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«by Hélène LANDEMORE New York, April 10, 2007 Both authors had the opportunity of revising their answers. The latest changes were made after the ...»

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Is representative democracy really democratic ?

Interview of Bernard Manin and Nadia Urbinati


New York, April 10, 2007

Both authors had the opportunity of revising their answers. The latest changes were made after

the publication of the French translation.

Hélène Landemore : Bernard Manin and Nadia Urbinati, you both have written books

with apparently similar titles, respectively The principles of representative government (1997) and

Representative Democracy: Principles and Genealogy (2006). I would like to organize the discussion around the question of whether representative democracy is an oxymoron or the true essence of democracy. I will break down the theme into more manageable questions.

Representation need not be democratic, nor is democracy necessarily representative. What brought those two things together historically? And when does the concept of “representative democracy” first appear?

Nadia Urbinati : According to Pierre Rosanvallon, the expression appeared in a letter by Alexander Hamilton to Gouverneur Morris in 1777. It was then used more systematically in the early 1790s, especially by Paine, Condorcet, and Sieyes. In his Bases de l’ordre social, Sieyes made an interesting distinction between two interpretations of representative government, only one of which democratic, although both of them based on elections and thus applicable in large and populous territories. But the former consisted in facilitating “partial meetings in the various localities” whereas the latter only in “nominating deputies for a central assembly.” Hence according to Sieyes, the first could not result in “one general will” because it gave voice to the citizens living in the localities; it was similar to the model proposed by Condorcet. What interests us here is that Sieyes understood very well that there was a distinction between different forms of representative government.

H. L. : Bernard, would you say that the difference is that representative democracy is democratic whereas representative government is aristocratic?

Bernard Manin : No. That is definitely not my claim. Representation does include democratic components, most importantly the opportunity for all citizens to hold representatives to account at the end of the term and to dismiss them if their performance in office is judged unsatisfactory. These democratic elements are real and consequential. The point is that they are not the sole components of representation. Representation is also a government by elites that are not strictly bound to carry out the wishes of their constituents. Thus, representative government combines democratic and non-democratic components. This is why I characterize it as a “mixed” form of government, drawing on the Ancient notion of the mixed constitution that goes back to Aristotle and Polybius. Just characterizing modern representative democracies as systems in which the people are “sovereign”, or “indirectly” govern themselves, obscures the mixed and composite character of such systems. Representative government has never been a simple form of government. Furthermore, over the last decades institutions that were not part of the original arrangement appear to have taken root in a number of representative democracies, such as constitutional courts reviewing legislation and non-elected, “independent” agencies. With the rise of such institutions the mixed character of our democracies has become even more salient.

H. L. : When you say a simple form of government, are you saying that the Ancients did not know any form of representation?

Bernard Manin : Yes, I would say so. I don’t think that the Athenian Council [Boulè] should be viewed as a representative body. While sources identify the Assembly and “the people of Athens”, they do not identify the Boulè and the demos, thus underlining that the Council was not perceived as standing for the people. The Boulè was just a collegial magistracy.

Nadia Urbinati : I agree. Political representation operates in (and should be referred to) the place in which laws are made. In this sense, the 18th century scholars and political leaders recognized that the Moderns had introduced something that the Ancients didn't know. Perhaps the English constitutional revolution of the 17th century was an important step forward in the construction of representative government. The passage from selection to election, or the method of an open competition for legislative positions, was a crucial turning point in the construction of political representation.

Representative government requires to be connected to elections and to pertain to the legislative power.

These two elements together bring us to say that representative government is the government of the moderns, not the government of the ancients.

H. L. : When does the concept of representation emerge?

Nadia Urbinati : According to historians of political institutions and ideas the story of representation starts in the Middle Ages, inside of the Church. In that case too the question was to solve the problem of connecting the center and the periphery. The Church sought to represent the community of the entire Christendom and representation was then used as a way of unifying the Christians or connecting the large body of believers. In the Middles Ages, the inscription of the rule of the contract in the public law was advanced. Both religious and secular communities accepted that the decision over the appointment of power was regulated by public law: this appointment entailed that every power of a political kind should bear ‘representation’ of the whole community, as Otto Gierke wrote. Yet Scipione Maffei in a 1736 comparative and historical study on the republican forms of government wrote that the Romans practiced representation in order to give voice to the many nations composing the Empire;

he referred to Tacitus who in his Germania described the forms of representation and parliamentary institutions used by the German tribes to voice their claims to the Roman Senate. Representation was there a way of linking the large territory of the Republic by a kind of federative system.

Bernard Manin : The origins of representation must undoubtedly be found in the Middle-Ages, in the context of the Church and in the context of cities in their relation to the king or the emperor. The idea was to send out delegates having power to bind those who sent them. There lies the origin of representation. A given community delegated some members with powers to bind those who appointed them. That's the kernel of the notion of representation. Then the technique got transferred to other contexts and used for other purposes.

Nadia Urbinati : There were also private practices and institutions, like the advocates or the lawyers.

–  –  –

Nadia Urbinati : Hobbes used the strategy of representation in an importantly new way, that is to say in order to create the sovereign state. Representation was in his system a way for giving legitimacy to the absolute sovereign while disempowering the people, who were only subjects. It was an interesting way of giving legitimacy by taking away power from the people; representation as a fiction to create the absolute sovereign.

Bernard Manin : Hobbes may articulate with particular cogency the idea of a sovereign authority that acts in the place, and on behalf of the subjects. However, the fact that Hobbes’s theory is particularly striking to us is not evidence that it had a major impact on actual historical developments.

As we just noted, representative institutions and techniques vastly antedated Hobbes. Note also that Hobbes does mention at all elections as the method for appointing the sovereign authority. In the case of representation, to be sure, Sieyes read and employed Hobbes to articulate and justify some of his views about government. But I don’t think that any such recourse to Hobbes can be found amongst the American Founding Fathers. Tracing Hobbesian ideas amongst American revolutionists and constitution makers sounds complicated, at the very least.

Nadia Urbinati : Quentin Skinner recognizes rightly the role of Hobbes in creating the representative system in an anti-republican function. But one may even say that Hobbes did not use representation as a political institution and, in this sense, didn't construct representative government (although employed representation within the context of the state). Indeed he used representation not in order to create a government that was representative of people’s opinions or accountable to them.

Perhaps we should disassociate representation from that tradition, which was a way of getting the sovereign state an absolute power, not creating a government that enjoys people’s consent and is authorized by the electors. Electoral representation is a break with absolutism while it is certainly an open door to the democratic transformation of the government. The 18th century is thus more interesting if we want to see the different avenues that the idea of representative government took. I think the American case is very interesting, also because the founders organized representation in the making of their republic rather than in theorizing.

H. L. : You both describe a different set of principles for representative government and representative democracy. What are they and why do you differ?

Bernard Manin : My own focus is on concrete institutional arrangements. I call them principles because they have been stable over time. But by principles I do not mean


propositions, much less ideals and values. My approach is positive and analytical. Such a perspective, I grant, entails some limitations. I adopted it for the sake of manageability. I identify four such institutional arrangements that have remained unchanged since the establishment of representative systems. 1/ Those who govern are appointed by election at regular intervals. It is not just the fact public officials are selected by election that characterizes representative government, but the fact that such elections are recurring. In his famous definition of democracy Schumpeter fails to mention the recurring character of electoral contests. Repeated elections entail critical implications, however. In their actions while in office those who govern have an incentive to anticipate the retrospective judgment of voters at the end of the term.

Thus, elections do not only select leaders, they also affect the actions and policies of those in power. At the end of their term public officials are held to account. In representative government elites govern, but at the same time these elites are accountable to ordinary citizens. It is worth noting that in his definition of democracy Schumpeter makes no mention whatsoever of political accountability. We see here with particular clarity the combination of democratic and non-democratic components. 2/ Those in power enjoy some measure of independence in the policy decisions that they make while in office.

They are not strictly bound by the wishes of their constituents and by the platforms presented to voters.

Note that this arrangement leaves room for some influence of voter wishes over the actions of elected officials. It only provides that exact congruence between the two is not mandatory. 3/ The third principle is what I term “freedom of public opinion”. While representatives have a certain measure of discretion in their action, the people or any segment of the populace retain for their part the right to voice their opinions and grievances and to press their claims upon those in office at any time. Even Burke, one of the most fervent opponents of binding instructions to representatives, insisted, in his Third Letter on a Regicide Peace [1796-1797], that the people retain the right to manifest their views and wishes at any time “without absolute authority, yet with weight”. A similar idea can be found in the last clause of the First Amendment to the American constitution. This clause consecrates “the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government a redress of grievances.” Representative government has never been a system in which the people elect their representatives at regular intervals, while remaining quiet in the interim. This is yet another point missed by Schumpeter and his followers. 1 4/ The last feature is that public decisions are subject to trial by discussion. Saying that public decisions are “subject to trial by discussion” does not amount, I would insist, to characterizing representative government as government by discussion. Discussion is not a procedure for making decision. It is a method for trying, scrutinizing, and testing public decisions. Those are the four principles.

Nadia Urbinati : To the four principles described by Manin, I would add something else. I think I elaborate at greater length on this point in the post-script to the German translation of my book. See “Publikumsdemokratie revisited. Nachwort zur deutschen Ausgabe”, Kritik der repräsentativen Demokratie, Matthes & Seitz, Berlin, 2007 that democracy (or better saying the democratic transformation of representative institutions through universal consent by voting) introduces something interesting. By democracy I mean here the universal franchise, including adult men and women, and also the specialization and pluralization of civil society (what we call today democratic society). Democracy in this broad sense introduces two crucial elements that mark political representation: one is that of advocacy (it has to do with the third of Bernard's four points in some sense), the other is that of representativity. In other words, representation needs to have a correlation with civil society through forms of political associations, that is to say aggregative forms that are able to express, control, claim, survey and set a current of relationship between the inside and the outside of states institutions. Of course this current consists in an informal politics, one made of influence and public judgment more than authoritative will; but it is very important in order to capture the peculiar character of political representation in democratic society.

Representation is not just having the people vote for individual candidates. It's much more interesting giving them a voice in the intermediary time between elections. The parties and associations make possible the performance of this function. This is what advocacy does.

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