On Democracy: Against elections

Some readers of this blog with know my preoccupation with the shortcomings of Vox Pop Democracy. Here are some aphorisms from David Van Reybrouck who’s book Against elections does not appear to have been translated out of Dutch at this stage. They offer some interesting ways of understanding the difference between deliberative and representative democracy.

1. Democracy is not meant to make people happy, it is meant to teach people how to be unhappy.
2. Democracy is not meant to be exciting, but to be boring.
3. Democracy is not about solving conflict, it is about learning to live with conflict. (Luc Huyse)
4. A world in which conflicts are constantly being minimized is not a democracy, it is utopia.
5. A world in which conflicts are constantly being maximized is not a democracy, it is hysteria.
6. A world in which conflicts are valued as sources of insight into each other nurtures the culture of democracy.
7. Of all political systems, democracy is the one that celebrates conflict the most.
8. Democracy is not about consensus, it is about conflict.
9. A world in which conflicts are being dealt with before they turn into violence fosters the culture of democracy.
10. A world in which conflicts are neither buried nor blown up is in the process of becoming democratic.
11. Democracy is an early harvest of what otherwise would grow into war.
12. In order to remain democratic, the pursuit of happiness should go hand in hand with the acceptance of unhappiness.
13. Happy the society whose inhabitants are all slightly unhappy, for this may betray the culture of democracy.
14. Democracy is about the even distribution of unhappiness. This is its utopian ideal. In the absence of its full realisation, it teaches people to be moderately happy about their moderate unhappiness.
15. Democracy is government of the people (tick), for the people (tick), by the people (question mark).
16. Universal suffrage does not suffice to allow us to speak of ‘government by the people’.
17. If elections once belonged to the nature of aristocracy, universal suffrage was only a form of ‘quantitative democratisation’, not ‘qualitative democratisation’ (Bernard Manin). People got a right to vote, not to speak.
18. The person who casts his or her vote, casts it away. This is called: the principle of delegation. The only way of reclaiming that vote, is by sanctioning candidates at the next election.
19. Today, people despise the elected, but worship the elections. This is wrong: rather than being upset about politicians, parties and parliaments, they should be upset about the electoral
20. For the very first time in the history of representative government, the weight of the next election has become bigger than the weight of the previous election. The danger of the sanction has become bigger than the power of the delegation.
21. The theory of electoral democracy: let the past push the present (delegation). The practice of electoral democracy: the future hinders the present (sanction). This cripples action. We are being ruled by a misty void. This void is not the future, but the fear of the future.
22. Elections are not only outdated as a democratic procedure, they were never meant to be democratic in the first place. Elections were invented to stop the danger of democracy. This is not
blasphemy, but history.
23. Three thousand years of experimenting with democracy, and only two hundred years of playing with elections: and yet, we believe that elections are sacred.
24. There is nothing sacred about elections. They are only procedures, aristocratic procedures that people have tried to democratize, with considerable success, over the past two centuries.
25. There is nothing sacred about ‘one man, one vote’. It is only the historically contingent expression of a deeper democratic concern: the equal distribution of political chances.
26. If democracy is government through debate, electoral democracy is fairly mute: citizens wait, citizens listen, citizens cast their vote, citizens wait again.
27. In a world that is becoming increasingly horizontal, elections are an obsolete vestige of more vertical times.
28. In a world where information spins fast, voting once every four years is no longer enough.
29. In a world where technology empowers people, citizens not only want to vote, but voice their opinions, too.
30. Democracy through periodic delegation and sanction is rapidly loosing its legitimacy.
31. In a communication society like ours, it is natural that people want to engage in public discussion on the future of their society, it is positive that they want to take part in collective affairs and help shape the future of their communities.
32. People have the right to vote, they now ask for the right to speak.
33. How should the right to speak be organized? We have to avoid that only those with money, degrees and contacts get heard. We should not repeat the mistakes from the past: a new democracy should never become an elitist democracy.
34. The right to speak should be evenly distributed. The best way to do so is by sortition, i.e. by random sampling.
35. Sortition is the blind selection procedure by which a random sample of a population is drafted in order to get an adequate representation of that population.
36. If elections create representation on the basis of virtue, sortition creates representation on the basis of equality.
37. Both have their advantages: elections may guarantee more competences, sortition guarantees more freedom. Those who are drafted have to rotate after a while, their decisions will not be influenced by the need for reelection.
38. Two key notions for elections: delegation and sanction. Two key notions for sortition: equality and rotation.
39. If democracy is about the equal distribution of political chances, sortition guarantees that everybody has the same chance of being selected.
40. ‘One man, one vote’ now becomes ‘One person, one chance’.
41. Sortition is commonly used in contemporary democracies: it forms the basis of the entire polling business.
42. Opinion polls measure what people think when they don’t think; it would be much more interesting to know what they think when they had a chance to think (James Fishkin).
43. Giving a random sample of people a chance to think by letting them talking to each other and to experts and by giving them time to get at their own conclusions is the very nature of deliberative democracy.
44. Deliberative democracy is not about voting but about talking; it is not about avoiding conflict but about embracing it; it is not about consensus but dissensus.
45. Because deliberative democracy is both about the pursuit of happiness and the acceptance of unhappiness, it is a much needed complement to classical electoral democracy

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Phil Clark
Phil Clark
6 years ago

So would representative democracy be an evolutionary biproduct to allow survival of the fittest in a mass society? Working for local goverment I have often mused over the idea of almagamating state and local by converting the local wards to replace the current state electorates. This would expand the parliament and create a more granular democratic exchange while breaking the two party system and diversifying represention.

Phil Clark
Phil Clark
6 years ago
Reply to  Nicholas Gruen

Is an Athenian style deliberative democracy possible given the logistics. Elections may be crude and open to abuse but would a delibrative function within the electoral or legislative system be any different.

Phil Clark
Phil Clark
6 years ago
Reply to  Nicholas Gruen

More a long the lines of participatory democracy with the difference of full access to all through the use of citizen initiated collective and individual participation. This could range from concensus to referendum or even legislative. Unfortunately the only practical, flexible and scalable frame work are online services which are a probity and security land mine.

R. N. England
R. N. England
6 years ago

Thailand has recently abolished the limited representative democracy they had. Instead of investing enough in propaganda to ensure that their representatives have a majority in parliament, the elite prefer royalist military dictatorship. Keeping the army and the Royal Family on side probably costs them more, but it satisfies their outlook on life.

6 years ago

I love no 42, a great aphorism.

I love the idea as well, it appeals to my distrust of elites at the same time as it reminds me of my own elitism; quite a feat.

I would be most enthusiastic about something more explicitly Athenian: sortition to select the Senate, for example. Terms of 6 years rolling with sortition of 1/3rd every 2 years would appeal to me, although it would be necessary to compensate sortitees (would we quickly come to call them sots?) quite handsomely I would think.

To make Nick like my comment I would also support forming expert advisory committees whose advice would be required before the sortitees could decide on legislation coming within that committees’ expertise.

Chris Lloyd
Chris Lloyd
6 years ago

As a comedian said: “If democracy actually worked, they would have stopped it by now.”