Van Reybrouck’s Against Elections, in English

An English translation of David Van Reybrouck’s book Against Elections was recently published. The book is blurbed by, among others, J. M. Coetzee, the South African novelist who was the recipient of the 2003 Nobel Prize in Literature:

Choosing our rulers by popular vote has failed to deliver true democratic government: that seems to be the verdict of history unfolding before our eyes. Cogently and persuasively, David Van Reybrouck pleads for a return to selection by lot, and outlines a range of well thought out plans for how sortitive democracy might be implemented. With the popular media and the political parties fiercely opposed to it, sortitive democracy will not find it easy to win acceptance. Nonetheless, it may well be an idea whose time has come.

With attention from such a luminary it is not surprising that the book was reviewed in several elite media outlets. As Coetzee predicts, the reception is quite cold. The warmest one is Andrew Anthony’s lukewarm response in The Guardian. Anthony concludes:

[W]hen, say, a sortition of the public recommends an expensive transport system that doesn’t work out or cuts a defence system that is later needed, […] where and how is that frustration registered? You can’t vote out the public. One job that elected politicians fulfil is as democratic punchbags. It’s not edifying or necessarily productive, but it may be essential.

Perhaps sortition or partial sortition could be applied in very specific cases. But we also need to look at reviving elections and renewing our belief in them. They remain a vital part of the democratic process. Not its only part, to be sure, but they are an all too rare example of mass engagement. Let’s not vote them out just yet.


The Financial Times‘s John Lloyd takes a harder line. Lloyd patiently explains to Van Reybrouk that he completely misunderstands the founders of modern electoralism when he accuses them of aristocratic tendencies.

Thomas Jefferson believed in “a natural aristocracy among men”, the grounds for which “are virtue and talents”: one of the proofs Van Reybrouck adduces that the venerated founders sought a reconstructed aristocracy. This is the thinnest part of the essay. Feudal aristocracy is exclusive, and its members enforced exclusion; democrats, even “upper bourgeois” ones, can act exclusively, but their ideology mandates openness to all comers. Abraham Lincoln, the 16th US president and the most famed, was the son of a struggling small farmer; since the second world war, Truman, Eisenhower, Nixon, Johnson, Carter, Reagan, Clinton and Obama came from the lower and at times impoverished middle classes. There is no evidence that the founding fathers thought the lower classes — apart from women and slaves — necessarily devoid of virtue or talent even if, then as now, they recognised such characteristics more readily among their own kind.

Lloyd then says that Van Reybrouk’s proposal is one in a “swelling wave” of such ideas, which so far remain in the wings. But things may change: if the Brexit vote pushes the natural aristocracy to buttress the institution of elections, he says, a president Trump may convince it that there is a need to look beyond elections for additional tools to serve their purposes.

The Times has chosen to put the bulk of its review behind a paywall, but still manages to indicate to its unpaying readers that Van Reybrouk’s book presents “a theory that seems almost certainly false and careful analysis shows is indeed false.” But, then again, maybe it’s the familiar theory that elections are democratic that fits this description.

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7 Responses

  1. Reviews of David’s book (and/or essay) have now been published in the Times, Sunday Times, Guardian, Financial Times and Democratic Audit. There is widespread agreement that the rise in populism and the shock result of the Brexit referendum calls for improved ways of consulting public opinion and the term “sortition” is now entering the lexicon of political theorists and journalists, This is a marked change from only a few years ago when I organised a sortition panel at the Manchester political theory workshop and nobody (including the convenors) had the first idea what it was, apart from a couple of people who had stumbled on it in Ranciere). So us Kleroterians can give ourselves a little pat on the back.

    But how best to capitalise on this opportunity? Most of the hostility to David’s book appears to arise from it’s provocative title, Against Elections which, as Yoram has pointed out (to his disgust) is not even the author’s position:

    “[van Reybrouck-style sortition] 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.”

    Or, as John Keane acknowledges: “there is a deep prevarication in his work about whether or not elected legislatures should be replaced in their entirety by a ‘parliament of allotted citizens’.” (John Keane, Democratic Audit).

    The reviewers, however, focused on the implications of the polemical title (both Times reviews adopting the “bonkers” epithet):

    “to use [sortition] to replace elected representatives altogether, or even largely, would be impractical. . . When the author moves from his principled arguments and practical examples to start sketching out how a constitution based on sortition might look, the eyes of the reader begin to glaze over.” (Danny Finkelstein, The Times)

    “Van Reybrouck’s solution, which strikes me as bonkers, reaches back to the Ancient Greeks. . . Van Reybrouck’s book is basically the political equivalent of a book suggesting that everybody should wear corduroy hats, or that we should all go back to speaking Welsh.” (Dominic Sandbrook, Sunday Times)

    Or, to put the argument more posititively:

    “Perhaps sortition or partial sortition could be applied in very specific cases. But we also need to look at reviving elections and renewing our belief in them. They remain a vital part of the democratic process. Not its only part, to be sure, but they are an all too rare example of mass engagement. Let’s not vote them out just yet.” (Anthony Andrews, Guardian)

    Quite. So, if only for tactical reasons, let’s cut the hyperbolic calls for the end of elections and seize this wonderful opportunity for sortition as a way of improving democracy. When Vernon Bogdanor reviewed my first book, The Party’s Over, in THES he trashed it on account of its polemical title (and thesis) but had come round to the notion of sortition as a supplement to electoral democracy when he reviewed my second book, A People’s Parliament, in TLS.

    Of course the call for moderation will be rejected by the tiny minority of armchair revolutionaries on this blog who seek to inspire the masses to rise up and overthrow “electoralism” and replace it with “real democracy”. They view their role in this great historical dialectic as the revolutionary vanguard leaders who supply the catechism and slogans necessary for this exercise in consciousness raising. The fact that they were wrong the first time round doesn’t appear to have diminished their enthusiasm.

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  2. The Saturday Newspaper (Australia) has a semi-positive review:

    Selection by ballot for at least one chamber of parliament could head off revolt by the alienated citizenry, Van Reybrouck suggests. Why not? At least Keating’s senate “swill” would be representative. This stimulating book points to new mechanisms of democracy for the connected Information Age.

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  3. Vice UK has an interview with Van Reybrouck. Excerpt:

    What would the process have been, in hypothetical terms?

    You’re asking me to be David Cameron? I would understand there’s a lot of doubts about our membership with the European Union. And I would have called for large-scale public deliberation, on the local and the national level.

    For example, draft by lot a thousand citizens and ask all the other citizens to nourish these debates, to put forward issues and concerns. I would give these thousand citizens six months’ time, during which they can talk to experts, they can talk to politicians. But all the other citizens could follow the process, it should be very transparent. It should be online. You shouldn’t leave people out. They should be able to feed into that debate.

    I think the question I would ask to this random sample of the British public is: how can we improve our relationship with the European Union? Do you think we should leave? Do you think we should stay? And if we stay, should it be as it is now? What will be your suggestions for improving it?

    And it is only at this point I would organise a referendum. I would ask everyone to tick several boxes, not just one: Should we remain or leave? If we remain, what should be changed? Migration? Income inequality? Climate? Banking rules? Nothing at all?

    That way, you have a much more intelligent sort of output than we have now. Because now, you don’t know why people voted. Is it because they liked Boris Johnson’s haircut? Is it because they were convinced that migration was becoming a big issue and it’s going to be reduced by leaving the European Union? The result of a referendum, of an election, is just a figure. It’s just percentage.

    Referendum are so divisive. They are a very poor tool to raise public trust. Just try to imagine that somebody invites you to devise a democracy that is fit for the 21st century. Is the best idea you can come up with that people queue up in a line on a Thursday morning somewhere near a Post Office and choose one person who they see quarrelling on television? The one who quarreled best… I mean, how primitive is that? Give me a break.

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  4. >Should we remain or leave? If we remain, what should be changed? Migration? Income inequality? Climate? Banking rules? Nothing at all?

    Unfortunately that would only work if the referendum was EU-wide. Cameron’s attempts to achieve modest reforms prior to the UK referendum ran into a brick wall. And David fails to specify exactly how a group of 1,000 people (plus unlimited online contributors) can convert their “conversation” (difficult enough to achieve in such a large group) into a finite list of preferences that doesn’t suffer from the various problems identified by public choice theorists.

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  5. Another review, at the LSE Review of Books:

    Van Reybrouck’s proposals, however innovative and fresh, only deal with a single aspect of modern disaffection: the alienation of voters from parties and politicians. That’s no small thing, but it is also not a freestanding problem. Politicians may seem like cookie-cutter reproductions of the same neoliberal PR account manager, but that is partly because free-market liberalism has been the only ideology on offer for something like a quarter century, because capital has broken free of national borders and eroded the public sphere. Those global pressures transcend national boundaries, and the ideologies that justify them do as well; simply changing the way states select officials fails to address that larger problem. Greece could pick a new government by drawing lottery balls tomorrow; that government would still have to deal with the bond markets. And Van Reybrouck’s model still relies on experts and officials to help advise the citizens chosen by lot. Nothing suggests that these counsellors would be any more ideologically diverse than the technocrats currently employed by the IMF, the European Union or various finance ministries.

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  6. I thought this was an excellent review and would highlight the following:

    [Van Reybrouck] also seems to assume that those sorted into policymaking or review roles will [make] decisions ‘according to their conscience, according to what he or she feels best serves the general interest in the long term’ (146). This implies that there is only one definition of the general interest, which everyone can neutrally work out with enough ratiocination and good will. This ignores questions of class, race, occupation, sub-nationalism and all the other identities, material interests and philosophical concerns we carry into politics. How would this work in a federal system, where you effectively have not just one general national interest, but also the general interests of several states or provinces? From an economic standpoint, how do you come up with a general interest that distributes (or more challengingly, redistributes) resources? For all his condemnation of the first bourgeois republicans of the late-eighteenth century, Van Reybrouck borrows their ideas about a politics without party. That worked for Enlightenment liberals because they could pretend there was only one general interest, since the elected represent only one class of capital owners. He lists several examples of premodern political units that used lot-drawing, but in all of these cases, the ‘citizens’ were a homogenous group of a few thousand or ten thousand men of similar wealth.

    This parallels Surowiecki’s scepticism regarding a politics of the ‘general will’ achieved through sortition and is the principal reason that I insist that sortition should be confined to an aggregate judgment role. And the following should also be of concern to kleroterians:

    In any case, choosing governors by lot does not automatically mean that the public will see those chosen as representing them. Sortition may produce a more representative assemblage of policymakers, but it does not actually empower ordinary citizens unless they are chosen. In Van Reybrouck’s touchstone, Athens, this was not a problem: every citizen was part of the legislature, and there were more than a thousand executive and legislative posts chosen by lot. Every citizen was in some way empowered (a task made easier by excluding most inhabitants from citizenship), and service in an executive role was almost impossible to avoid. In a modern state, this sort of mass participation is not possible, so most citizens will, at most, get to leave comments on the assembly website or vote in occasional referenda. Elections are democratic precisely because they grant choice to citizens, even if it is only a Schumpeterian choice between elites.

    The reviewer also shares my concern that sortition-only solutions (as proposed by Van Reybrouck, Cambell and Terry) will be of byzantine complexity:

    It involves no fewer than six types of assembly: An assembly to set the overall agenda; ‘interest panels’ to propose specific legislative topics; a review panel to prepare detailed bills; a ‘policy jury’ that would vote on the bills (but not debate them); an oversight council to handle complaints and judicial review; and a rules council to set rules for the other bodies. It is unlikely even the most educated, wonkish voter would find such a Rube Goldberg machine an attractive model.

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  7. […] government, and to consider a nuclear dump in SA. David Van Reybrouck’s Against Elections was published in English and received some attention. In Canada and the UK sortition was discussed by academics. […]

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