Elections Are Ruining Democracy

"I don't think we realise how close we are to political violence. Democracy in Europe can no longer be taken for granted. It is vanishing at an alarming rate."

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08 August 2016, 11:05pm

(Photo by David Holt)

A new book, Against Elections: The Case for Democracy, makes the case that democracy is ailing. It is suffering with a chronic disease, the key symptoms of which are the plummeting legitimacy, and efficiency, of elected politicians. Never have more people thought democracy is a good idea, and never have more people distrusted those they elect. The answer, according to the book's author David van Reybrouck, is to change the way we 'do' democracy. To look to sortition, the casting of lots, to improve citizen involvement and close the growing gulf between those in power and those who put them there.

VICE: The nature of the book is a departure from your more literary works. What motivated you to write a political theory title? It's quite a jump.
David van Reybrouck: My previous book was on the history of Congo, and now I am writing something about Indonesia, so yes – why write something about the future of western democracy? My having been a Belgian comes into it. Over the past couple of years my nationality has offered a privileged position to see the disease of democracy. We were without a government for a year and a half in 2010 to 11. Many people thought "this is the Belgian disease," and I thought, "no – it's more than that, this is a democratic disease." What we saw in Belgium was only a forerunner of what we are seeing everywhere now: the end of democracy as we now it.

The Belgian crisis indicated to me that something is changing in the way we do democracy. The rise of social media has been very important, for the first time in the history of democracy the next election has become more important than the previous one.

In the present system you cast your vote – you cast it away. You have a vote, you don't have a voice – you have a vote so that other people can have a voice on your behalf.

And now – with social media, when people are used to being vocal, and maybe more pressingly, informed daily I guess, that seems strange?
We see what is happening every second of the day! We have ways of interacting and talking about what's going on, but we don't have the right to have those opinions heard by our leaders. When I was writing this book people told me, "two sorts of people will hate your book – senior politicians, and senior journalists". That has proven true. They are the gatekeepers. They used to determine what was and what wasn't important in the old system.

So – what of elections in themselves, then?
It's a system that to my mind is completely arcane. Elections are primitive. Referendums are only one step better. You tick a box next to a name, or you tick a box next to a syllable – right ok! Leave! Remain! That's a bit better than just putting a tick next to "Boris", but still. We have never seen western countries where the level of education is as high as it is today, yet we still use a procedure originating in a time when only a minority could read and write. Our way of doing democracy through elections is something that was introduced in the late 18th century.

In your book you claim that looking to lottery or sortition – the use of drawing lots in selecting officials – could break this pattern, improve the populous' feeling of engagement with politics, and in turn reduce the distrust in officials. Juries are the most familiar use of sortition today, I assume?
Juries are an intelligent use of lottery, yes, but today in policymaking we use lottery in worst possible way: we call it "opinion polls". We make a random sample of say 1,000 people and give them a call between 5 and 7 in the evening and ask them what they think about asylum seekers. And the outcome of that directs policy!

The book has this medical metaphor throughout it. The opening chapter explains the illness, the symptoms that democracy is displaying. Can you quickly walk me through those symptoms?
Look, people like democracy. The percentage of people in favour of democracy has never been as high as it is nowadays, it's over 90 percent worldwide. And yet distrust is growing at an alarming rate. If you look at the figures provided by Transparency International it shows that everywhere in the west the least trusted public institution is the political party. In Britain in 2013, 66 percent of people believed political parties were corrupt, Belgium was 67 percent, France 70, Spain 80, Greece about 90 percent! These are what we used to call "established democracies", we aren't talking about Afghanistan. And things have massively worsened since 2013.

What does it say about the health of western democracy if large majorities in the west believe the key players are not to be trusted? Distrust has become the defining feature of democracy. Of course we shouldn't accept at face-value what politicians tell us, but even so – such massive amounts of distrust and hatred... It goes both ways. Politicians do not want to give more power to people because they don't trust them. The problem is not the people – it's the procedure. Elections and referendums are not procedures that get the best out of your population. People are capable of much more constructive and intelligent decision-making than they are allowed to exercise nowadays. Everything has to innovate today. But there's one realm where innovation is essentially banned – democracy. If we refuse to update democracy and bring it into the 21st century, we are very much in the process of killing democracy.

I read a book called Vanished Kingdoms: The History of Half-Forgotten Europe, and its foreword did a great job of making one realise how unstable things are, even the things we take for granted, like national borders, states, alliances, or in this case – elections. Do you see this book as a practical offering of a solution that you think could work, or is it just political theorising?
Not at all. It's a practical book. It's changing policy in the Low Countries now. Mostly at a local level. But in the city of Utrecht, they're drafting 150 citizens by lot to come to talk with the council about renewable energy. Why? Because it's a very important issue, and it's one which is difficult for a political party to handle, because if they are too severe, they won't win the next election. So they say "please come and help us, come and help us to take decisions", this is happening.

There's a debate going on as to whether the Belgian Senate should be drafted by a lot. So we could have two chambers: one with the citizens that are elected and another with citizens that is drafted by a lot. That would be a permanent feature. We're not there yet. But at least people start talking about it.

What happened in Ireland with the Irish Constitutional Convention I thought was wonderful. They put together 66 citizens drafted by a lot with 33 politicians that are elected. And by combining the two they could get much further than they could do in just party politics.

One of the issues they had to tackle was marriage equality. The convention thought it was a great idea and called for a referendum.

I find it surprising that In Catholic Ireland, same-sex marriage was introduced in a quiet way, by listening to each other, by weighing the arguments. Whereas in Libertarian France at the same time, same-sex marriage gave rise to one year of political unrest and mass demonstrations and hundreds of thousands of people taking to the streets. Did they all hate gay people? No, they did not. But they hated the fact that government took its decision without hearing their voice. Imagine that this Irish procedure had been used for the referendum on Britain remaining in Europe.

What would the process have been, in hypothetical terms?
You're asking me to be David Cameron? I would understand there's a lot of doubts about our membership with the European Union. And I would have called for large-scale public deliberation, on the local and the national level.

For example, draft by lot a thousand citizens and ask all the other citizens to nourish these debates, to put forward issues and concerns. I would give these thousand citizens six months' time, during which they can talk to experts, they can talk to politicians. But all the other citizens could follow the process, it should be very transparent. It should be online. You shouldn't leave people out. They should be able to feed into that debate.

I think the question I would ask to this random sample of the British public is: how can we improve our relationship with the European Union? Do you think we should leave? Do you think we should stay? And if we stay, should it be as it is now? What will be your suggestions for improving it?

And it is only at this point I would organise a referendum. I would ask everyone to tick several boxes, not just one: Should we remain or leave? If we remain, what should be changed? Migration? Income inequality? Climate? Banking rules? Nothing at all?

That way, you have a much more intelligent sort of output than we have now. Because now, you don't know why people voted. Is it because they liked Boris Johnson's haircut? Is it because they were convinced that migration was becoming a big issue and it's going to be reduced by leaving the European Union? The result of a referendum, of an election, is just a figure. It's just percentage.

Referendum are so divisive. They are a very poor tool to raise public trust. Just try to imagine that somebody invites you to devise a democracy that is fit for the 21st century. Is the best idea you can come up with that people queue up in a line on a Thursday morning somewhere near a Post Office and choose one person who they see quarrelling on television? The one who quarreled best... I mean, how primitive is that? Give me a break.

How come distrust has become so widespread? Is it the fault of the media and the way it treats politicians? Or is the problem democracy's own failings?
Well things really have changed. In farming communities in the 1960s, the interest in politics was next to zero. But their trust in politics and politicians was very high. Now it's the other way around. More people are following the news than ever before, but the trust in institutions is very low. And because of that distrust, politicians are getting nervous. They have to keep into account public opinion all the time. Long-term decision-making has become more difficult – whatever decision they take, they are much more beaten up by public opinion than ever before. I was an op-ed writer in Belgium before the rise of social media, and after. There's a big difference. In 2004 you would get a couple of texts from friends who thought it was a great piece, a couple years later...

You have 8,000 people calling you a bastard on the internet?Exactly! The automatic reaction one has to that sort of criticism is "they're all dumbasses, I don't care! They don't understand the issue". And I didn't even need to be elected, so it's even worsen for politicians: the gap is widening.

The best way to maintain national power over transnational corporations and financial markets is to improve public trust in politicians.

In Norway, the political party is the least trusted public institution. In Norway! This is the best democracy worldwide!

The hatred, the downright distrust that both sides of the equation are engaged with, is frightening. People dislike their politicians, politicians dislike their citizens. They think the citizens are more irrational than they are, are incapable, are more narrow-minded.

Distrust of politicians will not be diminished in a newly independent sovereign Britain. 52 percent hates the European Union. 66 percent hates political parties. And that hatred will not change now that Britain is no longer part of the EU. In Norway, the political party is the least trusted public institution. In Norway! This is the best democracy worldwide!

How optimistic are you about the chances of democratic nations being able to reinvigorate people's faith in the system? How optimistic are you about governments making real changes to the systems we use and correcting that balance, and curing the "disease of democracy"?
In a communication age, people have something to say. And the system we have is going to change. The big question is, will it change before or after the crash?

For a long time, I thought it was going to change before the crash. But I have been watching, and it's going to crash. It's the end of a cycle. And I'm greatly worried about it because I don't think we realise how close we are to political violence. Jo Cox has been murdered. That's only the beginning. And I am greatly worried about political stability, even in Europe. Democracy in Europe can no longer be taken for granted. It is vanishing at an alarming rate.

And there is something we can still do about it. The only problem is that we have procedures in place which hinder us. We know that the alternatives work. We have thousands of experiments. Go to the website http://www.participedia.net, see how worldwide things are happening. So we have a good alternative. But the ones who're going to have to implement the alternative is the ones who have the power now. And they do not want to because they don't trust citizens. They don't want to let go of power. This reminds me of the French aristocracy in 1785. We are at the brink of a pre-revolutionary time. And that means violence and system collapse. I would hope that the system is about to reinvent itself. Which is not easy. It's mending a car while you're driving. But it's even harder to mend a car after it's crashed.

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