Why are autocratic regimes so keen on elections?

 Could direct democracy be the magic antidote to the democratic fatigue we are going through? Recent developments, in Russia and elsewhere, nevertheless call for considering that elections can paradoxically constitute the best ally of authoritarian power. This also means that democracy can never be reduced to elections, even when the latter is “free”.

The Russian political system, which resorts massively to voting (local, parliamentary, presidential elections and weekly polls at the request of the Kremlin), offers us an exemplary illustration of the possible instrumentalization of the election by the authorities. A recent text by the Russian philosopher Greg Yudin thus proposes to bring Putin’s regime closer to these regimes immersed in “states of constant plebiscite” theorized by the American economist Joseph Shumpeter, in the tradition of the German philosopher Carl Schmitt.

In these regimes, the election constitutes one of the privileged operators in the fabric of authoritarian power, against a background of depoliticization of the public space. These range from reactionary reforms aimed at ever tightening the ideological screed of propaganda from an early age (overhaul of educational programs from kindergarten to university, strengthening of military training) to an imperialist policy of aggression presented as “defensive”, extremely effective when it comes to feeding the fantasy of national unity.

The internal conflict within the body politic finds itself projected, and thereby even settled, on the outside, on “the enemy”: “Nazi” Ukraine, more or less identified with the “anti-Russian” West, and now to Satan. By depriving citizens of the space for democratic debate, by eliminating any real political competition, Putin’s regime constitutes the choice of the plebiscite as the only possible “option”, aimed at replenishing the dictator’s omnipotence. Consequently, the people called to the polls are never anything but the imaginary construction that the autocrat builds and shapes, like his emanation.

Voting is not the essence of democracy

Our democracies, however liberal they may be, are not immune to authoritarian risk. We cannot consider that the latter is confined to Putin’s Russia, Orban’s Hungary or Meloni’s Italy.

The depoliticization of the people is not the prerogative of non-democratic regimes, even if it takes different forms in a democracy. This means that the vote alone never constitutes the essence of democracy.

It can also lead authoritarian personalities and programs to power, as history and recent electoral results have shown us enough. Already in 2020, a Cevipof poll pointed out that 41% of those questioned adhered to the idea that “in democracy nothing advances, [that] it would be better to have less democracy but more efficiency”.

Within the Fifth Republic, this taste for the chef remains and remains a very efficient fantasy. Therefore, believing and claiming that multiplying direct votes could allow us to put an end to the democratic crisis is a mistake, because that amounts to identifying democracy and voting.

It would then suffice to regularly propose one-off votes in the form of referendums to revitalize democratic life, which seems to endorse the generalized practice of the poll, which too often constitutes the alpha and omega of political analysis. The limit of this analysis is that it assumes that the problem of political commitment is soluble in that of the electoral offer, or the referendum offer.

Make common

The Russian case reminds us of an essential lesson, which was already at the heart of the Greek problematization of freedom, and underlined by the philosopher Cornelius Castoriadis. In his analysis of the Funeral Oration of Pericles by Thucydides, he recalls that the essence of the democratic fact can only reside in an effective practice of collective deliberation, that of patient examination where one discusses and one manufactures the commons, and without which the vote can only constitute an empty shell.

This also means that the danger which irreducibly worries any democracy (as it threatens any subject) is that of passivity and disengagement. It is not certain in this respect that the solution to the democratic crisis is to be found in resorting to a referendum, or even in broadening the electoral “offer” in which citizens are supposed to find themselves better, because they would be “better represented” by political personnel who resemble them.

We must perhaps also, if not first, rethink what it is a question of representing: political opinion. But political opinion needs to be constructed, it is shaped by this long work that Hannah Arendt has called the making of a world of “universal dependence” to which the climate crisis gives further evidence and new relevance. , this world where “I can represent anyone else”.

The conditions by which the people can establish themselves as a power

Reflection on democratic institutions therefore does not seem to be able to do without a return to the conditions by which – let us return to the etymology – the people,  demos , can establish themselves as power,  kratos , which always of a patient and demanding construction, far from the imaginary omnipotence flattered by the populists.

Undoubtedly also far from what the Citizens’ Conventions – with the exception of the Citizens’ Convention on the Climate, which was an exemplary experience but whose proposals were not retained – give us to see, this collection of spontaneous opinions removed from any procedure of collective deliberation, that is to say at this critical time of the exchange of arguments where the experiences, skills and knowledge of the actors involved rub shoulders (far from the managerial procedures of the consulting agencies to which we entrust too much often the organization of the debate, with the deliberate desire to henceforth exclude any “expert” from the complex subjects to be discussed).

From this point of view, democracy is never just a legal regime but, as Castoriadis already underlined when rereading the Greeks, a process and a dynamic defined by an  ethos , a way of being, made possible by the critical spirit which must remain the ultimate goal of education: let us remember that democracy and philosophy are born and live together.

It is not elsewhere that the capacity for the emancipation of subjects, their politicization, is played out, without which democracy, this “collective imaginary instituting”, this skilful mixture of “understanding” and “imagination”, remains a chimera.