Theme Panel: Elites, Political Parties, and Democracy’s Discontents

Elites, Political Parties, and Democracy’s Discontents

From the Occupy Movement and its slogan of the 1%, to Brexit voters having had ‘enough with experts’, and Trump’s call to ‘drain the swamp’, recent discontent with democracy has taken the form of a ‘revolt against the elites’. But the problematic relationship elites entertain with democracy has been raised before. Indeed, reflection on this problem is as old as representative democracy itself. Roughly a century ago, when the basic building blocks of modern democracy – universal suffrage and the centralised, disciplined political party – were being put in place, thinkers such as Mosca, Pareto, Ostrogorski and Michels were already attempting to theorise the nature of the elites that emerged out of this novel political-institutional context. Although much has changed since then, in many ways this setting, and its problems, remain our own.

The aim of this panel is to explore the issue of elites in democratic thought from these founding figures of ‘elite theory’ to the present. Starting with Pareto, who gave us the word élite as we understand it today, Hugo Drochon (Cambridge) will explore whether his theory of the ‘circulation of elites’ can help make sense of recent events, and whether his condemnation of 1920s Italy as a ‘demagogic plutocracy’ still resonates today. Greg Conti (Princeton) will analyse how Ostrogorski’s critique of the modern political party drew from English debates about proportional representation in Thomas Hare and John Stuart Mill, and ask whether his proposed ‘Leagues’, the ancestors of the Single-Issue Party, are a solution to the current crisis of representation. Returning to Italy in the figure of Noberto Bobbio, David Ragazzoni (Columbia) will discuss Bobbio’s theory of factions and political parties: only when his democratic theory, his writings on the history of political thought, and his legal theory are combined can we make sense of Bobbio’s concept of parties and their relationship to elites. Finally, Nadia Urbinati (Columbia) will present a chapter from her forthcoming book on the ‘populist turn’, where she argues that political parties have historically been a successful instrument in constraining elites, but that their recent decline explains the re-emergence of the elite.

The panel will be chaired by Nancy Rosenblum (Harvard), author of “On the Side of the Angels: An Appreciation of Parties and Partisanship”, and Richard Bellamy (EUI), author of “Modern Italian Social Theory: Ideology and Politics from Pareto to the Present”, will offer comments.

Nancy L. Rosenblum, Harvard University (Chair)
Richard Bellamy, University College London (Discussant)