The premise of David Van Reybrouck’s “Against Elections: The Case for Democracy” is a fairly incontrovertible one: That democratic governments around the world face crisis in their legitimacy and efficiency – the two criteria which voters judge their political leaders on – thereby leading to the “Democratic Fatigue Syndrome”. And in this vein his two main arguments, which are not as straightforward, is that “Our democracy is being wrecked by being limited to elections, even though elections were not invented as a democratic instrument”, and that there is consequently a case to be made for “the reintroduction of a far more democratic instrument historically, sortition”. Sortition, in this context, refers to the selection of political officers through random allotment.
This proposal sounds ludicrous at first glance, which is why Van Reybrouck devoted the first half of the book to understanding the fundamental cause of the “Democratic Fatigue Syndrome”, and the paradox of voters “despising those elected but venerating elections”. In other words, what is the problem? He outlined five structural transformations of the electoral-representative system in Western democracies since the eighteenth century, making the historical points that members of the public – in the past – were appointed to government positions through volunteering and lottery, and that elections are inherently exclusionary and unfair. The discourse is supported by the relevant literature, reconstructing the false consensus of democracies and elections, before launching into the second half of the book:
“Behold the pathogenesis of our electoral fundamentalism. The drawing of lots, the most democratic of all political instruments, lost out in the eighteenth century to elections, a procedure that was not invested as a democratic instrument but as a means of bringing a new, non-hereditary aristocracy to power”.
Remedies or recommendations proposed in the second half of “Against Elections” – I thought – was a little underwhelming. Yes, new models of citizen participation were considered (and proposals for allotted legislative assemblies in five different countries were also mooted), and yes, he emphasised a multi-body sortition model by American researcher Terrill Bouricius, yet in this short book more attention should have been paid to the implementation*. “What are we waiting for”, Van Reybrouck asks twice at the end of the book, though the answer to that is complex, and perhaps demands a great deal of contextualisation too. Where is Bouricius’s model most likely to take root in the near future, and what needs to happen for components to fall into place? Otherwise, the question will remain unanswered.
* On this note, there was the presentation of five dilemmas in most forms of consultation, which I thought remained relevant beyond the context of citizen participation models per se: “You want sortition to provide a large, representative sample, but you also know that it’s easier to work in small groups. You want rapid rotation to promote participation, but you also know that longer mandates produce better work. You want to let everyone take part who wishes to do so, but you also know that this means highly educated and articulate citizens will be over-represented. You want citizens to be able to consult each other, but you also know that this presents the danger of group thinking, the tendency to be too quick to find a consensus. You want to give as much power as possible to an allotted body, but you also know that some individuals will put too much pressure on the group process, producing arbitrary outcomes”.