As Cas Mudde pointed out, one of the main features of populism is the anti-elitist / anti-establishment rhetoric. Populist leaders present themselves as strong opponents of the elites. Passing from practice to theory, democratic elitism can help to unveil this rhetoric.
It is possible to interpret elite theory as a periodical reaction to social revolution. The strong trend in elite theory during the second half of the nineteenth century can be seen as a reaction against socialism. Before that, the elitist rhetoric present in the réactionnaire literature of the late eighteenth century and the early nineteenth can be seen as inspired by a strong reaction against liberal revolutions. During the 1940s, democratic elitism was used as a theoretical weapon against neo-Bonapartism and fascist dictatorships. Could it be used now to counter, from a liberal-democratic point of view, the populist drift? Perhaps there is room here for applying an analysis similar to the one developed by Hirschman in his Rhetoric of Reaction. Conversely, elite theory can function as a test to different kinds of hypotheses, namely:
(1) that the appeal to a will of the people or even to direct democracy or deliberative democracy is nothing but a political formula in Mosca’s sense of the term;
(2) that modern populism is not an exception to Michel’s ‘iron law of oligarchy’;
(3) that the new populist drift towards Bonapartism (and against a model of competitive democracy such as the one introduced by Salvemini) does not represent an alternative to the inevitability of government by elites but somewhat weakens the control of the majority over the elite through disintermediation and de-politicisation.
Taking elite theory seriously implies the recognition that it may yet preserve its original analytical force and that it might be helpful to demystify certain kinds of political formulae while bringing to light the crucial dynamic of the competition between different political actors typically in charge of the operation of government. The essays contained in this dossier develop this working hypothesis by ambitioning to explore the full potential of elite theory, both by applying the historically-situated conceptual framework to contemporary phenomena and by conducting further inquiries into the actual contents of elite theory developed by some of its prominent authors.
The first four articles delve into the relevance of certain aspects of elite theory for analysing problems faced by contemporary liberal democracies. Albert Weale questions the association of populism with the will of the people in light of an elitist framework. In his view, this association is senseless and dangerous to democracy. Citizen engagement should be viewed in accordance with a model of civil society organisations undertaking practical public deliberation—elitist theory may have something to add to this view, despite its possible inconsistencies.
Antonio Campati offers next a reflection on what he calls a weakening of the liberal-democratic link between the minority principle and the democratic principle in relation to the theory of elites. His main contention is that ‘the logic of distance’ inherent in liberal democracies should be strengthened as a mechanism for improving democracy via elites, in contrast with the views that promote democracy only by eliminating the ontological gap between those who rule and those who are ruled.
Roberta Astolfi builds on the same connection developed by Campati, but her itinerary leads her to diametrically opposed conclusions. Drawing mainly on a conceptual framework developed by Gramsci, she introduces the idea of a hegemonic majority that, by accounting for greater individual and collective engagement and responsibility, breaks the exclusivity of elitism. Her intention is to reinforce the democratic decision-making process without developing a concept of authority based on an exclusive elite. Her argumentative path leads her to an interpretation of the role that intellectuals might undertake of connecting civil society and the government, of fortifying or even restoring the trust between the individuals and their representatives, thereby strengthening the levels of legitimacy in contemporary democracies.
In the fourth essay, Alfred Archer and Amanda Cawston tackle an interesting phenomenon in the dynamics of certain representative democracies that resonates with elite theory: the involvement of celebrities in politics. This phenomenon acquired a new dimension with the election of Donald Trump, who was considered first and foremost a celebrity rather than a politician. Their starting point is the view that celebrities possess a significant degree of epistemic power (the power to influence what people believe) that is unconnected to appropriate expertise, a phenomenon that presents a problem for deliberative and epistemic theories of democratic legitimacy. They then argue that recognition of celebrity epistemic power can be a valuable resource for supporting the legitimacy and practice of democratic elitism, though these benefits carry certain risks to which elite theories are particularly vulnerable.
The following three articles redirect their attention to the fundamental elements of elite theory, following the assumption that the history of classical and democratic elitism requires a constant re-reading in order to have some utility for analyses about the present. Robert P. Jackson and Marco Di Giulio, who write the fifth and the sixth articles, respectively, focus on the work of Mosca and Pareto. Building on recent re-assessments of Pareto and Mosca, Jackson discusses whether their socio-political orientations contribute to the ‘disfiguration’ of democracy (in Nadia Urbinati’s terminology) or provide a resource for the renewal of democratic institutions. Highlighting the significance of internal tensions within each thinker’s work, between the causal primacy of psychic states and the ‘mutual dependence’ of social factors (Pareto), and between the elite principle and ‘balanced pluralism’ (Mosca), Jackson develops the hypothesis that the ‘sceptical liberal’ Pareto or the ‘democratic elitist’ Mosca elude Urbinati’s unpolitical, populist, and plebiscitary ‘disfigurations’ of democracy. Di Giulio, in turn, carries out the view that Pareto and Mosca, despite their deference to a positivist epistemology, significantly anticipated a sort of epistemological realism unsympathetic to linear notions of causality embedded in contemporary social sciences. With their emphasis on history, contexts and agents, they ushered into the debate of their time some arguments that realist epistemology fully developed, emphasising the role of context-specific and not directly observable explanatory features.
In the seventh essay, Pedro T. Magalhães calls the readers’ attention to a towering political and sociological theory figure that is seldom associated with elite theory, but which should be so: Max Weber. For Magalhães, Max Weber’s elite theory has recently been rediscovered by political scientists and theorists who have sought to explore both the heuristic and the normative potential of plebiscitary leader democracy. Magalhães, however, argues that attention should be shifted from Weber’s context-specific defence of plebiscitary leadership in post-WWI Germany to his broader conception of charisma as an attempt to grasp the meaning of significant social and political change. The upshot is that contemporary democratic theory can draw on Weber to sink into the ambiguities of transformative democratic politics.
The final essay combines the contemporary-focused approach of the first four essays and the historically-charged approach of the following three essays by focusing on a specific national experience: elite recruitment in Italy from 1919 to 1994. Adinolfi aims to answer one major question: What are the effects of a critical juncture on the formation process of what he calls ‘the political field’? His starting point is that transition processes during critical junctures are negotiated inside the ministerial elite. Several patterns observable in Italian recruitment processes are preserved from one regime to another, such as party membership, career length, and cohort effect among the core group of ministers. Adinolfi concludes that ‘the political field’ is formed through waves of new forces (e.g., via elections) that are tightened by impermeable bounds. This research, however, leaves room for the observance of a contrary trend in the last few years that differs from such patterns and according to which the ministerial elite is losing its capacity to reproduce itself and allowing outsiders to occupy the public sphere.
In summary, the papers presented in this issue allow new analyses of the contemporary political landscape through the lens of the study of the elites. This approach can ultimately shed light on the other element of the opposition between the people and the elite, especially by offering the interpretative tools by which to understand how this opposition might sometimes conceal a competition between the ruling minorities or the epiphenomenon of the ‘circulation of the elites’ (in Pareto’s words). We are confident that this issue’s contributions will help revive interest in elite theory and highlight its potentially fruitful explanatory strength vis-à-vis key problems and challenges faced by contemporary democracies.Footnote 1