Election fever and neverendums

by Terence MacNamee

There is a great deal of headshaking about democracy in the Western world these days. In this or that country the people go to the polls, and the majority make some cringeworthy, self-destructive decision. (Think of your own examples.) Part of the problem is, of course, that too many people stay at home. The rate of political participation is in decline. People do not seem to feel they have a stake in politics, and the political establishment is less and less responsive to the concerns of ordinary folks. What’s to be done?

Flemish Belgian writer David van Reybrouck has written a pamphlet “against elections” which has become known in translation around Europe.

He is against relying on elections for democratic decision-making. He advocates doing it by lot. The Athenians often did it that way, as he points out, and it’s still used in our legal systems for picking lay judges (juries). Yet after the great 18th-century revolutions, the American and the French, modern democracy became equated with elections, and with elected parliaments making the decisions on behalf of the people. This has resulted in the growth of a “political class” who do not really represent the interests of their constituents, but have become highly skilled at getting elected and reelected.

Reybrouck praises the recent innovation of the Citizens’ Assembly in Ireland, which discusses ideas for legislation and constitutional change, and which contains ordinary citizens chosen by lot. He thinks there should be more of this, instead of everybody going to the polls every few years and then leaving it up to the politicians.

Reybrouck’s pamphlet has aroused plenty of interest in German translation, including in Switzerland. Now in Switzerland, they have “direct democracy”, which means that citizens with an issue on their minds can trigger the holding of national and local votes on everything under the sun instead of leaving it to parliament. The Swiss approach would horrify Canadians, who started complaining about “neverendums” when there was more than one popular vote on Quebec sovereignty.

Anyway, the Swiss seem to think that they do not need to pay attention to Reybrouck’s ideas, because they already have the answer. This is missing the point. Direct democracy, which guarantees several nationwide and regional votes a year, stimulates political debate among the public, but it is looking more and more unsustainable – people just are not voting at the rate they should. Turnout is often poor. One can speak of voter fatigue. Again, the system is often manipulated by the political parties, who get their pet issues publicized this way. Still there is no way to give the system up. Swiss believe in it almost religiously. It also supports a whole industry of journalists, political pundits and pollsters who would be out of a job if it was curtailed.

Which brings us to another issue that must be a cause of voter fatigue – polling. This is a caricature of democracy that distracts people from the real thing. Politicians and journalists love polls, even though they are often found to be catastrophically wrong on election night.

The Swiss tabloid Blick ran an article on Reybrouck’s ideas. At the end, there was – a reader poll. Surely this is the most eloquent comment on the topic there could be:

“Is the author right in his critique of democracy?

  • Yes
  • No
  • Here now I’ve got to vote – again!”