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The Mob Came Wielding Pitchforks, but they had a Good Story to Tell

Num°19 ELECTIONS
Boatright

Contributors to this issue have been asked to consider whether there can be democracy without elections. Such a question requires, of course, that one present a working definition of democracy, a working definition of elections, and that (if one is not planning to argue in the affirmative) the first definition does not subsume the second (e.g. “democracy is a system of free and fair elections”). It also requires, I would argue, that somewhere there appears some standard of measurement. One would need to come up with a way to measure, for instance, degrees of “freedom” and “fairness” if one were to distinguish types of elections.

Such a question, then, rapidly becomes sufficiently daunting that providing a definitive answer within a few thousand words would, I think, challenge any political theorist. It also veers into the territory of many comparative politics scholars; there are many projects out there that seek to measure the quality of elections, the quality of democracy, and a variety of other aspects of government. I am a student of American politics, not a comparativist or a political theorist. My approach to this question, then, is to sidestep it, to propose two more important criteria for the preservation of democracy. One of these criteria is accountability. I expect that this claim will be relatively uncontroversial, but in practice it has a complicated relationship with elections. Elections can be means of rendering governments accountable to their citizens, but in many instances they fail – and these failures may, as the example of the United States shows, occur even in the absence of deliberate attempts to subvert the electoral process.

The second of these criteria is the existence of a democratic story. I expect this claim will strike readers as a somewhat more controversial, even, to coin a term, an “American-centric” one. I draw upon the work of political theorist Rogers Smith to argue that in order for democracy to persist in the face of antidemocratic movements or events, there must be a national narrative or story about the value of democracy. Some democratic countries have these, some don’t; but I would argue that such national stories do not exist (for long, or without serious challenges) in undemocratic nations. These stories need not have very much direct relationship to the features of the regime, and they need not even be entirely true. Yet, when the principles of such stories are widely accepted, they serve to organize and provide boundaries for political disputes.

The structure of this essay is simple. I explore what it might actually mean to talk about democracy without talking about elections. I then summarize some key characteristics of the failure of contemporary American elections to provide democratic accountability. I emphasize there that this is not, or at least not solely, a failure of a party or a politician, nor is it an antidemocratic scheme of any sort. I then turn to the persistence of the American democratic narrative – a persistence that might strike some readers as ironic or simply amusing, but which I suggest is a more effective check on antidemocratic tendencies than are elite norms or laws.

The Mob Came Wielding Pitchforks, but they had a Good Story to Tell

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Numero 19 ELECTIONS luglio, 2017 - Autore:  Condividi

 

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