The Democratic Potential of Citizens’ Assemblies

July 7, 2022   •   By Christine Landfried

“You perceive, ladies and gentlemen, that I wish to give the word ‘democracy’ a very broad meaning, a much broader one than the merely political sense of this word would suggest; for I am connecting it with […] the inalienable dignity of mankind, which no force, however humiliating, can destroy.”

Thomas Mann strongly believed that democracy in this sense would succeed in the long run. Why was he so sure of that in 1938, at a time when democracy had lost in Germany?

Thomas Mann did not declare his faith in the coming victory of democracy out of a naïve optimism. He named concrete conditions that have to be fulfilled for a democracy to be able to resist internal and external dangers. For example, he held the opinion that “the social renewal of democracy is the presupposition and the guarantee of its victory.” With his reflections on the conditions of democracy, he calls on us to constantly be aware of what is going wrong in the development of democracy. Let’s embrace this call!

What is going wrong in democracies of the 21st century? For a decade we have observed in Europe and in the United States of America that a growing segment of the population is losing trust not only in political elites but generally in democratic institutions. Losing trust in democratic governance means that people are more and more frightened of the future. An increasing economic inequality makes social cohesion fragile. Public spheres are fragmented because citizens of  different social strata and different cultural and political belongings do not communicate with each other anymore. Social media intensify this trend. However, connections across differences are essential for the vitality of a democracy.

How can we explain this erosion? It is my thesis that representative democracies are in a critical situation because political elites have underestimated the importance of a dialogue with citizens for creating the cultural conditions of democracy. At the same time the relation between these cultural conditions — like trust — and the economic and social foundations of democracy have been neglected. To explain what is happening, we must look at the long-term development. Democratic governments in European countries and the US reacted to the process of globalization in the 1970s by deregulating the economy. These decisions have given globalization a certain direction shaped by an unequal distribution of goods, services, capital, technical and scientific achievements. Growing economic inequality (especially inequality of wealth), social insecurity for ever larger segments of the population, and polarization of the public discourse didn’t come out of the blue. Rather, democratically elected governments established with their policy structures that systematically limited the capacity of societies to act. It will be difficult to change these structures. As a way out, political elites have chosen to downplay the problems. They avoided publicly debating the vexing issues of disappearing trust and social cohesion. This only increased the problems.

What can be done? We must intensify the discourse between citizens across national, cultural, social and political divides, and between citizens and political elites. In order to enhance the effective influence of citizens on politics, to empower the people, new forms of participation have been established all over Europe and the United States. Citizens, randomly chosen and representing the diversity of society, have informed discussions to develop proposals for the solution of political problems and conflicts. Such citizens’ assemblies are practiced on local, national and transnational levels. An example for a transnational assembly is  “The Conference on the Future of Europe.” This conference presented its recommendations on May 9, 2022 and gives insights into the working of citizens’ assemblies.

At the beginning of this conference, citizens got a phone call and were invited to participate. Some of them believed this was a joke. How on earth should they make recommendations for Europe’s future? On three weekends, 800 citizens from 27 member states of the EU discussed in four panels with 200 citizens each policies in the fields of climate change, health, economy and social justice, digitalization, migration, culture and education, and European democracy. A third of the members of the panels were young people between 16 and 25 years. I had the chance to be an observer of the second panel on European democracy, values and rights, rule of law, and security. The quality of the debates was impressive. Citizens were analyzing complex problems and had access to expert knowledge when necessary. They were listening to each other, respecting different views, working on compromises, and struggling to find the right wording and the correct translation. One must not forget that the EU has 24 official languages!  Following the panels, there were plenaries and working groups in which citizens discussed with politicians. And here again, citizens showed communicative competence. Once politicians changed their proposals beyond recognition, the citizens protested. This exchange between citizens and elected representatives was the real novelty of the conference. It is an approach that can help strengthen representative democracy by citizens’ deliberation.

At the end of the conference, 49 proposals were on the table. The success of the conference will depend on whether the proposals are implemented. Once you ask citizens, you must take their answers seriously. Yet, the conference has already made an important impact on European politics. Some of the proposals can be realized on the basis of the existing treaties, while others like the introduction of the majority principle in European foreign policy would need treaty changes and therefore a Convention. An overdue public debate about treaty changes by a Convention has finally started as a consequence of the Conference on the Future of Europe. The political elites, in contrast, have for the most part avoided such a debate entirely. They preferred to change European governance through the backdoor of crisis-management. Whenever there has been a crisis as for example the Euro-crisis, governments gained power to the detriment of parliaments. It was claimed that the transformation would be temporary and only for reasons of crisis-management. But in reality, the new distribution of power turned out to be permanent. Thus, political elites modified European governance by nontransparent ad-hoc-policies instead of choosing the democratic procedure of a Convention. Thanks to the convincing proposals of the citizens, this will not be so easy any more.

The Conference on the Future of Europe has opened up new public spaces for the discourse between citizens of different nations, cultures and social strata as well as for the much-needed exchange between citizens and elected representatives. Thus, the fragmentation of public spheres can be counteracted, solidarity between nation states built up and trust in democratic institutions  regained. New forms of citizens’ participation will not reduce economic inequality. But citizens’ assemblies can restore the democratic legitimacy of politics and thereby enhance the political capacity to fight economic inequality. The “social renewal of democracy” that Thomas Mann far-sightedly demanded many decades ago must be connected with a “discursive renewal” and a “transnational renewal of democracy.” Citizens’ assemblies are just one but crucial step on the long way towards a revival of democracy.

Pacific Palisades
June 10, 2022


Christine Landfried is a Professor emerita of Political Science at the University of Hamburg. Visiting professorships have led her to Sciences Po in Paris, the University of California at Berkeley and the Yale Law School. From 2014 to 2016 she held the Max Weber Chair at New York University. Her research focuses on the political role of constitutional courts, European integration and the role of art in democratic societies. In her studies of the EU she analyzes the conditions under which cultural, economic and political difference can be a potential for democratic governance. Landfried is a 2022 Fellow at the Thomas Mann House Los Angeles. 

Photo: Conference on the Future of Europe. Report on the final outcome (2022). European Parliament, Council of the EU, European Commission, Brussels, Strasbourg.