The Eyes of the People: Democracy in an age of spectatorship

Jeffrey Edward Green’s book of the above title (OUP, 2010) is a tightly-argued, highly-readable and courageous attempt to defend the indefensible – a normative theory of passive spectator democracy. The book swims against the current of democratic theory by claiming that all other normative theories (including the deliberative and participatory variants) are doomed and misguided attempts to establish democracy as the voice of the people (vox populi, vox dei). Green is agnostic as to whether this was possible in classical Athens, but it’s entirely impossible in large modern states. However as well as being impossible, it’s undesirable, as most citizens have no settled political views; besides which, electoral democracy, as Dahl famously put it, establishes rule by minorities. So much for the general will.

Green’s alternative is the ‘ocular’ tradition whereby the people don’t speak, they hold a watching brief over the political elite. The theory has its origins in the writings of Max Weber and was developed (and distorted) by Carl Schmidt and Joseph Schumpeter. Unlike with Bernard Manin’s ‘audience democracy’, Green makes no attempt to argue that the current ‘metamorphosis’ of representative government maintains any of the putative virtues of the classical theory of democracy (partial autonomy of representatives, trial by discussion etc), it is simply a way of identifying political charisma (a Weberian sociological term). Green denies that elections are an indirect way for citizens to influence public policy and agrees with Schumpeter that they are simply a way of selecting political leaders, although it is hard to understand Winston Churchill’s 1945 defeat by the decidedly uncharismatic Clement Attlee in any way other than the aggregation of policy preferences.

Green’s theory may, however, be a reasonably accurate portrayal of 21st century political reality, but what are its normative benefits? Why is rule by charismatic persons an improvement on any other constitutional arrangement? The ultimate democratic value, in Green’s eyes, is ‘candor’, by which he means the inability of political leaders to control the conditions of their own publicity. So far so good, but two of the examples that he provides – presidential debates and press conferences – do little to further his case. Kennedy won the 1960 presidential debate on TV (he lost it on the radio) because he spent the day topping up his suntan on his hotel roof, whereas the loser (Nixon) was swatting up on the issues. Why do we want to privilege tall, suntanned, good-looking people over short ugly ones for political leadership? The main reason that Kennedy is seen as a ‘good’ president and Nixon a ‘bad’ one is because he was lucky, died young and never got caught. Green is aware that press conferences are largely stage-managed and argues for an agonistic solution (although this is not a term that he uses), but surely this just privileges the quick-witted and verbally nimble. The mayor of London, Boris Johnson, is generally celebrated for his candour, but this would appear to be just an element of a carefully-constructed public image. Why would we want to be ruled by past presidents of the Oxford Union just because they are better at shooting from the hip?

Green claims that ‘candor’ is the ultimate democratic value, but this cannot be the case. To say that a person is candid is to say that they are truthful – what you see is what you get – but this can only ever be a secondary political value. If a politician has beliefs and goals that are antithetical to your own then no amount of candour will make you support her, so candour can only be a way of verifying the fidelity of the representation. Even if, as Green argues (paraphrasing Schumpeter), democracy has nothing to do with indicating policy preferences and is just a way of appointing competent political leaders there are far better ways of assessing performance in office than the verbal testament of the office-holder. Of course we may not want competent leadership, we might prefer someone who is good at grandstanding on the international stage. In this case democracy will certainly deliver us the leaders we deserve, but in what sense is this a normative theory?

However there is one element in the politics of candour that should be of interest to members of this blog – political trials. Building on Benjamin Constant’s Principles of Politics Applicable to All Representative Governments, Green advocates a politics of show trials (in the ocular, rather than Stalinesque, sense). It’s surprising that he fails to mention that political trials were the prime mechanism whereby politicians were held to account by the demos in classical Athens and, as in Constant’s example, the Athenian trial was a judgment on the whole persona of the politician undergoing trial, as opposed to a particular offence. And in Athens the trial outcome was determined by a randomly-selected microcosm of the whole citizen body, rather than – as in Constant’s proposal – by the House of Lords.

Green claims to be open to radical alternatives to his political Panopticon (analogous to Jeremy Bentham’s penal ‘mill for grinding rogues honest’), so I would suggest an extension to the Athenian practice mentioned above, that would find an appropriate role for charisma and candour as part of a mixed constitutional settlement. In my book A People’s Parliament I argue for a mixed constitution in which government officials are appointed on merit, rather than as a result of an elective process. They would, however, need to persuade an allotted parliament of the merits of their legislative proposals and, exactly as in 4th Century Athens, this would require qualities that would be viewed, in Weberian terms, as charismatic (in contrast to the Civil Service bureaucrats in their departments). But the allotted chamber would be a portrait in miniature of the entire citizen body and its judgment would reflect its considered judgment (and interests) – the normative core of most theories of democracy.

Ministerial tenure would be subject to scrutiny by the same allotted parliament and government officials would have no opportunity to control the conditions of their own publicity. Thus, as strictly secondary features, charisma and candour would have a large part to play in a constitutional settlement that included a prominent role for selection by lot.

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One Response

  1. […] I was quickly skimming a post on democracy over at Equality By Lot (and lot, by the way, is a mechanism that I do think political designers […]

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