Reybrouck explains to the New York Times that Against Elections is not really against elections

The crisis of electoralism (more commonly misleadingly referred to as “the crisis of democracy”) has been producing a stream of books warning about its dangers and proposing solutions. Ari Berman, a senior reporter at Mother Jones, a fellow at the Nation Institute and the author of “Give Us the Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America”, reviews in the New York Times 4 of the books in the genre, with one of those books being David van Reybrouck’s Against Elections.

While the other three books, which according to the review offer no useful actionable remedies, are evaluated in generally appreciative terms (“comprehensive, enlightening and terrifyingly timely new book”, “hard to argue with [the] analysis”, “[the] book provides important insights into the present political moment”), van Reybrouck’s book is rather rudely dismissed:

Democracy is experiencing a “crisis of legitimacy,” writes Van Reybrouck, a Belgian cultural historian, who cites declining voter turnout, higher volatility in voter support and fewer people identifying with political parties. This is the fault not of politicians or the structure of the electoral system, but of elections themselves, Van Reybrouck says. “We have all become electoral fundamentalists, despising those elected but venerating elections.”

Van Reybrouck is a skilled polemicist, but his solutions to remedy “democratic fatigue syndrome” are naïve and unfeasible. Echoing the ancient Greek practice of drawing lots, he suggests replacing the American House of Representatives with a random sample of citizens, like a jury pool. That seems like an utterly impractical way to govern nowadays and reflects the same demonization of political experience that led the country to favor a reality television star over a former secretary of state in 2016.

Van Reybrouck fetishizes direct democracy, like citizens’ councils, but ignores the way existing electoral institutions could be made more responsive to the popular will through reforms like proportional representation or nonpartisan redistricting. The solution to democratic fatigue syndrome is to make elections more democratic, not to get rid of them altogether.

In response, van Reybrouck protests in a letter to the editor that he has been misunderstood:

I would like to correct a misapprehension that may have arisen from Ari Berman’s review of my book, “Against Elections” (April 15). While I quote a number of scholars who defend the idea of drafting the House of Representatives by lot, so that a truly representative sample of the population would be created that is given the time and resources to become informed on the subjects on which they will vote, free of electoral pressures and corporate lobbying, I explicitly stressed that these models “did not advocate doing away with elections altogether.” Indeed, these scholars “felt it was useful to have a Senate with elected citizens and a House with citizens chosen purely by lot.” My book is a plea to enrich the current electoral model of representative democracy with an element of sortition: the use of random samples of everyday citizens who deliberate and make informed policy proposals.

Your reviewer laments this as “naïve and unfeasible,” but seems unaware of recent developments across the globe. What your reviewer considers “utterly impractical” has helped Ireland resolve marriage equality. This type of citizen participation was also realized in South Australia to decide on the disposition of nuclear waste, a topic too toxic for party politics and too divisive for a referendum. Today cities like Toronto, Madrid and Gdansk are even turning to civic lotteries as a permanent feature of their political landscape.

13 Responses

  1. Yoram:> Reybrouck explains to the New York Times that Against Elections is not really against elections.

    That’s a relief. It just shows that if we don’t want our proposals to be dismissed as “naïve and unfeasible” then we should abjure polemical titles like The End of Politicians, Against Elections (and, for that matter, The Party’s Over).

    Like

  2. *** Van Reybrouck favors an hybrid model, with an allotted House and an elected Senate, thus with different legitimacies, as the British Parliament had a House of Commons and a House of Lords, both formerly powerful. Aside from any polemical title, this proposal will upset most of the Establishment, but especially its more intellectual members, sensitive to the intellectual danger inherent to the minipublic model. “Naïve and unfeasible” says Ari Berman, the reviewer of the New York Times, as Habermas found Dahl’s minipopulus idea “abstract and somewhat utopian”. Translation: “Please, let’s put the minipublic idea under the carpet”.
    *** Less polemical titles can help with some politicians or media people, but let’s not imagine than intellectuals as Habermas or Ari Berman will not see the danger.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Andre:> Less polemical titles can help with some politicians or media people, but let’s not imagine than intellectuals as Habermas or Ari Berman will not see the danger.

    True, but we should not make their task any easier, and I agree with van Reybrouck’s call for a hybrid model (for democratic, rather than pragmatic, reasons). In fact I think there are only one or two posters on this forum who are arguing for the end of elections.

    Incidentally I seem to remember that Dahl’s poorly-specified model for democracy through minipublics was amenable to pure sortition — one minipublic proposing and the other disposing. In which case I agree with Habermas that it is “somewhat utopian”.

    Like

  4. *** Dahl was proposing a minipopulus “not as a substitute but as a complement to legislative bodies” (Democracy and its critics, 1989, p 340) .Therefore it was an hybrid model, and apparently the minipopulus choices were to have a (strong) moral weight rather than any legal force. Less daring than Van Reybrouck. But the minipopulus idea was there …
    *** If “utopian” means that very strong forces are against the idea, Habermas was right – but he was among these forces.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. If anybody is utopian, it’s Habermas who thinks that language by its very nature is oriented towards agreement/consensus, and that all we have to do is “decolonize” the lifeworld from $ & power in order for a heavenly communicative rationality to reign supreme and solve all our problems. Van Reybrouk merely pointed out that elections systematically privilege elites and short term thinking, which is not at all a radical observation.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. The definition of utopian is “modelled on or aiming for a state in which everything is perfect; idealistic”. Ahmed is right that deliberative democracy is utopian in this respect (Habermas acknowledged that “rational discourses have an improbable character and are like islands in the ocean of everyday practice”). But the same is true of sortition proposals that assume elites can be designed out of the system, that the deliberations of a random sample will automatically reflect the beliefs and interests of the whole demos and that such a system will be inherently better from an epistemic perspective.

    Like

  7. Yeah, Ari Berman follows in a long line of people dismissing civic lotteries outright without a reasoned examination of their potential and proven advantages. Not surprising.

    Moving on to the other comments, personally I think the idea that we might do away with elections is not the most utopian idea suggested in this space, but rather the idea that any lottery-based model (even a relatively conservative hybrid model) will come about by convincing and converting those who currently wield political power and influence. They will never go for that. Massive public pressure would be required to replace even just the House with randomly-selected citizens. Even then, a coordinated electoral takeover would probably also be needed to replace traditional political elites who currently hold the reigns of constitutional change, to give enough teeth to that public pressure for anything profound like this to happen.

    And given the need for widespread popular support, polemic titles are much better at capturing popular attention than boring academic titles or vague titles that seek to ease the fears of those in power. I think that if we are serious about institutionalizing lotteries we need more powerful and provocative rhetoric, not less.

    On a side note, I think we should keep in mind that not everyone who unfairly dismisses sortition/lotteries does so because they see that it puts their power and influence in danger. As I mentioned, that will certainly be true of those who have power and influence that is threatened by sortition. But I doubt Mother Jones senior reporter Ari Berman is a big political player in Washington, or that he has a vested personal interest in maintaining corrupt political systems! In my limited experience talking with different types of people about these alternatives, many people like the ideas and some don’t like them no matter what arguments are in their favor. If someone has no clear vested interest in maintaining the political establishment (like Ari Berman), it often seems their opposition is rooted (consciously or subconsciously) in a firm belief in the hero-leader model and/or their limited faith in everyday people (which sometimes comes across as straight-up arrogance and a sense of personal superiority).

    Liked by 1 person

  8. A humorous aside…Adam’s comment that some political activists may dismiss sortition due to “arrogance and a sense of personal superiority,” rings true. Like most or all of us who read this Blog I also believe myself to be above average intellectually…but it should be noted that surveys show that a large majority of people believe that THEY also are “above average” in terms of many traits, ranging from insightfulness to driving ability (although, of course, that is mathematically impossible).

    Like

  9. *** The humorous aside of Terry Bouricius is not only humorous, it points to an important factor in the hostility to democracy-through-minipublics. “Electoral democracy” appears to many people as a good compromise, giving vote to the dumb people, something politically safer and morally nicer, and at the same time mitigating this vote by the principle of distinction and various processes which give weight to the smarter part of the civic body, which many citizens believe they belong to. Democracy-through-minipublics is seen as canceling this mitigating effect, and is rejected because it is pure democracy, giving too much power to “the morons”.
    *** The mental inequality is an old argument against democracy. We can read in 16th century philosopher Bodin (Six Books of the Commonwealth, VI, 4, transl. J. Tooley) « we all know that some have no more judgement than brute beasts, while in others the illumination of divine reason is such that they seem angels rather than men. Yet those who want to make all things equal want to give sovereign authority over men’s lives, honour, and property, to the stupid, ignorant, and passionate, as well as to the prudent and experienced. In popular assemblies votes are counted, not weighed, and the number of fools, sinners, and dolts is a thousand times that of honest men. … (quotation of Ecclesiastes). We could think that this argument is efficient only for a small minority boasting of its superiority ; but actually it has a wider impact, because of the effect underlined by Bouricius.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Adam,

    > I think that if we are serious about institutionalizing lotteries we need more powerful and provocative rhetoric, not less.

    Thank you! The concerned pleas for “moderate rhetoric” in order not to alienate the powers that be are at best misguided and condescending, or, more likely, disingenuous. (And of course they are horribly boring.)

    > If someone has no clear vested interest in maintaining the political establishment (like Ari Berman),

    It is true that after being exposed to a never-ending stream of propaganda for decades, some people with little to lose and a lot to win would not give sortition a fair hearing. So being unwilling to give sortition a fair hearing is not by itself a moral failure and not even a severe intellectual failure. I don’t think, however, that this can be an excuse for the likes of Berman.

    First, Berman is certainly privileged by the current system. There are very few people whose writings get to be distributed by a mass communication channel to be read by many thousands of people, and even fewer who are endorsed by the most prestigious daily newspaper in the US, if not in the world. Thus, Berman should be mindful that his offhand rejection of sortition is self-serving and potentially at the expense of those oppressed by the status quo.

    Secondly, it is one thing for a person-on-the-street to have a knee-jerk reaction at an unfamiliar idea. Berman is supposedly an intellectual whose function is to consider ideas on their merits rather than adopt conservative positions unreflectively. He is thus showing a rather unflattering view of his intellectual abilities. (Of course, to be fair, adopting conservative positions is exactly what is expected of him, so his intellectual failure may be caused by a moral failure rather than by a lack of ability.)

    Thirdly, the patronizing and vicious terms that Berman uses when attacking Van Reybrouck’s book are terms that he would never dare use against someone from the US intellectual establishment. He is clearly letting himself loose knowing that his target is soft: Van Reybrouck is an outsider who has no powerful friends. Again, this is a moral failure – being aggressive toward those with less influence while showing great deference to those with more power. (It would have been more interesting if Berman applied the same kind of terms to Kofi Annan.)

    Finally, Berman seemingly could not miss an opportunity to show his allegiance to the establishment by inserting an aside about how clearly wrong the voters were to elect Trump rather than Clinton. Again, this is both a moral and intellectual failure: being unable to understand the reasons for this electoral outcome is evidence for both callousness and shallowness of thought.

    In summary, I think Berman surely cannot pretend to be making an honest mistake here. Yes – he may very well have a “hero-leader model and/or […] limited faith in everyday people”. Such an ideology would fit very well with the unflattering picture of himself presented by his review.

    Like

  11. Terry, Andre,

    > Like most or all of us who read this Blog I also believe myself to be above average intellectually

    But the question of whether we are intellectually superior to others is not the right question to ask. Even if the allotted would be more stupid than the elected, they may still very well pursue policy that is more useful to a large majority of the population. An allotted chamber does not fulfill the role of “improved elected chamber” but of “improved electorate”. (See objection #2 here and its refutation.)

    Like

  12. >The concerned pleas for “moderate rhetoric” in order not to alienate the powers that be are at best misguided and condescending, or, more likely, disingenuous. (And of course they are horribly boring.)

    I’m with ya.

    >But the question of whether we are intellectually superior to others is not the right question to ask.

    Yeah, I agree that most of us human beings think we are smarter than the average person (just one example of how we are not well suited for statistical reasoning!). I think for our purposes it is more important to talk about a lack of faith in or a distrust of everyday people (and our individual conceptions of “everyday people” are different and change with our different interactions with ‘the public’). I might operate on the assumption that I am smarter and more creative than the average person, and still believe fervently that an allotted legislature is our best bet for a whole host of reasons: faith in collective wisdom vs individual wisdom; importance of diverse perspectives; the broader civic benefits of widespread participation; distrust of systems that concentrate power in the hands of small groups of similar people; etc.

    I guess the point I was trying to make is that I find that people’s attitudes toward civic lotteries tend to depend heavily on their faith in everyday people, and so the more condescending, patronizing, arrogant, and distrusting someone’s views are toward the public, the less likely they are to support lotteries, REGARDLESS of all the supporting theoretical advantages (no more parties, no donors, statistically representative, etc.). And all of us (academics and big time journalists included) are prone to unfairly shut down ideas we just don’t like, without an unbiased assessment of relative merits.

    The perfect example is when intelligent people throw out the idea of sortition immediately, stating emphatically that we shouldn’t follow Athens’ example because they had slavery and women and foreigners were excluded from participating in politics. It is a ridiculous argument for a host of reasons, but these people simply don’t like the idea of sortition (probably for reasons that have nothing to do with Athens) and are slinging whatever mud is handy.

    >I think Berman surely cannot pretend to be making an honest mistake here. Yes – he may very well have a “hero-leader model and/or […] limited faith in everyday people”. Such an ideology would fit very well with the unflattering picture of himself presented by his review.

    Yeah, my point was not that he deserves a pass. It was simply that in criticizing these types of anti-sortition reviews/statements, we should not be so naive as to think that anyone who is against us is so because they feel threatened by these ideas and it endangers their power and influence – espeically when it is someone with really limited power and influence! There are OTHER reasons people aren’t open to the idea (some unfair and illegitimate and others quite reasonable), and we need to take those other reasons seriously as well if we are going to convince millions of people to get behind this. That’s all.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. […] the electoral system, which are part of the standard reformist list of proposals (from which Ari Berman draws his proposals as well, for example), show no promise in fundamentally fixing the system, since they have been tried over […]

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

w

Connecting to %s

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

%d bloggers like this: