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Are we electoral fundamentalists?

By Claudia Chwalisz.

Contre les élections by David Van Reybrouck, Translated from the original Dutch by Isabelle Rosselin and Philippe Noble (Babel, February 2014)


Representative democracy today seems to be at an impasse. Low voter turnout, falling party membership, plummeting trust in politicians, the fierce rise of populist parties. These trends, together with political fragmentation, disengagement among young generations, and backlash against the political elite who have failed to govern responsibly, highlight democracy’s dilemma. Though much has been written about this democratic crisis, less has been proposed in terms of solutions. Belgian historian David Van Reybrouck’s recent book, Contre les élections [Against Elections], attempts to fill this gap of ideas. Although it has not yet been translated into English, as is obvious from what I discuss below, his analyses are critically important in the current climate.

While definitions vary, one of the uncontested elements of representative democracy is the practice of free and fair elections. This is summed up succinctly in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government; this will shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections.” Yet, why is it that such a concise document spells out the precise implementation of one such right, as though the procedure itself is as fundamental as the desired end? As Van Reybrouck writes in Against Elections:

One gets the feeling that democracy has become a sort of export product: ready-made, neatly packaged, signed and sealed for delivery. Democracy becomes an IKEA kit for “free and fair elections,” to be assembled by the recipient upon arrival, with or without the use of the enclosed instruction booklet.

At the heart of Van Reybrouck’s book is a provocative contestation of the commonly held belief that “democracy” is synonymous with “elections.” The book’s title is slightly misleading; although he claims that we are unquestioning electoral fundamentalists, it is not an argument to eliminate parties, politicians and elections as one might expect. Based on a comparative and historical analysis of democracy’s evolution from Ancient Greece to the Renaissance, the French and American Revolutions to present day, Van Reybrouck proposes a bi-representative system. Alongside elections, he says, we should re-introduce the classical Athenian practice of sortition, or the drawing of lots.

Focusing largely on Western democracies, Van Reybrouck argues that representative democracy today is at an impasse. Whereas support for the principle of democracy is at its highest point in history, it is nonetheless facing a dual legitimacy and efficacy crisis. The biggest challenges confronting our generation today – climate change, the banking crisis, the Euro crisis, immigration, and overpopulation – can no longer be solved at the national level alone. National governments find themselves powerless in key areas of importance, shared between the sub- and supra-national levels. In tandem with this trend, we have witnessed declining voter turnout, high levels of abstention, falling party membership, as well as collapsing trust in politics and politicians. These are the familiar symptoms of what Van Reybrouck calls “Democratic Fatigue Syndrome.” In Against Elections, he offers four competing explanations, or “diagnoses,” for these symptoms from the point of view of the populists, the technocrats, the direct democracy advocates, and finally, his own “new” diagnosis.

First, “it’s the fault of politicians: the populist diagnosis.” In this line of thinking, it is because of the elite political establishment that we are facing a crisis of democracy. These individuals, removed from reality in their political bubbles, fail to understand the problems of “ordinary citizens.” Populists thus claim to represent “the people.” The populist uprising has been occurring across the European continent, giving this critique a fair share (or perhaps some would say an unfairly large share) of attention in the debate about the state of democracy today. For example, the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) has  just won two parliamentary seats. In France, a recent poll showed that Marine Le Pen could win a second round presidential run-off.  Podemos, a relatively new left populist party, has been topping the polls in Spain. Of course, these three examples are merely the tip of the populist iceberg, as populists are a force to be reckoned with in Italy, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Finland, Greece and Hungary to name but a few countries; the list goes on. Van Reybrouck recognises that though the populist proposition aims to rectify democracy’s legitimacy problem, it does not in any way address the equally important efficacy concern.

Van Reybrouck’s next counterattack is against the technocratic diagnosis, referencing the well-known “stealth democracy” claim, made most notably by American political scientists Elizabeth Theiss-Morse and John R. Hibbing. This claim proposes that most people do not necessarily want greater participation, involvement or representation in the democratic process: they just want democracy to be run by experts and for it to function efficiently. Van Reybrouck’s retort to this is that in the short term, the technocratic solution can indeed be beneficial; however, in the long term, it fails to resolve the legitimacy dilemma. Democracy is not just government for the people, but also by the people.

While Van Reybrouck’s analysis focuses largely on Belgium and some of the surrounding countries, recent research by Paul Webb of the University of Sussex echoes Van Reybrouck’s criticism against the stealth democracy hypothesis on this side of the Channel. Webb suggests that, while a very small minority are indeed “stealth democrats,” most people are rather “dissatisfied democrats.” They have low trust in political elites, but they share a genuine desire for greater citizen participation in the political process. YouGov’s 2013 polling for the University of Southhampton reinforces these results; most citizens are concerned about the process of politics, not merely its performance. Furthermore, the Hansard Society’s most recent Political Engagement Audit found that the vast majority of citizens were in favour of reforms to the political process – about how politics is done, who should be involved, and who should have more or less influence. Introducing greater accountability and transparency, better information and less spin, and giving citizens more say were the most popular reforms. The latest British Attitudes Survey confirms these sentiments.

Third, Van Reybrouck breaks down the direct democracy diagnosis, where representative democracy is to blame. Looking at Occupy Wall Street, the indignados in Spain, and the various Pirate Parties that have emerged, he argues that their verdict of a malfunctioning representative democracy was correct, but that the solution of direct democracy was ill-conceived. Van Reybrouck quotes French philosopher Pierre Rosanvallon: “When one tries to reinforce democracy, it can turn on itself and become totalitarian, such was what happened in the Soviet Union.”

The three propositions he outlines in Against Elections are dangerous for different reasons: populism endangers the minority; technocracy endangers the majority, and anti-parliamentarism is a potential threat to liberty. All three also share a common characteristic: after initial media and public attention, they tend to die out rather quickly as realistic solutions to the problems democracy is facing. The fourth diagnosis becomes the foundation for the solutions proposed in the latter half of the book: “it’s the fault of elective representative democracy: a new diagnosis.” Here is where the challenge enters, as democracy’s proponents are labelled electoral fundamentalists, blindly faithful in elections “as the bedrock foundation of popular sovereignty.” Are we all electoral fundamentalists?

The key question today is whose voice is indeed being heard. Van Reybrouck argues that the current institutionalised system is still the same elected aristocracy as described by Rousseau in 1762. Against Election’s opening quote from the French philosopher’s The Social Contract is apt:

Le peuple anglais pense être libre; il se trompe fort, il ne l’est que durant l’élection des membres de Parlement ; sitôt qu’ils sont élus il est escalve, il n’est rien.

The English people think they are free; they are gravely mistaken, it is only during the election of members of Parliament that they are free; as soon as the members are elected, the people are slaves, they are nothing.

Van Reybrouck poses the pertinent question: Why is it that our democratic institutions date back to the late-eighteenth century while we have progressed in other areas of society? “Today, elections have become primitive… it would be like narrowing aviation down to the Montgolfier, while ignoring the more recent arrival of high-tension lines, light aircraft, new climatic patterns, tornadoes and space stations.” In the twenty-first-century, we live in a hyper-connected, interactive society where communication is decentralised and more vociferous citizen voices can be heard. In an age of social media, where people are not just readers but also armchair editors, we have witnessed an enormous power shift, one that fails to be reflected in our archaic forms of governance: “the grey, decrepit institutions of an exhausted, moribund administrative elite,” as the Crick Centre’s Matthew Wood eloquently phrases it in a recent Policy Network piece. The traditional, patriarchal model of political parties is unfit for an era where citizens are more outspoken than ever: “The citizen is neither a customer nor a child. At the start of this third millennium, relationships are much more horizontal,” Van Reybrouck writes. The vertical, centralised, hierarchical model of representative democracy is antiquated and in desperate need of renewal. The nature of leadership has evolved; it is no longer about making difficult decisions on behalf of the people, but about initiating processes in consultation with these people.

Although Van Reybrouck does not mention it in his account, equally relevant is Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page’s study of the influence of elites, interest groups and average citizens in the US policy process. While not quite a reiteration of Rousseau, it is nonetheless a contemporary claim that the American system is an oligarchy, controlled by a small group of economic elites. When it considers the perennial question of whose voice is being heard, Gilens and Page’s data indicates that the “median voter” theory – which suggests that policy will come closest to the preferences of the average voter – is completely wrong. Strikingly, they find that the preferences of the average citizen have zero impact upon public policy. Moreover, elites also have a far greater ability to shape the issues that policymakers consider in the first place, and exhibit a capacity to shape the public’s preferences. Gilens and Page provide empirical evidence to indicate that economic elites amplify the voices of our established political class, drowning out the common man and woman. Like Van Reybrouck, they conclude with a warning that “America’s claims to being a democracy are seriously threatened.”

Part of the power of Van Reybrouck’s polemic comes from his extensive historical pathogenesis, tracing the democratic procedure of sortition from antiquity to the Renaissance, through to its replacement by the aristocratic tradition of elections from the eighteenth century to present day. He quotes Bernard Manin’s astonishment that not even a full generation after The Social Contract’s publication, sortition disappeared as a form of governance; it was not even a consideration during the French and American revolutions. In Principes du gouvernement représentatif (Principles of Representative Government), Manin writes: “The representative government was instituted with the clear awareness that the elected representatives would be distinguished citizens, socially distinct from those who elected them.” Today, we think of these revolutions as the birth of modern democracy. At this time of relatively unanimous recognition that representative democracy is in crisis, the idea of re-introducing sortition is not as radical as it first seems when put into historical context. True, it is a serious challenge to the institutionalised party system, one that will require the established elite to relinquish of some of their power; but it is not an idea taken out of thin air – it is a centuries-old tradition, forgotten at the birth of our contemporary elected aristocracy.

The most detailed, and perhaps thought-provoking, section of Van Reybrouck’s democratic challenge is entitled “Remedies.” While elections have become tantamount to democracy for the vast majority, it does not mean that the last few decades have not seen any attempts to shake up the status quo. James Fishkin’s introduction of “deliberative democracy” in an Atlantic Monthly article in 1988 provoked a small tsunami of change, the waves of which are still being felt today. Citing five different democratic innovations in British Columbia, the Netherlands, Ontario, Iceland, and Ireland, Van Reybrouck highlights that the twentieth century has seen some recent attempts to improve the democratic nature of society, what John S. Dryzek first termed democracy’s “deliberative turn.” Furthermore, what is equally fascinating (and infuriating) is that these occurrences of deliberative processes in action are highly relevant given the UK’s debate on a constitutional convention in the post-Scottish referendum climate.

To offer one example of sortition in practice: Iceland’s “crowd-sourced” constitution. The parliament appointed a constitutional committee of seven to work together with a national assembly comprised of 950 citizens, drawn randomly from the national registry, and a constituent assembly where 25 individuals were elected out of a roster of 522 candidates of all backgrounds and political affiliations. Over the course of four months, the committee consulted various experts and ordinary citizens to inform the bill, bringing it to a national referendum in late-2012. Sixty-seven per cent of the electorate voted in favour of the constitutional bill. A wonderful day for deliberative democracy proponents! Almost. The anti-change politicians, hanging by the brink, did everything in their power to ensure the status quo prevailed. They filibustered the proposal for months. When the bill was put forward as an amendment to another related last minute-bill, the parliamentary president violated procedure by bringing it to a vote before the amendment was presented – at 2 A.M. during the last parliamentary session before recess. The general election soon after saw a change in government; today, the constitutional bill is nowhere near a state of revival.

Robert A. Dahl wrote at the start of Polyarchy: Participation and Opposition: “A key characteristic of democracy is the continuing responsiveness of the government to the preferences of its citizens, considered as political equals.” The Icelandic example above highlights the vast inequality between the rulers and the ruled. The will of the people was undeniably there, but it was inevitably quenched by the establishment elite. Here lies the major challenge for proponents of a bi-representative system, alluded to but not explicitly stated by Van Reybrouck: how to get the administrative elite to unclench their fists over the power that has been unquestioningly theirs for so many centuries.

Though this problematic remains unanswered in full, the Irish Constitutional Convention highlights one way of getting closer to overcoming this challenge. Unlike in Iceland, the Irish Convention was comprised of 66 citizens and 33 politicians, randomly selected (though controlled for a gender, age, and socioeconomic balance). They worked in small groups with facilitators, note takers, and experts to reach a consensus on eight highly contentious issues. It was not just the citizens’ minds that changed through the deliberative process, but also the politicians’. Although they were sceptical at first, the politicians involved have now become advocates of the convention, and are urging the process to continue with new issues on the table. The Icelandic, as well as the other cases, excluded politicians from deliberation, making it possible for them to dismiss the entire process afterwards. It appears that this detail is crucial for success.

Van Reybrouck outlines a clear and detailed proposal for incorporating sortition at the national level. Recognising a number of ideas that have been circulated over the years, he ultimately draws on Terrill G. Bouricius’s model of multi-body sortition, outlined in the Journal of Public Deliberation in 2013. Though ferociously dry and technical, this section of Against Elections is crucial in moving the debate from describing democracy’s crisis to proposing concrete solutions, as well as indicating a way forward. According to Van Reybrouck, a bi-representative system would have six different units, comprised of varying sizes and determined through a multitude of drawing of lots methods. For example, the Agenda Council who defines priorities could be made up of 150 to 400 individuals, potentially divided into sub-committees, drawn randomly from a group of volunteers every three years and paid a salary. Alongside the Council, one could form interest panels that would propose legislation on specific themes. These might have 12 members on each panel, composed of unpaid volunteers who can participate as often as they wish. And so on for the Review Panels, the Policy Jury, the Rules Council, and the Oversight Council. To appease the stealth democrats, one would not be obliged to take part if randomly selected; the choice is completely voluntary. Questions regarding adequate levels of compensation and duration of positions would also be ironed out to ensure that the process is truly open to everybody. The principle behind multi-body sortition goes back to Classical Athenian democracy, capitalising on the democratic practice of using multiple representative bodies as a comprehensive system of checks and balances.

Van Reybrouck also anticipates and counters the most common objections to sortition: “‘Citizens are incompetent!’ ‘Politics is difficult!’ ‘Clowns in power!’ ‘Common people in velvet? No thanks!’”  He claims that the arguments against sortition are identical to those once put forth against universal suffrage. Opponents at the time were also fearful about the end of democracy. Furthermore, elected politicians are not competent in everything either; they have an army of researchers and assistants who help them jump from portfolio to portfolio. Last year’s YouGov polling for the University of Southampton found that the majority of Brits feel that politicians do not have the technical knowledge to solve the problems facing the country today, yet they believe simultaneously that politicians can help to make a difference. Clearly, people are not under the illusion that politicians are all-knowing super-humans; based on this logic, there is no reason to believe that citizens selected randomly through sortition should be either. A citizens’ assembly selected by sortition would have access to the same professional staff to help with technical expertise.

Van Reybrouck compares sortition to the process of choosing juries by lottery. Individuals tend take their roles seriously; it is possible to assume that a group selected for a citizens’ assembly would also want to publicly serve the best interests of society. One could take his argument even further; just as serving jury duty is one of our responsibilities for ensuring a healthy democracy, perhaps serving in a citizens’ assembly should equally be seen as a responsibility, not purely as a right. The one weakness with this comparison, however, is the fact that apathy is overlooked; not every citizen is willing or happy to take part in the democratic process. Would the average citizen truly be enthusiastic about making decisions for an entire population? How could one energise citizens to be more actively engaged in the political process? Social media is one easy answer, and perhaps an imperative component, but it is easy to take part in political debates and discussions from one’s couch. How to encourage the public to go further, to be more vocal? The examples on which Van Reybrouck draws, mainly from citizen constitutional assemblies, indicate that it is possible to motivate individuals to be “active citizens.” But the crucial question of whether this could be the case on a wider scale, for the longer term, remains unexplored.

Van Reybrouck’s final counter-critique is that, if we think lobbies, think tanks, and other special interests groups can and should influence public policy, why is there hesitation in granting a say to common citizens, who are often the people most directly involved?

[Sortition is] a consciously neutral procedure by which political opportunities can be justly distributed and discord avoided. The risk of corruption is reduced, electoral fever abated, the focus on the common good increased. Citizens selected by sortition may not have the expertise of professional politicians, but they have something else: freedom. There is, after all, no pressure on them to be elected or reelected.

Van Reybrouck concludes with a warning: we are experiencing the calm before the storm. “It’s the calm of 1850… it’s the calm that precedes a long period of great instability. At the time, the big question was the right to vote; today, it’s the right of expression.” Of course, his proposal for a bi-representative system is not an immediate miracle cure for Democratic Fatigue Syndrome; it is a prescription for the long term. In the UK today, politics is in flux. But after the Scottish referendum, ordinary people across the country are invigorated by the idea of constitutional reform: there is a desire for change. As Van Reybrouck writes: “We need to democratise democracy… what are we waiting for?” A hopeful ending that change is just around the corner. However, the dilemma of how to get elected elites to relinquish their grip on the seats of power remains unresolved. Perhaps the starting point is to question ourselves: are we, in fact, electoral fundamentalists?


Claudia Chwalisz is a researcher at the London-based think tank Policy Network.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, January 5th, 2015.