Van Reybrouck: Why elections are bad for democracy

In the wake of the Brexit referendum David Van Reybrouck takes his “tired democracy” message to the readers of the Guardian:

Brexit is a turning point in the history of western democracy. Never before has such a drastic decision been taken through so primitive a procedure – a one-round referendum based on a simple majority. Never before has the fate of a country – of an entire continent, in fact – been changed by the single swing of such a blunt axe, wielded by disenchanted and poorly informed citizens.

Van Reybrouk now recounts the statistics showing low and falling citizen trust in elected institutions and offers a diagnosis of the problem. Avoiding the mention of any substantive complaints about the policies implemented by those institutions, for Van Reybrouk it is purely a matter of procedure. There is considerable vagueness whether the procedural problem was always there or is a new phenomenon. The risk, if things are not repaired, is that voters will continue to make transparently foolish choices.

In a referendum, we ask people directly what they think when they have not been obliged to think – although they have certainly been bombarded by every conceivable form of manipulation in the months leading up to the vote. But the problem is not confined to referendums: in an election, you may cast your vote, but you are also casting it away for the next few years. […]

Referendums and elections are both arcane instruments of public deliberation. If we refuse to update our democratic technology, we may find the system is beyond repair; 2016 already risks becoming the worst year for democracy since 1933. We may find, even after the folly of Brexit, that Donald Trump wins the American presidency later this year. But this may have less to do with Trump himself, or the oddities of the American political system, than with a dangerous road that all western democracies have taken: reducing democracy to voting.

By refusing to change procedures, we have made political turmoil and instability defining features of western democracy. Last weekend Spain had to hold its second general election in six months, after the first run did not deliver a government. A few weeks ago, Austria almost elected its first extreme rightwing president, while a Dutch referendum in April voted down a trade agreement between Ukraine and the EU. My country, Belgium, became the laughing stock of Europe a few years earlier, when it failed to form a government for 541 days. But nobody is laughing now that it seems that many western democracies are in the process of turning “Belgian”.

Countless western societies are currently afflicted by what we might call “democratic fatigue syndrome”. Symptoms may include referendum fever, declining party membership, and low voter turnout. Or government impotence and political paralysis – under relentless media scrutiny, widespread public distrust, and populist upheavals.

But democratic fatigue syndrome is not so much caused by the people, the politicians or the parties – it is caused by the procedure. Democracy is not the problem. Voting is the problem. […]

The words “election” and “democracy” have become synonymous. We have convinced ourselves that the only way to choose a representative is through the ballot box. After all, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 states as much: “The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government; this will shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret vote or by equivalent free voting procedures.” […]

It would appear that the fundamental cause of democratic fatigue syndrome lies in the fact that we have all become electoral fundamentalists, venerating elections but despising the people who are elected. […]

Elections are the fossil fuel of politics. Whereas once they gave democracy a huge boost, much as oil did for our economies, it now turns out they cause colossal problems of their own. If we don’t urgently reconsider the nature of our democratic fuel, a systemic crisis awaits. If we obstinately hold on to a notion of democracy that reduces its meaning to voting in elections and referendums, at a time of economic malaise, we will undermine the democratic process.

For those with the determination to make it past the first 2,700 words of his essay, Van Reybrouk offers sortition as an alternative to elections.

What kind of democracy is appropriate to an era of fast, decentralised communication? How should the government deal with all those articulate citizens who stand shouting from the sidelines? […]

People care deeply about their communities and want to be heard. But a much better way to let the people speak than through a referendum is to return to the central principle of Athenian democracy: drafting by lot, or sortition as it is presently called.

Mentions of Florence, and the Irish constitutional convention follow. And there is a lot for politicians to gain from adopting sortition.

By talking to a diverse cross-section of Irish society, politicians could get further than they could have by just talking to each other. By exchanging views with elected officials, citizens could give much more relevant input than they could have in an election or a referendum.

What if this procedure had been applied in the UK last week? What if a random sample of citizens had a chance to learn from experts, listen to proposals, talk to each other and engage with politicians? What if a mixed group of elected and drafted citizens had thought the matter through? What if the rest of society could have had a chance to follow and contribute to their deliberations? What if the proposal this group would have come up with had been subjected to public scrutiny? Do we think a similarly reckless decision would have been taken?

Sortition holds the promise, then, of making voters see sense. Those in power who are afraid of handing power to the masses should realize that if they do not want to see more Brexists and more Trumps, then sortition is their best bet. It is the way to reinvigorate the tired democracy that is so dear to our heart – to return to that golden age when the masses knew their proper place following their leaders’ lead and adopting their leaders’ priorities.

The arguments put forward against sortition are often identical to the reasons once put forward for not allowing peasants, workers or women to vote. Then, too, opponents claimed it would mark the end of democracy. Do we think Brexit might still have been possible if citizens had been truly invited to express their grievances and search for solutions together with those they had voted for?.

If David Cameron had opted for the genuine participation of citizens, he would have obtained a much clearer view of what people really wanted, a powerful list of shared priorities, an agenda for further negotiations, and created much less distrust between the masses and the ruling class. On top of that, he would have gained global admiration for daring to tackle a complex challenge by an innovative process that values people’s voices instead of counting their votes. He could have set a new standard for democracy, rather than serving as its gravedigger.

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17 Responses

  1. Yoram,

    >Sortition holds the promise, then, of making voters see sense. . . . It is the way to reinvigorate the tired democracy that is so dear to our heart – to return to that golden age when the masses knew their proper place following their leaders’ lead and adopting their leaders’ priorities.

    Given the interest in sortition that has been generated by the Brexit referendum (classics scholar Mary Beard has a similar piece in the current issue of TLS), your sarcasm is unhelpful. We would be better off reaching out to our friends rather than slagging off anyone lacking ideological purity (i.e. advocating “pure” sortition). My own proposal to replace the Brexit referendum by a public enquiry with the outcome determined by a large randomly-selected jury <a href="https://www.opendemocracy.net/…/keith…/brexit-lottery"was published on Open Democracy in April.

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  2. sorry, that’s https://www.opendemocracy.net/can-europe-make-it/keith-sutherland/brexit-lottery

    It’s also worth noting that Anthony Barnett, founder of Open Democracy and author of sortition book The Athenian Option has a new book out on Brexit and sortition, see his conversation with Yanis Varoufakis at https://www.opendemocracy.net/can-europe-make-it

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Here’s Mary Beard’s TLS piece http://www.the-tls.co.uk/articles/public/power-to-the-people-2/

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Van Reybrouck says that “the central principle of Athenian democracy [was] drafting by lot, or sortition as it is presently called.” This is a critically erroneous view of Athens, shared by many on this blog. The core mechanism of Athenian democracy was ALL the citizens (in principle) gathering in the legislative Assembly to discuss and decide all major matters collectively. The lot was employed in the executive Council of 500, a relatively small and key but SUBSIDIARY body vis-a-vis the sovereign Assembly. There–in the Council, NOT the Assembly–the lot ensured that ordinary people constituted and directed the bureaucratic/executive branch of the government just as they did the legislative.

    Not understanding this, Van Reybrouck strangely conflates ANTI-DEMOCRATIC elections with IMPERFECTLY DEMOCRATIC referendums. Historically, the latter are a salutary reform of representative oligarchy in the direction of democracy, i.e., decision-making by all the citizenry rather than by a small elite. A real democracy, however, would replace capricious referendums with a better, fuller, more systematic and unmediated means of popular control based on the all-inclusive Athenian Assembly–something which Van Reybrouck would apparently abhor. Using sortition rather than (much less in conjunction with) election in the legislature would render the political system just another form of oligarchy, not democracy of any kind.

    These, I believe, are fundamental points (discussed on my website raftd.org), and sortitionists would do well to be clear on what they want: real democracy or some alternative, confused type of oligarchy.

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  5. Ted,

    That was certainly true of 5th-century Athens, but what is your perspective on the 4th-century reforms, whereby lawmaking was arrogated to a representative jury, selected by lot? Scholars dispute whether this was a radical or conservative move, but nobody (especially the Athenians themselves) claimed that it was an anti-democratic development. Aristotle, writing in the 4th century, concluded that the current form of Athenian governance was an example of “extreme” democracy as, for him, democracy was synonymous with governance by juries, not by the assembly. So why do you continue to privilege 5th century over 4th century practice?

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Ted,

    It seems that your opinion about the centrality of assembly votes to democracy is contrary to conventional wisdom in 4th century Athens as expressed by Aristotle. Assembly voting was not one of his characteristics of democracy. This is quite understandable considering that assembly voting was also a feature of non-democratic cities such as Sparta.

    In any case, the Athenian view and the Athenian system should not be seen as some sort of an authoritative model. Institutions should be assessed based on rational arguments, not on authority. Referenda are a mass political institution and as such are not a democratic institution.

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  7. Keith and Yoram,

    As I mentioned a long time ago, there is some controversy among scholars regarding the import of the changes to the Athenian constitution introduced between the 5th and 4th centuries. In the opinion of myself and others, they did not radically change the locus of sovereignty and decision-making in Athens, which remained the Assembly. The changes were of a rather technical, de jure nature as against the continued, de facto societal control exercised by the Assembly. When the Athenians learned in 339 that Philip of Macedon was at the city’s doorstep, they immediately met in the Assembly to decide what to do; they did not refer–much less defer–to any board of nomothetai.

    There had always been held in Athens a distinction between laws/nomoi and decrees/psephismata. This distinction was simply formalized by the reforms. Mirko Canevaro explains in his very erudite article, Making and Changing Laws in Ancient Athens (http://www.academia.edu/10964544/Making_and_Changing_Laws_in_Ancient_Athens), that “The fourth-century Athenian laws on legislation gave Athens a clear set of norms that gave the people the power of, and a procedure for, enacting new laws and changing existing ones. . . . It is therefore all the more paradoxical that the introduction of rules of change in Athens has been interpreted by many historians . . . as a limitation of the sovereignty of the people, when it is in fact the first time in which the right of the demos to introduce new laws and change old ones is explicitly recognized, institutionalized and regulated. . . . Far from limiting the power of the Assembly, the new rules enabled the Assembly to speak with one clear voice, not a cacophony of inconsistent rules. Average citizens could only understand their rights and duties if the Assembly gave them a comprehensive and coherent set of instructions.”

    >for [Aristotle], democracy was synonymous with governance by juries, not by the assembly.

    >Assembly voting was not one of his characteristics of democracy.

    I don’t know where on earth you all got these ideas! This is a complete misreading of Aristotle (whom I discuss in my book, The Racket and the Answer). In his Politics, for instance, he accuses demagogues of making “the decrees of the people override the laws, by referring all things to the popular assembly . . . [where] the people have all things in their hands.”

    In any event, I value the BASIC Athenian institutions of Assembly and Council (I throw out the independent, third-branch courts) as an ideal model of democracy that we can develop for the present. We are all free to use whatever models of government we feel are valuable and viable, whether historical, theoretical, or plucked out of thin air!

    Apparently, Yoram, you have not read any of the history of the initiative and referendum. The Progressives did nothing if not call these mechanisms the answer to their dreams of democracy.

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  8. Ted,

    >>Assembly voting was not one of his characteristics of democracy.
    >I don’t know where on earth you all got these ideas!

    See, for example, here. The assembly has some sort of a notional “sovereignty”, but it is not an essential part of the democratic system. (In the quote you gave, the idea is the same.)

    Again, with assemblies being part of the system in non-democratic cities, I just don’t see how it could be otherwise. Clearly, assemblies are the arena of mass politics where influential people and bodies contend for popular opinion.

    > Apparently, Yoram, you have not read any of the history of the initiative and referendum. The Progressives did nothing if not call these mechanisms the answer to their dreams of democracy.

    But that is exactly the point of the post I linked to! Yes, indeed, the Progressives were very much pinning their hopes on the popular initiative and referenda. In fact, the fruits of their struggles are still with us today in California, Oregon and many other U.S. states. My point is that their hopes were misplaced and those mechanisms do not serve the public.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Ted:

    >I don’t know where on earth you all got these ideas! This is a complete misreading of Aristotle.

    Chapter 3 of Daniela Cammack’s Rethinking Athenian Democracy is a good place to start:

    “There is a longstanding puzzle in studies of Athenian democracy. Why, towards the end of the fifth century BC, did the Athenians deliberately increase the political powers of their courts, at the direct expense of those of the assembly? This so-called “era of legal reform” is often interpreted as an attempt at political self-limitation, because the
    assembly is regarded by modern scholars as the best institutional representative of the popular will, and the courts as a “check” on that will. This view reflects modern expectations of the relationship between legislative and judicial bodies, but there is no evidence that the Athenians saw their courts in this light. In fact, the evidence at our
    disposal suggests that they regarded their courts as an even more democratic institution than the assembly: more reliably on the side of the dēmos against the elite, and more crucial to the development and preservation of democracy in Athens.” (p.132, original emphasis)
    https://www.academia.edu/3092510/Rethinking_Athenian_Democracy

    >Far from limiting the power of the Assembly, the new rules enabled the Assembly to speak with one clear voice, not a cacophony of inconsistent rules.

    Yes the assembly was indeed a cacophony, that was the reason for arrogating rule-making to a representative sub-set of all citizens.

    >We are all free to use whatever models of government we feel are valuable and viable, whether historical, theoretical, or plucked out of thin air!

    OK, but why would you want to argue the case for mass (assembly) democracy on a forum dedicated to sortition?

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  10. Yoram, how do you think the demos’ decision-making–and thereby its very real sovereignty–operated, except through voting in the Assembly? If Aristotle doesn’t explicitly mention voting in this particular passage it is because it is a GIVEN, as obvious as the noonday sun. With all due respect, one could not have read Plato and Aristotle extensively and yet missed this.

    It is understood by serious students of Athenian democracy that, unless otherwise stated, we are concerned with the Assembly of ATHENS, which is BY FAR the best known and the most important for the study of democracy.

    Yoram and Keith, I first heard of Equality by Lot when you (Yoram) contacted me upon learning of Democracy for the USA’s program. EBL’s What is sortition? page states, “This blog, Equality-by-Lot, is devoted to discussion of issues associated with sortition and with the promotion of sortition AS A TOOL OF DEMOCRACY.” So I naturally assumed that you folks would be ultimately interested in attaining democracy. But clearly you are not. Either you literally do not understand what democracy is or you positively do not desire it. Either way you evince no democratic spirit or sensibility whatsoever. Your arguments (continually) are all peculiar, specious, or short-sighted in the extreme (even if you can find a few other anti-democratic scholars to support you). What your program is exactly and why you are interested in sortition at all is beyond me. In any case I think I have had enough of you. I have better things to do with my time, like work to achieve democracy.

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  11. Ted,

    I don’t doubt that the assembly made decisions through voting. The question in my mind is to what extent the mechanism of decision-making by an assembly votes was considered an essential of democracy.

    From the passage above it appears that the Greek view was that in a democracy the assembly did have “sovereign” power which presumably meant that some important or foundational decisions were made in the assembly. However, it also appears that regular decision making in a democracy was normally by an allotted council and regular decision making by the assembly was considered an anomaly.

    > one could not have read Plato and Aristotle extensively and yet missed this.

    Having read the Politics in its entirety (and much less of Plato), my impression is that you are reading your own position into the sources. I’d be interested in any passages that support you position. (Again, I find it unlikely that the Greeks shared your position in view of the fact that voting in the assembly was part of the system in non-democratic cities.)

    Again, the Greek view of what constitutes a democratic system, whatever it may be, is no more than an opinion, although surely an interesting one.

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  12. Ted,

    As far as I am concerned you are more than welcome to express your ideas here. Keith Sutherland is an obnoxious, pompous fool who speaks for himself alone. Please do not associate his obnoxiousness, or any of his writings, with me or with any other person on Equality-by-Lot.

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  13. Ted,

    Have you read Cammack’s chapter on the link between juries and democracy? Or do you dismiss it, a priori, as an undemocratic rant?

    >Either you literally do not understand what democracy is or you positively do not desire it.

    Democracy means that power (kratos) is with the people (demos). Paradoxically when all the people participate directly this has the effect of putting power in elite hands (as Yoram has explained) and also leads to rational ignorance. IMO if a statistically-representative sample were to take political decisions then this would mean that the people have power, iff the decision outcome was invariant across different samples. If steps were also taken to ensure that the sample was well informed then the epistemic consequences would be improved. That’s why I advocated a public enquiry with a large jury as an alternative to the Brexit referendum. Presumably, given your focus on mass participation, you think my proposal would be less democratic than a referendum?

    Yoram,

    >Keith Sutherland is an obnoxious, pompous fool who speaks for himself alone.

    Water off a duck’s back, but I do think you need to lie down in a darkened room or (perhaps) seek medical assistance. Ad hominem is one thing, hysteria quite another — and this is entirely unseemly coming from the forum moderator.

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  14. Here is Laura Serra making a similar appeal to sortition, now in the wake of the Trump win as well. While not being an outright radical, she seems less committed than Van Reybrouck to keeping the elites firmly in charge. (She also manages to put forth her ideas in a significantly shorter format.)

    The problem does not apply only to the United Kingdom or the United States: voting based more on gut-feeling than on sound social and economic considerations has led Austria to almost elect its first far-right president, and extremist parties have more than doubled their share of seats in most European governments, strengthening calls for authoritarianism and nativism.

    While voting allows everyone to have a say on issues only few really understand, sortition envisages a system where a random sample of the population comes to grips with the subject matter in order to make a sensible decision.

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  15. Serra’s approach is almost entirely epistemic, with little mention of Yoram’s hobby horse (the conflict of interest between the masses and the elite). But then most of us have moved on from antediluvian doctrines of political sociology.

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  16. […] frustration with the electorate is manifesting itself in a revival of openly anti-democratic ideas. Van Reybrouck and others offer sortition as an alternative: an a democratic mechanism that will furnish the […]

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