Please attend the Toronto launch for Wrestling with Democracy:
When: Monday, May 20, 730pm
Where: The Tranzac Club, Main Hall,
292 Brunswick (at Bloor)
Introductory comments from
Dennis Pilon will briefly address
some themes from the book.
The University of Toronto Press will be on hand with copies of the book for sale.
Thursday, 2 May 2013
Who is the primary audience for this book? Academics? Activists? The general public? Personally, I think anyone interested in democratic struggle will find something of interest in this book. Obviously, as it is published by a university press, it is intended to engage with scholars, and the fine detail of scholarly debates and disputes. But most of the scholarly tussles play out in the introduction or primarily in the endnotes to each chapter. Most of the book then is free of academic jargon and makes its case through fairly straightforward narrative and argument. A general public interested in where democracy comes from or how it has taken shape will find in this book a lively story, featuring all the usual players in any political drama: political parties, politicians, unpredictable events, vested interests, and public spirited organizations and individuals. Activists too will find this treatment of democratic struggle and reform relevant as it argues that political activism in many forms has been crucial in influencing the shape of institutions, though not always in ways that activists might have wished.
Academically, the book has many potential audiences. The most obvious is the group of scholars who study why voting systems change. More broadly, the book is relevant to those analyzing why and how any democratic or governing institutions change. The book makes a contribution to the cross disciplinary field of democratization studies, both in terms of the origins of western democracies but also the continuing struggle over their substance and parameters thereafter. Clearly then the book fits into the comparative politics subfield of political science in many ways. Yet it is not limited to this field. In approach, utilizing a comparative historical method and what I am calling ‘critical institutionalism’, the book draws from historical sociology, historical institutionalism, and comparative history. It is also relevant to the subfield of political theory that is attempting to advance what it calls a ‘realist’ theory of democratic origins and development, as the book could be seen as empirical support for their project. Finally, the book attends to class as a key political force and factor in twentieth century political struggle, one that decisively influences both the resistance to and final victory of democracy, but also the struggles over just what the rules of democracy may be in any given time or place. As such, it should interest scholars of the organizational left in terms of mass parties and social movements, and those focused on class identity, formation, and struggle.
Monday, 8 April 2013
From Chapter One of Wrestling with Democracy: Voting Systems as Politics in the Twentieth Century West (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2013):
For most of political science, democracy is a word that seems to engender a degree of uneasiness, similar to the way economists respond to the word capitalism. Economists, it is said, prefer to talk about “market societies” rather than capitalist ones. The former term seems neutral and universal, whereas the latter seems historical, vaguely normative, and freighted with political connotations. In a similar way, and for arguably similar reasons, political scientists will often briefly mention democracy but spend most of their time talking about elections. In practice, most simply reduce democracy to elections. While there may be practical reasons for such shorthand, the convention can have the effect of obscuring important lines of enquiry. For instance, Alan Renwick’s recent book The Politics of Electoral Reform begins by suggesting, “Elections lie at the heart of modern democracy.” For that reason, he argues, we should understand where election rules come from and how they change. But after reading the book one might be forgiven for thinking that, for Renwick, elections are not merely the heart of democracy but the entire body. Indeed, he says at one point, “Belief in democracy amounts to belief in the value of following certain processes.” Democracy then seems little more than the rules concerned with carrying out elections. Such a narrow casting of the scope of democracy has the effect of presuming the very thing that should be examined – what did people think they were doing when they engaged in efforts to change democracy’s rules? The “democracy equals elections” shorthand obscures this question before any investigation can begin.
This book is also interested in where democratic rules come from and why they change or stay the same. But it seeks to displace the electoralist focus of the current political science work on this topic with an interdisciplinary one that puts democracy at the centre of the study. Renwick’s claim must then be reversed. If we want to know where election rules come from, we need to recognize that democracy, and more specifically democratic struggle, is at the heart of elections, particularly when the rules come under critical scrutiny. Such an approach would recognize that democracy is not merely this or that institution, nor is it amenable to a neat ideal-type definition or categorization, but is instead a messy historical accomplishment with no fixed boundaries or content. Despite a recent spate of books with politics in the title, much work on democratic structures and their reform seems unaware of these struggles, or that such struggles may have influenced what they are studying. In fact, most are devoid of any engagement with the issues and movements that defined politics and democratic struggle in the twentieth century, such as battles between left and right, historic campaigns around social citizenship and the welfare state, etc. This reflects the peculiar penchant in political science for dealing with such institutions in isolation, divorced from the larger social environment. An interdisciplinary approach, by contrast, brings the social back in, recasting the story into a narrative where the very shape of democracy is recognized to be constantly under pressure from competing and conflicting political interests and campaigns. Here democratic struggle is the story, and fights over election rules are just one locale for the brawl.
Wrestling with Democracy: Voting Systems as Politics in the Twentieth Century West covers every instance of voting system reform, both successful and failed, at the national level in western industrialized countries over the past century. Organized into four thematic periods - pre-WWI, post-WWI, the Cold War, and the neoliberal era - the book makes the case that attempts to change electoral rules were often conditioned initially by larger social struggles for and against democracy and later by struggles to shape just what democracy might do and for whom. Key factors involved the rise of mass parties of the left, the rise and fall of class consciousness, and the impact of unpredictable historical events. The book can be ordered from the University of Toronto Press here: