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.
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