Against Elections Review: Taking A Chance With Democracy

When “Against Elections: The Case for Democracy” by David Van Reybrouck first appeared its cover was a plain white, a slim volume of less than 180 pages promising a sober read despite its provocative title. Since its second edition, the cover has changed. It is now an alarming red, with Donald Trump’s face at the bottom of the cover, his eyes squinting menacingly at the reader. This change is emblematic because the last year that has shaken up our political systems in a way not seen since the end of the Soviet empire.
Van Reybrouck offers both a diagnosis and more significantly an at least partial answer to the troubles Western-style democracies are currently beset with. His diagnosis is poignantly summed up as a “Democratic Fatigue Syndrome”. When it comes to democracy, “[e]veryone seems to want it, but no one believes in it any more” (1). Trust in institutions has been corroded, turnout and party memberships have been in constant decline for decades. Coalition negotiations take longer than they used to, governments are under permanent public scrutiny and attack, while they operate to slowly to keep up with social change. Colin Crouch has famously offered a damning verdict of the state of our political systems and claimed we effectively lived in a time of “post-democracy”. But while some authors such as Crouch blame the neoliberal hollowing out of state institutions and implicitly or explicitly call for their restoration, Van Reybrouck’s suggestion is decidedly more far-reaching historically as well as in scope.


Like basically all textbooks in democratic theory, Van Reybrouck takes the Athenian democracy as his starting point but unlike most standard accounts he praises the drawing of lots as a basic principle to allocate government positions. While Athens has often been described as a “direct democracy”, Van Reybrouck argues we should instead view it as an “aleatoric-representative democracy” (67): a system in which government officials are determined by sortition, i.e. the drawing of lots. This part of the book offers detailed accounts of the working of not only the Athenian democracy, but also of historical governments and procedures which equally placed great emphasis on the chance allocation of government positions through sortition, such as the Venetian “Ballotta”, the Florentine “Imborsazione” or the “Insaculación” of Aragon (68-69).


In its modern form, however, representative systems have marginalized the principle of sortition in favour of a mix of democratic and aristocratic elements through electoral representation. The very oscillation between aristocratic and democratic tendencies can be seen as the basic motif of modern democratic theory and the will to represent the people has always been accompanied by a certain “political agoraphobia” (89). Some of the responses to our current populist predicament might be viewed in this light as well and while populists rally against “technocrats”, experts, central bankers and constitutional courts, their liberal counterparts start to doubt the very principle of democratic representation again. Van Reybrouck’s reminder that such discussions have a history dating back to the American and French Revolution and were picked up with particular fervour around the time of the Weimar Republic helps us not fall in the trap of historical exceptionalism.


In the last part of the book, van Reybrouck calls for a revival of the “aleatory” tradition. He recounts innovation in “deliberative democratic theory” as well as concrete examples of democratic experiments and attempts to assess their potential. Most importantly, the theoretical and practical work of James Fishkin is highlighted. Already in 1988, Fishkin proposed bringing together 1,500 US American citizens and the presidential candidates to participate in a televised discussion over two weeks. Since then, various attempts at similar citizen juries, public consultations, deliberative opinion polls and town hall meetings have been organised throughout the Western world. Van Reybrouck describes these attempts in some detail, the Irish Convention on the Constitution possibly being the most impressive example, in which 100 members including 66 randomly chosen citizens participated and as a result of which Ireland mandated legal same-sex marriage in its 2015 referendum. Other experiments from Canada or the Netherlands, however, have left no real results (121).

An Experiment on a Bird in an Air Pump by Joseph Wright of Derby, 1768
An Experiment on a Bird in an Air Pump by Joseph Wright of Derby, 1768

The book concludes with an appeal for a complex system of government in which elections and sortition complement one another. Different political bodies would be composed of random members and have different functions in the legislative process to ensure checks and balances. Such a system, Van Reybrouck suggests, would have to constantly adapt to the experiences we have with it and could eventually even do away with elections on the whole. These concrete suggestions are simultaneously the great strength and the weakness of Van Reybrouck’s manifesto. In the long run, his vision should inspire democratic reformers, but how are we to conceive the way forward towards a more deliberative democracy?


A classic study from the history of science called “The Leviathan and the Air-Pump” points us to the main difficulty on this path. It describes the controversy between Thomas Boyle, a forefather of the experimental method in 17th century Britain, who found his proudest moment in proving the existence of a vacuum with an expensive air pump depicted in the picture above and Thomas Hobbes, who is usually regarded as the founder of modern political theory. Hobbes attacked Boyle’s experimental methods as illegitimate. After all, who are those people assembling around an experiment? Why would an experiment in relative secrecy be of any relevance for the pursuit of knowledge which should be open to all? How are we to trust that the signs from experiments that allegedly point towards some deeper truth – especially when those science only become visible in such a tightly controlled setting such as a scientist’s laboratory?


In a way, deliberative experiments face the same challenges of scientific and political representation. Electoral representation has its strength in its self-evidence in the same way that Hobbes’ “state of nature” argument has an intuitive appeal despite its abstractness: Hobbes told us that if there was no state, even the weakest man can kill the strongest – be it with wit or weapons – so we are all naturally equal and can only exist in society if we become equal parts that are represented by the state. Still today, the principle “one man, one vote” is intuitive and the chance for everyone to participate shifts the burden to the citizenry. As women and the poor won enfranchisement, the concept of “one man, one vote” deepened. Hobbes essentially prevailed.


The deliberative challenge to representative democracy would need to pick up the same controversy and fight it out on the territory of political representation. The problem is that a random selection of citizens would require everyone to accept the legitimacy from a sample of people whose initial composition and its eventual decisions would have to be organised by a group of trusted experts and politicians. Especially when the potential results of such deliberations could be foreseen, we can assume political parties instrumentalise and antagonise over such experiments. Observers will be quick to point out that deliberation would only simulate the democratic process without being “the real thing” (Michelsen/Walter 2013).


Advocates of deliberative democracy will need to pick up this challenge and prove its value. As with experimental methods in science, such trials can only start locally and must then develop and travel through a vast web of repetitions. As long as parliaments, parties and mass media progressively lose their capacity to represent the people while the Trumps of this planet reap the fruits of their demise, we might have few other options than to try out new forms of democracy. Van Reybrouck wrote the manifesto for this project and some significant trials have been made. Many more will need to follow.


Against Elections: The Case For Democracy was written by David Van Reybrouck and is available from Random House, 2016.


Fishkin, James S. “The case for a national caucus: Taking democracy seriously.” Atlantic Monthly 262.2 (1988).
Michelsen, Danny, and Franz Walter. Unpolitische Demokratie. Zur Krise der Repräsentation. Berlin: Suhrkamp (2013).
Shapin, Steven, and Simon Schaffer. Leviathan and the Air-Pump: Hobbes, Boyle, and the Experimental Life. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011.
Van Reybrouck, David. Against elections: the case for democracy. London: The Bodley Head, 2016.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.