Against Elections: The Case For Democracy

David van Reybrouck. Reviewed by Dara McHugh.

In its liner notes, David van Reybrouck’s ‘Against Elections’ is credited with a ‘new diagnosis’ and an ‘ancient solution’ to the woes of contemporary democracy. The solution, to start at the end, is known as ‘sortition’. Famed for its widespread use in ancient Athens, sortition refers to the selection of legislative and deliberative bodies through a lottery. Instead of the electoral systems which have since supplanted the term, sortition was seen as the essence of democracy, as it ensured that decision making bodies are truly representative of the people from which they draw. But why the interest in such an antiquated process?

The impetus lies in the much mulled over crisis of democracy in the developed world. As Reybrouck adeptly illustrates, electoral representation is experiencing a legitimacy problem. Voters have less faith in politicians, politicians share the sentiment, and overall political engagement (electoral turnout, membership in parties) has been on a long-term decline. What Van Reybrouck dubs ‘Democratic Fatigue Syndrome’ sees insular and technocratic rulers preside over a resentful but disengaged electorate. More recently, apathy has given way to anger, as movements of left and right target political elites. The time, he suggests, is right for a change.

As a fairly alien concept, sortition requires some exposition. The work of political scientist James Fishkin, who pioneered the idea in the United States, demonstrated that selecting citizens by lot for deliberative bodies led to significant changes in viewpoint, and that the participants became “significantly more competent and more sophisticated in their political judgements… and more aware of the complexity of political decision-making.”

More recent experiments such as those in Iceland and Ireland have shown that citizens’ assemblies can and will produce a strong challenge to the agendas of their professional counterparts. TheIcelandic Constitutional Council’s proposals, overwhelmingly passed at two referendums, included democratic reforms, the separation of Church and State and nationalisation of natural resources. The Irish Constitutional Convention, more limited in what it was permitted to address, proposed, as well as the Equal Marriage Referendum, the enshrinement of rights to housing and education and removing the prohibition on blasphemy.

These bodies are seen by politicians as a seemingly democratic way to dsiplace political responsibility and dissipate popular anger.

In Ireland, the Government ignored the recommendations that did not suit them, while in Iceland two successive governments ignored the referendums entirely. The ongoing debate about the 8th Amendment gives a hint as to how these bodies are seen by politicians – not as a source of change, but as a seemingly democratic way to displace political responsibility and dissipate popular anger.

Van Reybrouck largely skates over the political wranglings that have created and silenced these deliberative bodies, but he does anticipate the suspicion and hostility with which the political class view the notion that “every cook can govern”, and devotes some attention to ways to introduce the concept of sortition into political systems gradually. As elsewhere though, he strays away from discussion of power and conflict. Perhaps he does not wish sortition to become tarnished by ideology, and to stand in its own right as a ‘good idea’. But, as the vetoed proposals of the Icelandic and Irish conventions show, a political system that was truly representative would soon come into conflict with elites; ignoring this serves no purpose.

Another neglected issue is the recent surge in political participation from the Left, as radical politics resonate with those who can expect little from a failed economy. Treated with such disdain by the technocrats, a new generation is forming vibrant movements to contest political power, making Van Reybrouk’s diagnosis of ‘Democracy Fatigue Syndrome’ seem a little quackish. Sortition is a promising concept, and could certainly be advanced as a means to democratise the political realm. But both cure and diagnosis are most comprehensible when viewed alongside the differences in, and conflicts over power and wealth that shape our world.

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