Chevallier: The chic populism of participative democracy

A column by Arthur Chevallier in Le Point is yet another condemnation of the allotted committee monitoring the French vaccination campaign. The author sees the creation of the committee as a sign of weakness and hesitation. The government, he asserts, must act resolutely and dispose of attempts to over-communicate.

Chevallier is an editor at Passés composés and the author of the book “Napoléon et le Bonapartisme” published by Que sais-je ?.

The chic populism of participative democracy

Jan. 5, 2021

The allotment of 35 citizens to follow the vaccination campaign was aimed to be the perfect exercise in communication. It turned out to be the opposite.

Democracy is not about weakness. It is not about the promotion of amateurism. The creation of a committee of 35 allotted citizens which is supposed to follow the vaccination against Covid-19 invited mockery. What should have been proof of transparency turned into evidence of failure. If criticising the management of the crisis is less a matter of courage than of cynicism, since the matter is not as easy as it may seems, it is still necessary to denounce the unhealthy attempt to compensate for lack of efficacy by populism. Horizotalization of power is an illusion. Democracy did not gain its prominence by getting amateurs to run complex matters, but rather by its successes.

Without being aware of it, progressivism gives way to a stereotype of recationism. Since the 19th century, an ideology which may be called counter-revolutionary mocks democracy for being “feminie”, attaching to it labels such as the well-known “prostitute”, and hurling insults claiming that it is incapable of creating a powerful and harmonious state. History proves the opposite. Democracy is in fact quite often a radicalization of politics. In antiquity, Athens was at its height of power and imperialism at the 5th century BC, being its age where its democracy attained its most sophisticated form.

In order to assure their hegemony in the Greek world, Cimon and Périclès created a confederation of states, the League of Delos, led by Athens. The effectiveness of the Athenian model was such that Sparta hastened to destroy democracy. Collegiality and the division of labor as a function of merit and competence were at least as important as participation of what may be called “the people”. Moreover, mass involvement in decision making was neither a condition for efficacy, nor a guarantee for success. The involvement of citizens, or subjects, however the individuals in the polity are called, in politics is a separate issue from the type of regime where they express themselves.

A state does not survive without someone at the helm

At the end of the Middle Ages, as Joël Blanchard shows, the French did not wait for the Renaissance or for the Revolution in order to get involved in the matters of the kingdom. In theater plays, in theological debates and in works of philosophy, in the dusk of the Middle Ages, the population got involved in public matters asserting that those matters are their matters. The origins of the triumph of the Revolution are not where they are usually assumed. It is true that the monarchy has reached a state of decay that it had to be replaced. However, even if the first assemblies of the Revolution (national, constitutional, legislative) were representative, the imperfection of the electoral process, the influence of the city of Paris, the limited participation, reduced the importance of democracy in the Revolution’s success.

There were obvious limits to a regime where, as François Furet wrote, “words were a substitute to power as a the sole guaranty that power is the people’s alone, that is, belongs to no one”. Starting with the abolition of the monarchy in September 1792, the executive power withered away. A state does not survive without someone at the helm. Without asserting this goal, and even without recognizing it themselves, the Revolutionary committees are going to undermine the executive. This would not be outrageous if it were regulated by law. Without a legal framework, the ambition, the hysteria, and the hubris will lead to a Terror which was not something the Revolution could be proud of.

Despite it its excesses and its errors, the Revolution triumphed over the monarchy. Not thanks to the discussions, but thanks to the work of legal experts, to the seriousness of some parliamentarians, to the courage of a citizen army that was not preordained to defeat the armies of the old European monarchies. Even Chateaubriand admitted: “The constitutional assembly, despite its faults, remains the most celebrated popular assembly which has ever appeared among nations, as much for the greatness of their decisions as for the immensity of their results”.

Democracy did not prevail because it was virtuous or participative, but because it was voluntary, organized and successful. By papering over the faults of public power with populist measures, the government damages the system more than it serves it. When the magic tricks of popular participation are exhausted, what will remain other than a powerless state whose operators have all the marks of decadence? Progressivism is not an end in itself. It cannot be at the same time a project, a goal and a consolation prize.

References:

  • Joël Blanchard, La Fin du Moyen Âge, Paris, Perrin, 2020.
  • François Furet, Penser la Révolution française, Paris, Gallimard, 1985.
  • François-René de Chateaubriand, Mémoires d’outre-tombe, book 5, chapter 11, Paris, Le Livre de Poche, 1998.

7 Responses

  1. *** Chevallier says “By papering over the faults of public power with populist measures, the government damages the system more than it serves it.”
    *** First remark: Chevallier calls “populist measures” the use of allotted panels, whereas the media usually call “populist” various movements which are on the representative side – only, they say “we are the good/true representatives, we must substitute the bad/wrong Establishment representatives”. I find no general support of sortition in populist circles, and, as far as I know, none in the rightist populist movements, which are often the more powerful ones.
    *** Chevallier may be right: by putting allotment into sunlight, the government may damage the system; because they hope to protect themselves, who managed badly the pandemics since the beginning.
    I believe ortho-democracies will appear in the 21st century, and I think one way could be through governments or political elites which will save themselves rather than the system. For instance, we may imagine a crumbling autocratic elite in China could prefer (ortho-)democracy than polyarchy, hoping less risk of reprisals from ordinary citizens than from hostile parties.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. The guy is a pompous waste of space IMO

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Andre,

    By “populist measures”, the author presumably refers to measures that respond in one way or another to the distrust of the ruling elite. This is contrasted with “bold, resolute action” that simply ignores such distrust – or tries to counter it by achieving “success” – actions whose results would be approved of in retrospect.

    As for crumbling autocratic regimes: we don’t have to go and seek example for these in faraway places. We have enough of these where we live.

    Nicholas,

    There is much to be said, IMO, for the idea advanced by the author that it is “success” that matters, rather than process. The reason democracy is a good idea is because it can be expected to produce better outcomes, not because it gives everybody the opportunity to waste their evenings listening to their those of their fellow citizens who like to hear themselves speak.

    Liked by 3 people

  4. Indeed, but simply pronouncing success ahead of process is empty rhetoric. We have an electoral system which is not currently very successful judging, for instance, by the handling of the pandemic in the UK and the US and in numerous other ways. It’s a system that people feel increasingly frustrated with. My claim is that, used intelligently citizens’ juries can help calm this process down and anchor it more in public deliberation.

    The article doesn’t really seem to credit that possibility. It is a hit job on Macron’s citizens’ jury on the vaccine, and for all I know it’s a reasonable hit job on it.

    But it dismisses citizens’ juries as the product of politicians who won’t lead. If that’s what the vaccine citizens’ jury is, bully for Chevallier, but it does not follow that that is their only role. It wasn’t in South Australia when the Premier had three citizens’ juries. He WAS trying to lead. He was trying to lead in showing a new model of citizen engagement.

    That citizens’ juries will be used in ways that politicians find helpful to them shouldn’t surprise anyone. It’s not very clear how else they start to acquire some visibility and it only from seeing them work that they will – or may – acquire some legitimacy. But any goodwill Macron or any other politician might have towards them will be refracted through their own very keen sense of how they might turn them to their own interests.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Naturally, there is much to disagree with Chevallier about. I think however that your dismissal of his column as a waste of space was not justified.

    Like

  6. Depends on how else one might have used the space ;)

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Do you feel we are missing interesting articles? I’d be interested in submissions or suggestions of useful relevant content.

    Like

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