Preserving pluralism, re-injecting agonism, reactivating conflict: a critical defense of representative democracy through Urbinati and Mouffe

GT 1.7 Política, agonismo y deliberación : el lugar del conflicto y el consenso en las democracias contemporáneas

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Sesión 2
Día: viernes,20 de septiembre de 2013
Hora: 09:00 a 11:30
Lugar: E10SEM04

In The eyes of the people. Democracy in an age of spectatorship (2010) Harvard’s scholar Jeffrey Edward Green provides a thought-provoking defense of plebiscitary politics as an alternative to the standard account of representative mass democracy in contemporary democratic theory. Against what he calls “the vocal model of popular power”, i.e. the traditional understanding of democracy as the locus of deliberation and the empowerment of the People through the vocal exchange of arguments and opinions, he suggests considering the People’s eyes and their gaze as a more realistic channel for the exercise of popular sovereignty. Therefore, reacting to the «broken promises» of democracy (in the language of Norberto Bobbio), Green develops an “ocular” model of plebiscitary politics capable of rehabilitating and cementing spectatorship into a less naïve theory of mass democracy at the beginning of the XXI century.

After having outlined the basic arguments besetting Green’s proposal, I argue that such an injection of realism into the veins of contemporary democratic theory along plebiscitary lines, captivating as it may sound, does not itself live up to its premise and promise. While Green invites superseding the Aristotelian ruling/being-ruled dichotomy through a «post-representative» understanding of mass politics, his threefold shift in the conceptualization of popular power – from law to leader; from decision to gaze; from autonomy to candor – ends up heavily relying upon the mass/elites juxtaposition. Furthermore, he fails developing the potential of citizens’ spectatorship as long as the process of ocular surveillance of elected leaders is not linked to any moral evaluation first, and a political initiative second, in response to the eventual break in democratic legitimacy.

In reaction to such flaws, I look at two different, yet converging, theorists who have questioned the classical theory of representative democracy throughout the last decade: Chantal Mouffe and Nadia Urbinati. I will argue that, against Green’s conceptualization of the people as a monolithic entity (à la Schmitt), the former contributes to preserving pluralism and rehabilitating conflict within the everyday practice of democratic life. I will also show that, against Green’s emphasis on leadership- and charisma-based politics (à la Weber), the latter helps drawing attention on the permanent exercise of political judgment by citizens as a precondition for making representative democracy more than a «defective substitute for direct democracy» and constantly readjusting democratic legitimacy beyond its purely electoral dimension. My point will be that an overlap of Mouffe and Urbinati’s re-conceptualizations of representative democracy sharpens the teeth of standard democratic theory more effectively, and less ideologically, than Green’s call for a non-ideal theory of mass democracy.

Palabras clave: representative democracy, mass politics, pluralism, conflict, agonism, Chantal Mouffe, Nadia Urbinati, Jeffrey Edward Green, democratic theory