The Climate Of Democracy

Inviting the broader civil society into governance can cool the polarized political atmosphere and lead to effective action.

Jonathan Zawada for Noema Magazine

Nathan Gardels is the editor-in-chief of Noema Magazine.

Democracies across the West are in varying states of dysfunction. From Israel to France to Mexico, decisions taken in the halls of power fill the streets with protests. 

In the United States, Washington is paralyzed along partisan lines while state governments in the federal system battle it out over abortion rights, same-sex marriage, school curriculums and the integrity of vote counting. Adding to this roiling distemper, the first-ever indicted former American president is bent on stoking social unrest through his legion of loyalists as he campaigns once again for elected office.

In short, politics is heating up as the breach of distrust between the public and the institutions of self-government continues to grow apace. It has become clear that electoral democracy, in which all-out partisanship foists binary choices over complex issues on a diverse public, cannot in and of itself resolve the protracted crisis of governance. New institutions that enable nuanced solutions by encouraging negotiation and compromise in the broader civil society are screaming to be born. 


In Noema, David Van Reybrouck, the Belgian cultural anthropologist and author of the seminal book, “Against Elections,” spells out one way in which the combination of structured deliberation by citizens and the direct democracy of referendums can provide the missing link that might help mend the ruptured trust behind polarization.

Van Reybrouck proposes what he calls a “preferendum” in which a citizens’ assembly or “mini-public” indicative of the body politic gathers to deliberate and propose a list of action items for a plebiscite that would set the governing agenda. Where a normal referendum asks for a straight yes or no answer to a certain question, a preferendum allows voters to indicate their policy preferences by marking boxes that say “strongly disagree,” “disagree,” “agree,” “strongly agree,” etc. In addition, the voter is invited to highlight the proposals he or she cares about most. Since every voter in the jurisdiction is being asked the same question, a consensus on shared priorities can be established.

As Van Reybrouck summarizes it, “By validating and ranking the proposals of a mini-public, it [a preferendum] gives nuanced input to responsible public authorities in a loop from government to citizens’ assembly to preferendum and back to government. Such a loop is better for citizens (everyone is involved), better for politicians (clear and nuanced input) and better for policies (decisions are informed). It is also better for democracy (people have real impact).”

For Van Reybrouck, this approach would be of particular use in pressing the urgency of climate action stymied by the partisan squabbles of representative government. 

California As Pace-Setter

Climate concerns, both political and biospherical, are also on the mind of those who similarly propose ways to integrate citizens’ deliberation with the direct democracy system in California. 

Because decisions by public ballot in the Golden State, now the fourth biggest economy in the world, set precedents on so many fronts for so many others, it warrants singular attention as a prime testing ground for innovations in democracy. 

California adopted the tools of direct citizen governance — the recall (of elected officials), the initiative (citizen-proposed legislation) and the referendum (to overturn legislative decisions) — from Switzerland in 1911 as a way to counter the power of the railroad trusts that dominated the elected legislature. At the time, the state’s population stood at around 2.5 million. While Switzerland’s population even today is only about 9 million, California has swelled to near 40 million. 

As the largest direct democracy in the world, it is not surprising that its experience encompasses the good, the bad and the ugly.

The good has meant public votes to protect the coastline from overdevelopment and dismantle gerrymandering by empowering an independent citizens’ commission, instead of partisan legislators, to draw electoral districts. 

The bad, at times, has meant votes by the public that create fiscal havoc in the state by locking in spending but locking out revenues. It has more recently meant the abuse of referendums by well-funded corporations to overturn the decisions of an elected legislature, such as when Uber and Lyft spent around $224 million to repeal a law that would have made contractors into employees or, at present, an effort by the fast-food industry to rescind legislation that would set a higher minimum wage for their employees. 

The ugly has meant votes to ban same-sex marriage or cut services to immigrants, both thrown out later by the courts. 

In Noema this week, Mark Baldassare, one of the state’s most esteemed public policy analysts, and Cheryl Katz, a science and environmental journalist, propose ways to temper the bad and ugly while amplifying the potential of the good. The new practices and institutions of deliberation they suggest would restore the centrality of citizens in a process that has largely been appropriated by the very type of organized special interests it was created to check. 

First, they call for the creation of a “citizens’ initiative review commission” that would serve to vet ballot measures from the standpoint of the public interest. “State leaders should provide the blueprint and fiscal resources for a representative group of voters to be randomly selected and invited to participate in a series of public meetings,” they write. “These commission members should be given the task of holding public hearings with presentations by both sides of each citizens’ initiative, along with policy experts; deliberating on the measure’s pros and cons; and then making summary recommendations that would appear in the California Secretary of State’s official voters’ guide.” 

“Second,” they continue, “California leaders should convene a citizens’ assembly on the climate crisis. They can learn from the citizens’ assemblies taking place throughout the world, especially from the recent round of assemblies in Europe. State leaders could follow the current model, in which citizens’ assemblies typically involve about 100 citizens who are randomly chosen and invited by government officials to represent the profile of the public. In a series of informed discussions, the participants search for common ground and make policy recommendations.”

Third, to forge broader consensus over ever-tougher measures required to battle climate change “state leaders need to give voters a chance to weigh in on the policies reflected in their bills and actions by putting legislative measures about climate and energy on the 2024 ballot.” These could involve the issue of subsidies for electric vehicles and funds to build out charging stations, bond measures to fund projects dealing with droughts, wildfires and floods. They could further entail establishing limits on oil drilling. If a majority imposed limits through a ballot initiative, they argue, it would be harder for the industry to undo by referendum laws passed by the governor and legislature.     

Necessarily undergirding all these proposals, they go on, “legislation mandating full and accurate funding disclosure at every stage of the initiative process is also a must so that voters are more aware of who is bankrolling the yes and no campaigns.” 

A Bad Time For Dysfunction

There could not be a worse time for dysfunctional governance than when we are approaching the point of no return as the cumulative effects of a warming climate cascade toward calamity. And that is not to speak of all the other burning issues from inequality to the challenges of AI, synthetic biology and even the renewed threat of world war. 

The inability of representative democracy to reach a governing consensus in the face of these challenges is the impetus for building more citizen-centered institutions that compensate for its failures.