Oliver O’Donovan on Electoral Futility

‘Electoral forms, then, not only fail to guarantee a just, or liberal, government; they are no guarantee of material representation either. The defense of Western democracy must, it seems, be even more modest than the most modest defense current among apologists. Perhaps it may take some form such as this: Modes of representation cannot be chosen in a vacuum; they are dependent upon the conditions of society and on the forms of spontaneous representation that arise unbidden. In a society that has lost most of its traditional representative forms to the unstable and shifting relations built on individualism and technology, but which can count on economic wealth, good communications, and general literacy, there is not serious alternative to the ballot box. Attempts to revive lost forms of loyalty are liable to be Ersatz and morally hollow; we had better secure ourselves against the temptations they present by setting a high procedural threshold for movement of spontaneous popular identity, and this electoral democracy provides.

“The case for democracy is that it is specifically appropriate to Western society at this juncture. It is a moment in the Western tradition; it has it own ecological niche. This allows us no universal claims of the “best regime” kind, nor does it permit the imperialist view that the history of democracy is the history of progress. Yet within its own terms it allows us to be positive about democracy’s strengths. The best regime is precisely that regimne that plays to the virtues and skills of those who are governed by it; and this one serves us well in demanding and developing certain virtues of bureaucratic and public discourse that the Western tradition has instilled. It is our tradition; we are bred in it; we can, if we are sensible about it, make it work’. – Oliver O’Donovan, Ways of Judgment (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005), 178

I am not as optimistic about making democracy work as is O’Donovan, but he does rightly note that democracy is peculiar to a certain moment in Western history and of that, it cannot be made an absolute narrative.

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