Within every democracy, a constant fight is being waged between those whose positions are legitimized through democratic elections and the constitutionally established structures of the state, and those who independently introduce moral ideals, local interests or economic aims into the political discourse and into the public sphere. We might even say that the political dynamism of a predominantly democratic society stems from the tensions between those whose power is rooted in procedures and those who seize power by acting publicly. In Egypt, oppositional groups took to the streets to protest against a constitutional referendum that was supported by the country’s democratically elected president. In Germany, citizens’ initiatives protested against large-scale construction projects. In each of these conflicts we can see the tension between legitimated power and the power of so-called civil society.
Elected representatives don’t need to legitimate each of their decisions. Their power derives from their mandate, which in turn is lost or won through constitutionally sanctioned procedures. And as long as they stay within the confines of these procedures, they operate under the umbrella of legitimacy. Civil society organizations don’t enjoy that kind of legitimacy and must instead attempt to re-define individual interests as collective interests. For example: a construction project, which leads to local disturbances and inconveniences, can be seen as an environmental hazard and a waste of public funds. It can then be attacked as contrary to the interests of the wider community. Another strategy of civil society actors: they deliberately try to undermine the credibility and legitimacy of elected representatives by arguing that they don’t act in the public’s best interest – but rather in the interest of powerful lobbies and individuals.
Among the citizens of democratic states, a deep sense of mistrust of political representatives has taken hold. Several years ago I saw the following caricature: two travelers faced each other on a train. “I am a vacuum cleaner salesman,” said the first. “I sell vacuum cleaners.” To which the second replied: “I am a politician. I sell out the people.” This little imagined conversation illustrates the uneasy relationship of many voters with the political machine.
The source of this uneasiness becomes more evident if we unpack the notion of the “salesman” a little bit more: a vacuum cleaner salesman represents the manufacturer; he is a representative. But representatives often differ from the people they represent. Take the case of a lawyer: she’s an expert in the art of representation, but doesn’t usually share too many other characteristics with her clients. That experiential gap is a source of mistrust. Because the expertise of the representative is technical rather than personal (i.e. she knows the tactics and strategies of representing someone well), she might be accused of lacking enthusiasm and of having an insufficient understanding of the worries and wishes of her constituents. Politicians, too, have to confront this criticism: can someone represent socially disadvantaged groups without having a personal connection to them and to their plight?
Let us recap why representative governance makes us feel a bit uneasy: it requires specialized technical expertise that is independent of the concrete aims of a group and that can be applied across a vast range of cases. Most people don’t have the required level of technical expertise, which is why they have to rely on hired experts (lawyers or politicians). Most of what these experts do remains opaque to the layperson, and thus constitutes a source of uneasiness.
We always hear the argument that a modern society requires unprecedented levels of specialization and division of labor. But we cannot unequivocally confirm that representative politics always leads to better or more effective politics than a possible alternative of more direct decision-making. We simply have to believe that it does. Thus we have ended up with the rather paradoxical situation that civil society actors are more trusted than elected representatives. Citizens’ initiatives, peace campaigns, and environmental movements don’t rely on representatives – they are driven by people who pursue their personal future, their own dreams and hopes. Proximity leads to trust.
Could we imagine a society that abolished the principle of representative politics and relegated political discussions and decisions to civil society? We should not dismiss this possibility too quickly with reference to the complexity of political questions and to the inefficiency of civil society mechanisms. After all, the advantage that parliamentary systems enjoy in terms of efficiency can quickly vanish if outcomes prove to be politically unfeasible and spark protest. And even if we can ensure parliamentary efficiency, that alone doesn’t tell us much about the quality of decision-making. We should at least remain open to the possibility that civil society can produce decisions as well as representative structures.
Let’s side-step the question what such a decision-making mechanism might look like in practice. There’s another, more conceptual problem that needs addressing: organized civil society remains constrained to a small part of the citizenry. Demonstrations or petitions with tens of thousands of participants don’t include the voices of millions of people who abstain from political activities. Civil society could easily become an aristocracy of politically vocal minorities, which would hold power over the silent majority without any sort of democratic legitimization.
Minorities might rightfully claim that their goal is the common good, but we cannot unequivocally confirm this either: activists might represent the true will of the people, or they might not. Those who, for various reasons, cannot actively participate in civil society (and thus cannot voice their interests) would be forced to subordinate themselves under the aristocracy of activists.
We might not have a choice except to carefully watch the tension between democratically legitimated representatives (whom we mistrust) and civil society (which appears authentic but is without democratic legitimization). Doubts and critical reflection from both sides are important: neither is the politician in the business of selling out his constituents, nor should we trust civil society organizations merely because they constitute a more direct form of political organizing.
Read more in this column Jörg Friedrich: Back to the future