In Europe elected governments struggle to realise the manifesto promises that brought them to power because they are in hock to non-elected bodies like the IMF and the World Bank. In North Africa and the Middle East the democratic promise of the Arab ...
These are strange times indeed for democrats. In America, there is a very real prospect that Donald Trump, a sometime reality TV show star and bizarrely bouffanted businessman, could become the next president of the United States. Even his supporters donâ€™t believe he knows much about politics â€“ thatâ€™s his main attraction.
In Europe elected governments struggle to realise the manifesto promises that brought them to power because they are in hock to non-elected bodies like the IMF and the World Bank. In North Africa and the Middle East the democratic promise of the Arab spring has turned into a Game ofÂ Thrones-style winter. And here in the UK, both leading parties are riven by divisions, their leaders either fallen or set to fall, and the result of a referendum that was supposed to give the people the power over their destiny has resulted in a constitutional and economic crisis of identity.
Sortition operates inÂ the jury system. Why not extend the practice right across the governmental realm?
Two weekends ago my 16-year-old daughter organised a protest in Parliament Square arguing that her cohort of 16- and 17-year-olds were denied their say in their European future â€“ one that their counterparts inÂ Scotland enjoyed in the referendum to decide on leaving or remaining in the UK. And yet the 18- to 24-year-olds who did vote on 23 June boasted the lowest turnout of any age group, though not nearly as low as originally thought.
If elections are the answer, one might reasonably ask, what the hell was theÂ question?
This is the issue that the Belgian writer David Van Reybrouck grapples with in his thoughtful and provocative new book, Against Elections: The Case for Democracy. At first glance that title might seem a little contradictory. Surely the very basis of democracy is elections? But his argument is that itâ€™s the very futility of elections, a theatre of empty or misguided promise, that isÂ undermining belief in the democraticÂ process.
He suggests that we are living through a dangerous period in which there is a growing interest in politics but a declining faith. As he writes: â€œDemocratic Fatigue Syndrome is a disorder that has not yet been fully described but from which countless western societies are nonetheless unmistakably suffering.â€
Having alighted on a metaphor of illness, Van Reybrouck sees it through with three long chapters under the headings Diagnosis, Pathogenesis and Remedies. He mounts a convincing case that we have wrongly conflated democracy with elections, and are in fact simply maintaining an outmoded system in a technological era that calls out for, and can provide, much more informed participation.
Related: Why elections are bad for democracy | David Van Reybrouck
He concludes in his diagnosis that â€œElections are the fossil fuel of politics.Â Whereas once they gave democracy a huge boost, much like the boost oil gave the economy, it nowÂ turns out they cause colossal problems of their own.â€
Van Reybrouckâ€™s remedy is not new, but a very old one: whatâ€™s calledÂ sortition. Sortition was the system that operated in ancient AthensÂ and in the Renaissance states of Venice and Florence. The idea is that a small number of the public are randomly selected by lottery and are then empowered to study a given issue as representatives of the population at large. Each area of legislation or debate could be covered by different randomly selected representatives.
In this way all issues of identity and representation are theoretically dealt with â€“ women and sexual and ethnic minorities and different age groups willÂ all be accurately represented â€“ and,Â argues Van Reybrouck, corruptionÂ and election fever are reduced, while attention to the common good is increased.
Of course a form of sortition alreadyÂ operates quite effectively in the jury system. We entrust 12 random members of the public to reach an informed decision about the most heinous and far-reaching crimes. So why not extend that practice right across the political and governmentalÂ realm?
Here, though, Van Reybrouckâ€™s thesis begins to look a little optimistic or idealistic. Juries work well when the evidence is fairly straightforward, or at least not demanding of expertise, but their record in complex high finance fraud, for example, leaves a lot to be desired. And there is also a great deal of public discontent â€“ undoubtedly whipped up by the media â€“ when theÂ seemingly guilty walk free.
Transpose such problems to the political arena when, say, a sortition ofÂ the public recommends an expensive transport system that doesnâ€™t work out or cuts a defence system that is later needed, and where and how is that frustration registered? You canâ€™t vote out the public. One job that elected politicians fulfil is asÂ democratic punchbags. Itâ€™s not edifying or necessarily productive, butÂ it may beÂ essential.
Perhaps sortition or partial sortition could be applied in very specific cases. But we also need to look at reviving elections and renewing our belief in them. They remain a vital part of the democratic process. Not its only part, to be sure, but they are an all too rare example of mass engagement. Letâ€™s not vote them out just yet.
Against Elections is published by the Bodley Head (Â£9.99). Click here to buy it for Â£6.49