published 7 September 2022
New book edited by University at Buffalo Law School faculty member James A. Gardner provides an ambitious and far-reaching account of current thinking about the state of the world’s democracies and the struggle to make self-government successful – one country at a time.
Gardner, Distinguished Professor at State University of New York and Bridget and Thomas Black Professors at Law School, was commissioned by UK publishing house Edward Elgar to develop and shape the book, entitled Comparative Election Law, as part of the Research Handbooks in the Comparative Law Series. Gardner wrote an extensive introductory chapter and contributed his own article on “Electoral Systems and Concepts of Politics”. Also of note is “John Locke’s Fraud: Subnational Challenges to Democratic Theory,” an article by fellow University at Buffalo, Macau Mutua, Distinguished Professor at SUNY Margaret W. Wong School of Law.
“This is a wonderful book by one of the leading thinkers of law and democracy,” says one reviewer, Jay Aurel Emmanuel Charles of Harvard Law School. “It fills an enormous gap in the literature by emphasizing the importance of a comparative approach to helping us think anew about both old and new problems in law and democracy.”
In this Q&A, Gardner shares some thoughts on the topic and the ways in which various scholars grapple with the challenge of making democratic governance a reality.
Your introduction talks about two competing ideas for understanding democracy. Does the book win one of these understandings?
We are talking about democratic countries that have already made this choice. How do you go about structuring your democracy and what practices do you adopt? There are two schools of thought. One is that democracy is democracy everywhere and there are best practices that can make it the best it can be. The other view is that there is no single model of democracy – that different societies may choose, or be constrained, to practice democracy in a particular way, based on their history or a set of different preferences. In this case, the best democracy is best for that particular nation. Most scholars seem to take the first saying.
The book examines election law and practice around the world. How can those interested in defending democratic governance in the United States benefit from these worldviews?
It is always good to be curious, and it is a virtue to satisfy one’s curiosity by looking at how others generally do things. Our democracy is clearly under tremendous pressure right now, and it can be very helpful for Americans to look at how it is practiced elsewhere to see if there are practices that could be less vulnerable.
Democracy is by nature a messy and imperfect business. Is it even possible to create and maintain a seamless operating system for autonomy?
This is what populism is looking for. In many ways, populism is a reaction to the complexity of de facto democracies. It seeks to erase this complexity by assuming a single, united people who agree on everything, embodied by a leader who unleashed it. This is a fantasy. Actual democracy is messy and imperfect, and it is tiring. What tends to swallow business? One thing is people. Another is just human stamina. Oscar Wilde explained why he wasn’t a socialist by saying, “It takes a lot of evenings.” Democracy demands more of its citizens than any other form of government. They have to participate, they have to pay attention, they have to formulate their opinions. That’s what autonomy is. There is an attendant burden.
Election management has suddenly become a hot political issue in the United States. Does your book provide any guidance for foreign ministers and local election officials?
It’s geared more to system design issues, not questions about what happens when your system’s design is intentionally thwarted. There is a chapter on election administration, in the way our system entrusts election administration to partisan people, such as elected foreign ministers who compete on the party line. Nowhere else is this model simulated; In most places, the ideal is believed to be a nonpartisan office for civil servants.
How did you hope your authors would approach the topic?
My goal was to do more than just a book just say chapter after chapter, here’s how to do it in State A, State B, State C. That’s part of what comparative law is all about, but I asked the authors to dig a little deeper and address the question why a community chooses Doing things one way and another chooses to do them another. What kind of values do they reflect? The ultimate goal is to explore the diversity and forms of human flourishing. People don’t have to live the same way, and they don’t.
What exactly does a book editor like this do?
I’ve asked for contributions, and I’ve thought well of people working in these different fields are more inclined to this deeper insight that I want. I was particular about who I invited. One way to edit the folder is to get the best people out and let them go, which is what I chose.