Monday, 8 April 2013

Wrestling with Democracy - Excerpt

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.

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