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Rule by the People: Do Elections Have Democratic Value?

Democracy
Elections
Representation
P17
Emanuela Ceva
University of Geneva
Nikolas Kirby
University of Oxford

Wednesday 16:00 - 17:00 (27/04/2022)


Abstract

Elections are a core institution of representative democracy. Some equate them with democracy altogether. Others observe that undemocratic regimes often feature elections. Most, though crucially not all, political theorists agree that elections are a necessary but insufficient condition of democracy. While many theorists are interested in ways of complementing electoral institutions with non-electoral deliberative bodies(Fung and Wright 2003; Leib 2005; Sintomer 2007; McCormick 2011; Abizadeh 2020)1, recently a growing host of voices has criticise delections as either irredeemably broken or intrinsically aristocratic(Guerrero 2014; van Reybrouck 2016; Landemore 2020).Against elections, they support lottery as a fairer and more democratic way to select representatives who are then supposed to deliberate on laws like mini-publics in deliberative experiments. Elections are thus objected on two grounds: (1) that they are intrinsically aristocratic, since they are based on the so-called principle of distinction; (2) that they are less democratic than lotteries. This paper aims at rejecting both claims. Firstly, while elections do allow for citizens’ discretionary choice of representatives, such a choice does not assume representatives’ superior standing prior to elections and rather depends on citizens’ own criteria of evaluation. Secondly, when they are regular, free and competitive, elections realise two important democratic principles: political equality and popular control, and that they do so to a fuller extent than lotteries –or so I will argue. Because they are a temporal process that takes place in a wider deliberative setting, elections generate a two-way form of political engagement that potentially involves all citizens. Top-down, they compel all representatives to address citizens with proper explanation and justification of their decisions. Bottom-up, elections provide citizens with the possibility to influence representatives’ behaviour. This power of influence that ordinary citizens enjoy is available also between elections through petitions, demonstration, protests and other political activities. Crucially, however, the strength of this power depends on the fact that citizens as voters may decide to oust representatives. These forms of political engagement foreshadow citizens’ future electoral decisions and as such they command representatives’ attention, whether they agree with protesters or not. As a result, when suitably institutionalised, elections offer citizens a real opportunity to exercise final control over representatives’ decisions and strengthen their status as political equals through time. The paper unfolds as follows. I will start by addressing the first objection against elections, namely the idea that they instantiate a principle of distinction that inherently makes them an aristocratic form of government. In the third section, I will focus on the second claim and show that elections realise to a fuller extent the value of political equality, especially in its temporal dimension. In the fourth section, I will then show why popular control is a core element of democracy and how elections realise it through accountability. By contrast, as I show throughout the paper, lottery cannot ensure accountability and has more detrimental effects on political equality in its temporal dimension. The final section concludes.