let’s take the deliberative polling organized by the Center for Deliberative Democracy at Stanford that I’ve worked with, in informal ways, for a couple of decades. If you look at those gatherings, one important way to get citizens to listen to one another comes from their design, in which they alternate small groups of 12 or so people, randomly drawn from the random selection, with larger assemblies, in which the citizens ask questions to experts. One of the tasks they have in their small group is not only to deliberate about the issues, but to design questions they want to ask the experts. As it happens, the project of asking a common question becomes a task that binds citizens together across the lines of difference….(More)”