Citizens’ Assemblies: A Possible Answer to the Growing Threat of Nationalism

Photo by Aditya Joshi on Unsplash

The United States has seen a rise in nationalism the past few years, especially with the election of Donald Trump in 2016. Unlike patriotism, nationalism “is often driven more by racial and ethnic superiority than a love of country.” This growing problem is seen as a result of anti immigration sentiment, anti economic globalization and even because of the growing distrust in the media and news. This article argues why Citizens’ Assemblies could be the answer to nationalism that the United States desperately needs.

First and foremost, it is important to define patriotism and explain why it is different from nationalism. Patriotism is defined as, “special affection for one’s own country, a sense of personal identification with the country, special concern for the well-being of the country, willingness to sacrifice to promote the country’s good.” It has nothing to do with race or ethnicity, nor does it promote a certain racial or ethnic group above others. So, although nationalism and patriotism are often interchanged, they are quite dissimilar from one another.

During his 2016 presidential campaign, many Americans believed that Republican candidate, and eventual 45th president of the United States, Donald Trump, emboldened white nationalists. White nationalism is the belief that white people are superior to every other race and should be allowed to dominate over other ethnic groups. David Duke, the former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), endorsed and voted for Trump in 2016 and again in 2020. The KKK is America’s most notorious right wing, white supremacist hate group. Some of their main targets include African Americans, Jews, immigrants and the LGBTQ+ community.

At the 2017 Charlottesville, Virginia, alt-right, neo-Nazi rally, Duke stated that the rally represented “the fulfillment of President Donald Trump’s vision for America.” The “Unite the Right” rally was organized by white nationalists and white supremacists to protest the removal of a Confederate statue of General Robert E. Lee. The organizers themselves stated that their intended goal with this rally was to unite white nationalists. Attendance members included Klansmen, neo-Nazis and neo-Confederates. The protests turned violent resulting in more than 30 people injured, as well as the death of Heather Heyer after James Alex Fields Jr., a self identified white supremacist, rammed his car into a crowd of counter-protestors. Part of Trump’s response to the violence was him stating that there were “some very fine people on both sides,” which led to many critics arguing that his remark was sympathetic towards white nationalists and white supremacists.

That same issue resurfaced in the first 2020 presidential debate. When Trump was asked to denounce all white supremacist and nationalist groups, who have become some of his most fervent supporters, he instead told the Proud Boys, a self proclaimed “‘western chauvinist’ men’s club established in 2016,” to “stand back and stand by.” Many Americans interpreted this comment as the president energizing one of his most supportive nationalist groups. While the Proud Boys denied that Trump’s statement was an endorsement, their membership grew by almost 10% because of it.

Religious and racially biased hate crimes have also seen an increase. In 2016, the FBI documented 3,489 reported racially biased incidents, with 1,739 of them against the Black community. Out of 4,426 victims, 2,220 victims were from the Black community. Anti-Jewish hate crimes made up 684 out of the 1,273 documented religiously biased incidents and anti-Islamic (Muslim) hate crimes made up 307 out of 1,273. In 2019, the FBI documented 3,963 racially biased incidents with 1,930 of them against the Black community. Out of 4,930 victims, 2,391 were from the Black community. Anti-Jewish hate crimes also increased to 953 out of 1,521 religiously biased incidents. There has been a steady upward trend in hate crimes, especially against minority ethnic and religious groups, under Trump.

This is where the implementation of Citizens’ Assemblies could help the United States fight against the rise in nationalism, as well as bring about a more democratic union. Citizens’ Assemblies are a group of citizens, or people, who deliberate on issues of local, national and international importance. Membership is randomly selected and selected members are generally given information packets about the topic or topics they will be discussing. The idea behind a citizens’ assembly is to bring everyday people into the democratic process so that laws and legislation will hopefully reflect the views of a majority, rather than a fringe minority.

In the 115th U.S. Senate, the median age for senators was 61.8 years, almost the oldest in U.S. history, and the median age in the House of Representatives was 57.8 years. But as of July 2019, the U.S. population was around 328.2 million with the largest age group being adults aged 25 to 29 — around 12 million males and 11.5 million females. U.S. legislators are also often working in the interest of the corporations and lobbyists who give them money as opposed to the interest of their constituents. In the 2019–2020 election cycle, Senate Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell (R-KY), accepted $418,266 from lobbyists. He is also a top recipient of coal mining and tobacco industries. U.S. Senator, Thom Tillis (R-NC), received the next largest amount of money from lobbyists with $376,843.

Instead of placing all the power into legislators with ulterior motives, Citizens’ Assemblies are a better answer. In 2018, Ireland’s Citizens’ Assembly gained worldwide attention when they spearheaded the country’s vote to overturn the ban on abortion. The country had used a similar system in 2015 to legalize same sex marriage. In 2019, they turned to the Citizens’ Assembly model again to combat the climate crisis. Through this process, Ireland realized that the simple key of making this work was taking party politics out of the equation and putting information into the hands of everyday people.

The New York Times tried a similar approach by randomly selecting a group of 523 registered voters from around the United States. Participants were given a 55 page handbook on issues like immigration, healthcare and the economy and discussed them in randomly assigned groups of about 12. More “extreme” proposals lost support on both sides and centrist ideas started making their way to the table. Bringing everyday people together facilitated more diverse perspectives and backgrounds. Participants were not beholden to corporations or lobbyists nor were they trying to secure another term, so compromise became much easier to attain.

While Citizens’ Assemblies might not be the end-all solution to combating nationalism, they are a good starting point. They allow for people to have civil discussions and see one another as human beings rather than enemy combatants. It no longer becomes about Democrat vs. Republican or black vs. white, but rather, Americans working together to create a better America.

san jose, ca × washington, dc

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