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Contrasting Models of Democracy:
The American and French Revolutions

Daniel J. Elazar

The two most important revolutions of the modern epoch were the American and French revolutions. Each contributed a particular understanding of democracy for moderns, models that shaped the subsequent revolutions of the modern epoch and which we continue to draw on in the postmodern epoch. This paper will lay out the two models and the contrasts between them. It will examine the hidden perspectives and assumptions underlying each. Those perspectives and assumptions rest upon modern extensions of the three original theories regarding the origins of the polity, extensions that seek to adapt those theories to a democratic age and apply them to the details of governing.

The Three Models of Polity

All polities are organized along the lines of one or another of three models: they are either organized as hierarchies, as centers with peripheries or as noncentralized matrices. Each model is a classic expression of an ideal type. While the three may be mixed in a real polity, in fact every polity is constituted on the basis of one or another.

The pyramid is the classic expression of the hierarchical model, with organizational authority and power distributed among levels linked through a chain of command. Having its origin in some form of conquest, the use of force, a possibility in all polities, stands behind its constitution. Thus it is the military model par excellence. It goes without saying that, in the hierarchical model, the top level must be the most important and the place where decisions are made as to which level does what.

The center-periphery model is one in which authority is concentrated in a single center which is more or less influenced by its periphery, depending upon the situation in which it finds itself. Such polities or organizations tend to develop organically, either around a pre-existing center or through generating one over time. They tend to be oligarchic in character, with power in the hands of those who constitute the center. Power is either concentrated or dispersed according to decisions taken in the center which may or may not include significant representation from the peripheries.

The matrix model reflects a polity compounded of arenas within arenas held together by common framing institutions and a shared communications network. Its origins are to be found in the deliberate coming together of equals to establish a mutually useful framework within which all can function on an equal basis, usually defined by a pact. Consequently, it reflects the fundamental distribution of powers among multiple centers across the matrix, not the devolution of powers from a single center or down a pyramid. Each cell in the matrix represents an independent political actor and an arena for political action. Some cells are larger and some smaller and the powers assigned to each may reflect that difference, but none is "higher" or "lower" in importance than any other, unlike in an organizational pyramid where levels are distinguished as higher or lower as a matter of constitutional design.

Needless to say, each of these models carries with it certain implications with regard to the organization, distribution, and exercise of power and authority. The interorganizational relationships within each develop accordingly. At the same time, it is in the nature of politics that various groups, parties and interests which give the system life. The interaction between them and the institutional framework and among them represents the substance of the political process.

While the theories themselves require sophisticated treatment, as common currency they can be designated by their code words. The hierarchial model is authoritarian or, if democratized, managerial. The center-periphery model is Jacobin and the matrix model is federal. If those code words suggest that each has an ideological as well as a practical dimension, there is much truth in that suggestion.

Federalism: The Original American Theory

Federalism is derived from the covenant and compact theories of the polity and, in its modern form, represents the effort to democratize republicanism. For Americans, its immediate political sources were the Puritans, Calvinists, Locke, and Montesquieu. The foundations of modern federalism are to be found in the American revolutionary experience (including its constitution-making phase).

The model for federalism is the matrix, a network of arenas within arenas which are distinguished by being larger or smaller rather than "higher" or "lower." The organizational expression of federalism is non-centralization, the constitutional diffusion and shaping of powers among many centers. The most articulate expressions of federalism are to be found in The Federalist and Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America. Federalism in America has been accepted (or criticized) as a practical response to the problems of nation-building, but from the first it also had a larger dimension, although it has never been offered as a form of secular salvation.

Jacobinism: European Import

For Americans, Jacobinism is a European import given democratic form in the French revolution and subsequently extended and reshaped by Marx and the various socialist movements of the nineteenth century. It is derived from the organic theory of the polity and represents an effort to democratize monarchic and, most particularly, aristocratic polities by conquering and transforming the center of power. Its original European political sources are to be found in Bourbon France, the works of French political theorists exemplified by Jean Bodin, and in the statist interpretation of Rousseau. In its revolutionary form, Jacobinism tends to lead to a conception of politics as all-encompassing, a vehicle for secular salvation.

The model for Jacobinism is one of center-periphery relationships whereby power is concentrated in a single center which is more or less influenced by its periphery. Centralization is the organizational expression of Jacobinism, which distrusts dispersed power because of the historical experience out of which it grew and in which localism was synonymous with support for the pre-revolutionary powerholders. V.I. Lenin and Harold Laski were perhaps the most articulate twentieth century proponents of Jacobinism, Lenin in its totalitarian collectivist manifestation and Laski in its social democratic form.

Jacobinism was brought to the United States in the mid-19th century as a form of liberalism. Francis Lieber, a German refugee -- a '48er -- and the first professional political scientist in America (he held a chair at Columbia University), was the first articulate proponent of Jacobin liberalism on the American scene. Beginning as a theoretical critique of the compact theory of the state (i.e. an attack on the theoretical basis of federalism), in the course of a generation it became linked with the new nationalism of the late nineteenth century in the development of a practical program of expanded national government activity. Woodrow Wilson then gave it a more Americanized form by suggesting that Congress was the national center of all political power.

Managerialism: An Organizational
Response to the Industrial Revolution

Managerialism is an organizational response to the industrial revolution, in many respects typically American but with strong roots in the authoritarian military and bureaucratic traditions of Russia and France. Politically, managerialism represents an effort to democratize (or, perhaps more accurately, republicanize) autocracy, whether in the immediate sense of the autocracy of the great entrepreneurs who built and ruled the great new industrial corporations, or in the older sense of imperial autocracy. In both cases, the founders can be considered "conquerors" who ruled autocracially but, in the end, unsatisfactorily, given changing times. The introduction of managerial structures was a means to transform autocratic rule without formally altering the hierarchical institutional structures built by the founders. For this reason, managerialism can be considered as derived from the conquest theory of the origins of the polity. In both cases, the proponents of managerial techniques could argue that what they proposed was politically neutral and hence not a threat to the existing system. In fact, as new generations of managers emerged and as management became a career in its own right, managerialism became an ideology in its own right.

The immediate sources of the managerial system and the ideology it produced were Bismarckian Germany and the scientific management theorists of the early 20th century United States. The model most characteristic of managerialism is the pyramid which reflects its commitment to hierarchical organization. The hierarchical form of organizational expression is implicit in the discussion of "levels" of government, a key feature of managerialism. Under such conditions, the political system has a "top level," a "middle level," and a "bottom level." It goes without saying that the top must be the most important level and the place where decisions are made as to which level does what. The most articulate expressions of managerialism can be found in Max Weber's discussions of bureaucracy and in the writings of leading American proponents of scientific management. Since proponents of managerialism never called it that and, indeed, believed that they were advocating a politically neutral means of increasing efficiency, the implications of its spread in the United States are just now beginning to be recognized. In fact, managerialism, for all its practical orientation and sincere commitment to neutrality in such matters, does reflect a political position as well, one no less real for not being articulated as such. Originally conceived to be a technique only, in a scientific age committed to the relativity of ends, it was transformed by some into a potential vehicle for secular salvation, one which offered a right process in place of a teleology.

Contemporary Syntheses

In the course of the 20th century, these three approaches have had to be related to one another as a practical matter. What resulted were two separate syntheses which are fundamentally in conflict with one another. That conflict remained submerged as long as it did not affect the pursuit of immediate common goals. Today the conflict is emerging as the old goals must be replaced by new ones that are intimately related to one approach or another.

In ideas, the synthesis was between Jacobinism and managerialism, both of which reflected the 20th century thrust toward the centralization of power and were useful in justifying the increase in the velocity of government centralization of the post two generations. The synthesis itself grew out of (1) the managerial dimension of the early twentieth century, which saw in the new techniques of management a means to make government more efficient and economic; (2) Jacobin influences on the liberal intellectuals, generally in the Marxian form, which led them not only to advocate strong centralized government but to reconceptualize social and political life in terms of the center-periphery model; and, (3) the practical experiences of the interwar generation which, when confronted by two total wars and an unprecedented depression, increasingly turned to government for direction and control and, at the same time, became at least somewhat disillusioned with inherited political ideas, at least in the versions which they received (which they did not know differed from the original).

In practice, on the other hand, the synthesis in the United States was between managerialism and federalism, reflecting both the realities of American politics and the continuation of fondly supported traditional principles. That synthesis grew out of (1) the communitarian dimension of Progressivism which sought to restore America's sense of community that was so threatened in an industrial age, as well as to improve the efficiency of its governmental system; (2) the practical experiences of the interwar generation which led to the need to introduce management techniques and bureaucratic organization into most governmental institutions, yet which were unable to bring about any fundamental change in the structure of the federal system even where articulate groups were willing to promote change; and, (3) those institutional and political constraints which required the adaptation of managerial devices and ideas to a multi-centered federal system whose politics remained non-centralized and which functioned through the separation of powers and a continued reliance on checks and balances.

The Conflict Between Theory and Practice in the Postwar Generation

At first, the potential conflict between the two syntheses was avoided because activists were pursuing common goals. It was only toward the end of the postwar generation that it became an irrepressible one. The emergence of that conflict can be traced through three stages. During stage one, the practical convergence of the previous generation was maintained and even extended as governments reorganized to accommodate increased activity and intergovernmental cooperation. It was at this time that appropriate theories of management, bureaucracy, and intergovernmental relations were developed to account for, explain, and justify the new order of things.

Stage two brought with it a new spurt of government activity based on a further extension of Jacobin ideas supported by managerial goals and tied to the emergence of conflict. In the United States, the "Great Society" programs represented the fulfillment of the Jacobin-managerial synthesis through which Jacobin goals were pursued through the intensive utilization of managerial approaches and techniques. This stage saw a redefinition of equality, democracy and other American values to fit Jacobin prescriptions coupled with a redefinition of individualism that went beyond the ken of any of the three approaches. In both its successes and failures, the "Great Society" made thoughtful Americans begin to recognize the limits of both politics and bureaucracy and, in the process, to question the two approaches which saw in the one or the other a source of secular salvation.

In the waning years of the postwar generation and on into the new generation now well upon us, a third stage can be distinguished, one in which the terms of the conflict were slowly but surely defined. The disillusionment with politics as a vehicle for solving deeply rooted problems, the bureaucracy problem, and the application of managerial techniques for constitutionally questionable purposes were joined with a new questioning of the assumptions of the Jacobin-managerial synthesis in certain academic circles. Certain names come immediately to mind. The late Martin Diamond and Herbert Storing, both taken from us in their prime, brought us back to the original federalist sources of the American polity, thereby seriously questioning the authenticity and validity of prevalent Jacobin concepts of American institutions. Vincent and Elinor Ostrom have synthesized the principles derived from those sources with those of public choice theory and they have used the results to measure the validity of current governmental policies and behavior, concluding that federalist theory was intrinsically correct as administrative as well as political doctrine and questioning the basic assumptions of managerialism. Martin Landau has rediscovered the virtues of redundancy, Heinz Eulau, the link between federalism and representation, and Samuel Beer, the virtues of the states. Publius has become the forum for the expression and development of many of these ideas. Nevertheless, this reexamination is still in its early stages.

The Contemporary Crisis or the Curses of Bigness

Today the world is confronted with the obvious failure of hierarchical structures which are not only unable to "deliver the goods," but which have even come to distort delivery systems in the pursuit of their own vested interests. We have discovered that in very large bureaucracies coordination is well-nigh impossible "at the top" since the people on the top can barely control and are frequently at the mercy of their own organizations. Moreover, in a system of interlocking arenas (which is what exists in the United States despite all the talk about "levels"), there is no "top" to do the coordinating. Similarly, people all over have begun to note the failure of managerial techniques widely touted as means to come to grips with contemporary governmental problems. Certainly, the idea that they would automatically result in efficiency and economy has long since gone by the boards. We now know how bureaucracies create their own inefficiencies and diseconomies. Beyond that, there has been a discovery that many of the new management techniques are inappropriate to the political arena with its lack of precise, agreed-upon goals and its basic purposes of conciliating the irreconcilable and managing conflict.

On a different but closely related plane, people in the affluent societies are beginning to sense the failure of consumerism -- the redefinition of people primarily as consumers and their institutions primarily as vehicles for the satisfaction of consumers wants. At the very least, the redefinition of government as a service delivery mechanism and citizens ad consumers leads to an unmanageable acceleration of public demands. It also leads to the evaluation of all institutions by a set of standards that, being human institutions, they are bound to fail. Not the least of its problems is the abandonment of the principle that people have responsibilities as well as rights, obligations to each other if not to the polity in the abstract, which, when neglected, imperil democracy by undermining its very foundations.

Harmonizing Managerialism and Democratic Values

American federal democracy may begin with the matrix model and, despite various challenges and deviations, has held to it overall. The French revolution was directed against a state founded on the hierarchical model. It sought to replace that state with one organized along the lines of the center-periphery model but founded in the matrix mold. It ended up with a return to hierarchy in modified form.

The problem remains: how can we manage large enterprises in the spirit of democracy? This means, in short, preserving non-centralization, freedom of choice, pluralism, and regional and group cultural differences; maximizing liberty in tandem with equality and assuring proper access and representation for citizens.

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