Seven Stories Press

Works of Radical Imagination


Introduction by Kofi Annan

Translated by Liz Waters

"Without drastic adjustment, this system cannot last much longer," writes Van Reybrouck, regarded today as one of Europe's most astute thinkers. "If you look at the decline in voter turnout and party membership, and at the way politicians are held in contempt, if you look at how difficult it is to form governments, how little they can do and how harshly they are punished for it, if you look at how quickly populism, technocracy and anti-parliamentarianism are rising, if you look at how more and more citizens are longing for participation and how quickly that desire can tip over into frustration, then you realize we are up to our necks."

Not so very long ago, the great battles of democracy were fought for the right to vote. Now, Van Reybrouck writes, "it's all about the right to speak, but in essence it's the same battle, the battle for political emancipation and for democratic participation. We must decolonize democracy. We must democratize democracy."

As history, Van Reybrouck makes the compelling argument that modern democracy was designed as much to preserve the rights of the powerful and keep the masses in line, as to give the populace a voice. As change-agent, Against Elections makes the argument that there are forms of government, what he terms sortitive or deliberative democracy, that are beginning to be practiced around the world, and can be the remedy we seek. In Iceland, for example, deliberative democracy was used to write the new constitution. A group of people were chosen by lot, educated in the subject at hand, and then were able to decide what was best, arguably, far better than politicians would have. 

A fascinating and workable idea has led to a timely book to remind us that our system of government is a flexible instrument, one that the people have the power to change.


Buying options

“[Van Reybrouck] carefully builds a historical case for a return to the classic Athenian principles of democracy, in which citizens contributed not by vote but by lot. . . . Readers who disagree with the cure may at least recognize the incisiveness of the diagnosis.”

blog — April 06

Against Elections: A Call for Radical Democracy

Introduction: The Crisis of Democracy

by Kofi Annan

This introduction was adapted from a speech made by Kofi Annan at the 2017 Athens Democracy Forum on 13 September 2017. Printed here by permission of Kofi Annan.

Let me start by invoking the name of Aristotle, one of the most enduring thinkers Greece, and indeed the world, has ever produced. His very name means “excellent insight,” and he certainly left us quite a few, which continue to resonate more than 2,000 years after his death. Not least is Aristotle’s recognition that “Man is, by nature, a political animal.” Man is born, lives and dies as a member of a community and the affairs of that community are therefore his, and vice-versa. I am honoured to speak in his name and, as you will see, I believe many of his insights are as relevant today as they were in antiquity.

I have been a tireless defender of democracy all my life because I am convinced it is the political system most conducive to peace, sustainable development, the rule of law and the respect for human rights, the three pillars of any healthy and democratic society. As the UN Secretary General, I oversaw the creation of Democracy Day and the UN’s Democracy Fund, to support grassroots democracy around the world. Since leaving the UN, I have set up the Electoral Integrity Initiative with a group of concerned organizations and individuals who seek to promote the legitimacy of elections as a fundamental pillar of democratic practice. The Kofi Annan Foundation and its partners have just held regional conferences in Latin American and Southeast Asia, which highlighted the challenges democracy faces in those regions, but also peoples’ commitment to its ideals.

We have to admit that democracy is experiencing a crisis of confidence. Not only does it face increasingly assertive opponents, but growing numbers of its beneficiaries either take it for granted, or else doubt its merits. Much has been made of reports by Larry Diamond, of the Economist Intelligence Unit and Freedom House, that democratic freedoms have been in retreat for eleven straight years in many parts of the world, with the emergence of an increasing number of elected authoritarians. But even in democracy’s historic heartlands, we are witnessing a shift in the perceptions and practice of democracy evidenced by ever lower levels of voter participation, falling membership of political parties and declining trust in politicians and institutions. According to Pew, less than a fifth of the American population trust their federal government to “do the right thing most of the time”. It used to be three fourths in 1958. The U.S. Congress, for its part, has a 69% negative rating. This is based on the perception that democracy isn’t delivering. Governments appear powerless in the face of such challenges as the Euro crisis, the migration crisis, or the debt crisis.

Elections have become almost universal since the end of the Cold War. Yet in many countries where elections are held, freedom and democracy are actually in retreat. Intended as mechanisms for the peaceful arbitration of political rivalries, they frequently become flashpoints for political violence. At the core of these paradoxes are elections without integrity. All too often, elections serve merely to give autocratic regimes a veneer of legitimacy. But elections without integrity cannot provide the winners with legitimacy, the losers with security and the public with confidence in their leaders and institutions. This makes polities fragile as it encourages disgruntled groups to find other, less constructive, channels for the expression of their discontent.

This has set the scene for the resurgence of populism— charismatic individuals or fake prophets promising simplistic solutions to people’s grievances through radical policies that dismiss institutions and laws as either irrelevant or inconvenient.

What are the factors driving these challenges to democracy? I see at least three.

First, growing inequality within countries. The uneven benefits of globalization are dividing societies into winners and losers on an unprecedented scale. Global markets are creating billionaires, whilst the incomes of the middle and working classes in developed countries have stagnated and their livelihoods are becoming ever more vulnerable to technological change and global competition. Compounding inequality, increasingly integrated financial markets have allowed globalization’s footloose winners to park their profits in tax havens, while the tax burden on the middle class continues to rise. Aristotle himself stressed the importance of the middle class for the sustainability of democracy. When wealth is too concentrated, the polity becomes vulnerable to oligarchy. If there are too many poor, the polity can degenerate into populism, disorder and the confiscation of private property. The middle class is the backbone of a democracy and Aristotle advocated that it should always far outnumber both the poor and the rich. The threat to the middle class is therefore a threat to our political systems themselves.

Second, governments are looking increasingly powerless in the face of the imperatives of the global economy and the ever-growing web of regional and global agreements they have entered into. In Greece, for example, the inability of Syriza to overturn the EU’s austerity policies despite the party’s popular mandate to do so no doubt created a sense of disillusionment. I think that the management of the 2008 Great Recession has increased suspicions that democratic governments have been captured by special interests. Whilst the US government was spending trillions in bailing out the big banks, for example, millions of American families lost their homes. In Greece, there is a widespread perception that the EU prioritized the protection of the big European banks’ balance sheets over the protection of the Greek population, whose incomes fell by about a third. We are not here to debate the economic arguments of the decisions that were made, but I think the political price of those priorities was high.

Finally, there is a crisis of effectiveness. Democratic government is compared unfavorably with the concurrent success of authoritarian regimes, which seem to enjoy record rates of growth. Whilst the US government’s plans to overhaul its infrastructure have been stuck in Congress for almost a decade, China has built the Three Gorges Dam and thousands of miles of new railways and roads. People—especially in developing countries that are struggling to overcome poverty and low growth—look at these achievements and wonder whether democratic governance, at least in its Western incarnation, really delivers.

These are all real and serious problems that we cannot dismiss, lest the populists of both left and right continue to gain ground. Be that as it may, we need to put these concerns into historical perspective. The setbacks of the last decade have to be set against remarkable gains since the end of the Second World War, when there were only twelve fully-fledged democracies. Today there are 117, and elections, however flawed, have become almost universal, illustrating the power of legitimacy they offer. We should not forget that liberal democracy almost died in the 1930s, but the liberal democracies eventually defeated Nazism, Fascism and Communism. Democracy is therefore arguably the most successful political system the world has ever seen. Polls show that most people around the world aspire to more freedom, more rule of law, more accountability and more say in politics. In short, democracy remains a universal aspiration.

Why? Because it actually delivers. Of the twenty countries with the highest levels of human development as measured by the UN’s human development index, nineteen are liberal democracies. Among the top forty, thirty-six are liberal democracies. And even the citizens of poorer democracies live, on average, nine years longer than citizens of poor autocracies, because they have better access to health and education. Democracies are also less vulnerable to famines and conflicts. Most importantly, however, as my friend Amartya Sen has cogently argued, freedom itself is development. Subordination to the caprices of other human beings, rather than to the law, is a source of despair to the human soul.

I am skeptical about the sustainability of “authoritarian growth.” In most cases, both historically and globally, those regimes become fragile when growth slows or ends, because they have no other sources of legitimacy. So rather than looking for alternatives to liberal democracy, we should instead seek to reform our systems through concrete measures in at least three areas.

First, we need to make our democracies more effective. Much of the debate in our democracies turns on the politics of redistribution and public spending, but not enough on effectiveness. We are trying to solve today’s problems with yesterday’s solutions. We must harness new technologies and management techniques to overhaul the administration of the state to make our democracies less bureaucratic and more responsive to families and individuals, especially those who cannot afford high-priced lawyers and lobbyists.

Second, we need to tackle inequality, both economic and political. As I have said, increasing inequality is one of the drivers of resentment, especially since economic inequality leads to political inequalities as well, as several studies have confirmed. There is a growing perception that the priorities of the extremely wealthy take precedence over the wellbeing of the middle class thanks to campaign contributions and lobbying. At the other end of the spectrum, the poor and minorities are, or at least feel, excluded from the political system. Governments must respond by redistributing fairly the benefits of globalization by restricting tax avoidance and evasion schemes, and most importantly, discouraging tax havens. Fortunately, democracy is one of the only systems in which the concerns of the majority can overturn the interests of the wealthy if the majority harnesses the mechanisms at their disposal. But this demands more participation, not less.

This means that we need to make our democracies more inclusive. This requires bold and innovative reforms to bring in the young, the poor and minorities into the political system. An interesting idea put forward by one of your speakers this week, Mr. David Van Reybrouck, would be to reintroduce the ancient Greek practice of selecting parliaments by lot instead of election. In other words, parliamentarians would no longer be nominated by political parties, but chosen at random for a limited term, in the way many jury systems work. This would prevent the formation of self-serving and self-perpetuating political classes disconnected from their electorates.

Third and finally, we need to champion democracy. The victory over Nazism, fascism and Communism were also ideological struggles that were won on the battlefield of ideas as well. Yet many of the tools of that battle have been abandoned or are underfunded today. Democracy’s enemies are spending billions to undermine it, both in practice and through misinformation. In a world of “alternative facts,” who do we believe? We know that armies of state-financed trolls are creating “AstroTurf movements” to sow the seeds of mistrust and disunity to weaken our democracies. We must not let them win by abdication. Democracies have to reclaim the lost ground by defending and promoting liberal ideas, just as they did against democracy’s past ideological enemies.

Athenian democracy illustrates that practice never meets the ideal–women could not vote and slavery was common practice. Moreover, ancient Athenian democracy was sometimes hijacked by oligarchies, reminding us that democracy is vulnerable. We should remember that democracy is always a work in progress. But a system created thousands of years ago continues to inspire democrats throughout the world today. We must cherish, reform and defend democracy, or else it may be lost for future generations. As another great democrat who drew inspiration from ancient Athens, Thomas Jefferson, put it, “the price of liberty is eternal vigilance.”

Chapter 1: Symptoms

Enthusiasm and mistrust: The paradox of democracy

There is something strange going on with democracy. Everyone seems to want it but no one believes in it any longer, even though international statistics tell us that more and more people say they’re in favour of it. A few years ago the World Values Survey, a large-scale international research project, questioned more than 73,000 people in fifty-seven countries, representing almost 85% of the world’s population. When asked whether they believed democracy to be a good way of governing a country, no fewer than 91.6% answered in the affirmative.(1) The proportion of the global population that has a positive attitude to the concept of democracy has never been as great as it is today.

This degree of enthusiasm is nothing short of spectacular, especially in light of the fact that less than seventy years ago democracy was in a very bad way. As a result of fascism, communism and colonialism, when the Second World War ended there were only twelve fully fledged democracies.(2) Slowly the number started to rise and in 1972 there were forty-four free states.(3) By 1993 they numbered seventy-two and now there are 117 electoral democracies out of a total of 195 countries, ninety of which can actually be defined in practice as free states. Never before in history have there been so many democracies, never before so many supporters of this form of government.(4) 

Yet enthusiasm is declining. That same World Values Survey showed that worldwide over the past ten years, there has been a considerable increase in calls for a strong leader ‘who does not have to bother with Parliament and elections’, and that trust in parliaments, governments and political parties has reached a historical low.(5) It would appear that people like the idea of democracy but not the reality of it, or at any rate not the current reality.

This reversal can be attributed in part to the new democracies. Twenty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, disillusionment in many countries of the former Eastern Bloc has become particularly marked. The Arab Spring does not appear to have heralded a democratic summer and even in countries where elections have been held (Tunisia, Egypt), many people are discovering a darker side to the new order. For those who experience democracy for the first time it is sorely disappointing to discover that in practice democracy is often a less than ideal system, especially when democratisation is accompanied by violence, corruption and economic decline.

But that is not the only explanation. Even convinced democrats are afflicted by feelings of uncertainty and nowhere is this paradox more striking than in Europe. Although the concept of democracy has historical roots here and can still rely on mass support, trust in the actual institutions of democracy is visibly declining. In the autumn of 2012, Eurobarometer, the European Union’s official research bureau, noted that only 33% of Europeans still have faith in the European Union. (In 2004 the figure was 50%.) Faith in their own national parliaments and governments was even lower at 28 and 27% respectively.(6) These figures are some of the lowest in years, an indication that today, two-thirds to three-quarters of people distrust the most important institutions of their political ecosystems. Although a certain scepticism is an essential component of critical citizenship, we are justified in asking how widespread this distrust might be and at what point healthy scepticism tips over into outright aversion.

Recent figures give the impression that a general distrust pervades public life in Europe, not confined to formal politics but also encompassing public services, such as postal deliveries, healthcare and the railways. Faith in politics is part of a broader experience, but if we look specifically at democratic institutions, then it’s clear that political parties meet with the greatest distrust of all (they score an average of 3.9 out of 10 among EU citizens), followed by governments (4 out of 10), parliaments (4.2 out of 10) and the press (4.3 out of 10).(7)

The distrust is mutual, incidentally. In 2011 Dutch researcher Peter Kanne presented some interesting figures on how politicians in The Hague look at Dutch society. A full 87% of the country’s governing elite sees itself as innovative, freedom-loving and internationally oriented, but 89% think the Dutch are generally traditional, nationalistic and conservative.(8) So politicians assume that, on the whole, citizens adhere to other, in their view lesser, values than they do and there’s no reason to believe that the picture is different elsewhere in Europe.

However, getting back to the citizen, the reason often given for this increase in distrust is the ‘apathy’ which results from individualisation and consumerism. This is said to dull citizens’ critical engagement to such an extent that their faith in democracy has subsided into half-heartedness. At best they now bob about in listless indifference and change channels the moment politics is mentioned, having given up, we are informed, on politics. That, however, is not entirely in accordance with the facts, as while it may be true that a substantial proportion of people have little interest in politics, that has always been the case. There has been no recent decline, in fact research shows that concern about political issues is greater than it used to be and people discuss such issues with friends, family and colleagues more than they did in the past.(9)

This interest in politics is not a reason to feel reassured, however, as an era in which interest in politics grows while faith in politics declines always has something explosive about it. After all, it means there’s a growing gulf between what citizens think and what they see politicians doing, between what they regard as vital and what in their view the state is neglecting, resulting in a build-up of frustration. What does it mean for the stability of a country if more and more people warily keep track of the doings of an authority which they increasingly distrust? How much derision can a system endure? And is it still merely derision, now that everyone can express and share their deeply felt opinions online?

We live in a world quite opposite to that of the 1960s. Then a simple farmer and his wife could be completely apathetic about politics and yet have complete faith in democracy.(10) Sociological research confirms such confidence existed, a faith that characterised large parts of Western Europe. Then there was apathy and trust while now there is passion and distrust. These are turbulent times.

Crisis of legitimacy: Support is crumbling

Democracy, aristocracy, oligarchy, dictatorship, despotism, totalitarianism, absolutism and anarchy: every political system has to achieve a balance between two fundamental criteria, efficiency and legitimacy. Efficiency is all about how quickly a government can find successful solutions to problems that arise, while legitimacy is about the degree to which people give their assent to the solution. To what degree do the people recognise the authority of the government? Efficiency is about decisive action while legitimacy is about support, the two criteria usually existing in inverse proportion to each other. A dictatorship is undoubtedly the most efficient form of government (one person decides and that’s it) but it rarely enjoys much lasting legitimacy. The reverse, a country that engages in endless consultation with all its residents, no doubt nurtures support for the government, but at the expense of its ability to act.

Democracy is the least bad of all forms of government precisely because it attempts to find a healthy balance between legitimacy and efficiency, resulting in criticism sometimes of one side, sometimes of the other. The system keeps itself upright like a captain on the deck, shifting his weight from one leg to the other to ride with the swell, but today Western democracies are struggling with a crisis of both legitimacy and efficiency, a highly unusual situation. This is no longer a heaving sea but a raging storm and to make sense of it we have to look at figures that rarely make the front pages. If we carry on staring through a magnifying glass at the ripples of every opinion poll or election result, we’ll lose sight of the bigger picture, the great ocean currents and weather patterns.

In what follows I examine national governments in a number of countries. Obviously there are also local, regional and supranational echelons, each with its own dynamics and reciprocity, but the national level best lends itself to a broad investigation of the health of representative democracy.

Three unmistakable symptoms denote the crisis of legitimacy. First, fewer people are voting. In the 1960s more than 85% of Europeans took part in elections. In the 1990s the figure was less than 79% and in the first decade of the twenty-first century it fell below 77%, the lowest since the Second World War.(11)

In absolute numbers, this means millions of Europeans no longer wish to use the ballot box and they represent a quarter of those entitled to vote. In the US the trend is even more pronounced. Voter turnout at presidential elections is less than 60% and at midterm elections only around 40%, figures which indicate that electoral absenteeism is fast becoming the most important political movement in the West, even though we never hear about it. In Belgium the legal obligation to vote keeps the absenteeism figure rather lower (at around 10% on average over the past ten years), but it has risen, from 4.91% in 1971 to 10.78% in 2010.(12) Despite massive media coverage of the Belgian local council elections in 2012, turnout was the lowest in forty years and in cities such as Antwerp and Ostend, absenteeism came close to 15%.(13) The figure for Antwerp is particularly astonishing, considering that the battle for the mayoral sash dominated the national media for months. In the Dutch parliamentary elections of September 2012, no fewer than 26% of those eligible to vote stayed home.(14) These figures are telling when compared to 1977, when only 12% of citizens declined to vote.(15) Democracy has a serious problem of legitimacy if citizens no longer wish to take part in its most important procedure by going to the polling station. Is it still possible to claim that Parliament represents the people? Shouldn’t a quarter of seats be left empty for four years?

Second, alongside low voter turnout we are seeing high voter turnover. Those qualified to vote in Europe not only vote less, they are more capricious. Those who do vote may still recognise the legitimacy of the procedure, but they show less and less loyalty to a particular party. The organisations set up to represent them receive only provisional support from the electorate and in this context political scientists speak of ‘electoral volatility’ and conclude that it has increased enormously since the 1990s. Figures suggest a turnover of 10, 20 or even 30%, resulting in the rule of the floating voter and an increasing incidence of political earthquakes. ‘The elections that have so far taken place in the new century confirm this trend,’ a recent synthesis claims. ‘Austria, Belgium, the Netherlands and Sweden have gone on to new record highs, with the sudden growth in support for the far right (in the Netherlands in 2002) or its sudden decline (in Austria in 2002) producing election outcomes that rank among the most volatile in western European history.’(16)

Third, fewer and fewer people are members of a political party.(17) In EU member states less than 4.65% of those eligible to vote hold a party membership card. On average, that is. In Belgium 5.5% still have a party card (as opposed to 9% in 1980), in the Netherlands only 2.5% (as against 4.3% in 1980), but the steady decline is unmistakable everywhere. A recent scientific study called the phenomenon ‘quite staggering’ and after systematic analysis, researchers concluded:

In extreme cases (Austria, Norway), the decline is greater than 10%; in others, it is around 5%. All cases, with the exception this time of Portugal as well as Greece and Spain, also record a major long-term decline in the absolute numbers of members. There is a drop of 1 million or more in Britain, France and Italy, around half a million in Germany, and close to that in Austria. Britain, Norway and France have lost well over half their party members since 1980, while Sweden, Ireland, Switzerland and Finland have lost close to half. These are genuinely striking figures, and suggest that party membership as such has, in general terms, changed in both its character and its significance.(18)

What does it mean for the legitimacy of the democratic system that so few people ally themselves with the most important players within it? How much does it matter that political parties are the most distrusted institutions in Europe? And why do the leaders of those parties so rarely lose sleep over the fact?

Crisis of efficiency: Declining vigour

There is not only a crisis of democratic legitimacy, efficiency too is heavily strained. Effectual government has become more and more difficult, and sometimes a decade and a half might pass before parliaments actually vote on a law. It’s getting harder to form a government, coalitions are often less stable than in the past and they are punished increasingly harshly by voters when their term ends. Elections, in which fewer and fewer people take part, often make governments less efficient. Let’s look again at three symptoms.

First, coalition negotiations are taking longer than ever, especially in countries where complex alliances are needed. After June 2010, Belgium broke all records by going without a government for a year and a half, but during the past few years in Spain, Italy and Greece too, a long and laborious process has been required to form a government after elections. Even in the Netherlands the situation is becoming more difficult. Of the nine coalitions in the post-war period that took more than eighty days to form, five date from after 1994.(19) The reasons for this are many and varied, and one reason certainly is that coalition agreements are becoming longer and more detailed. This is a remarkable evolution if one considers that times are more unpredictable than ever and flexible anticipation of acute needs is the order of the day. But it seems that so great is the distrust between coalition partners, and so great the fear of being punished by voters, that every small point of policy has to be firmly nailed down. Every party wants the best achievable deal, everything must be set in stone beforehand and it’s all about arriving home and dry with as much of the party programme intact as possible. Inevitably, this means a long period of negotiation.

Second, parties in government are coming under increasing attack. Comparative research into representative governments is a fairly young science, but some of the results are striking and that is certainly true of research into electoral ‘payback’ in Europe. What is the fate of a governing party at the next election? In the 1950s and 1960s, parties that joined a coalition government lost 1 to 1.5% of their votes, in the 1970s 2%, in the 1980s 3.5% and in the 1990s 6%. Since the start of this century the figure has been 8% or more. In recent elections in Finland, the Netherlands, Britain and Ireland, governing parties lost 11, 15, 15 and 27% of their voters respectively.(20) Who still wants to govern proactively in Europe if the price of participation in government is so relentlessly high? Standing on the sidelines is a much more rational choice at the moment, certainly if it has no effect on party financing, such as in systems where the state pays.

Third, government is a slow business these days. Large infrastructure projects such as the new metro line in Amsterdam, the new station in Stuttgart, the motorway around Antwerp or the new international airport at Nantes are sometimes completed only with great difficulty, if at all. National governments in Europe have lost much of their prestige and power, tied as they are to dozens of local and supranational players. If such projects used to be a source of prestige and knowledge, they are now at best a governmental nightmare. The proud era of the Delta Works, the Afsluitdijk, the TGV network and the Channel Tunnel is over. If even building a bridge or a tunnel is no longer achievable, what can national governments still do under their own steam? Very little, as it happens, because they are bound hand and foot by the national debt, European legislation, American rating bureaux, multinational corporations and international treaties. In the twenty-first century, sovereignty, once the basis of the nation state, has become a relative concept. This means that the great challenges of our day – climate change, banking crises, the euro crisis, economic crises, offshore fraud, migration, overpopulation – can no longer be dealt with adequately by national governments.

Powerlessness is the key word of our time: the powerlessness of the citizen in the face of government, the government in the face of Europe and Europe in the face of the world. Everyone looks down at the mess below and then looks up, no longer with hope and faith but with despair and anger. Power today is a ladder on which everyone stands and curses.

Politics has always been the art of the possible and now it has become the art of the microscopic. The inability to address structural problems is accompanied by the overexposure of the trivial, fuelled by our insane media that, true to market logic, have come to regard the exaggeration of futile conflicts as more important than any attempt to offer insight into real problems, especially in times of falling media revenues. The fact that ephemeral obsessions dominate as never before is a phenomenon studied by the Dutch parliament in 2009. It betokens a great deal of self-awareness that the steering group for parliamentary self-reflection wrote in its report:

In order to survive the next election, politicians try to score again and again. The increasingly commercialised media are all too happy to offer them a podium, so these three sectors [politics, media and business] have each other in a hold, a Bermuda Triangle that by some mysterious means pulls everything down, with everyone wondering why it happens . . . The interaction between politics and the media certainly seems to be an important factor in creating more and more incidentalism in politics. Media live by news. In our conversations with journalists it was noted that incidents are better at attracting media attention than good debates, which also occur.(21)

In this connection ‘incidentalism’ is a useful word and the figures leave no room for doubt. Over recent years the number of verbal questions, written questions, motions submittedandemergencydebatesinthe Dutchparliament has shot up, in parallel with the frequency of political talk shows on Dutch television, because a parliamentarian needs to score once the cameras are running. ‘Members of Parliament would rather be “astonished”, “shocked” and “extremely unpleasantly surprised”,’ wrote one of those who provided information for the report. ‘In the nineteenth century there may perhaps have been too many elderly lawyers in the Lower House; nowadays there are too few.’(22)

If eagerness to promote an image wins out over governing, if election fever becomes a chronic disorder, if compromise is consistently described as treachery, if party politics systematically evokes contempt, if participation in government is guaranteed to lead to heavy electoral defeat, why would an idealistic young person go into politics? Parliamentary anaemia threatens and the recruitment into politics of new, passionate people is getting harder – a secondary symptom of the efficiency crisis. Politics as a profession is going the same way as teaching, once a noble calling that commanded respect, now a lousy job. A Dutch brochure about enlisting new political talent has a title that speaks volumes: Finding and Keeping.(23)

Retaining political talent is far from simple and it burns up more quickly than it once did, as Herman Van Rompuy noted when he was president of the European Council. ‘The way in which our democracies work wears people out at a terrifying rate. We have to take care that democracy itself doesn’t wear out.’(24)

Thisgoestotheheartoftheefficiencycrisis.Democracy has become comparatively toothless but at the same time noisier. Instead of sitting mumbling to themselves in a corner, disconcerted by their own impotence, modest about their limited room for manoeuvre, today’s politicians can, indeed must, shout their virtues from the rooftops – elections and the media leave them no choice – preferably with fists clenched, legs stiff and lips together, since that looks good and makes them appear effective. Or so they think. Instead of meekly recognising that the balance of power has changed and going in search of new and more worthwhile forms of government, they keep on playing the electoral-media game, often against their own best interests and those of the citizens who are starting to find it all a bit tiresome and whose trust is not likely to be won back by so much overwrought and transparent hysteria; the efficiency crisis only exacerbates the crisis of legitimacy.

The results are predictable and the symptoms exhibited by Western democracy are as manifold as they are vague. Anyone who puts together low voter turnout, high voter turnover, declining party membership, governmental impotence, political paralysis, electoral fear of failure, lack of recruitment, compulsive self-promotion, chronic electoral fever, exhausting media stress, distrust, indifference and other persistent paroxysms sees the outlines of a syndrome emerging. Democratic Fatigue Syndrome is a disorder that has not yet been fully described but from which countless Western societies are nonetheless unmistakably suffering. Let’s look at the diagnoses that already exist.


  2. Eric Hobsbawm, 1995: Age of Extremes: The Short Twentieth Century, 1914–1991. London, 112.
  3. Freedom House, 2013: Freedom in the World 2013: Democratic Breakthroughs in the Balance. London, 28-29.
  4. Ronald Inglehart, 2003: ‘How solid is mass support for democracy – and how can we measure it?’ Science and Politics, January, 51-57.
  5. In 1999–2000, 33.3% of those questioned said that a strong leader who need take no account of elections or parliament was a good idea. By 2005–08 the figure was 38.1%. As for faith, in 2005–08 52.4% of those questioned had little or no faith in their government, 60.3% in their parliament and 72.8% in the political parties.
  6. Eurobarometer, 2012: Standard Eurobarometer 78: First Results. Autumn 2012, 14. (last accessed 26 March 2016).
  7. EF.php. The figures for press, parliament and government are from 2012, those for political parties from 2007.
  8. Peter Kanne, 2011: Gedoogdemocratie: Heeft stemmen eigenlijk wel zin? Amsterdam, 83.
  9. Koen Abts, Marc Swyngedouw & Dirk Jacobs, 2011: ‘Politieke betrokkenheid en institutioneel wantrouwen. De spiraal vanhet wantrouwen doorbroken?’, in Koen Abts et al., Nieuwe tijden, nieuwe mensen: Belgen over arbeid, gezin, ethiek, religie en politiek. Louvain, 173-214.
  1. Luc Huyse, 1969: De niet-aanwezige staatsburger. Antwerp, 154-57.
  2. Michael Gallagher, Michael Laver & Peter Mair, 2011: Representative Government in Modern Europe. Maidenhead, 306.
  3. (last accessed 26 March 2016).
  4. Koenraad De Ceuninck et al., 2013: ‘De bolletjeskermis van 14 oktober 2012: politiek is een kaartspel’. Sampol 1, 53.
  5. Yvonne Zonderop, 2012: ‘Hoe het populisme kon aarden in Nederland’. (accessed 28 March 2016), 50.
  6. http://ww
  7. Michael Gallagher, Michael Laver & Peter Mair, 2011: Representative Government in Modern Europe. Maidenhead, 311.
  8. Paul F. Whitely, 2011: ‘Is the party over? The decline of party activism and membership across the democratic world’. Party Politics 16, 1, 21-44.
  9. Ingrid Van Biezen, Peter Mair & Thomas Poguntke, 2012: ‘Going, going, . . . gone? The decline of party membership in contemporary Europe’. European Journal of Political Research 51, 33, 38.
  10. (last accessed 28 March 2016). See also Sona N. Golder, 2010: ‘Bargaining Delays in the Government Formation Process’. Comparative Political Studies 43, 1, 3-32.
  1. Hanne Marthe Narud & Henry Valen, 2005: ‘Coalition membership and electoral performance in Western Europe’. Paper for presentation at the 2005 NOPSA Meeting, Reykjavik, August 11–13, 2005. See also Peter Mair, 2011: ‘How Parties Govern’, lecture at the Central European University, Budapest, 29 April 2011,, from 27:50 (last accessed 28 March 2016).
  2. Tweede kamer der Staten-Generaal, 2008–09: Vertrouwen en zelfvertrouwen. Parlementaire zelfreflectie 2007–2009. 31, 845, nos. 2-3, 38-39.

     22. Ibid., 34.

  1. Hansje Galesloot, 2005: Vinden en vasthouden. Werving van politiek en bestuurlijk talent. Amsterdam.
  2. Herman Van Rompuy, 2013: ‘Over stilte en leiderschap’, speech delivered in Turnhout on 7 June 2013, rompuy-over-stilte-en-leiderschap (accessed 28 March 2016).

David Van Reybrouck is considered "one of the leading intellectuals in Europe" (Der Tagesspiegel) and is a pioneering advocate of participatory democracy. He founded the G1000 Citizens' Summit, and his work has led to trials in participatory democracy throughout Belgium and Holland. He is also one of the most highly regarded literary and political writers of his generation, whose most recent book, Congo: The Epic History of a People, won 19 prizes, sold 500,000 copies and has been translated into a dozen languages. It was described as a "masterpiece" by the Independent and "magnificent" by The New York Times.