Are we electoral fundamentalists?

Contre les élections by David Van Reybrouck, Translated from the original Dutch by Isabelle Rosselin and Philippe Noble (Babel, February 2014)

My review was originally published here by 3:AM Magazine. Below is an excerpt:

“Representative democracy today seems to be at an impasse. Low voter turnout, falling party membership, plummeting trust in politicians, the fierce rise of populist parties. These trends, together with political fragmentation, disengagement among young generations, and backlash against the political elite who have failed to govern responsibly, highlight democracy’s dilemma. Though much has been written about this democratic crisis, less has been proposed in terms of solutions. Belgian historian David Van Reybrouck’s recent book, Contre les élections [Against Elections], attempts to fill this gap of ideas. Although it has not yet been translated into English, as is obvious from what I discuss below, his analyses are critically important in the current climate.

While definitions vary, one of the uncontested elements of representative democracy is the practice of free and fair elections. This is summed up succinctly in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government; this will shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections.” Yet, why is it that such a concise document spells out the precise implementation of one such right, as though the procedure itself is as fundamental as the desired end? As Van Reybrouck writes in Against Elections:

One gets the feeling that democracy has become a sort of export product: ready-made, neatly packaged, signed and sealed for delivery. Democracy becomes an IKEA kit for “free and fair elections,” to be assembled by the recipient upon arrival, with or without the use of the enclosed instruction booklet.

At the heart of Van Reybrouck’s book is a provocative contestation of the commonly held belief that “democracy” is synonymous with “elections.” The book’s title is slightly misleading; although he claims that we are unquestioning electoral fundamentalists, it is not an argument to eliminate parties, politicians and elections as one might expect. Based on a comparative and historical analysis of democracy’s evolution from Ancient Greece to the Renaissance, the French and American Revolutions to present day, Van Reybrouck proposes a bi-representative system. Alongside elections, he says, we should re-introduce the classical Athenian practice of sortition, or the drawing of lots.”

Read the rest of the review >>

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