Schnapper: Extreme democracy and democratic extremists

Dominique Schnapper is the director of studies at the School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences (EHESS) (retired) and a former member of the French Constitutional Council. This is a translation of Schnapper’s articleExtrême et extrémistes de la démocratie” published in April 2019 on the Telos website.

The Gilets Jaunes movement fights under the banner of “real” democracy and it risks contributing to the destruction of the only democratic regime that has ever existed, namely representative democracy.

Democracy always had two dimensions: a democratic one and an aristocratic one. Democratic because the rulers submit to elections by the ruled and are rewarded or punished through the vote.

The dream of direct democracy

The aristocratic dimension was always a source of disagreement. The dream of direct or total democracy has accompanied the history of democracy. But it is today all the more present in the idea that entrusting decision making to others is contradictory to the conception of the sovereign democratic individual doing things himself, and being the source of all legitimacy and competence. He brings his own legitimacy. He feels fully qualified to express himself directly by himself without the intervention of a representative.

Democrats like neither mediation nor distinctions. Every type of distinction – and in particular the distinction between voters and elected – every hierarchy is perceived as discriminatory. The elites are easily denounced as responsible for all our failures. For there the ideas of direct democracy and ideas inspired by direct democracy regain their power. Protesting activists become actors of a “counter-democracy” [Pierre Rosanvallon, La contre démocratie, 2006], they speak about the foundational principles of democracy and the liberation from electoral rhythm in order to exercise daily surveillance on the actions of the rulers.

It is not by chance that sortition has reappeared as an idea to be considered. It appears to be the only truly democratic selection mechanism. All the participants are put in the same situation, all having the same chance to be selected. No one is responsible for the choice, no one can be blamed for having made the choice, no one can be praised for having made the choice. The procedure is impartial and fair and suppresses competition.

Even if the theoreticians agree that it is impractical for choosing the officials for high political office, some suggest that some of the seats in local assemblies (or in the European assembly) could be selected by sortition, with the hope of reinvigorating democracy. The newfound vigor of such proposals indicates the ever-present aspirations to a “pure” democracy, to an “ultra-democracy”.

Sortition would overcome the constraints of representation by replacing or supplementing representation with a “consultative”, “deliberative”, or “participatory”, “ongoing” democracy. Its theorists insist, each in their own way, on the idea that citizens must become directly involved at various moments in the decision-making process. They should be consulted, they should discuss government projects and participate actively in political life. At the limit, the more imaginative among them imagine a networked democracy, without a leader, without fixed structures, without norms and rules, without mediation, where anyone could minimize the obligations associated with partisan logic and carry out by themselves whatever they wish.

Open and, if possible, reasoned discussion is naturally and necessarily a part of the democratic process. Needless to say, the modes of consultation must evolve along with the competence of the population which is now more educated and along with the introduction of new technologies which revolutionize communication between citizens. Consulting those who feel themselves affected or who have specific expertise in desirable and even necessary. It would be unthinkable to not have a dialogue with environmental experts, those who are competent and those who have the ears of the citizens and the media (these groups are not necessarily the same…).

However, those normal and desirable changes, do not by themselves create a new democracy. They do create new practical modalities, taking into account the increased demands by citizens. The complement the procedures of a representative republic. Democracy is not defined by a single essence specified once and for all. It is a historical construction, closely related to the evolution of societies and their functional modalities evolve with them.

The virtues of representative democracy

No one would propose that a democratic order which rests solely on the idea of voting approaches the utopia of equality among all citizens. Only equal participation of all in the electoral process, following well known rules monitored by the judiciary can assure the equality of all in choosing rulers. The vote symbolizes and gives concrete form to the formula according to which each individual has the same legitimacy, has the same right to have his autonomy and dignity recognized. Protected by secrecy, it gives everybody, the poorest as much as the richest, the youngest as much as the oldest, the least educated as much as the most educated, the most shy as much as the most aggressive, the means to be, at the moment in which they carry out their “electoral duty”, not only civil and judicial, but political equals to everybody else. The vote protects the liberty of those who do not know how to express themselves, or who are, for various reasons, unable to do so by other means. In the final analysis, the legitimacy rests in the choice of the people as a whole, made according to the rules elaborated by the experience of the representative republic. Otherwise, it is the rule of the active minorities with all the excesses that this entails.

It is the only idea which we would have in order to maintain the political link. Without a doubt this is a general idea, an ideal, not a description of reality. It is well known that a part of the population, older, richer, more educated, votes more regularly. But the right to participate, recognized as belonging to all, remains the fundamental utopia from which democracies draw their virtue and their meaning. For the moment, there are no other forms of legitimization and of practical democratic practices which were tested by experience. Respect for institutions is the condition for the stability of democracy.

The destruction of democracy in the name of absolute democracy

The democratic nation has faced over the course of the last century ideologies and regimes that have attacked it head on. The fascists denounced its incompetence and corruption. The communists accused it of being merely a formality rather than substance. Today, the critique of liberalism coming from the so-called “illiberal” democracies of Eastern Europe renews the themes of the fascist critique. From inside Western democracies, some denounce representative democracy in the name of a total and absolute democracy, which has never existed and cannot exist. Such denouncements nourish a form of anarchy which may lead the way to an authoritarian regime.

In the name of democracy, of a perfect, total, absolute democracy, we are risking the destruction of the real democracy, such as it is, with its limits and its failures which must not be denied, but which, without fantasies of the absolute, has the priceless merit of fulfilling Churchill’s definition of being “the worst of all regimes with the exception of all the others”.

11 Responses

  1. Democracy is not defined by a single essence specified once and for all. It is a historical construction, closely related to the evolution of societies and their functional modalities evolve with them.

    That strikes me as right. It will be interesting to see how different systems of governance are judged if and when the COVID-19 pandemic subsides. I have a hunch that they will be judged on the basis of effective outcomes rather than theoretical principles.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. /quote … the only democratic regime that has ever existed …

    Wrong. Small city direct democracy was already known and practiced during Enlightenment, and a statistical direct democracy for even largest polities could certainly exist. Reminds me of Clarke’s Law: “When an elderly but distinguished scientist says something is impossible…”

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  3. Schnapper is not hindered by any knowledge of classical Athenian Democracy it seems to me when he says: “…. there are no other forms …. of practical democratic practices witch were tested by experiences”!

    Liked by 3 people

  4. Presumably Schnapper would claim that the Athenian example is not relevant to the modern world because of scale, complexity, etc.

    The need to beware of “dangerous, uncharted territory” is a standard argument of those who are privileged by the status quo.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. This simplistic piece sets up defective straw man sortition arguments to criticise. Not sure why this sloppy thinking deserves a post in Equality By Lot.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Bit hard to grasp what she’s on about. She favours sticking with elections and argues that they contribute a legitimacy via the right everyone has to vote. They’re also time-honoured. I agree with both points, though these are principles which might be modified somewhat as we gained more experience with other systems such as sortition. So I’m only in favour of introducing elements of sortition vigorously into the existing system – and the way to do that is via activism, not by asking or arguing with the powerful who can be expected to defend the power they have.

    She also argues that direct democracy is a dangerous chimera – a kind of psychological shadow which can be used to undermine real democracy. I am also sympathetic towards that idea.

    The thing that disappoints me about the piece is the strange approach to sortition. She notes how it can address many of the problems of existing democracy. On the other hand she wants a democracy that “gives everybody, the poorest as much as the richest, the youngest as much as the oldest, the least educated as much as the most educated, the most shy as much as the most aggressive, the means to be, at the moment in which they carry out their “electoral duty”, not only civil and judicial, but political equals to everybody else”. Sounds like a much stronger against for sortition than for elections but she’s talking about elections.

    She concludes her general quite approving discussion of sortition by saying “However, those normal and desirable changes, do not by themselves create a new democracy. They do create new practical modalities, taking into account the increased demands by citizens. The complement the procedures of a representative republic.”

    My point entirely. She wants the representativeness of elections to trump the representativeness of sortition. I don’t agree with her, but am prepared to give her the benefit of the doubt until we have more experience.

    It’s ironic – n’est pas – that in an article about not letting some naïve notion of the best (direct democracy) vanquish the good (electoral democracy) she let’s that good somehow be the enemy of what might well be better – strong elements of sortition within the existing system. Sounds like she’s OK for that, but in her (it seems to me) very French attempts to deal with these questions as battles between abstract ‘ideal types’ she’s passing up what I see as an historic opportunity to inject something new and fertile into our troubled democracies.

    I think the warning about direct democracy is fine, but I’m disappointed she’s not out there trying to promote the very strong role sortition could have in improving the system we have.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Nick:> She wants the representativeness of elections to trump the representativeness of sortition. I don’t agree with her, but am prepared to give her the benefit of the doubt until we have more experience.

    Agree. That’s why we need to do everything possible to ensure the ongoing descriptive representativity of a sample chosen by lot. Before we can rise to this (non-trivial) challenge we need to at least acknowledge it.

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  8. *** Schnapper says « Only equal participation of all in the electoral process, following well known rules monitored by the judiciary can assure the equality of all in choosing rulers ».
    *** Schnapper was a member of the Conseil Constitutionnel, actually a kind of judiciary body. She knows very well that the Conseil Constitutionnel and the European Courts are much a part of the formal political power, that they are among the rulers. Implying they are only monitoring the choice of rulers is disingenuous.
    *** And the equality of citizens in the choice of the members of these bodies is a joke.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. *** Keith Sutherland says : « It will be interesting to see how different systems of governance are judged if and when the COVID-19 pandemic subsides. I have a hunch that they will be judged on the basis of effective outcomes rather than theoretical principles. »
    *** Actually, all the main societies facing coronavirus are polyarchies, except Continental China. The policies of South Corea, Taiwan, Netherlands, Sweden, France etc appear very different, for now. The political system is not the one factor.
    *** That said, I agree that political systems may be judged on the basis of effective outcome in some very important issues, as economic progress, national independance, public safety, or the battle against an epidemic (in China, the management of its beginning, too). But legitimacy (« theoretical principles ») must not be disregarded. The polyarchies took the name of democracies because that gives them an useful bonus of legitimacy. It is not easy to find a serious politician who says publicly « the People’s rule is a joke, but don’t mind, our system has better outcomes than the others ». It would be very dangerous, specially if an important outcome gets not very good. Legitimacy is more resilient.

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  10. *** Terry Bouricius says he is « not sure why [Schnapper’s] sloppy thinking deserves a post in Equality By Lot ».
    *** I understand Terry, Schnapper is not a bright thinker as Rosanvallon, but I think Snapper’s discourse is interesting because she describes explicitly the menace for polyarchy in contemporary advanced societies. In the first phase, the menace came from Ancien Regime elements (and, but on much lesser degree, Jacobin revolutionaries). In the second phase, the short 20th century, the enemies were mainly the totalitarians, Fascists and Communists. Now, in the third phase, the enemies are « extreme democrats ». Well, Schnapper does not say she is against a working « extreme democracy », she says it cannot work, it is an utopia which will lead to anarchy with a risk of ending into dictatorship. But she does not say that Gilets Jaunes, or kleroterians, are disguised fascists or bolsheviks. She sees we are in the third phase – which is not the dreamed about « End of History ».

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  11. *** Schnapper sticks to the electoral-representative model and says : « For the moment, there are no other forms of legitimization and of practical democratic practices which were tested by experience. »
    *** Right. But everything must have a beginning : general franchise had a beginning, and was considered by some as leading to the doom of civilization. And the practical data of the « political problem » are very different in the 21th century with electronic networks. The proposal by Pierre Leroux of an allotted High Court (in Projet de constitution démocratique et sociale, Paris, 1848) was rather utopian, jurors had to come from far departments and overseas territories, and lose their jobs and family life habits. It is very practical now. And the electronic networking has effects on the mind unity of people, from French Flanders to La Réunion everybody now is following the same coronavirus debate, as in Athens everybody followed the same debate about the Macedonian menace. It is not reasonable to say that only the 19th century recipes may be considered in such a different world. Against the Sparta-loving Jacobins, Benjamin Constant said that contemporary Europeans were in a very different world. We are now in a world very different from Constant and Stuart Mill’s one.

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