U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Fear of Cynicism: On Democratic Elitism

One of the classics of political theory that I have been eager to read is Peter Bachrach’s The Theory of Democratic Elitism (1967). Like the best works of Albert Hirschman, it is both compact and dense; it is very difficult to do it justice in a brief space such as this. It is explicitly a rejoinder to the pluralist theories of democracy most associated with Robert Dahl, the author of Who Governs: Democracy and Power in an American City (1961) among many other works. Bachrach is also perhaps familiar to you by his widely-cited article “Two Faces of Power” (1962), which also took Dahl as its key opponent.[1]

That article is quite interesting by itself, but for now I want to articulate a question that is, in some ways, the essential question of Bachrach’s book but that also goes basically unspoken, answered in the breach as it were. Are all forms of elitism also anti-democratic?

The title of Bachrach’s book would suggest that the answer is no: “democratic elitism” is apparently something to be. And there is not much sense that Bachrach wishes to call Dahl or any of the other political scientists he critiques “anti-democratic;” certainly, it is crucial that Dahl’s theory is democratic elitism rather than elitist democracy—the noun does the heavy lifting. But what also lingers throughout the book—and that I think current debates on the Left and within the Democratic Party share in some measure—is a deep sense that Dahl and the “democratic elitists” work from such a different definition of democracy that to continue to refer to it as anything but anti-democratic creates a sense of strain or double-talk. Wouldn’t it be easier if we could just call anyone whose definition of democracy does not match ours “anti-democratic?”

This may be a year where we have many debates about democratic theory and over the question of whether there are multiple valid definitions of democracy or essentially only one. Not only is the election on-going, but James Kloppenberg’s monumental Toward Democracy: The Struggle for Self-Rule in European and American Thought comes out in June and the historian of ancient Greece Paul Cartledge’s Democracy: A Life will be published in April. Recent work in U.S. intellectual history by Andrew Jewett and Fred Turner, among others, has reinvigorated these essential questions, bringing us into contact with firmly held definitions of democracy that may not match our own.

However, what I want to isolate from the book is a rather minor current though one that I think is clarifying. Although Bachrach identifies distrust in the “common man” as the core of elitist politics and what distinguishes democratic elitism from “classical” democratic theory, what seemed much more operative in distinguishing the two was not the traditional fear of the tyranny of the majority (elitists hold this fear; democrats see other dangers as far more salient), but rather, especially when it came to Dahl, a desperate fear of mass cynicism or of “expectations that large systems cannot possibly fulfill.” For Dahl, national-scale democracy (such as the election of a President) always risked provoking massive disappointment and, consequently, widespread cynicism because these national-level democratic processes pretended to be just as accessible to ordinary people as local-level political processes and institutions.

Bachrach’s rejoinder to this fear of cynicism is inspiring and, I think, pertinent today, but it also is worth pointing out that, even in the midst of critique, he understood this fear not as one automatically linked to a wish for less democracy or less popular participation; Dahl’s concern—paternalistic as it may have been—that national democracy could never live up to our day-to-day understanding of what democracy should look like was not anti-democratic even if was elitist. This is Bachrach:

it does not necessarily follow that because a political criterion cannot be fulfilled, it should therefore be discarded for all practical purposes. I see no reason why a principle, serving as an ideal to strive for and as a standard for judging the progress of a political system toward the achievement of that ideal, must be realizable in practice to perform its function… Of course an unrealizable doctrine, political or religious, can lead to cynicism, but on the other hand it may be a valuable guide and a spur to a more humane society (86)

This seems to me to open up a very useful way of looking at elitist ideas of democracy in contrast with more robust notions. From an elite point of view, democracy is primarily about managing disappointments, it is about preventing cynicism or anger or disillusionment from pooling in any one place (or in all places). Unrealizable standards or aspirations, therefore, can only ever be destabilizing, can only lead to political dysfunction. Bachrach counters that members of a democracy can want something without becoming enraged or disillusioned when they do not get it. Fulfillment may not even be the purpose of most political demands; involving oneself in making them is itself a political good. Or as Bachrach writes later, “the majority of individuals stand to gain in self-esteem and growth toward a fuller affirmation of their personalities by participating more actively in meaningful community decisions” (101).

Or, more pithily, it takes a particular kind of person to imagine that disillusionment is the worst thing that can come from an election. Bachrach, I think, finds room for that particular kind of person under the name “democrat,” but the difference between someone who lays such emphasis on the dangers of alienation and disenchantment and those who feel that these outcomes are risks worth taking is absolute.

[1] Morton S. Baratz was a co-author. “Two Faces of Power,” American Political Science Review 56.4 (December 1962): 947-952.

6 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Thanks for the heads-up up on both of the forthcoming publications. After undergraduate commencement, I shoved a stack of books from my last few courses, including two studies by Dahl, onto a shelf in a family home. The stack still remains. I enjoyed the post, particularly the notion of *democratic elitism,” which could supplement studies on, for example, the politics (or even political economy) of race, trade, and capitalism in U.S. history.

    • Thanks, Cory! I was already thinking about writing up some thoughts on Dahl later this year–maybe I’ll do so sooner than later!

  2. Thanks for this Andy–like you said, thinking about democratic elitism and the purpose of mollifying apathy and disappointment during a national election is an important idea to wrestle with right now.

    And thanks for mentioning the upcoming works–definitely a grand year for intellectual history!

    • Yeah, we will just have to see how things go, but I think it’s a safe bet that the conversations stemming from the campaign will not become dull any time soon! And a conversation about what we mean when we justify our political choices under the name of democracy is always worthwhile.

  3. “Fulfillment may not even be the purpose of most political demands; involving oneself in making them is itself a political good. ” …I will most certainly be thinking of this in both the upcoming primaries (for both parties) and the next big thing in November. Meanwhile, Bachrach’s book sounds like one worth reading.

    I never really confronted democratic elitism, as an explicit idea, in my great books work because I never encountered a sustained conversation about the same. Obviously it applies, in some ways (inasmuch as culture is implied, beyond the political sphere and political culture).

    M.J. Adler’s philosophy of common sense, as it intersected with the great books idea, involved a kind of rising tide for all. He never discussed who might be the democratic elites in political culture. Indeed, the only sustained encounter, in Adler’s thought, with elitism is in the late 1980s when he scourges Bloom, Strauss, the Straussians for their elitism. – TL

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