What does democracy even mean anymore, and why do elections not stimulate the same pre-vote frenzy and post-result calm that they use to, and are supposed to. How do we view differently governments, their opposition, and the role of the citizen? Ivan Krastev explains our new era of ‘Democracy of Rejection’.

In ‘The Watcher’, one of Italo Calvino’s early short stories, the great writer spins a tale of an election suffused with madness, passion and reason. The main protagonist, Amerigo Ormea, an unmarried leftist intellectual, has agreed to be an election monitor in Turin’s famous Cottolengo Hospital for Incurables – a home for the mentally ill and disabled. Ever since voting became obligatory in Italy following the Second World War, places like Cottolengo served as a great reservoir for right-wing Christian Democrats to recruit supporters. During the election, newspapers were filled with stories about invalids being led to vote; voters eating their ballots; and the elderly, paralysed by arteriosclerosis, pressured to vote conservative. It was in Cottolengo Hospital that leftist critics of democracy could show that in bourgeois society elections are less about people governing than about elites manipulating them.

But it was in Cottolengo that the young leftist intellectual, attracted by Marxism and sympathising with communists, fell under democracy’s spell. He was mesmerised by how the ritual of elections, of ceremonial pieces of paper folded over like telegrams, triumphed over the march of the fascists and how elections were giving meaning to human life. What he found most striking was the unimaginable egalitarianism of democracy; the fact that rich and poor, educated and illiterate, those ready to die for their ideals and those who do not have them, all have just one ballot and that their vote has equal power. Elections resemble death since they force you to look both backwards and forwards, to judge your life and to imagine another. It was in the Hospital for the Incurables that Ormea detected democracy’s genius to turn madness into reason and to translate passions into interests.

It was not democracy’s genius to represent but its talent to misrepresent that made Amerigo Ormea a believer. It was not its transparency but its mystique that converted him. The vote gives every citizen a voice but under the condition that the voter will be unable to represent the intensity of his or her beliefs. The vote of the fanatic for whom elections are an life and death, and the vote of a citizen who barely knows for whom he or she votes or why, have equal power. The result is that voting has a ‘dual character’ – it allows us to replace those in power, thus defending us from the ‘excessive repressive state’, but it also keeps passions unrepresented, and defends us from the ‘excessively expressive citizen’.

The Mystery of Elections

The art of democracy is a strange combination of restraining the intensity of political actors while overdramatising the political game. Democracy is supposed to arouse an interest in public life among those who swear by apathy, while cooling down the passion of the zealots. Mobilising the passive and pacifying the outraged is at the heart of elections. But elections also have a transcendental character. They ask us to judge politicians not simply on what they have done but on what they promise to do. In this sense, elections are a machine for the production of collective dreams. Ban elections and you consent to live in a present where the future is absent, or you subscribe to a future decreed by the state. Elections succeeding leaving the future open. They bring change; they do not foreclose.

Alexis de Tocqueville was one of the first to suggest that the discourse of crisis is the native language of any genuine democracy. Democratic politics, he observed, need drama. ‘As the election approaches,’ Tocqueville wrote, ‘intrigue becomes more active and agitation lively and more widespread. The entire nation falls into a feverish state… As soon as fortune has pronounced… everything becomes calm, and the river, one moment overflowed, returns peacefully to its bed.’[1]

‘Tocqueville discovered on his American journey [that] democratic life is a succession of crises that turn out to be nothing of the sort.’[2] Democracy thus operates by framing the normal as catastrophic, while promising that all crises are surmountable. Democratic politics functions as nationwide therapy session where voters are confronted with their worst nightmares – a new war, demographic collapse, economic crisis, environmental horror – but are convinced they have the power to avert the devastation. When the elections are over the world will magically return to normal. Is it surprising then that politicians and the media portray almost any election as a turning point – as a choice that will define the fate of the nation for the next generation?

Democratic politics is impossible without the persistent oscillation between the excessive dramatisation and trivialisation of the problems we face. Elections lose their power when they fail to produce a faux crisis or inspire a sense that the crisis can be resolved.

In Stephen Holmes’s apt observation, in order for elections to work the stakes should be neither too high nor too low. If what is at play is the life of the individual, it will be unrealistic to expect that the election game can succeed. Recent developments in Iraq and Afghanistan are classic example of how when the stakes are too high citizens opt for guns and not ballots. On the other hand, if nothing was decided on election day – if elections lost their ‘drama’ – why would anybody bother to cast a ballot?

Almost sixty years after Amerigo Ormeau fell under the spell of democracy in Cottolengo Hospital, elections are not only losing their dramatic capacity to capture the imagination of the people, they are also failing to effectively overcome crisis. People have begun to lose interest in them. There is a widespread suspicion that elections have become a ‘trap for fools’. It is true that they have gone global (freer and fairer than ever before), and that we vote more often than in the past, but elections are no longer mobilising the passive and pacifying the outraged. The decline in electoral turnout throughout all Western democracies over the last thirty years, and the eruption of mass political protests in the last five years, is the most powerful manifestation of the crisis. Elections, in short, have become an afterthought in most of Europe. Just as bad, they give birth to governments mistrusted from their very first day in office.

A Time for Change in the Democratic Process

The problem with elections is not simply that they leave the underprivileged underrepresented. When it comes to actual governing, elections matter less not simply because the policy choices have been narrowed, but because elections do not ‘manufacture’ majorities and policy mandates. The fragmentation of the public sphere makes democracies a site for vanishing majorities. In 2012, among the thirty-four members of OECD (the club of wealthy nations), only four featured a government that is supported by an absolute majority in the national parliament. And if elections do not come with clear majorities and unambiguous policy mandates, this accelerates the voters’ belief that they are no longer obliged to support the government for whom they have voted. This is exacerbated by the reality that even when in government, parties have a hard time making good on their promises.

The paradoxical effect then of the loss of drama in elections is their mutation into a ritual of humiliation to the party in power rather than vote of confidence in the opposition. These days it would be miraculous to find a government that enjoys the support of the majority only a year after being elected. The dramatic decline of support for French President François Hollande perfectly demonstrates how a government’s relationship with its supporters, that once resembled an unhappy but solid Catholic marriage, is now more reminiscent of a one-night stand.

Voters simply do not see their ballots as a long-term contract with the party they have chosen. No longer predicated on one’s expectations of the future, voting is now a judgment on past performance.

Unsurprisingly, studies in Europe show that the advantages enjoyed by incumbents are disappearing. Governments are collapsing more quickly than before and they are re-elected less often.[3] ‘No one is truly elected any more,’ Pierre Rosanvallon has argued. ‘Those in power no longer enjoy the confidence of voters; they merely reap the benefits of distrust of their opponents and predecessors.’[4]

There is another perverse effect of this diminution of drama: elections are failing to demobilise the opposition. Traditionally, electoral victory meant that the winning party would be allowed to govern. Like war, elections had clear winners and losers where the winners imposed their agenda – at least for the first part of their mandate. The opposition could fantasise about revenge but it was ill-advised to prevent the government from governing. This received wisdom is changing. When parties do not win majorities, or lose them on Day 2 of governing, it is no shock that oppositions don’t feel obliged to treat the voters’ verdicts final. The proliferation of elections – parliamentary, local, regional, presidential – the pervasiveness of public opinion polls, and the new appetite for referenda make it easy for the opposition to claim that the government has lost its popular mandate. Elections are losing their dramatic edge, not only because of the market or the European Union (for EU member states), but because electoral victory is not what it used to be.

Are Popular Protest Movements the Answer?

Could we then expect that now, when elections are losing their power to mobilise citizens’ imagination, it would be through elections that we re-legitimise the European project? Unsurprisingly, the answer is ‘no’. And the elections for European Parliament in 2014 are the best illustration. The hopes that they signal the birth of common European politics have faded away. Neither the economic crisis, nor the threat coming from the rise of Eurosceptic populist parties, nor the promise that the leading candidate of the biggest party will be the President of the European Commission, motivated people to vote. The hope that elections will politicise the European project and that Brussels’ politics will be structured around the traditional left–right axis has not materialised. It was naïve to believe that at the very moment the left–right opposition was agonising on the national level that it would be resurrected on the European level. The EU project remains dependent on policies without politics on the European level and politics without policies on the national level. The only change brought about by the crisis is that the mainstream parties are in disarray, and while the elections did not signal a clear swing to the left or to the right, there is a clear swing away from the centre, with most of the leftist parties in Europe moving further left and the centre-right parties moving further right.

It is in this context that some political thinkers argue that the language of protest could become the common language of the EU politics and that the energy of the pro-democracy popular protests outside and inside the Union could be the best chance for reforming Brussels.

But how realistic are these expectations?

The rise of the ‘square people’ in the last five years is a global phenomenon. The ‘square’ could be Tahir Square in Cairo, Independence Square in Kiev, Takis Square in Istanbul, the Avenue Habib Borgia in Tunis, Bolotnaya Square in Moscow, Rothschild Boulevard in Tel Aviv, the Puerta del Sol in Madrid, Syntagma Square in Athens, or any of a number of other places like these. People have turned out in public to mount sizeable, sustained protests that ignore political parties, distrust the mainstream media, have few if any specific leaders, and mostly leave formal organisation aside, relying instead on the internet and ad hoc assemblies for collective debate and decision-making. Europe was at the epicentre of the protest activity.

In Ukraine people on the streets were waving EU flags and were ready to die defending their right to a European future; in the anti-austerity protests in Greece and Spain Brussels’ policies were resisted, not admired. But it was not the anger against the specific economic policies but citizens’ disappointment with what ‘they call democracy’ that have brought people onto the streets in Southern Europe. So, could it be the leaderless protests rather than European elections and Brussels’ reform that can mobilise support for the European project?

It is undeniable that protests contributed to the Europeanisation of national politics. The young rebels in Greece have inspired protesters in Madrid; political demands made in Kiev were echoed in Bosnia. The protests created a specific media environment that was pan-European in its nature. The protests also brought new issues and new urgency to the political debate. It was the noise of the protesters that forced European leaders to address the problem of rising inequality and it was protesters that put the issue of corruption at the centre of European politics.

Although they do not claim power, the protests offer an effective strategy of citizen empowerment in the age of globalisation. In a world where governments are less powerful than before, corporations are more mobile, and political parties are bereft of the capacity to build a political identity around visions of the future, the power of citizens derives from their ability to disrupt. Unlike elections, protests were able to effectively represent the intensity of public sentiment, and in country after country hostility to elites was at the heart of that sentiment.

The protests showed that things could change, but they failed to outline the direction of change.

In his most famous work, Exit, Voice, and Loyalty (1970), Albert Hirschman contrasted two strategies that people have for dealing with badly performing organisations and institutions. People can either ‘exit’– voting with their feet, expressing their displeasure by taking their business elsewhere – or they can decide to ‘voice’ their concerns – staying put and speaking up, choosing to fight for reform from within. ‘Exit’ is the preferable strategy for the consumer. ‘Voice’ represents a different type of activism: when people cannot simply ‘exit’, or when they do not want to ‘exit’ because they value too much the organisation that has deteriorated, they are forced to try to improve the performance by participating, by giving ideas and taking the risk of opposing those who take decisions. In voice activism what is of critical importance is the constructive nature of the protest and the readiness to take responsibility for what you suggest. For many the history of the EU is the embodiment of the success of reformist politics. The EU was a step-by-step project marked by the power of idealism but also the will to compromise.

Hirschman’s voice and exit dichotomy is very popular and often used in social sciences to explain the dynamics of regime change and the incentives for political reformism. It is well known that when ‘exit’ is easily available people are less likely to opt for ‘voice’, or that if all consumers atone and the same time decided to exit, the change cannot happen. What is less well understood is that in certain contexts ‘voice’ can act as an ‘exit’. And it is fair to observe that political protest inside the EU, political protests outside the European Union such as that, were much more a collective ‘exit’ than a collective ‘voice’.

The protests are a rejection of a politics without possibility, but they are also a form of acceptance of this new reality. Regardless of the myriad demonstrations of civic courage and political idealism and the inspiring videos and rich expressions of counter-cultural imagination, the protests are not the solution to ‘there is no alternative’ politics. In the final account, the protests demonstrate the resilience of the political but signal a decline in political reform. The waning of the ‘voice’ option is a side effect of this new generation of political mobilisation. In political activism that is so individualistic and symbolic, there is no place for Hirschman’s reformists, no place for those who write open letters to power and advocate small-step reforms. Contemporary protests are therefore much more about ‘exit’ than ‘voice’. They don’t introduce new political actors or restore trust in politicians. In a certain sense the protests turn mistrust in institutions into its own norm.

The New Democracy: A Democracy of Rejection

In his remarkable book Counter-Democracy, French political philosopher Pierre Rosanvallon best captures this simultaneous pre- and post-political nature of the new generation of civic activism. Rosanvallon anticipated the emergence of leaderless protest as an instrument for transforming democracy in the twenty-first century. Accepting the reality of a democracy of mistrust, he does not go on to suggest that what we are experiencing today is a crisis that will be inevitably overcome, and where trust in institutions and leaders is restored to its rightful place. According to Rosanvallon, democracy cannot be anything else but a form of organising mistrust in a sea of distrust. In fact, distrust to him was always at the heart of the democratic project. ‘Distrust… is to the deep emotion of liberty what jealousy is to love,’ claimed the unsentimental Robespierre more than two centuries ago. For Rosanvallon, it is clear that step by step the ‘“positive democracy” of elections and legal institutions’ will be surrounded by the ‘“negative sovereignty” of civil society’.[5] Popular sovereignty will assert itself as the power to refuse. Don’t expect politicians with long-range visions or political movements inspiring collective projects. Don’t expect political parties that will capture the imagination of the citizens and command the loyalty of their followers. The democracy of the future will look very different. People will step into the limelight only to refuse certain policies or debunk particular politicians. The core social conflicts that will structure political space will be between the people and the elite, not between left and right. The new democracy will be a democracy of rejection.

We are heading to a new democratic age in which politicians will not have our trust and citizens will be preoccupied with controlling their representatives. Political representation is now something from a bygone era in a new world inhabited by people with multiple identities. ‘Why should it be more important for me that I am German than that I am a cyclist?’ a young member of the Greens in the European Parliament told me. She refused to think in terms of social or ethnic groups and she refused to take history into account. Nothing must constrain or challenge the freedom of her individual choices.

In the new democratic age electoral politics will no longer take pride of place. Elections have lost their connection to the future. ‘Tomorrow never happens. It is the same fucking day, man,’ sings Janis Joplin. We might label it ‘the Chinese turn’ as it is they who believe that what stands in front of us is the past, not the future. Elections today are a judgment about the past, not a gamble on the long term. Until recently, voting was about choosing not just a government but also a policy. But contemporary elections are really only about selecting governors, a kind of ‘managers of the present’. Voters have wisely decoupled the policies and the policy-makers. When you fail to believe that the government actually decides on the economy or foreign policy, what matters are not the ideas of the politicians but their capacity to implement. The voter today basically performs the role of the legendary Pavel Pichugin or ‘Pasha Face Control’, the popular bouncer of Russia’s most expensive nightclub who has the sovereign power to decide whom to let in and whom to keep out. The new democratic citizen is tired of voting. When it comes to addressing social problems, the ‘new political man’ might choose between taking the government to court, launching an NGO, or joining some ad hoc initiative designed to improve the world. When he has the sense that some basic democratic rights are being violated, he can take to the streets or use his Facebook page to mobilise mass protest. And we should not be surprised if thousands come out.

What makes the new democratic age so different is the profound primacy placed on the individual. The individual decides whether to sue the government or not. The individual, deprived of any social qualities or organisational connections, occupies the squares. The new political man has no illusions about the ineffectiveness of government but he believes that people have a responsibility to control it. The passion for transparency and the obsession with accountability are a natural reaction to the loss of representation. Civic participation is not about power any more– it is about influence. The new movements of mistrust are better suited than traditional revolutionary movements for an age in which ‘the goal of politics is more to deal with situations than to organise stable manage hierarchical structures’.[6]

If we trust Rosanvallon, ‘the watcher’ and not the voter is becoming the critical figure in democratic politics. But if Calvino’s watcher was responsible for the fairness of the electoral process and for guaranteeing that people will get fair representation, the new watchers are in the business of observing those already in power. Elections are losing their central role; instead we are left with three different modes of political activism. On the individual level any time we believe our rights are violated we can sue the government. We can also promote certain issues and policies through NGOs and other forms of ad hoc civic activism (and don’t need to be members of political parties or even to vote). And then there is the symbolic level of politics – when we want to raise hell and shock the system. At these times we can take to the streets.

Mass protests are meant to play the role historically played by insurrections. They must testify that the sovereign exists and that he is angry. They function as an alternative to elections in that they develop an alternative representation of the people. Still, in order for the protests to play their symbolic role they have to fulfil certain criteria. They have to be of amass nature and spontaneous – not organised by a political party. They should bring together people who in normal politics would not be seen together. They should be unable and unwilling to form political parties or to formulate political alternatives. They should speak morality and not policy. In short, they should be like the protest movement we have been witnessing in recent years. And we should not expect new enthusiasm for the European project or expect people in Europe to march in favour of the EU. ‘Who speaks of victory?’ wrote the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke. ‘To endure is all.’[7]


This article was first published as a chapter in the book, After the Storm: How to Save Democracy in Europe, by Luuk van Middelaar and Philippe Van Parijs (eds), by Lannoo Publishers, available to buy here.



[1] I owe this insight to David Runciman’s book, The Confidence Trap: A History of Democracy in Crisis from World War I to the Present (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2013).

[2] Runciman, The Confidence Trap, p. 23.

[3] Moisés Naím, The End of Power: From Boardrooms to Battlefields and Churches to States, Why Being in Charge Isn’t What It Used to Be (New York: Basic Books, 2013).

[4] Pierre Rosanvallon, Counter-Democracy: Politics in an Age of Distrust (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), p. 176.

[5] Rosanvallon, Counter-Democracy, p. 14.

[6] Rosanvallon, Counter-Democracy, p. 65.

[7] ‘For Wolf Graf von Kalckreuth’.

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