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Journal of Democracy 14.1 (2003) 114-125

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Modern Democracy As a System of Separations

Pierre Manent

All of us have a certain primordial, prescientific knowledge of the political regime in which we live, a kind of knowledge that we gather by observation, experience, and immersion as members of society and as citizens. But among all the things that we know or think we know about democracy, which are true and important and which are merely illusory or insignificant impressions? How should we arrange our impressions in order to transform them into an analysis? And how should we go about verifying our analysis?

We are inclined to proceed in the following manner: We begin by asking ourselves what democracy wishes to be or claims to be, and we respond: Democracy is the power of the people; or to state the matter more fully, democracy is a political regime in which all power derives its legitimacy from the people, and is exercised by the people or their representatives. All democracy's aspects, beginning with what French jurists call "public liberties," flow from this principle. The people's choice of their representatives is meaningful only if the people are informed; and therefore they must be able to communicate freely and in safety. In short, the people must enjoy public liberties. But no sooner have we said that our regime is representative than we are assailed by doubts. They concern precisely the reality or the validity of representation. To what degree do the people's representatives really represent the people? As soon as we begin to study more closely the mechanisms of representation—the electoral system, including election laws, the [End Page 114] organization and financing of parties, and so on—and the effectual political system, with its media, financial, and ideological power centers, we have doubts as to the reality of democracy. And these doubts are confirmed by experts in political sociology who explain that beneath the appearance of democracy there lurks an oligarchy: Minorities who control large amounts of material and cultural capital, say these experts, manipulate political institutions for their own benefit. Accordingly, at the end of this seemingly natural train of reflections, we no longer know where we are.

At first glance, specialists in public law or constitutionalism can help us to describe the concepts and mechanisms of democracy understood as a representative regime. But then political sociology directs our attention to phenomena that are alien, even contradictory, to the constitutional principles of democracy and tend to suggest that these principles are illusions, perhaps even impostures. If we have the least concern for intellectual coherence, we find ourselves in the midst of a discomfiting perplexity: We are caught between, on one side, the formal principles and mechanisms of democracy, and on the other what one would have to call the reality of democracy—or in any case certain real aspects of democracy that seem to contradict its principles by undermining or rendering pointless the mechanisms through which it works.

At this point we no longer have the means to make progress toward truth, for a sort of self-paralysis takes over our minds. Whenever we consider democracy's formal principles and mechanisms, we remember some of the shameful aspects of really existing democracy. And each time that we consider the oligarchical or generally undemocratic aspects of our democracy, we recall that despite everything the principles and formal mechanisms remain, that they are at work, and that they must have some real effects. This is the malaise—at once civic, intellectual, political, and scientific—of our democracy today. How can we escape this malaise? Is it not something inherent in the very structure of our regime? I believe that it is possible to resolve the scientific difficulty that I have underlined, or at any rate, that it is possible to pose the problem of democracy in another way.

The opposition between democracy's official constitution and its unspeakable oligarchic reality, which casts us into such perplexity, is so entrenched and so maddening only because the two opposed or contrasting aspects can be...