John Keane: Elections are joyous carnivals of equality

John Keane, Professor of Politics at the University of Sydney, writes in The Conversation a response to David van Reybrouck’s “tired democracy” argument, which Keane presents as an argument for “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”. It may be worth noting that this description overstate’s van Reybrouck’s position significantly and contradicts Keane’s own disclaimer later on about “a deep prevarication in [van Reybrouck’s] work about whether or not elected legislatures should be replaced in their entirety by a ‘parliament of allotted citizens’”.

Keane responds to van Reybrouck by enumerating the mystical wonders of elections:

Democratic representation […] 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 addition to these functions, Keane believes van Reybrouck – and many others – do not appropriately appreciate the usefulness of elections as a form of mass diversion.

[E]lections 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 [to] 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.

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18 Responses

  1. Many people find electoral politics a fascinating spectator spot. Not that they stand off and look at the goings on with detached amusement. As in other spectator sports the identify with a particular team and enjoy the thrills of success and failure
    One of the basic problems with sortiton is that it takes the fun out of politics. Of course, increasingly the issues are so serious that unless we turn them into a soberly serious matter we will probably destroy ourselves sooner or later.

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  2. What crap. This is what I hate about elections the most: They make everyone feel all elated but really it’s just a grand deception where we have the illusion of democracy but none of the reality. This man is arguing that the illusion of elections is wonderful. I’m arguing it’s illusion. It’s an illusion the kids in the way of chew democracy and real empowerment and of positive change. I shouldn’t say the more girl just feel angry. What a pack of lies.

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  3. In all fairness, John Keane has written a 958-page book on democracy, ran a democracy studies department in London and is doing the same in Sydney, so he knows a little bit about the subject. I spoke with him 10 years or so ago about sortition and he seemed quite interested but he appears to have taken against Sydney’s New Democracy Foundation for the reasons stated in this article: http://www.abc.net.au/news/2014-04-28/keane-when-concentration-camps-and-democracy-clash/5397152

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  4. “The same difficulty, and others, dogs Luca Belgiorno-Nettis’s New Democracy Foundation, which I have criticised elsewhere for its double standards.”

    No double standards for Professor Keane of course! Every government in Australia since 1900 has been an elected government. It is elected governments that are responsible for the scandalous treatment of asylum seekers. Whatever crimes Transfield and its employees may be guilty of (how would we know, since the government has imposed the media blackout?), this does not absolve successive Australian governments from the moral and legal duty to grant asylum, or to be open and honest with the public. Advocating sortition does not require a belief in the moral purety of Transfield, Belgiorno-Nettis, or anyone else.

    “Democratic representation has medieval roots. It defies [sic] 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.”
    Freely choosing might be true if we could vote for anyone. But we can only vote for the candidates who are presented to us by the political machinery. Fairly choosing would be true if all votes counted equally, and it’s notorious that they don’t.

    “Representation means keeping continuous public tabs on politicians, then throwing them from office at the next election, or when their time is up.”
    This is the “accountability” theory of representation, of which Pitkin says “if representation is defined as action for which one will be held to account… nothing follows about any kind of duty, obligation, or role for the representative. On the basis of such a definition, a representative who acted in a completely selfish and irresponsible manner could not be criticised as long as he let himself be removed at the end of his term.” (Concept of Representation, p 58)
    As Terry and David Schecter have said “Having one opportunity every 2-6 years to “throw the bums out” when legislators may vote on hundreds of bills each year, is an accountability mechanism which cannot work”

    “Representation by election is a clever way of rotating leaders”
    Which is why we see some leaders hang on for decades in spite of being unpopular, and others thrown out by a palace coup after a few weeks.

    “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.”
    Choosing a parliament by sortition does not require a consensus. Committees chosen by sortition to study policy issues do not require consensus; quite the opposite. And a majority decision of parliament by definition does not imply consensus. So why does Keane drag this somewhat smelly red herring across our path?

    “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.”
    This is priceless. Keane conflates (deliberately?) representation and elections, and yet accuses van Reybrouck of misrepresenting representation.
    Of course representation is necessary in today’s world. It is NOT necessary that it be done by elections. If it is done by true random selection from the whole population then representation is far closer to the “portrait in miniature” of Adams than it can ever be with elections.

    “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”

    Once again, the conflation of representation and elections. As for the business of whether the Greeks of the 4th century believed that it was “heaven” that chose, does it matter for our purposes? I doubt if van Reybrouck “forgot” it, he almost certainly knows that it is both disputed and irrelevant.

    “the democratic advantages of intelligent political leaders whose legitimacy comes from election.”
    Since political leaders have different interests (real, not expressed) from those of the rest of us, and seek to further those interests, one might argue that we’re better off with stupid leaders! In any case, the cloak of “legitimacy from elections” which so many extremely undemocratic leaders (Putin, Erdogan, Mubarak and so on) claim is looking very threadbare, even if the culture of elections is spreading.

    As for the “exhilarating public dramas” “joyous carnivals” and the rest of it, this is just “panem et circenses” – bread and circuses – without the bread in many cases.

    And by what stretch of the imagination can one call India democratic: a country with huge inequalities in opportunity, rights, health, education, and wealth, and a caste system (in spite of laws banning it). Indians have elections, they do not have democracy. Nor do the rest of us, and nor will we while we keep our blind faith in elections.

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  5. Campbell,

    >Since political leaders have different interests (real, not expressed) from those of the rest of us

    could you flesh that out please (other than the obvious — i.e. the need to be elected)?

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  6. OK, I didn’t really want to go into detail because you get to the vexed question of just what our interests are.
    1 obvious or not, the need to get elected remains a preoccupation of politicians, but not the rest of us.
    2 any single person or small group will have different interests from those of the whole community.
    “Interest”, of course, need not be purely material. It might be a burning desire to see the “Word of God” triumph.

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  7. >”John Keane has written a 958-page book on democracy”
    “A great book is a great evil.”

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  8. This article puts on display a wonderful specimen of establishment political science. If these are the fantastic excuses for elections Keane can squeeze into a few hundred words, one can only imagine what he is able to do in a 958-page treatment. It must be a marvel.

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  9. Campbell:

    >1 obvious or not, the need to get elected remains a preoccupation of politicians, but not the rest of us.

    Yes I know that (that’s why I asked for additional reasons), but would observe in passing that the need to get elected is normally seen as a factor that encourages politicians to better represent the interests of “the rest of us” — although there is disagreement as to whether the representation involved is promissory, anticipatory, gyroscopic, surrogate or whatever (Mansbridge, 2003). At least that’s the perspective of “establishment political science”. I’d be curious to know if Yoram (who coined this phrase) would have a similarly dismissive perspective on computer science or any other knowledge domain, or is the contempt limited to economics and political science. Are long treatises by well-regarded experts in computer science (Yoram’s own area of expertise) dismissed so casually?

    >2 any single person or small group will have different interests from those of the whole community.

    That depends on what you mean by a small group. A legislature normally comprises some 600 or so persons, whereas a typical DP or citizen jury might be only 300 persons, yet most of us on this forum view the latter as (descriptively) representative (subject to certain caveats). So the size of the group doesn’t appear to be the determining factor.

    Ref.

    Jane Mansbridge (2008), Rethinking representation, American Political Science Review, 97 (4), pp. 515-528)

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  10. John,

    The issues have always been very serious and, as people have increasingly been realizing over the last few decades, having some sort of a quad-annual exhilaration is a very poor substitute to having political power. This is the reason Keane’s argument is not only weak, it is condescending and infuriating.

    Yes – sortition is not a mass participation institution. However, democracy does not live by sortition alone, and other parts of the system – democratic mass media for example – could provide meaningful avenues for mass participation for those who are so inclined.

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  11. Keith,
    Keane is talking of leaders, so I assume he means just the PM and perhaps those (few!) ministers who actually make major policy choices.

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  12. For those, such as Sutherland, who profess to be perpetually puzzled about the way in which the elected promote their own interests and those of their associates, I could point out the simple and obvious case of Hillary Clinton (which, with all its simplicity, will undoubtedly prove far from being able to resolve the perpetual puzzlement mentioned).

    Hillary and Bill Clinton have been the beneficiaries of $150 million in “speaking fees” from various corporations since the year 2000. One might consider the possibility that such sums would in one way or another be associated with setting policy in accordance with the business interests of the managements of the corporations. Such policy may not represent the best interests of the average American.

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  13. Yoram,

    >One might consider the possibility that [$150 million] would in one way or another be associated with setting policy in accordance with the business interests of the managements of the corporations.

    It’s certainly possible, but (as I pointed out in the exchange of Gilens’ work) in a truly competitive electoral system, politicians are constrained by public preferences, as the direct currency of electoral politics is votes, rather than dollars. If it’s really the case that Clinton’s policies are dictated by Goldman Sachs, then it will be Sanders who receives the Democratic nomination, as voters are not quite as stupid as post-Marxist theory would have us believe.

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  14. Sutherland, you asked a simple (and rather silly) question [what are the interests of political leaders that are different from those of the rest of us] and received a simple answer [enriching themselves and their associates].

    As always, instead of admitting that your question was fully answered, you respond by changing the topic [claiming that the magic of elections somehow annuls the effects of narrow interests]. This is your standard mode of debate: intellectual dishonesty.

    Why would anyone take you seriously?

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  15. Yoram,

    Why do you assume that politicians take the money purely to enrich themselves, rather than furthering their political ideals? The US electoral system requires considerable funds in order to achieve success — Bernie Sanders has raised nearly $100,000,000 for the presidential campaign, more than Marco Rubio and only slightly less than Ted Cruz. Are you also arguing that Donald Trump is pursuing the presidency in order to enrich himself? And how would Bloomberg fit with your thesis? There are much better ways of enriching yourself than running for political office. In any event most people are interested in enriching themselves (it’s called the American Dream) so your opening sentence is simply false.

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  16. Sutherland, you are such a wonder. The $150M collected by the Clintons went into their own personal pockets, not into a campaign fund.

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  17. But that still doesn’t prove that people seek electoral office in order to enrich themselves. In many cases they are independently wealthy or have attributes that would have made them successful in a variety of highly-paid occupations. The really puzzling question is what would make someone like Trump, Bloomberg or any member of the Bush dynasty seek electoral office — it can hardly be to enrich themselves. Given his independent wealth, why would Jeremy Hunt want to waste his time battling with the medical unions? Boris Johnson earns a lot more from his newspaper columns than from his salary as an MP. George Osborne has a net worth of £4.5 million, so why waste time on the relatively piffling salary of the chancellor of the exchequer? The rational choice theory that you are peddling doesn’t explain very much when it comes to the behaviour of politicians (although it tells us a lot about voter motivation).

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  18. I am not surprised that Keane has abandoned interest in sortition. I read Keane’s book “The Life and Death of Democracy” couple of years ago. It is essentially a long collection of disconnected historical anecdotes about assembly, advisory and electoral systems around the world over the past few thousand years. He is a historian, rather than a philosopher or theorist, and includes all kinds of clearly non-democratic schemes within his broad “history of democracy.” The most frustrating part of his book is the end section where he argues that the best and highest form of democracy that the modern world has achieved (or is likely to) is what he has branded “monitory democracy,” referring to NGOs and civil society monitoring the actions of the government, to expose wrong-doing and the like. Throwing the bums out is what he ultimately seems to think democracy means. He seems to have no hope or interest for self-governance, deliberation, descriptive representation, or the like. This essay suggests that to him democracy is about exciting spectacle, and the use of elections to merely keep the elites in check. Pretty sad.

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