‘Against Elections: The Case for Democracy’ by David Van Reybrouck
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‘Against Elections: The Case for Democracy’ by David Van Reybrouck (Bodley Head, 208 pages, $15)
Liberal democracy is suffering a crisis of confidence. Mainstream political parties across the West are held in contempt. Simple-minded populism has the wind in its sails. Cynicism about the value of the democratic system is endemic. The ongoing U.S. presidential campaign is a ghastly horror show that is likely causing millions of people to further lose faith in the idea and practice of democracy.
According to the latest World Values Survey, nine percent of Americans thought “having a democratic political system” is a “bad” thing in the mid-1990s, compared with 12 percent today (and 24 percent of Americans under the age of 24). Some 75 percent of Americans and 53 percent of Europeans born in the 1930s say it’s “essential” that they live in a country that is governed democratically; by contrast, the percentage of those born in the 1980s who say this is in the low 40s in Europe and the low 30s in the U.S. Only 32 percent of American millennials agree that it’s “absolutely essential” that “civil rights protect people’s liberty.” The share of respondents who believe it would be better to have a “strong leader” who does not have to “bother with parliament and elections” has grown from 24 percent in 1995 to 32 percent today.
These results are alarming. Liberal democracy appears to be in an epic struggle for survival. Creative thinking is desperately needed. “Against Elections” by Belgian author David van Reybrouck is certainly provocative. It diagnoses what van Reybrouck calls “Democratic Fatigue Syndrome,” identifies symptoms and suggests remedies. The issue is certainly pressing. Low voter turnout, high voter turnover, declining party membership, governmental impotence, political paralysis, compulsive self-promotion, chronic electoral fever, exhausting media stress, and distrust are all contributing to a poisonous atmosphere. “If we don’t urgently reconsider the nature of our democratic fuel, a huge systemic crisis threatens,” van Reybrouck writes.
The book argues that elections only exacerbate the problem. “The words ‘elections’ and ‘democracy’ are nowadays synonymous for almost everyone. We have become convinced that the only way to choose a representative is through the ballot box,” van Reybrouck writes. Democracy has been reduced to representative democracy and representative democracy has been reduced to elections, miring a valuable system in deep difficulties. “If we obstinately continue to hold on to the electoral process at a time of economic malaise, inflammatory media and rapidly changing culture, we will be almost willfully undermining the democratic process,” he argues.
Regular elections may no longer answer the questions posed by a transformed socioeconomic order, van Reybrouck writes. "Imagine having to develop a system today that would express the will of the people. Would it really be a good idea to have them all queue up at polling stations every four or five years with a bit of card in their hands and go into a dark booth to put a mark, not next to ideas but next to names on a list, names of people about whom restless reporting had been going on for months in a commercial environment that profits from restlessness? Would we still have the nerve to call what is in fact a bizarre, archaic ritual ‘a festival of democracy’?”
If democracy is like clay, shaped by its time and formed by historical circumstances, why do we persist with a system formed 200 years ago? “The democracy of Ancient Athens was formed in part by the culture of the spoken word, and the electoral-representative democracy of the 19th and 20th centuries thrived in the era of the printed word,” van Reybrouck writes. Since then political parties have arisen, universal suffrage has been introduced, organized civil society has grown, commercial and social media has drowned out the public arena. So what kind of democracy is appropriate to “today’s era of hyper-fast, decentralized communication, which has created new forms of political involvement”?
Van Reybrouck suggests something called sortition. The idea is that a small number of citizens are periodically selected by lottery and are then empowered to study a given issue as representatives of the population at large. Each area of legislation or debate could be covered by different randomly selected representatives. A form of sortition operated in ancient Athens and in the Renaissance states of Venice and Florence, and Van Reybrouck argues that such a system would reduce corruption and election fever, while increasing attention to the common good. A form of sortition already operates in the jury system: Twelve random members of the public are entrusted to reach an informed decision about crimes. Why not do the same in our political system?
Well, I can think of a few complications. Such a system might work in a tight-knit village community where simple decisions are made. But it isn’t clear how it would operate in a much larger system with far more complex decisions, competing interest groups to consider, and globalized ramifications. What’s more, in a democracy power must be held to account. How could randomly selected ordinary members of the public serve the essential role of politician-as-democratic punchbag? You can’t vote out the public.
In Turkey, the role of ostensibly free elections in consecrating an authoritarian political system shows the limits of the ballot box in fostering democracy. But while Van Reybrouck’s diagnosis of the crisis facing liberal democracy is convincing, his remedy is less so. Still, original thinking on these questions is certainly welcome.
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