Thursday, February 18, 2010

Jeffrey Edward Green's "The Eyes of the People"

Jeffrey Edward Green is Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Pennsylvania. The author of scholarly essays on various topics including political apathy, disenchantment, and ignorance, Green has taught previously at Harvard and at Gothenburg University in Sweden.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The Eyes of the People: Democracy in an Age of Spectatorship, and reported the following:
Page 99 finds me discussing the democratic theory of John Stuart Mill, arguably the greatest student of democracy from the middle of the nineteenth century—in particular, Mill’s claim to be providing a superior, second generation take on the meaning of modern democracy. Whereas the first generation, epitomized by figures like Mill’s father James Mill and Jeremy Bentham who had lived through the rebirth of democracy in the West, had assumed that representative democracy would empower “the people,” John Stuart Mill argued that in fact what representative democracy meant was that only the majority—and not the entire people—would be able to write laws and shape policies. This corrective was important because it showed that minority rights needed to be protected within a modern democratic society.

My interjection into this history is to accept the wisdom of Mill’s revision of an earlier generation of democratic theory, but to argue that we today likewise can and ought to revise Mill’s own findings. Both the first and second generation of democratic thought assumed that the electorate was above all a legislative entity: whether it took the form of the entire “people” or only a “majority”, the electorate’s function, on both views, was to dictate a set of laws and policies the elected representatives needed to take heed of should they wish to stay in office. The third generation view, which I defend, breaks from this assumption. It does not assume that the mass citizenry plays a legislative function. This may seem somber if not outright cynical. But my claim is otherwise. Once we break from the assumption that the “people” or “majority” is a would-be legislator—once we confront the silence of the people on most issues—we can reimagine the meaning of democratic empowerment. Because the mass citizenry is not only a warehouse of preferences waiting to be represented, we should expect from our politicians not only that they say and do the right thing—since it many instances it is simply unclear what this is—but that their speech and deeds be conducted in properly democratic form. I argue that leaders who appear and speak extemporaneously before the public satisfy this extra-legislative democratic need.

Mill was confident that he was right in his critique of his father’s generation because his own generation had more hands-on experience with the actual functioning of democratic life. By the same logic, we today ought to have, on the basis an experience with democracy that probably exceeds that of any other age in history, an understanding of democracy that goes beyond the naïve idealism of nineteenth century authors. Overcoming the naïve view that the majority makes law in contemporary mass democracy need not terminate in despair, but as I have suggested can reset the plane on which democratic progressivism is conceptualized and pursued.
Learn more about The Eyes of the People at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue