Inside Story

The fossil fuel of politics

Books | How should we respond to the growing crisis in electoral democracy?

Klaus Neumann 23 November 2016 1800 words

Crowdsourcing democracy: participants in the first meeting of Iceland’s Stjórnlagaráð in April 2011.  Skrifstofa Stjórnlagaráðs

Against Elections: The Case for Democracy
By David Van Reybrouck │Translated by Liz Waters │ Bodley Head │ $27.99

Democracies across the Western world are in a sorry state. This month, a man so obviously unsuited to being the world’s most powerful political leader won the American presidential election – not so much because of voters’ enthusiasm for his policies, but as a result of their dissatisfaction with what they perceive to be the political establishment.

What’s equally depressing is that Donald Trump’s victory was sealed by the votes of just over a quarter of eligible voters. Despite the high stakes, only a little over half of American citizens over the age of eighteen participated in the election. In itself, that isn’t a new development. In 2012, the participation rate was less than 55 per cent, and Barack Obama was able to garner votes from only 28 per cent of the electorate. In fact, the last time that more than 60 per cent of eligible voters cast their votes in presidential elections was in 1968, when Richard Nixon won; in a three-horse race with Hubert Humphrey and George Wallace, Nixon was elected with the support of barely a quarter of the electorate.

In Australia, where voting is compulsory, people’s disdain for the political system is as pronounced as it is in the United States and in much of Europe. “Australians are so fed up with business as usual that they seem happy to consider crooks, spivs, vain millionaires with deep pockets and deeper self-interests, serial litigants, science deniers, one-issue nutcases, and the odd moron,” Fairfax’s Mark Kenny recently commented. Perhaps most worryingly, many of those fed up with business as usual look towards right-wing xenophobes. In Australia, Pauline Hanson’s One Nation is as much the beneficiary as Nigel Farage’s UKIP was in the 2015 British parliamentary elections, Norbert Hofer in the recent Austrian presidential elections, and Trump on 8 November. Grassroots movements on the left of the political spectrum, such as the Occupy Wall Street movement, and left-of-centre populist parties, such as the Pirates in Germany and Sweden, and the G500 in the Netherlands, have also benefited from the disenchantment with parliamentary democracy in its current form.

Australia provides further evidence that the system itself is in crisis. Since 2007, Australia has had five prime ministers, one of them on two separate occasions, because the incumbents were either voted out of office or removed by their own party when they were deemed too unpopular. The current federal government is not only distrusted and disliked by the majority of the electorate (less than a year after having been voted in), but it is also highly ineffectual, partly because it is afraid to make decisions that could make it even more unpopular or jeopardise its slim majority.

The Australian public has lost interest in elections, even though journalists try to make them appear interesting by reporting about electoral contests as if they were sporting competitions. Nevertheless, governments are in constant campaign mode. They are obsessed with opinion polls and try to pre-empt voters’ disapproval of their policies by submitting every initiative to focus groups before announcing it.

At least Australia’s Liberal–National Party coalition was able to form government soon after the elections. After the last elections in Spain, a new government only emerged after ten months. Belgium was ruled for 541 days by a caretaker government until Socialist Party leader Elio Di Rupo was finally able to cobble together a coalition government following the 2010 federal elections.

In Against Elections, the Belgian writer David Van Reybrouck lists the symptoms of a system in crisis: “low voter turnout, high voter turnover, declining party membership, governmental impotence, political paralysis, electoral fear of failure, lack of recruitment, compulsive self-promotion, chronic electoral fever, exhausting media stress, distrust.” He suggests that a system that seemed to make sense some 250 years ago is no longer adequate:

If the Founding Fathers in the United States and the heroes of the French Revolution had known in what context their method would be forced to function 250 years later, they would no doubt have prescribed a different model. Imagine having to develop a system today that would express the will of the people. Would it really be a good idea to have them all queue up at polling stations every four or five years with a bit of card in their hands and go into a dark booth to put a mark, not next to ideas but next to names on a list, names of people about whom restless reporting had been going on for months in a commercial environment that profits from restlessness?

Van Reybrouck says that elections are the anachronism at the heart of today’s malaise – that they are “the fossil fuel of politics.” He certainly has a point when he claims that democracy is not synonymous with electoral democracy, and that we ought to step back, acknowledge that “our current democracy is the result of a chance conjunction of circumstances over the past two hundred years” and question some of our assumptions about what democracy meant and could mean. He convincingly argues that electoral democracy in its current form has a rather short history, going back no further than the late eighteenth century.

Athenian democracy, which is often hailed as the birthplace of our political system, relied on sortition – the drawing of lots – more than on elections. So did the political systems of some of the Italian city-states in the Middle Ages. Sortition, in conjunction with rotation, ensured maximum participation and, in principle at least, no distinction between the governing and the governed (who could be tomorrow’s holders of power). It thus prevented the emergence of what populists like Trump refer to as the “establishment” or the “political class” or the “elites.” Of course, in Athens this was true only insofar as those eligible to participate in the democratic process were concerned: women and slaves were excluded from power.

According to Van Reybrouck, electoral democracy was not intended to empower the people. Rather, both in France and in the United States, the new elites wanted to disempower both the hereditary rulers and the people, who could not be trusted to govern themselves (and many of whom were initially not eligible to cast a vote).

Van Reybrouck believes that deliberative democracy is the answer to a system in crisis. He wants assemblies of citizens who have been selected by the drawing of lots, or by a combination of sortition and self-selection, to have a major role in policy-making. Participants would be compensated for their time and effort to ensure that they could join such a decision-making body. He also says how not to do it; he believes that Kevin Rudd’s 2008 citizens’ summit was an exercise in replacing the “elected aristocracy” with a “self-elected aristocracy.”

Van Reybrouck lists several examples of deliberative democracy in action to demonstrate that the model he champions has worked in the recent past. Among others, they include the 2004 Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform in British Columbia and the 2013 Convention on the Constitution in Ireland. Where a referendum simply “reveals people’s gut reactions,” his model requires a group of citizens to arrive at an informed opinion (both by talking among themselves and by listening to specialist advice) in a lengthy process.

Could fellow citizens chosen by lot be trusted to arrive at sensible decisions any more than elected politicians? Van Reybrouck is optimistic: “We are all adults now and politicians would do well to look past the barbed wire, trust the citizens, take their emotions seriously and value their experience.” On other occasions, though, those same citizens may have been responsible for the election of the likes of Pauline Hanson and Donald Trump. Would they listen to each other and to expert advice? Isn’t there the risk that they would encourage each other to adopt extreme positions?

Democracy should mean more than being allowed to vote in elections every few years. But the prospect of a citizens’ assembly having a say about Australia’s refugee and asylum seeker policies is no more enticing than what we have now. In the current model, cynical politicians try to play towards an audience they perceive to be overwhelmingly narrow-minded, xenophobic and egotistical, and formulate policies that disregard the rights of refugees and asylum seekers in order to be re-elected. The alternative to President Trump and Senator Hanson can’t be to put Trump and Hanson voters in charge of policy-making and trust them to make well-informed decisions that respect the interests and rights of others.

But while Van Reybrouck may not have the remedy, there is little doubt in my mind that his diagnosis ought to be taken seriously. The vote for Brexit, the election of Donald Trump and the success of the populist far right in elections across Europe suggest that something is seriously amiss. There are, of course, exceptions to the trend. New Zealand might be one. Iceland could be another one: there, last month’s elections were triggered by revelations that leading Icelandic politicians, including prime minister Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson, feature in the Panama Papers. Anywhere else, the ensuing public outrage should have guaranteed a large vote for the populist far right. In Iceland, it didn’t.

The comparative weakness of right-wing populism in Iceland may well be the legacy of the politicisation of Iceland’s electorate during the Búsáhaldabyltingin, the Pots and Pans Revolution, in the wake of the Icelandic financial crisis. The example of Iceland could also suggest both that Van Reybrouck has a point and that his model of randomly selected citizens’ assemblies is deficient. Between 2010 and 2012, Iceland experimented with deliberative democracy to draft a new Constitution. There, a group of twenty-five citizens was chosen not by drawing lots but by a popular vote (and later, when that vote was annulled, by parliament). But the twenty-five women and men weren’t left to their own devices; instead, all Icelanders were invited to become actively involved in the discussions. “Crowdsourcing for democracy” is how the Finnish scholar Tanja Aitamurto called these kinds of exercises in a recent book.

Arguably, that attempt to involve everyone raised the standard of political debate. But what works in a country with a population the size of Canberra doesn’t necessarily work elsewhere. It might suggest, though, that the crisis of electoral democracy could also be addressed by devolving decision-making to the local level, where it is more easily possible to involve all residents – not just citizens – in deliberative processes. •