A (Very) Short Conference Report: « Voting: A History », Ohio University, 13-14 April 2018

One of my new resolutions on this blog is to write about the great conferences I’m lucky to attend, so let’s start with « Voting: A History », which took place last week at Ohio University (among other things, I got to know the university town of Athens, Ohio, including on Thursday and Friday night, an interesting experience to say the least). This international conference was hosted by the George Washington Forum on American Ideas, Politics and Institutions at Ohio University and (splendidly) co-organized by Robert Ingram and Joshua Hill. We were a very diverse group of scholars working on elections, coming from America and Europe, and ranging from political science, political theory and history (you can see the full program and the amazing speakers here). We shared an understanding of voting and elections as complex social practices that cannot be summarized to elections results, which means that elections and their diverse realities are explananda in their own right, as Hedwig Richter put it. Among the historians presenting, I found it particularly fascinating to see how we shared similar questions and approaches beyond historiographical traditions – so there definitely is something like a « new history of politics » in many countries.

We had fascinating discussions (also outside of the conference) and came out with questions that really go through all of our research projects (this is my own clumsy and highly biased attempt to summarize):

  • Who should vote and how? / What is a « good » citizen?
  • How does voting relate to understandings of citizenship?
  • How have we learnt to vote? How are election practices steered by the State/political elites?
  • How do political entrepreneurs mobilize voters?/ What are « clean » or good elections?
  • What does it mean to vote? Which functions can it have for a political system?
  • Which place do elections have in democracy?
  • What is the current « populist moment » about and how does it affect the legitimacy of elections and of liberal democracy?

I tend to think there are two different tensions in these questions, which we felt in our discussions:

  • Is voting a bottom-up or top-down achievement/ practice? In other terms can we understand it as the foundation for a ideal of participatory democracy, or is it an instrument steered from above in order to legitimize power and/or to « discipline » citizens? Similarly, is voting an including or excluding practice? Interestingly enough, we tended rather towards the more pessimistic/realistic interpretation – one commonality of our papers would be that they are about managing or restraining democracy through elections, as the co-organizors Robert Ingram and Joshua Hill suggested.
  • On the meta-level, these questions can be either asked in a normative way, looking at democracy as an ideal, or in an empirical way, trying to encompass the socio-political realities of voting as a highly complex social practice – a « total social fact » even (Mauss) – in different cultural and historical contexts. At the same time, it’s difficult for scholars to truly distinguish these two approaches. I often find that empirical scholars, myself included, get caught in current debates on democracy, without reflecting much on the normative assumptions that flow in their research (i.e. on the negative connotations of the populism concept or on the notion that abstention is a faulty behaviour).

I don’t have absolute answers to any of these reflections (and it’s not really the aim in any case to solve them for all for the eternity), but they will certainly prove very fruitful for my own research. The conference also motivated me to go back to political theory, something I’ve been kind of avoiding to do for sometime – precisely because of the normative pitfall I mentioned. I also gained new insights on the US context and am eager to deep more into American political historiography. I would have loved to hear more about political contexts and traditions of thoughts from different continents, but it’s unfortunately often a structural problem in academia that Western (and male) perspectives are still overrepresented. I am now looking forward to seeing what will come out of this conference!


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