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Sunday, January 7, 2024

Chile and Deliberative Democracy


Many posts have discussed deliberation.

Nathan Gardels at Noema:

“Constitutions need general acceptance so we can turn to their rules to manage our differences,” the former left-of-center Chilean President Ricardo Lagos told me in September 2022 after the first attempt to ratify a proposed new constitution by referendum. “Only in this way — arguing within the limits of the constitution and not about it — can countries make changes within the framework of reasonable stability. In the end, what was proposed was a partisan document, which is why it failed.”

 The same could be said of the second failed attempt late last year when 55.8% of the public voted against the newest constitutional proposal. In the first case, the largely far-left and single-issue independents who dominated the final drafting of the text went too far, excluding other interests in society. In the second case, the right symmetrically mimicked their error. In both cases, the interested factions sought not so much to set out fair rules to govern political competition and constrain the use of power as to enshrine their agenda in the state’s founding document.


That the body politic as a whole rejected both efforts when their voices were fully heard suggests that the obstacle to ratifying a new constitution is actually the way forward: Instead of electing delegates to a Constitutional Convention or Constitutional Council, a citizens’ assembly should be selected through sortition — a random lottery, as in the ancient Greek way of democracy, to choose delegates that would comprise a conclave more indicative of the public as a whole. In consultation and collaboration with knowledgeable constitutional experts, they would deliberate clauses of the constitution from a politically disinterested perspective and submit the document to their fellow citizens.


The Chilean experience holds lessons for addressing the legitimacy crisis across all democracies today. In a starkly polarized environment, elections where partisans vie for power by any means necessary only deepen divisions. Particularly in an age when peer-to-peer social media fragments the public square as never before, what is needed is to bring the broader civil society, advised by non-partisan expertise, into governance through new deliberative institutions like citizens’ assemblies that foster negotiation and compromise to reach consensus.