Exhibition: Lottery instead of voting? The Bundeskunsthalle dissects democracy

Drawing lots instead of voting? The Bundeskunsthalle dissects democracy

The Bundeskunsthalle in Bonn is showing the exhibition “For everyone! Redesigning democracy” until October 13, 2024. Photo

© Thomas Banneyer/dpa

An art museum is exploring the question of whether democracy needs an update. Should the “kleroterion” of the ancient Greeks be reintroduced?

Democracy is exhausting. In the Bundeskunsthalle there are two large pumps that can be used to resurrect a shell that is lying sadly on the floor. The impressive “Goddess of Democracy” then slowly rises up to the ceiling and waves her torch like the Statue of Liberty in New York. “The moment you lean back, the air goes out again,” says curator Johanna Adam as she pumps it hard. “And democracy is not a service offered to us. We are not the customers of democracy, we are the operators.”

“For everyone! Redesigning democracy” is the name of an exhibition at the Bundeskunsthalle from May 30 to October 13, 2024, to mark 75 years of the Basic Law and the founding of the Federal Republic of Germany. But also to mark the threat to many liberal democracies from right-wing populists and autocrats.

Only one in two people is satisfied with the state of democracy

In a recently published survey on the global perception of democracy (“Democracy Perception Index”), 85 percent of respondents said that democracy was important to them, but only just over half were satisfied with the state of democracy in their country. In Hungary, only 31 percent believe that they live in a democracy.

Surveys also repeatedly document that voters of right-wing populist parties often experience a feeling of powerlessness: They have the impression that they are being controlled by elites, that they are not represented in parliament or the government, and that they are unable to influence political decisions.

“We are asking two questions in this exhibition,” explains Adam. “Firstly: what are the pillars of our democracy? And then: where are the problems – and what can be done about them?” The exhibition is primarily a collection of ideas – it does not present any ready-made answers.

How the ancient Greeks awarded political offices

One of the most interesting exhibits is a reconstructed “kleroterion” from classical Greece, a lottery machine used to allocate almost all political offices in Athens. “The essence of democracy is drawing lots, not voting,” was the conviction of the philosopher Aristotle. The ancient Greeks considered voting to be aristocratic because only the most popular people got a chance, but never the shy ones, for example. Only drawing lots seemed truly democratic to them. And since each office was only held for one year, every citizen had a realistic chance of getting a chance at some point in their life – although women, slaves and foreigners were excluded from the popular assembly and all political offices. An average of 6,000 citizens took part in the noisy popular assemblies, at least 40 times a year. Given Athens’ manageable population, this was a broad, direct form of participation.

The idea of ​​organizing democracy through a lottery system has attracted increasing interest in political science in recent years. Their ideas revolve in particular around how political assemblies can better reflect the social structure of the population than is currently the case in the Bundestag, for example. However, most scientists are of the opinion that the lottery must not undermine voting as the central mechanism for coordinating political action – in fact, this would not be possible under the Basic Law. If, on the other hand, there are specific questions to be decided at the local level, the popular opinion is that a citizens’ assembly using a lottery system would be a viable option.

Referendums as a form of democracy

Democratic participation can also take the form of referendums, as is regularly done in Switzerland and was the case in the UK with the Brexit decision. Demonstrations are of central importance for the expression of political will in every democracy. In Germany, millions of citizens demonstrated against the far-right this year, possibly contributing to the AfD’s decline in the polls. Climate activists knew how to attract a lot of attention even in small groups, for example by sticking themselves to the street. Adam sees them in the tradition of the suffragettes who fought for women’s suffrage at the beginning of the 20th century: “The protests that climate activists are putting up today are, historically speaking, in no way excessive.” The suffragettes did not throw tomato sauce at paintings protected by bulletproof glass, but cut them up.

So, on the one hand, the exhibition in Bonn is anything but an art exhibition in the traditional sense, but it is an attractively designed opportunity to think anew about democracy. Many approaches and theories are touched upon. Only the “Kiosk of Simple Answers”, a work by the artist group Schaum from Rostock, is closed throughout.

Information about the exhibition from the Bundeskunsthalle


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