Why do we hold elections? Why do governments in the west export elections to other parts of the world? Is this process of choosing a politician’s name from a ballot effective, or have we forgotten why this practice arose in the first place? And seriously: if we’ve left much of the 18th century behind, why continue with this particular tradition? We’ve heard the usual defence: elections are imperfect but better than any other option. But could there a better way to enact democracy?

With his book, Against Elections, David Van Reybrouck proposes an alternative. In this extract he argues we’ve arrived at a state of electoral fundamentalism, blindly in thrall to an outdated ritual that is ill equipped for the challenges of our times. This November, the US will conduct an election shaped by the echo chambers of social media, an election that would be unrecognizable to those who introduced the process.

Electoral fundamentalism is an unshakeable belief in the idea that democracy is inconceivable without elections and elections are a necessary and fundamental precondition when speaking of democracy. Electoral fundamentalists refuse to regard elections as a means of taking part in democracy, seeing them instead as an end in themselves, as a holy doctrine with an intrinsic, inalienable value.

This blind faith in the ballot box as the ultimate base on which popular sovereignty rests is seen most vividly of all in international diplomacy. When Western donor countries hope that countries ravaged by conflict, like Congo, Iraq, Afghanistan or East Timor, will become democracies, what they really mean is this: they must hold elections, preferably on the Western model, with voting booths, ballot papers and ballot boxes, with parties, campaigns and coalitions, with lists of candidates, polling stations and sealing wax, just like we do, only over there, and then they will receive money from us. Local democratic and proto-democratic institutions (village meetings, traditional conflict mediation or ancient jurisprudence) stand no chance. These things may have their value in encouraging a peaceful and collective discussion, but the money will be shut off unless our own tried and tested recipe is adhered to – rather in the way that traditional medicine must back off as soon as Western medicine turns up.

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Against Elections by David Van Reybrouck

If you look at the recommendations of Western donors, it’s as if democracy is a kind of export product, off the peg, in handy packaging, ready for dispatch. Democracy becomes an Ikea kit for ‘free and fair elections’, to be put together by the recipient, with or without the help of the instructions enclosed.

And if the resulting piece of furniture is lopsided, uncomfortable to sit on or falls apart? Then it’s the fault of the customer, not the distant producer.

That elections can have all kinds of outcomes in states which are fragile, including violence, ethnic tensions, criminality and corruption, seems of secondary importance, and that elections do not automatically foster democracy but may instead prevent or destroy it is conveniently forgotten. We insist that in every country in the world people must traipse off to the polling stations, no matter how much collateral damage may result. Our electoral fundamentalism really does take the form of a new, global evangelism. Elections are the sacraments of that new faith, a ritual regarded as a vital necessity in which the form is more important than the content.

For almost three thousand years people have been experimenting with democracy and only in the last two hundred have they practiced it exclusively by holding elections.

This focus on elections is actually rather odd. For almost three thousand years people have been experimenting with democracy and only in the last two hundred have they practiced it exclusively by holding elections. Yet we regard elections as the only valid method. Why? Force of habit is at play here, of course, but there is a more fundamental cause, based on the fact that no one can deny that elections have worked pretty well over the past two centuries. Despite a number of notoriously bad outcomes, they’ve very often made democracy possible and they’ve brought order to the laborious quest for a credible balance between the contrasting demands of efficiency and legitimacy.

However,what is often forgotten is that elections originated in a completely different context from that in which they have to function today. Fundamentalists generally have little historical insight, assuming their own dogmas always held good, and electoral fundamentalists therefore have a poor knowledge of the history of democracy. This is orthodoxy without retrospection. In fact we badly need to take a look back.

When the supporters of the American and French revolutions proposed elections as a way of getting to know ‘the will of the people’, there were as yet no political parties, no laws regarding universal franchise, no commercial mass media, let alone social media. In fact the inventors of electoral-representative democracy had no idea that any of these things would come into existence.

There was a time when Europe had no citizens, only subjects. From the Middle Ages until well into the eighteenth century – here we are painting with a broad brush – power lay with a sovereign ruler, excepting the Dutch, Florentine and Venetian republics, which we will leave aside for now. In his palace, fort or castle, the ruler, perhaps with the help of a few nobles or councillors, took decisions about the affairs of his country. His decisions were conveyed to the market square by a messenger, who announced them to anyone willing to listen. The relationship between power and the masses was a one-way street, and this remained the case from feudalism to absolutism.

But over the course of the centuries a ‘public sphere’ emerged, to borrow a phrase and a theory from German sociologist Jürgen Habermas. Subjects resisted the top- down approach and gathered in public to discuss affairs of state. In the eighteenth century, the century of enlightened despotism, events gathered momentum. Habermas has described how places developed where people could discuss public matters. In central European coffee houses, at German Tischgemeinschaften, in French restaurants and British pubs, the affairs of the day were debated. The public sphere took shape in new institutions such as cafés, theatres, opera houses, but perhaps most of all in that peculiar invention of the time, the newspaper. The political awareness that emerged during the Renaissance came to characterize larger and larger groups. The citizen was born.

The American and French revolutions of 1776 and 1789 represent the high point of this development. A rebellious citizenry threw off the yoke of the British and French crowns and decided that the people were sovereign, not the king. To give the people a voice (or at least the bourgeois segment of the population, since the franchise was still very limited), a formal procedure was invented, the election, a procedure until then mainly used to choose a new pope. Voting was familiar as a means of achieving unanimity among a group of like-minded people, such as cardinals, but in politics it would now have to promote consensus between people seen as virtuous within their own circles. For a citizen of the early twenty-first century it takes a certain amount of imagination to conceive of a time when elections were not there to produce arguments but to promote unity. The public space par excellence – the place where individuals could speak in complete freedom for the sake of all – was called the parliament. Edmund Burke said of it: ‘Parliament is not a congress of ambassadors from different and hostile interests; which interests each must maintain, as an agent and advocate, against other agents and advocates; but parliament is a deliberative assembly of one nation, with one interest, that of the whole.’ Even Jean-Jacques Rousseau, with whom Burke disagreed on countless matters, was of the same opinion: ‘in proportion to the degree of concord which reigns in the assemblies, that is, the nearer opinion approaches unanimity, the more the general will predominates; while tumults, dissensions, and long debates declare the ascendancy of private interests and the declining situation of the State.’ Parliamentarianism was the late-eighteenth-century citizenry’s answer to the absolutism of the ancien régime. It stood for a form of indirect, representative democracy. The enfranchised ‘people’ (meaning the bourgeois elite) chose its representatives and those representatives promoted the public interest in parliament. Elections, representation of the people and press freedom went hand in hand.

Over the next two centuries, this eighteenth-century method went through five structural transformations; political parties arose, universal suffrage was introduced, organized civil society grew, commercial media drowned out the public arena and social media added their voices to the clamour. It goes without saying that the external economic context is of great relevance too, as in times of crisis enthusiasm for democracy ebbs away (in our own time between the wars) whereas in times of prosperity the tide rises again.

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Political parties emerged only after 1850. Of course there were already fault lines in the young democracies, such as between city-dwellers and provincials, between the money- rich and the land-rich, between Liberals and catholics or between federalists and anti-federalists. But only towards the end of the nineteenth century did these groups evolve into clearly defined, formal groupings. There were still no mass parties, only executive parties with a modest number of members and the ambition to govern, but this soon changed, and although most constitutions do not mention them at all, they quickly became the most important players on the political pitch. Socialist parties, for example, became the greatest advocates of universal suffrage. Its introduction (in 1917 in the case of Belgium and the Netherlands, in 1918 in the United kingdom, although in each case only for men) represented a structural transformation of the electoral system. Elections became a battle between different interest groups in society, each trying to gain the support of as large a segment of the electorate as possible. Elections, originally intended to promote unanimity, now became arenas for candidates who fought each other fiercely. The clash of the parties had begun.

Public electoral debate is a tightly controlled spectacle, managed by rival teams of professionals expert in the techniques of persuasion, and considering a small range of issues selected by those teams.

After the First World War, love of electoral democracy cooled markedly. The economic crisis of the 1920s and 1930s fragmented support and anti-parliamentary, totalitarian models gained in popularity all over Europe.

No one could have suspected that after the worldwide conflagration of 1940–45, democracy would flourish again, but the after-effects of the war and the enormous growth in prosperity of the 1950s and 1960s made many people in the West receptive to a reintroduction of the parliamentary system. In the post-war years large mass parties dominated, and they held the structures of the state in their hands. Through a network of intermediary organizations (unions, corporations, state-controlled health services, even school networks and their own party media) they succeeded in being close to the lives of individual citizens. The public sphere was largely in the hands of this organized civil society. Governments owned the biggest and newest mass media (radio and television), but parties were able to participate through directorships, broadcasting slots or their own broadcasting organizations. All this resulted in an extremely stable system with great party loyalty and predictable voting behaviour.

Who now translates grass-roots complaints into policy proposals at the top? Who now distils the tumult into clear ideas?

The equilibrium came to an end as a result of neo-liberal thinking, which reshaped public space radically in the 1980s and 1990s. Not civil society but the free market was now the main architect and this applied to countless domains of public life, especially the media. Party newspapers disappeared or were bought up by media concerns, commercial broadcasters entered the field and even public broadcasters increasingly adopted market thinking. There was a true explosion of media. Viewing, reading and listening figures became hugely important; they were the daily share price index of public opinion. Commercial mass media emerged as the most important builders of social consensus and organized civil society lost ground, whether because unions and state health services adopted a market model or because governments preferred to talk to citizens directly rather than via social partners. The consequences were predictable, as citizens became consumers and elections hazardous. Parties, especially when they were financed largely by governments (often to limit the risk of corruption) saw themselves less and less as intermediaries between the masses and power and instead settled into the fringes of the state apparatus. To retain their places there they had to turn to the voter every few years to top up their legitimacy and elections became a battle fought out in the media for the favour of voters. The passions aroused among the populace diverted attention from a far more fundamental emotion, an increasing irritation with anything and everything pertaining to politics. ‘It would be hard to find someone who wasn’t cynical about the nature of these media-corporate spectacles that are presented to us as elections,’ said American theoretician Michael Hardt a couple of years ago. ‘Elections are just a beauty contest for ugly people,’ was the sarcastic comment doing the rounds on the internet.

In 2004 British sociologist Colin Crouch came up with the term ‘post-democracy’, to describe the new order controlled by the mass media:

Under this model, while elections certainly exist and can change governments, public electoral debate is a tightly controlled spectacle, managed by rival teams of professionals expert in the techniques of persuasion, and considering a small range of issues selected by those teams. The mass of citizens plays a passive, quiescent, even apathetic part, responding only to the signals given them. Behind the spectacle of the electoral game, politics is really shaped in private by interaction between elected governments and elites that overwhelmingly represent business interests.

The Italy of Berlusconi undoubtedly comes closest to fitting the definition of the post-democratic state but elsewhere too we have seen processes that tend in that direction. Since the end of the twentieth century, citizens have started looking like their nineteenth-century predecessors. Because civil society has become weaker, a gulf has opened up again between the state and the individual. The channelling institutions have gone.Who now bundles the multiplicity of individual preferences? Who now translates grass-roots complaints into policy proposals at the top? Who now distils the tumult into clear ideas? There is pejorative talk of ‘individualism’, as if it’s the fault of the citizen that collective structures have fallen away, while in essence this is all about the fact that the people have become the masses again, the choir a cacophony.

It’s not over yet. After the rise of the political parties, the introduction of universal suffrage, the rise and fall of organized civil society and the coup by commercial media, another factor was added at the start of the twenty-first century: social media.The word ‘social’ is rather misleading, since Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Flickr, Tumblr and Pinterest are as much commercial media as CNN, FOX or Euronews, with the difference that the owners don’t want you to watch and listen but to write and share. Their main aim is to keep you on the site for as long as possible, since that’s good for the advertisers. This explains the importance attached to ‘friends’ or ‘followers’, the addictive dynamics of ‘likes’ and ‘retweets’, the continual stream of reports on what others are doing, whom you ought to get to know and which topics are trending.

But although social media are commercial media, they have a dynamism very much their own. At the beginning of the twenty-first century citizens could follow the political theatre minute by minute on radio,television or the internet but today they can respond to it from second to second and mobilize others. The culture of immediate reporting now has instant feedback resulting in even more of a cacophony. The work of the public figure, and especially the elected politician, is not made easier by any of this. He or she can immediately see whether new proposals appeal to the citizen, and indeed just how many people the citizen can whip up. New technology gives people a voice (allowing Mubarak and Ben Ali to join the conversation), but this new political involvement only makes the electoral system creak at the seams all the more.

Commercial and social media also reinforce one another; continually picking up each other’s news and bouncing it back, they create an atmosphere of perpetual mud- slinging. Tough competition, loss of advertising revenue and falling sales prompt the remaining commercial media to produce increasingly vehement reports about increasingly exaggerated conflicts, while their editorial boards become smaller, younger and cheaper. For radio and television, national politics has become a daily soap, a radio play with free actors, and while editors determine to some extent the framing, the script and the typecasting, politicians, with varying degrees of success, try to slant things this way or that. The most popular politicians are those who succeed in altering the script and reframing the debate, in other words bend the media to their will. There is space for some improvisation, which is then called topicality.

In the written press the entanglement is even more profound. Newspapers are losing readers and political parties are losing members.The old players of democracy are bobbing about amid the wreckage, clinging to each other, not realizing that by doing so they are only dragging each other further down. Tied as it is to formats, circulation figures, shareholders and obligatory hotheadedness, the free press is far less free than it thinks and the outcome is inevitable.

The collective hysteria of commercial media, social media and political parties has made election fever permanent and has serious consequences for the workings of democracy. Efficiency suffers under the electoral calculus, legitimacy under the continual need to distinguish oneself, while time and again the electoral system ensures that the long term and the common interest lose out to the short term and party interests. Elections were once invented to make democracy possible, but in these circumstances they would seem to be a definite hindrance.

As if destined to rid the system once and for all of any hope of tranquility, the financial crisis of 2008 and the economic and monetary crisis that followed it added fuel to the flames. Populism, technocracy and anti-parliamentarianism have made their appearance and although not yet at the level of the 1930s, similarities to the situation in the 1920s are becoming more and more striking.

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? Would we still have the nerve to call what is in fact a bizarre, archaic ritual, ‘a festival of democracy’?

Since we have reduced democracy to representative democracy and representative democracy to elections, a valuable system is now mired in deep difficulties.

Since we have reduced democracy to representative democracy and representative democracy to elections, a valuable system is now mired in deep difficulties. For the first time since the American and French revolutions, the next election has become more important than the last election, an astonishing transformation. An election gives only a very provisional mandate these days, and making the best of the system we have is becoming increasingly difficult, as democracy is brittle, more so than at any time since the Second World War. If we don’t watch out, it will gradually become a dictatorship of elections.

This process should not really surprise us. How many inventions of the late eighteenth century are still of much use in the present day – the stage coach, the air balloon, the snuffbox? It may not be a popular conclusion but it must be understood that nowadays elections are primitive and a democracy that reduces itself to elections is in mortal decline. It is indeed rather as if we were to limit air travel to the hot-air balloon, even though there are now high-tension cables, private planes, new climatic patterns, tornadoes and space stations.

New platforms are creating a new world and now the key question is, who will command the stage? Until the invention of printing, just a few hundred individuals – abbots, princes, kings – decided which texts were to be copied and which not, but the arrival of printing meant that suddenly thousands of people had that power. The old order was brought down by it and Gutenberg’s invention facilitated the transition from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance. With the arrival of social media it seems as if everyone has a printing press today,even as if everyone has a scriptorium at his or her disposal. The citizen is no longer a reader but an editor-in-chief, and this has caused a profound power shift which means large, established companies can be brought to their knees by the actions of a few dissatisfied customers. Apparently unshakeable dictatorships lose their grip on their populations once people organize themselves through social media. Political parties no longer bring voters together but are torn apart by them, as their classic patriarchal model of representation no longer works at a time when citizens have more of a say than ever before.

Representative democracy is in essence a vertical model, but the twenty-first century is increasingly horizontal. Dutch professor of transition management Jan Rotmans said recently: ‘We go from centralized to decentralized, from vertical to horizontal, from top-down to bottom-up. It has taken us more than a hundred years to build this centralized, top-down, vertical society. That whole way of thinking is now being turned upside down. There is a great deal we need to learn and unlearn.The greatest barrier is in our heads.’

Elections are the fossil fuel of politics. Whereas once they gave democracy a huge boost, much like the boost that oil gave the economy, it now it turns out they cause colossal problems of their own. If we don’t urgently reconsider the nature of our democratic fuel,a huge systemic crisis threatens. If we obstinately continue to hold on to the electoral process at a time of economic malaise, inflammatory media and rapidly changing culture, we will be almost wilfully undermining the democratic process.

How did we reach this point?


Against Elections is published by The Bodley Head at £9.99/$16.95.

Copyright © David Van Reybrouck 2013
English translation © Liz Waters 2016