Demotic Moments

Democracy is, by nature, a work in progress, and Western history has had very few occurrences when the “demos” became a politically self-conscious actor. What do these moments teach us?

This post belongs to a reading series of Democracy Incorporated by Sheldon S. Wolin. For quick access to all chapters, please click here.

Disclaimer: This chapter summary is personal work and an invitation to read the book itself for a detailed view of all the author’s ideas.

According to Sheldon Wolin, democracy could be represented as a practical division of labor regarding how to get from here to there. The population decides where “there” is while the elites supply the expert “know-how” to reach it. He adds that, unfortunately, nothing in this division of labor guarantees that a reality check will ever be implemented, even though it is obviously needed for the people on the elite’s ambitions and the elite on the irrationality of the people. As the late John Robert Lewis used to say, “Democracy is not a state, it is an act,” meaning that there is nothing mechanical or achieved once and for all about it. In a democracy, everyone has a formal political responsibility; being actively committed to the common good is the price each citizen must pay for a government of, by, and for the people.


Western's history demotic moments: Though exclusively exercised by male citizens, democracy did exist for a short while in ancient Greece under the governance of Pericles (c. 495 BC-c. 429 BC).
Bust of Pericles. Roman copy after a Greek original from c. 430 BC.

Though exclusively exercised by male citizens, democracy did exist for a short while in ancient Greece under the governance of Pericles (c. 495 BC-c. 429 BC). Depicting Pericles as a model of rationality, the historian Thucydides (c. 460 BC-c. 400 BC) said that after the death of this great leader, the citizens “allowed private ambitions and private interests” to prevail. Where Pericles had “led the multitude instead of being led by them,” the new leaders catered to the whims of the multitude,” each outbidding the other in vying for popular approval. The result was a “host of blunders” culminating in a disastrous defeat in Sicily.1 As well as Athens’s definitive political demise, that signed the end of the democratic experiment in the Western world of this era.

Over the next two millennia, a politically entrenched cast succeeded in keeping society’s middle and lower classes out of politics. The power structure functioned on principles of exclusion, and the few who ruled were supposedly entitled to their position of power in virtue of the Creator’s transcendent will. But with the modernization of society at the end of the middle ages, a secularized elite of bankers, scientists, engineers, skilled administrators, military leaders, and political advisers boasted their strategic talents. What these new auxiliaries of power lacked in authority, they more than compensated with their command of new forms of knowledge. For its part, the vast majority of the population gradually realized that if ordinary folks were to regain entry in politics, it would be as a “people” and on the ground of their raw numbers. The inner struggle of the multitude to convert itself into a politically self-conscious actor was starting to take place.

Contrary to the Athenian demos, rather than taking over the entire institutional system and democratizing it, the “lower” class’s political ambition could only be to gain a representative foothold in a particular branch by then of the legislature. This was well illustrated during the so-called Putney debates during the English civil war of the 1640s. These exchanges were triggered when the spokespeople for the rank and file of the revolutionary army, representing the views of the Leveller movement, proposed the adoption of a written constitution ensuring that ordinary men would be guaranteed the right to vote. “That would have meant, says Sheldon Wolin, the abolition of the prevailing property qualifications then governing elections and parliamentary representation.” The debates exposed the tensions between demotic claims on behalf of political equality and a nascent capitalist elite defending the principle of its own political hegemony.2

Western's history demotic moments: Henry Ireton, Cromwell's son-in-law, emphasized that the appeal to natural rights as the foundation for political rights put all property at risk.
Colonel Henry Ireton (1611-1651)

Henry Ireton, Cromwell’s son-in-law, made a case for the latter in a subtle but revealing way. He emphasized that the appeal to natural rights as the foundation for political rights put all property at risk. Any man might “take hold of anything that a[another] man calls his own.” If “you admit [as electors] any man that hath a breath and being” along with those itinerants who are “here today and gone tomorrow,” then there could be no guarantee that they would not vote “against all property.” To Ireton, having property is the principle of an ordered society and must, therefore, be the foundation of politics. It follows that those who represent the permanent interest of society are “the persons in whom all land lies, and those in corporations in whom all trading lies. This is the most fundamental constitution of this kingdom, and which if you do not allow, you allow not at all.” Of course, those who had no property would nonetheless have an “interest” under rule by the propertied, for they would be protected and enjoy the freedom “of trading to get money and to get estates by”3 and would eventually join the ranks of the propertied.

The reason given by Ireton to restrict voting rights to people with property makes some practical sense, of course, as “those who shall choose the lawmakers shall be men freed from dependence upon others,”4. But the fact, as Sheldon Wolin reminds us, is that “When power is organized in the form of an economy based upon private capital and the division of labor, then ipso facto the lives of most persons will be directed by others.” Henry Ireton did not see—or did not want to see—that the confusion between practical independence from owning property and freedom as a human right would drive political life away from transactions among equals.

“In the centuries that followed, adds Sheldon Wolin, the economy of capitalism became increasingly powerful, both as a system of production and a system of inequalities. While, unquestionably, the new economy would raise the ‘standard of living’ of the ‘masses,’ it would also succeed in translating concentrated economic power into political power. Faced with that reality, those who represented numbers but little or no economic or intellectual power would introduce their trump card, the threat of a revolution. A new species of leaders emerged who, instead of hoping to join the governing elite, opted to remain with “the people.”


Following ancient Athens and the Levellers movement in 17th century England, the third attempt at resurrecting the idea of a demos took place with “the political consciousness that emerged among the colonists early in the eighteenth century and intensified in the agitation of the 1760s against British taxation and trade policies.” Unfortunately, “An American political system would have its origins in protesting imperial policies only to succumb later to the temptations of empire.” This is echoed by the present-day hagiography of the Founding Fathers in the United States, which celebrates them while almost entirely overlooking “the emergence of an American version of a demos in the decades before and during the revolution.”5

Western's history demotic moments: In the years preceding the war for independence, new political actors came to the fore. Artisans, small farmers, shopkeepers, seamen, women, slaves, and natives Indians expressed their grievances in whatever form of "fugitive democracy" they could.

In the years preceding the war for independence, new political actors came to the fore. Artisans, small farmers, shopkeepers, seamen, women, slaves, and natives Indians expressed their grievances in whatever form of “fugitive democracy” they could. Their demotic action, born out of necessity under harsh circumstances, was improvised, not institutionalized. Nevertheless, “Foreign observers, says Sheldon Wolin, were impressed by the intensity of political interest among ordinary Americans. During the years from roughly the 1760s to the Constitutional Convention of 1787 an American demos began to establish a foothold and to find institutional expression, if not full realization. State constitutions were amended by provisions that broadened the suffrage, abolished property qualifications for office, and in one case instituted women’s suffrage. There were also efforts to ease debtor laws, even to abolish slavery.”

Low and behold, “Those ‘attacks’ on property and the concomitant threat of demotic rule were crucial considerations prompting several outstanding politicians (Madison, Hamilton, John Adams) to organize a quiet counterrevolution aimed at institutionalizing a counterforce to challenge the prevailing decentralized system of thirteen sovereign states in which ‘popular’ forces controlled some state legislatures.” A new system of national power was proposed under which only the House of Representatives would be directly elected. The caveat was that the “people” were, from there on, considered “electors” whose “qualifications” were those of “the most numerous branch of the State Legislature.”6 Thus in states where suffrage qualifications were based on wealth or property, this could mean that most of “the people” would have no voice in the selection of their representatives.

Bluntly stated by Madison, Hamilton, Adams, and several other members of the emerging ruling class, the aim was to ensure that the new regime, while abstractly based upon “the people,” would be governed by men of talent rather than by the populace. This elite among the people was largely composed of lawyers, financiers, and plantation owners who, says the author, “would serve the common good although not necessarily all classes to the same extent.” It is striking, in this regard, that the so-called American revolution took the exact opposite way of an actual revolution. Overturning the established order of things would have consisted in giving all people a fighting chance—be they black, natives, or just poor—by guaranteeing them access to education. Representing their own social class and its prejudices, the Founding Fathers could not fathom that this was what getting rid of tyranny truly meant. Instead of implementing a genuine revolution by working against social determinations and leading the country toward democracy, they instituted a government among peers—a republic.

Republican theory had first appeared as the counterforce to demotic power in ancient Athens, promoting the idea of a governing class, an idealized aristocracy, virtuous, able, and public-spirited. Centuries later in America, the Many voiced their claims too widely, if not always successfully, for them not to be taken into account by the power aristocracy. “Thomas Jefferson, more than any other national hero, anticipated the form that the republican-demotic dualism would take in the ‘first new nation’ and the possible terms of reconciliation.”

Western's history demotic moments: Because it implies some form of political knowledge, the Founding Fathers proceeded to control the demotic potential of elections.
Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826)

Jefferson defined a republican system as “action by the citizen in person, in affairs within their reach and competence.”7 Although all citizens were “competent to judge of the facts of ordinary life,” as when serving as jurors, most were “unqualified for the management of affairs requiring intelligence above the common level.” More intelligent representatives were to deal with these higher matters, while citizens could, if necessary, remove them from power by elections.8 But because it implies some form of political knowledge, the act of voting for representatives and a president may seem more demanding than juror service. This is why the Founding Fathers proceeded to control the demotic potential of elections.

Elections posed a challenge to the art of governing since the people were declared “sovereign” but precluded from it. “That distinction, between passive sovereignty and active governance, would be contested, defined, and redefined over nearly three centuries as Jacksonian democrats, abolitionists, suffragettes, Populists, and Progressives fought to promote and defend demotic power while the political elites . . . worked to professionalize politics and to make governance a technical art.”

As of today, in the age of managed democracy and inverted totalitarianism, “to only a limited extent can the citizenry itself and by itself inject democracy into a political system permeated by corporate power. It can provide the initial impetus but not the sustained will. Or, stated differently, democracy has, first, to find itself, become a self-conscious demos; and, then, it has to reconceive its relationship with its ancient nemesis, elitism.”

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  1. Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War, II.65
  2. See Christopher Hill, The World Turned Upside Down: Radical Ideas During the English Revolution (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1975); Perez Zagorin, A History of Political Thought in the English Revolution (London: Routledge & Paul, 1954), ch. 2-3; and the collection of essays in Margaret C. Jacobs and James R. Jacob, The Origins of the Anglo-American Radicalism (Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Humanities Press, 1991).
  3. Aylmer, The Levellers, 100, 101, 113, 107, 114.
  4. Ibid., 121
  5. Nash, The Unknown American Revolution and The Urban Crucible: Social Change, Political Consciousness, and the Origins of the American Revolution (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1979). See also Pauline Maier, From Resistance to Revolution (New York: Vintage, 1974), and the essay in Jacob and Jacob, The Origins of Anglo-American Radicalism, 185>th>ff.
  6. Article I, section 2, Clause 1 of the Constitution.
  7. To Dupont de Nemours, April 24, 1816, in Writings, 1387.
  8. Ibid., 1385
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