Representative Democracy: Principles and Genealogy

Representative Democracy: Principles and Genealogy

Representative Democracy: Principles and Genealogy

Representative Democracy: Principles and Genealogy

Synopsis

It is usually held that representative government is not strictly democratic, since it does not allow the people themselves to directly make decisions. But here, taking as her guide Thomas Paine's subversive view that "Athens, by representation, would have surpassed her own democracy," Nadia Urbinati challenges this accepted wisdom, arguing that political representation deserves to be regarded as a fully legitimate mode of democratic decision making- and not just a pragmatic second choice when direct democracy is not possible.
As Urbinati shows, the idea that representation is incompatible with democracy stems from our modern concept of sovereignty, which identifies politics with a decision maker's direct physical presence and the immediate act of the will. She goes on to contend that a democratic theory of representation can and should go beyond these identifications. Political representation, she demonstrates, is ultimately grounded in a continuum of influence and power created by political judgment, as well as the way presence through ideas and speech links society with representative institutions. Deftly integrating the ideas of such thinkers as Rousseau, Kant, Emmanuel Joseph Sieyès, Paine, and the Marquis de Condorcet with her own, Urbinati constructs a thought-provoking alternative vision of democracy.

Excerpt

Although we call contemporary Western governments democratic, their institutions were designed to contain rather than to encourage democracy. Alexis de Tocqueville rendered this paradox with a surgeon's precision when he described America as socially democratic and politically aristocratic (read “republican”). When Tocqueville arrived in the United States, about half a century after its founding, democracy's long, bad reputation among political leaders and thinkers on both sides of the Atlantic was still almost intact, its short but memorable appearance in Athens having made it more enemies and critics than friends. Athens might have been a democracy, but the best Athenian political theorists were sanguine about what they dismissed as “the rule of the poor.” Twenty-five centuries had to elapse before John Dewey appeared as the first consistently democratic philosopher and theorist.

Yet even in the democratic century par excellence and despite the contemporary rhetoric on the globalization of democracy, many modern institutions (representation in particular) are judged from the perspective of their eighteenth-century architects. The axioms held by the authors of The Federalist Papers and Emmanuel-Joseph Sieyes remain canonical, and universal suffrage has not altered the undemocratic nature of a system whose basic “arrangements have remained the same” since it emerged as a government of notables elected by a few privileged voters. The government of the moderns is apparently unchanged, its identity having been frozen in the nondemocratic choices made by its founders.

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