We have a problem with democracy in the 21st century. Everyone agrees that democracy is a good thing, but no one seems to believe in it anymore. So begins Against Elections, David Van Reybrouck’s 2013 book, published in English in 2016.
Van Reybrouck explores the apparent crisis of democracy though the metaphor of disease, describing the symptoms, diagnoses and pathogenesis of what he terms ‘democratic fatigue syndrome’ (DFS). He evokes an image of democracy lying critically ill, perhaps on its deathbed.
Where others have seen voter apathy, Van Reybrouck sees people frustrated by the vast gulf between what they want and what they see politicians doing. They don’t feel as if their vote will make a difference. Hence, across most Western countries over the past 20 to 30 years, voter turnout has declined, membership of political parties and trade unions has decreased, and voter loyalty to parties has withered. Floating voters have become the norm.
Van Reybrouck runs through a selection of common diagnoses for DFS. Some suggest it’s because politicians are a distant and corrupt class that has lost touch with ordinary people. Some blame democracy itself, arguing that democratically elected governments are too constrained by the democratic system ever really to get things done. Others say it’s the fault of party politics. After all, when politicians seem to devote all their energy to power struggles between (or even within) parties, then to what extent are they really representing the people?
Van Reybrouck evokes an image of democracy lying critically ill, perhaps on its deathbed
Van Reybrouck rejects these common diagnoses, pointing out that the solutions they promise are all dangerous. Instead he argues that the real problem is electoral representative democracy itself.
As he explains, it is only over the past 200 years that elections have become the main mechanism of democracy. Hitherto, societies that experimented with democracy tended to rely on the drawing of lots, known as sortition. As Van Reybrouck notes, the drawing of lot was the principal way in which public roles were filled in the birthplace of democracy, Ancient Athens. During the Enlightenment, many thinkers still considered the drawing of lots to be the most democratic form of government. As Montesquieu put it in The Spirit of the Laws (1748), ‘Voting by lot is in the nature of democracy; voting by choice is in the nature of aristocracy’. Rousseau, agreed, arguing that public positions requiring men of talent ought to be filled by election while positions that required ‘good sense, justice, and integrity’ could be filled by the use of lots.
It was only after the American and French revolutions that elections became the accepted mechanism of a democratic society. Van Reybrouck argues that this shift in thinking was not as radical some assume. Above and beyond the practical difficulties of governing through sortition at a time when no one really had a record of who lived where, Van Reybrouck argues that there was a political reason for post-revolutionary elites to favour elections: they did not really want rule by the people. Rather, they were concerned that the ‘best’ should rule. As American revolutionary John Adams wrote in his Thoughts on Government (1776), elections allowed rulers to ‘depute power from the many, to a few of the most wise and good’. And again, as the French constitution had it in 1791, ‘The nation, from which alone all powers emanate, may exercise such powers only by delegation. The French Constitution is representative.’ This ‘aristocratisation of the revolution’, as Van Reybrouck puts it, meant that the revolutions merely replaced a hereditary aristocracy with an elected aristocracy.
Since the age of revolution, there have been several significant political and electoral changes: political parties emerged after 1850; universal suffrage emerged in the early 20th century; and the growth of organised civil society following the Second World War led to a period when the interests of large sections of society were represented and channelled through collective institutions such as trade unions and mass political parties. But, as Van Reybrouck tells it, the relative stability of the postwar years was brought to an end in the 1990s with the rise of neoliberal thinking, and the increasing role of commercial media in the public arena. Party newspapers and government-owned media were displaced by mass commercial media, and citizens were reshaped as consumers. Governments spoke directly to people through the media rather than through intermediaries such as trade unions and other collective institutions. And now social media have further crowded the political scene.