Issue Brief

A Citizens Constitutional Convention for California

How to Avoid Partisanship and Special Interest Influence
July 2009 |

“Every man, and every body of men on earth, possesses the right of self-government…I am not among those who fear the people.”  --Thomas Jefferson

“This representative assembly should be in miniature an exact portrait of the people at large.  It should think, feel, reason, and act like them.”  -- John Adams

“The greatness of America lies not in being more enlightened than any other nation, but rather in her ability to repair her faults.”  - Alexis de Tocqueville

“I know no safe depositary of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education.  This is the true corrective of abuses of constitutional power.”  --Thomas Jefferson


The United States of America was founded on a unique vision of self-government that became an inspiration to the world.  The founders and the framers believed, as Thomas Jefferson said, “Every man, and every body of men on earth, possesses the right of self-government.”  Over a half century later, President Abraham Lincoln renewed the spirit of 1776 when he declared that America was a place “of the people, by the people and for the people.”

In the early 21st century, California democracy has become a faint echo of the founders’ original vision.  The Golden State still has a strong civil society, and the democratic spirit reaches deep into the state’s roots.  But the institutions of government and elections have been gathering cobwebs for some time, undermined by special interests, raw partisanship, and citizen disengagement.  Those failures in turn have hurt the ability of California’s government to enact forward-looking policy.  In order to once again become a living expression of the founders’ inspiration, California is badly in need of democratic renewal.

New methods of deliberative democracy and citizen consultation, currently being used across the nation, have great potential to renew and recharge this democratic ideal for the 21st century.  Especially if deployed as part of a constitutional convention focused on redesigning government, a randomly selected body of average Californians can lay the basis for a 21st century version of the Spirit of 1776.  While the techniques of deliberative democracy are quite modern, the concept itself is based on an old, old idea reminiscent of a New England town meeting:  if average people are brought together and given an opportunity to become informed, and to mull the pros and cons of specific policy proposals, they will come up with practical solutions based on what is best for the general welfare.  

Some have wondered if average people are capable of the kind of in-depth understanding of complex issues that will be necessary for redesigning California.  But the truth is, average Californians are the only ones who can lead our state out of the quagmire of special interests and partisanship that currently is paralyzing it.  That’s because average Californians bring a special quality that too many incumbents and the political class in general do not have:  a pragmatic desire to solve the state’s problems, regardless of ideology, partisanship or career self-interest. 

Says Steve Roselle, a deliberative democracy practitioner from Viewpoint Learning in California, “Many people enter the deliberative democracy process with strongly held political beliefs, but usually they are far more interested in finding workable solutions than in adhering to a particular ideology.”  Participants often demonstrate a ready willingness to mix and match elements from differing political approaches – market-based, public sector, “conservative” or “liberal” – as long as the result is a solution that will work for themselves and their communities.  “Their guiding question,” says Roselle, “is not ‘Does this fit into my political framework?’ but ‘Will this work?’  As a result, participants’ conclusions on specific issues have a commonsense, practical quality.”

This aspect of citizen gatherings – the focus on what works, not ideology – has been found particularly useful in otherwise deadlocked situations.  It turns out there is something powerful and transformative in a process where average citizens are asked to dialogue with differently minded people on what policies will work.  These “democratic agoras” have been used with impressive results on a range of issues in a range of places in the United States, as well as in other countries.  In post-Katrina New Orleans, 4000 people, including the diaspora spread across twenty one cities, were convened simultaneously to give input into how to spend scarce rebuilding dollars.  Following the tragedy of the September 11 attacks, officials in Lower Manhattan used various deliberative democracy methods to break a policy deadlock by involving thousands of New Yorkers in the redevelopment of the World Trade Center site.  In California and other states, citizen consultation has been applied in a range of meetings and forums involving hundreds of people to advance solutions to significant and contentious issues such as tax reform, health care, housing, regional development and education.

After studying the evidence exhibited in dozens of deliberative democracy events that have occurred in the United States and abroad in recent years, the conclusion of this report is that a constitutional convention of randomly selected citizens, gathered together under the Spirit of 1776, can be entrusted to make good public policy decisions.  As the case studies presented later in this report illustrate, the evidence overwhelmingly supports the conclusion that not only can citizens make good decisions on complex questions, but such gatherings are critical to reestablishing faith in government.  Unlike delegates chosen either by election or by appointment, delegates chosen by random selection are not beholden to special interests, party leaders or incumbents.  They are not mired in career self-interest, and retain a degree of legitimacy and credibility with their fellow citizens that the political class and their designees no longer enjoy. 

In previous uses of these deliberative democracy methods, not only were citizens able to make sound decisions but, perhaps more importantly, their feeling of power over their destiny helped restore their faith in government.  This is particularly important in the Golden State.  Californians have lost faith in their leaders and their government.  Approval numbers for the Legislature and Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger are at rock bottom lows.  Voter turnout often is abysmally low, as voters demonstrate by their absence their lack of faith in the electoral process.  Indeed, one statewide poll found that Californians have more faith in average people like themselves to design a reform process than they have in either elected leaders or even independent experts.  At this point, Californians trust themselves better than any other body to get California out of its current governance and budgetary strait jackets.  The Spirit of 1776 and Lincoln’s faith reside deeply within the California body politic, looking for a vehicle through which it can express itself.

For the full report, please see the pdf attached below.

Average Californians are the only ones who can lead our state out of the quagmire of special interests and partisanship that currently is paralyzing it.