From Tue Nov 11 08:45:07 2003
From: Le Monde diplomatique <>
To: Le Monde diplomatique <>
Subject: Government without the people
Date: Tue, 11 Nov 2003 13:21:06 +0100 (CET)

Democracy that dismisses the electorate: Government without the people

By Anne-Cécile Robert, Le Monde diplomatique, November 2003

Rather than blaming ‘populism’ for the lazy and ignorant election of unacceptable rulers, we need to revivify real and active democracy nationally and internationally.

LIONEL JOSPIN'S wife blamed the electorate when her husband lost the first round of the French presidential elections in April 2002 (1). The electorate, democracy, the people—it is all their fault, they can’t tell good from bad any more. Contempt for the electorate, conscious or otherwise, is now the common currency of insecure politicians on both the left and right.

This contempt takes several forms. There is the lofty approach: “The electors don’t understand our policy” - meaning they are idiots not to see the benefits of privatisation, monetarism and the dismantling of the social security system. Or the falsely modest excuse—“We have failed to get the message across”, which translates as “we made the right choices but did not explain them properly”. (The electors don’t think the policy has improved their standard of living, but that is only semantics.)

There is the messianic utterance, “History will vindicate us,” which is the line taken by the pluralist left since April 2002, or by Tony Blair on the war in Iraq (2). Of course you can’t argue with history, but since 14 July 1789, history has been made by the people, or so the people thought. There is the scholarly cop-out: “The world has become so complex”—so let's leave the decisions to the people who understand, to the markets, or the experts who know what is in everyone's best interests.

Or there is the superior approach: “The electors are so fickle, you simply can’t trust them”—so presumably the next step would be to return to suffrage based on ability, as practised in the southern United States until 1964. Citizens had to pass a test before they were allowed to vote. Unsurprisingly, the tests were designed so that most blacks didn’t qualify.

The politicians can always be philosophical: “There is no such thing as the people.” They can’t be found, according to Pierre Rosanvallon (3): no people, so no universal suffrage. So public decisions may be justified on other grounds, such as expert reports or opinion polls.

All these voices, obediently relayed by the media, sing the same song, discrediting universal suffrage, disqualifying the claims of the underclass, and supporting the political choices of a self-proclaimed elite. Elections are reduced to a formality, a democratic endorsement of choices that have already been made. The little world of politicians and the media is upset by any threat to this prearranged scenario. In the US Ralph Nader's supporters were accused of preventing the “real” candidate, Al Gore, from winning the presidential election in November 2002. In France there was surprise when Jacques Chirac beat the media darling, Edouard Balladur, in 1995, and stupefaction when Jean-Marie Le Pen replaced the new media pet, Jospin, in the battle with a discredited Chirac in 2002.

More seriously, there is no hesitation in calling for a second referendum on Europe if the first ballot fails to produce the desired result: consider the Danish vote on the Maastricht Treaty 1993, and the Irish on the Nice Treaty in 2001. These pressures indicate a growing gap between citizens and their representatives. The intermediary bodies (parties and trade unions) and the decision-making institutions have lost touch with their social base. In the Corsican referendum in July, the people voted against the proposal to change the island's status, whereas the national assembly would almost certainly have approved it by a huge majority. Rising abstention rates, up to 40%, are the result of widespread rejection of the policies on offer, while the increase in blank ballot papers and split votes (4) shows that people are seeking a fairer representation of the social realities and also that they are, in fact, attached to universal suffrage.

According to the media, courage in politics does not mean standing up to the dominant forces, but giving way to them and turning on your own constituents. Many commentators were in ecstasies over Blair's “courage” in committing the United Kingdom to fight alongside the US in the war in Iraq in March, despite the opposition of millions of protesters. He was, of course, entitled to take that decision. But, in such a serious political crisis, would it not have been better to exercise his responsibility to the people?

To reverse the equation and declare that the people are always right will not close the gap between the electors and their representatives. It does not make any more sense to worship the people than to worship an elite. But a return to the founding democratic ideal, a political community of equal members, might be a start. Contempt for the electorate undermines that principle by suggesting that the ballot box is only one of a number of ways to choose representatives and to legitimise public decisions. Com petence, expertise, recognition in economic circles and peer-group backing are all now seen as possible alternatives.

In 1995 Jacques Chirac conducted his election campaign around the theme of social divisions and then appointed Alain Juppé as prime minister, a technocrat whose first act was to attack the social security system. Bernard Kouchner, constantly beaten at the polls but often on television panels, is regularly given ministerial posts. Pascal Lamy, rejected in the 1995 general election, is now a European commissioner and represents Europe in the World Trade Organisation.

Competence is essential but it is not a substitute for the ability to represent constituents. Western democracies are in crisis because the political elite is divorced from the electoral body. Those who are members of the elite think “the people” are always other people; they think their own competence entitles them to dissuade the people from making impossible demands.

This is particularly true of the ruling economists and the principal parties, who assure us that “this is the only way” and too bad if the only way means that social inequalities flourish. Other, equally competent, economists may express completely different views on pension reform or social security funding. The scientific community is also detached, as you can see in the non-debate over genetically modified organisms. Many scientists rightly claim that they must be free to do research, but do not stop to think about the social consequences of their work (5). The role of the expert has been reduced to justifying ideological choices, or skewing political options, to suit the private interests of the nuclear lobby, big industries and agribusiness.

Public decisions are not truly legitimate unless they are the outcome of an open comparison of opposing views. The leader rules on the basis of his own political opinions, on which he was elected and given power. According to Condorcet, this requires free and reasoned public debate, a comparison of all the views at work in <\f>society, in which no social class will be assumed to be in the right. This meeting of minds may produce a kind of social truth. Unfortunately this takes time, and meanwhile the public arena is filled with an emergency that has been declared by—nobody knows who.

The concept of the people, always a key element in the constitutional definition of democracy (”government of the people, by the people, for the people”) embodied that idea of a public arena of equal citizens organising their common destiny. It is this desire to live together, despite differences of opinion, that gives leaders their authority. It is the essential democratic cement that institutions and procedures cannot supply. The concept of the general interest has fallen victim to the closed ranks and closed minds of the ruling class. But it has also been subverted by ostensibly progressive ideas. The idea of parity—originally with the legitimate aim of ending discrimination against women—has legitimised a legal split in the body politic. The idea of a world common to all is being shattered.

The European Union is apparently unable to provide an alternative international political community, which means there is increasing doubt about the legitimacy of its institutions' decisions in important areas. A referendum on the draft constitutional treaty is essential, if the founding fathers' dream is not to be tainted with illegality. The crisis in representative democracy is likely to worsen with the increasing circumvention of universal suffrage, sometimes under the pretence of bringing government closer to the citizen. The process of consulting civil society is flawed, particularly as practised in the EU. It is seemingly democratic, but open to manipulation because there is no official definition of the term civil society. So alternative world and human rights groups, anti-abortion associations and economic lobbies are consulted, without any distinctions.

This EU system is based on a balance of power in which employers have more resources than trade unions or associations. The decision- making bodies have wide discretionary powers to act on what they have been told, in the light of their own political options, or to follow the line of least resistance. The European charter of fundamental rights and the draft constitutional treaty, adopted after consultation with a civil society forum, reinforce the precedence of monetarist options over social considerations.

Civil society—that is, people banding together—fulfils a democratic function when it draws attention to a claim or a social problem that elected representatives have overlooked. In Max Weber's phrase, it is “the typical ideal of social concern”. In the 1970s the 343 manifesto promoted the law on voluntary termination of pregnancy, and Attac brought the debate on taxation of financial transactions into the public arena. Both moves have yet to receive a democratic sanction.

As with many European rules and regulations, those who seek to impose them without any regard to the reactions they may provoke, now or in the future, do democracy a grave disservice. They are in danger of being just as totalitarian as the extreme right. But the danger may equally well come from below. An impasse in representative democracy was foreseen in the 1793 Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, drafted by Condorcet and Robespierre, which included the right of insurrection when the people's rights are violated. We urgently need to restore democracy, the central role of direct universal suffrage and free and reasoned public debate. A gulf is opening between representative bodies and society throughout the Western world, producing further threats to freedoms that are already suffering from the impact of the markets.


(1) “The electors are to blame. They did not care. They voted blindfold.” Sylvianne Agacinski (Mme Jospin), Journal interrompu, Seuil, Paris, 2002.

(2) “I am confident history will forgive”, speech to the US Congress, 17 July 2003. Elisabeth Guigou took the same position at the socialist party congress in April 2003.

(3) Pierre Rosanvallon, Le Peuple introuvable, Gallimard, Paris 1999.

(4) André Bellon & Anne-Cécile Robert, Le peuple inattendu, Syllepse, Paris, 2003.

(5) See François Ewald and Dominique Lecourt, “Les OGM et les nouveaux vandales”, Le Monde, 4 September 2001.