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Democracy field notes

Are Elections Ruining Democracy?

The Flemish historian and writer David Van Reybrouck has recently triggered a minor sensation in the Low Countries by insisting that Western democracies are suffering so much election fatigue (electoral democracy is ‘killing’ democracy, he says) that what is now needed is the replacement of periodic elections, the ritual of citizens choosing parliamentary representatives, by government based on random selection and allotted assemblies of citizens considered as equals.

Van Reybrouck knows how to turn a political phrase. ‘The realities of our democracies disillusion people at an alarming rate’, he says. ‘We must ensure that democracy does not wear itself out.’ He’s convinced that elections are paralysing democracy because electoral democracy is a contradiction in terms, and in practice. Representation is essentially an aristocratic device: a form of delegation according to which ‘the person who casts his or her vote, casts it away’. From his neo-classical perspective, elections ‘are not only outdated as a democratic procedure, they were never meant to be democratic in the first place. Elections were invented to stop the danger of democracy’. It follows from this conjecture that periodic elections are formulae for periodic frustration and unhappiness among citizens, the cure for which, van Reybrouck concludes, is ridding democracies of ballot box fetishism. ‘Three thousand years of experimenting with democracy, and only two hundred years of playing with elections: and yet, we believe that elections are sacred’, he concludes. Since there is in fact nothing sacrosanct about elections and their ‘one person, one vote’ principle, the time has come to embrace the alternative principle of ‘one person, one chance’. If democracy is the struggle for the ‘the equal distribution of political chances’, then sortition, the random sampling of opinions and decisions by citizens, is the way forward, to a more truly democratic polity.

Van Reybrouck’s spirited attack on elections makes some important telling points. He reminds us that ballot box fetishism blinds us to the fact that in the age of monitory democracy public efforts by courts, not-for-profit NGOs and other watchdog bodies to scrutinise and restrain arbitrary power are just as important as ‘free and fair’ elections in nurturing the spirit and substance of democracy. There are times (think of the vital role played by the International Council on Clean Transportation in recently ‘outing’ Volkswagen) when monitory mechanisms prove much more effective in humbling arbitrary power. Van Reybrouck is right to point out that democracy is unique among political forms in its celebration of conflict as an open learning process; that a Donald J. Trump world ‘in which conflicts are constantly being maximized is not a democracy, it is hysteria’; and that ‘learning to live with conflict’ by various means of conflict resolution, other than elections, is of basic importance to the survival and flourishing of any given democratic arrangement.

Van Reybrouck also correctly points out that sortition is already in widespread use in democracies, for instance in the public opinion polling industry. And he is right that there are contexts, especially at the level of cities and regions, where citizens’ assemblies based on random selection can have enlivening democratic effects that are combined, in matters of policy, with efficiency and effectiveness gains.

Van Reybrouck is an important European figure in the re-imagining of democracy under 21st-century conditions. But his proposal to return us to the world of Athenian democracy, a world that did not even have a word for representation, let alone awareness of its advantages, suffers substantial weaknesses.

Claudia Chwalisz

To begin with, there is the strategic difficulty (encountered by G1000, a Belgian citizens’ initiative funded by voluntary donations and launched with his help during 2011) to do with which political forces will support and implement sortition democracy, and whether in the long run they can do so on a scale sufficient to displace general elections. (The same difficulty, and others, dogs Luca Belgiorno-Nettis’s New Democracy Foundation, which I have criticised elsewhere for its double standards.) There’s a conceptual difficulty as well. Reybrouck’s whole case rests on a misrepresentation of the process of representation. The Life and Death of Democracy explains at length why representation isn’t essentially an aristocratic device: a form of delegation according to which ‘the person who casts his or her vote, casts it away’. Democratic representation has medieval roots. It defies the distinction between mimicry (mandating, or issuing instructions) and self-sacrifice by delegation. It rather involves freely and fairly choosing others to take decisions for a fixed period of time. Representation means keeping continuous public tabs on politicians, then throwing them from office at the next election, or when their time is up. It’s much too simple to say that voting is equivalent to throwing away votes. Representation by election is a clever way of rotating leaders. It is equally a method of reminding citizens publicly that the body politic contains disagreements, and that those who act as if there’s consensus can turn out to be politically dangerous. In a more mundane sense, representation also saves busy citizens time in their conduct of public affairs: there are just too few hours in a day, or evenings in a week, for allotment democracy in pure form to work.

A voting machine, or kleroterion. Ancient Agora Museum, Athens

Van Reybrouck has a strange aversion to political leadership. His secular critique of elections and leadership through representation forgets that in the ancient Greek assembly democracies the kleroterion method of making decisions - allotment - was widely supposed by citizens to have the backing of the deities, who would put their powerful shoulders to the wheel of good government based on allotment. Our world is obviously different; there are no gods and goddesses to ensure that allotment produces intelligent and wise government. Put differently, van Reybrouck ignores the democratic advantages of intelligent political leaders whose legitimacy comes from election. Leadership and democracy is of course a large subject, but his neglect of its importance perhaps explains why there’s a deep prevarication in his work about whether or not elected legislatures should be replaced in their entirety by a ‘parliament of allotted citizens’.

Finally, van Reybrouck overlooks some real-world trends that run counter to his big thesis that elections are killing democracy. Globally speaking, the culture of elections is actually spreading, to the point where national elections are being outflanked and supplemented by multiple types of elections, in many different locales. Elections are not withering away. They are not in their swan song phase. Jostling for victory on the battlefield of elections is of growing significance in people’s lives. We live in times marked by experiments in deliberative polling, online petitions and audience and customer voting in such areas as schools, hospitals, factories, offices and airports. The ‘clickocracy’ of the Eurovision Song Contest shows that the culture of voting is spreading as well through the field of popular media entertainment. Our age of communicative abundance enables diaspora voting and (think of the Trump and Clinton show) national elections witnessed by regional and global publics. The rules of representative government are also being applied within growing numbers of large-scale global organisations, including the WHO, the WTO, the Antarctic Treaty System, Fifa and the International Olympic Committee.

Van Reybrouck is of course right to emphasise that in many settings the reality of elections is often miserable, corrupted by money, tedium, policy fudge, lies and bullshit. As an historian, he’s right as well to remind us that the passion and purpose that fueled the historic post-1789 struggles for ‘one person, one vote’ have faded. Elections are not what they used to be. Illusions about their political centrality and power to change the world must be abandoned. But it does not follow from these observations that citizens and their representatives are now turning their backs on elections. How otherwise can we explain present-day efforts to recapture the founding spirit and raise the integrity level of elections and election procedures, to improve their form and invest them with new meaning? Attempts to refurbish the powers of legislatures and demands for automatic, same-day, universal voter registration run along these lines. So do court actions against gerrymandering (an example is the current case before the US Supreme Court, Evenwel v Abbott, to decide whether all residents or just eligible voters should be counted in re-districting exercises). Calls for the reduction of the voting age, and for tougher restrictions on lobbying, campaign financing and advertising are part of the same push to breathe life back into the spirit and substance of elections.

Yangon women pose for a selfie outside a polling station on election day, November 2015. Liam Cochrane/ABC

One reason why van Reybrouck ignores these important counter-trends is because he shows little interest in the way elections can function as exhilarating public dramas. Beginning with the remarkable transition to democracy in India at the end of the 1940s, electoral democracy has taken root in many foreign soils. It has become a planetary phenomenon. The whole trend has helped keep alive and nurture the joy of founding elections: the shared exhilaration of citizens acting as equals in public when they go to vote. Most political scientists who have analysed founding elections have missed the point that the public thrill they generate isn’t confined to so-called transitions to democracy. This year’s elections in Taiwan, and the recent general election in Canada, show that founding elections are much more promiscuous affairs. The joy they bring can flourish at any time, in a variety of contexts, sometimes without much warning.

The key point missed by van Reybrouck is that elections can’t be measured straightforwardly by voting outcomes, or by polling citizens’ opinions, or by strong talk of 'the disease of representation’. Elections can be moments when millions of citizens, often for the first time in their lives, experience the thrill of acting together as equals. They go the polling stations as if they are about to kiss the whole world. When that happens, elections are not mere instances of instrumental calculation. Elections are fabulous fun; they can even fling voters into an unforgettable state of suspended animation. At their most magical, elections don’t ‘kill’ democracy. They are instead joyous carnivals of equality, a fleeting moment when the world of power is potentially turned upside down, a public celebration of equal togetherness shaped by traditions and collective visions of how the polity might be better organised, and better governed.

The gist of the following comments on David van Reybrouck’s Tegen Verkiezingen (Amsterdam and Antwerp, 2013), and his other writings on the subject of elections, first appeared in an interview conducted by Marc Chavannes and Anne Schepers (‘Chaos, Populism, Arbitrary Power’) for the Dutch publication de Correspondent.

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