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Home Opinion Against elections
Democratic Innovation • Sortition • Politics

Against elections

David Van Reybrouck - 23 October 2014

Representative democracy is in crisis. Low voter turnout, abstention, falling party membership, and the phenomenal rise of populist parties – these are the symptoms of Democratic Fatigue Syndrome. Considering democratic innovation from classical Athens to present day, it becomes apparent that our democratic institutions haven’t been updated since the late 18th century. How to renew the centralised, hierarchical party system to reflect the horizontal power relationships of the hyper-connected, interactive society of the 21st century? A bi-representative system, combining elections with the democratic principle of sortition, or drawing of lots, could steer democracy into smoother waters

For most of us, the words “elections” and “democracy” have become synonyms. We are imbued with the view that the only way to ensure representation is to line up for the polls. That, after all, is what one reads in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, drafted in 1948: “The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government; this will shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections.” The phrase “shall be expressed” is particularly symptomatic. When you say democracy, you’re saying elections. But isn’t it peculiar that such a global document – the most universal legal document in human history – is so precise in specifying how the will of the people is to be expressed? Isn’t it strange that a concise text (no more than two thousand words in all) dealing with basic human rights abruptly turns its attention to the practical implementation of one such right, as though a bill on public health were abruptly to include a number of recipes for a healthy diet? It is as though, for those who drafted the 1948 text, the method itself had become a basic human right. As though the procedure had become sacred, in and of itself.

It seems like we have all become electoral fundamentalists. We look down on those who have been elected, but worship elections themselves. Electoral fundamentalism is the unshakeable belief that there can be no democracy without polling, that elections are a precondition, indispensable for defining democracy. Electoral fundamentalists refuse to see elections as a means to implement democracy, but consider them an end in themselves, a sacred principle of intrinsic, indefeasible value.

This blind faith in elections as the bedrock foundation of popular sovereignty is seen most explicitly in the field of international diplomacy. When Western donor countries express the hope that battered countries such as Congo, Iraq, Afghanistan or East-Timor will become more democratic, they are actually saying that those countries should hold elections, and then preferably according to the Western model: with voting booths, poll cards and ballot boxes, with political parties, campaigns and coalitions, with lists of candidates, polling places and sealing wax. Exactly the way we do it, in other words, but then “over there”. Then those countries will receive money from us. Local democratic and proto-democratic institutions (village councils, traditional conflict mediation, time-honored lawgiving) don’t stand a chance: even though they have proven valuable in the past for achieving peaceful and collective deliberation, the purse strings are snapped shut as soon as there is a departure from our approved recipe – in much the same way that traditional medicine has to clear off whenever Western medical science makes its appearance.

When one sees the recommendations presented by Western donors, 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.

And if the bed or chair turns out crooked? Or doesn’t sit comfortably? Or falls apart? Then the blame lies on the local consumer, not on the distant manufacturer.

That elections in fragile states may result in all kinds of ills (violence, ethnic tension, criminality, corruption...) seems to be of minor importance. That elections do not automatically promote democracy, but may actually obstruct and destroy it, is conveniently overlooked. No, each and every country in the world must hold them, regardless of any collateral damage. Here is where our electoral fundamentalism truly assumes the form of a new, global evangelism. Elections are that new religion’s sacraments, rituals considered vital, their form of greater importance than their content.

Had the Founding Fathers of the United States and the heroes of the French Revolution only known the context within which their method would be forced to function two hundred and fifty years later, they would most certainly have chosen a different model. Imagine our being faced today with the need to design a procedure by which to discover the will of the people. Would we really feel that the best idea was to have people shuffle up to a polling place once every four or five years, cardboard poll card in hand, and in the semidarkness of a booth place their mark beside, not an idea, but names on a list, the objects of months of restless speculation in a commercial framework that can only profit from such restlessness? And would we then still dare to call this bizarre, archaic ritual “the high holy day for democracy”?

As a result of our having narrowed down democracy to representative democracy, and representative democracy to elections, a useful system has entered deeply troubled waters. For the first time since the American and French revolutions, the portent of the election-yet-to-come has become greater than that of the most recent round. That is a disconcerting transformation. A round of elections currently represents an extremely tentative mandate. We make do with the means available, but less and less is available all the time. Democracy has entered its most brittle phase in post-war history. If we do not watch our step, elections will gradually take on the form of tyranny.

In fact, though, this development should come as no surprise: how many late 18th-century inventions, after all, are still keynote features of our daily lives? The stage coach? The hot air balloon? The snuffbox? The conclusion is as unpopular as it is inevitable: today, elections have become primitive. A democracy that limits itself to them is doomed. Indeed, 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.

The critical opinions of an outspoken public are reshaping the world. Whose voice is going to be heard? That’s the key question today. In Europe, before the invention of moveable type, the circle consisted of only a few hundred individuals: abbots, princes and kings decided which texts would be copied and which would not. But the printing press saw to it that thousands of people suddenly gained that same power. The old authority was brought down, and Gutenberg’s invention heralded the shift from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance. But with the arrival of social media, it seems as though everyone suddenly owns a printing press! Or perhaps it’s more like everyone is running a scriptorium. The man on the street is no longer a reader, but an editor-in-chief, and that has resulted in a drastic power shift. Huge, established companies are brought to their knees by the actions of a single, dissatisfied customer. Dictatorships once considered unshakeable lose their grip on the masses, who organize themselves with the use of social media. Political parties no longer serve to focus society’s voices, but are torn apart by them. Their classic, patriarchal model of advocacy no longer works in an age when citizens are more critical and outspoken than ever. Representative democracy is, in essence, a vertical model, but the twenty-first century is becoming more horizontal all the time. As Jan Rotmans, a Dutch professor of transition management, said recently: “We are moving from the central to the decentralized, from vertical to horizontal, from top-down to bottom-up. It has taken us more than a hundred years to build up this – centralized, top-down, vertical – society. That entire way of thinking has now been turned upside-down. So we’re going to have to learn and unlearn a great deal. The biggest obstacle is between our ears.”

Elections are the fossil fuel of politics: they once provided an enormous boost for democracy, the way petroleum did for the economy, but now it appears that they are causing new and colossal problems. An immense systemic crisis is looming, unless we take a good hard look at the nature of our democratic fuel. In these days of economic malaise, media hysterics and cultural flux, clamping onto elections as the sole means of political expression amounts to little less than the murder of democracy with forethought.

A provisional plea for a bi-representative system

Democracy is like clay: it moulds itself to the times. The concrete forms it assumes are always shaped by historical circumstance. As a governmental model centering around consultation, it is extremely sensitive to the available means of communication. That is why the democracy of ancient Athens was formed in part by the culture of the spoken word. That is why the electoral-representative democracy of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries flourished in the age of the printed word (the newspaper and other one-way media such as radio, television and the Internet 1.0). Today, however, we find ourselves in the age of permanent interactivity. Hyper-fast, decentralized communication leads to more and more critical voices being heard. But which form of democracy fits these circumstances?

How is government to deal with all these vociferous citizens shouting from the sidelines? First of all: with pleasure, rather than suspicion. Because behind all the anger, both online and off, there is also something positive: involvement. It is a gift, even if wrapped in barbed wire. Indifference would be much worse. Secondly: by learning to let go. By not trying to take everything off the citizens’ hands. The citizen is neither a customer nor a child. At the start of this third millennium, relationships are much more horizontal.

Doctors have had to learn to deal with patients who have researched their own symptoms on the Internet. And what first seemed annoying now turns out to be an unexpected blessing: empowerment can actually promote healing. The same applies to politics. Authority changes. Once one had authority – and was allowed to speak. Today one gains authority – through the act of speaking itself. Leadership is no longer a matter of making tough decisions on behalf of the people, but of initiating processes in consultation with that people. Treat critical, outspoken citizens as a voting mob and they will behave like a voting mob. Treat them like adults and they will act as adults. The relationship between the government and its constituency is no longer that between a parent and its children, but of adults working together. Politicians would do well to look further than the barbed wire alone, to trust the citizens, to take their feelings seriously and respect their experience. To make them feel welcome, in other words. Give them power. And, to keep things fair: appoint them by sortition. 

In my opinion, the traumatic, systemic crisis that has overcome democracy can be alleviated by giving sortition another chance. The drawing of lots is no miracle cure, no perfect recipe, in the same way that elections have never been that either. It can, however, help to redress some shortcomings. Sortition is not irrational, it is a-rational: 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.

In this phase of the history of democracy, therefore, there are sound arguments for no longer leaving legislative power in the hands of elected citizens, but passing it along to allotted citizens too. If we trust the principle of sortition when it comes to the court system, why not with legislation? It would serve to patch things up considerably. Then elected citizens (our politicians) will no longer be hounded to a frenzy by the commercial and social media, but will feel backed up by a second lawgiving body for which electoral fever and audience ratings are completely irrelevant, an assembly in which the public interest and the long term still enjoy pride of place, an assembly of citizens who are quite literally reachable – not because they are better than all the rest, but because the circumstances bring out the best in them.

Democracy is not government by society’s best and brightest; that is what is called an “aristocracy”, even when it is elected. That is obviously a choice one can make, but if one so chooses then please be clear about it and change the name. Democracy, on the other hand, profits precisely from allowing a diversity of voices to speak. It is about equal say, about the equal distribution of political chances. What it’s all about is governing and being governed, about government of the people, for the people, and in the end by the people as well.

Still, it remains a touchy subject. “The man in the street can’t do this!” “Politics is difficult!” “Power to the idiots!” “A capitol full of cretins; well, count me out!” Etcetera. Before moving on, let’s pause to consider the most common objection to sortition, which is the supposed incompetence of the non-elected. As a point of criticism, it does have a positive side; it shows that many people cherish the quality of their democracy. Woe be the country where political innovation meets no resistance, for there concern has withered on the branch and apathy rules. Woe too be the country where no calm dialogue can be held concerning the future of democracy: there, hysteria rules.

The panic many feel at the idea of sortition illustrates the extent to which two centuries of electoral-representative system have caused hierarchical thinking to nestle in the brain, the belief that affairs of state can be handled only by special individuals. Allow me to sum up a few counter-arguments to that assumption:

•    It is important to realize that the reasons advanced today against the selection of individuals by sortition are often identical to those once advanced against suffrage for farmers, unskilled workers and women. Then too, the opponents felt that this would mean the end of democracy.

•    An elected representative body doubtlessly has recourse to more technical competences than an allotted one. On the other hand, each of us is an expert when it comes to our own lives. What good is a parliament filled with highly trained jurists when only few of them know the price of a loaf of bread? Sortition would provide legislative bodies with a better cross-section of society.

•    Elected officials, too, are not competent in everything. Why else would they have staff assistants, researchers and internal affairs departments at their beck and call? Why are cabinet ministers sometimes able to switch posts from one day to the next? Isn’t it simply by virtue of the fact that they are surrounded by a professional staff to provide them with technical expertise?

•    A legislative body selected by sortition would not have to operate in isolation: it can call in experts, rely on moderators and consult citizens. What’s more, such an assembly would be given the time to grow acquainted with the issues and have an administrative staff to prepare the needed background work.

•    Because allotted citizens do not have to worry about party politics, campaigning or media appearances, they would have more time at their disposal than their elected colleagues in a parallel legislative assembly. They can devote themselves full-time to their work: becoming acquainted with their respective dossiers, interviewing experts and consulting with one another.

•    Each participant would contribute according to his or her talents and ambitions. The American scholar Terrill Bouricius has proposed multibody sortition to solve this issue. Those who consider themselves suited for serious governmental work can enter their names for allotment to the Agenda Council, the Rules Council or the Oversight Council. Those with outspoken ideas about certain legislative items would be welcome to take part in an Interest Panel. Those who prefer to take things easier can wait and see whether they are called on for one or more days on the Policy Jury. That is like going to vote, even if one does not follow politics on a daily basis.

•    The practice of choosing juries by lottery to serve in courts of law shows us that people tend to take their tasks quite seriously. The fear of a legislative body behaving recklessly and irresponsibly is unfounded. If we agree that twelve people are able in good conscience to decide about the liberty or incarceration of a fellow citizen, then we may assume that a group many times that size will and will want to serve the best interests of society.

•    All experiments carried out with citizens’ forums show how dedicatedly and constructively allotted participants behave, and how refined their recommendations usually are. Does that mean the system can have no weaknesses? Of course not, but there are also weaknesses to be noted in the election of popular representatives. Their laws, too, are flawed on occasion.

•    Why do we accept that lobbies, think-tanks and all manner of special-interest groups are allowed to exercise influence on public policy, yet hesitate when it comes to granting a say to common citizens who, after all, are the ones most directly involved?

•    Furthermore, a parliament of allotted citizens would not stand alone. In this phase of democracy, legislation would be drafted precisely by means of the combined action of elected and allotted Houses. A capitol full of cretins? If you say so, but in any case not a capitol full of autocrats.

Anyone consulting Google Maps these days can choose between a map and a satellite view. One is better suited to planning one’s route, the other provides a better view of the surroundings. So too with democracy. The legislative assembly is a chart of society, a simplified depiction of a complex reality. Because that depiction is used to plot out the future (for what is politics if not the plotting out of the future?), the cartographic information should nevertheless be as ample as possible: hiking map and aerial photo complement one another. The route we should be taking today is one which leads to a bi-representative model, a legislative branch comprising both allotted and elected officials. Both systems, after all, have their advantages: the expertise of professional politicians alongside the freedom of citizens who are not constrained by the need to be re-elected. The electoral and aleatory models, in other words, go hand-in-hand.

The bi-representative system is, at this point, the best remedy for the Democratic Fatigue Syndrome from which so many countries suffer. The mutual distrust between those who govern and those who are governed diminishes when the roles are no longer so clearly divided. Citizens who gain access to the administrative level by means of allotment discover the complexity of political proceedings. Sortition is a fantastic training school for democracy. But politicians, too, discover an aspect of the citizenry which they often underestimate: the ability to make rational, constructive decisions. Politicians come to the conclusion that some laws are passed more readily when the citizenry is involved from the start. The broader the support, the greater the decisiveness. In short, the bi-representative model is relationship counseling for the governors and the governed.

After a time, this bi-part system may have to make way for one based entirely on sortition; democracy is never finished. But, for the moment at least, the combination of sortition and elections is the best possible medicine. It makes use, after all, of the best from the populist tradition (the desire for more authentic representation), without the dangerous illusion of a monolithic “people”. It incorporates the best of the technocratic tradition (the appreciation of technical expertise from non-elected professionals), without giving the technocrats the final say. It also makes use of the best of the direct-democracy tradition (the horizontal culture of participative consultation), without that movement’s anti-parliamentarianism.  And finally, it awards new value to the best of the classic representative democracy (the importance of deputation for the purpose of governing), without the electoral fetishism that goes along with it. As these favorable elements are combined, legitimacy grows and efficiency rises: the governed see themselves reflected more clearly in the government, and those who govern can do so more decisively. The bi-representative model can pilot democracy into smoother waters.

The above are excerpts from David Van Reybrouck’s Against Elections (2014), translated by Sam Garrett from the original Dutch. David Van Reybrouck is a Belgian historian and founder of the G1000 Citizens’ Summit. He will be on BBC Daily Politics on Wednesday, 29 October 2014 to discuss these ideas.

This translation is a contribution to Policy Network and the Barrow Cadbury Trust’s project on “Understanding the Populist Signal”, focused on the crisis of representative democracy and the scope for new approaches to democratic renewal.

This is a contribution to Policy Network's work on Understanding Populism .

Tags: David Van Reybrouck , Against Elections , representative democracy , elections , voter turnout , abstention , party membership , democratic fatigue , innovation , institutions , hierarchy , revolution , sortition , drawing of lots , bi-representative system

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The Policy Network Observatory promotes critical debate and reflection on progressive politics. It is centre-left orientated but determinedly challenges social democracy. It is pro-European but restlessly questions EU institutions and practices.

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