Elites are needed for representative democracy, but can also destroy it. Liberal democracies are a combination of a vertical direction and representation by an elite and a horizontal corrective by citizens. Highly and Burton (2006) claimed that liberal democracies need integrated, consensual elites, that share norms of conduct in political rivalry without violence, with negotiation and collaboration. ‘The sine qua non of liberal democracy is a well-ordered, internally accommodative, and relatively secure political elite’. (see also Schonfeld, 2008). This is as natural as organisations having directors. Direct, unmediated access to the will of the people is an illusion. Populists who militate against elites and claim direct access to the population when in power will themselves institute an elite, while hidden under a euphemism of ‘cadres, officials or functionaries’ (Pakulski, 2012:13). Highly and Burton speak of a web of overlapping and interlocked sectoral elites across different layers of society, such as industries, interest groups, social groups and NGO’s .
While a democracy requires such an elite, there are other types of elite that are not conducive to democracy. More often than not, there are ‘disunited elites’ that vie with each other and compete for dominance, often with violence, as used to predominate in Europe in the past, and now predominate in many African countries. The transition to an integrated, consensual elite is possible, but takes time and a certain prosperity in order to stmulate the wish for preservation of the status quo, and mobilisation of non-elite support. Third, there are ideologically united elites, that on the surface agree on a religious or political doctrine, but hide dissent that is carefully masked, as in Iran, Northern Korea, the former Soviet Union and current Russia under Putin, yielding a ‘simulated democracy’. (Pakulski, 2012: 15)
The integrated, consensual elites share social and recreational facilities ‘in executive and priviliged settings ‘ (Highly and Burton, 2006: 11), exhibit reciprocity in maintaining cohesion, preserving their structural unity, in a ‘stable polyarchy’, and maintain a ertain secrecy of proceedings, a certain amount of protection against reputational damage under mistakes, and revolving doors of careers between different networks in the web. They tend to be technocratic, emphasising technical and procedural feasibilities, rather than ultimate rights and wrongs. This is in ganger of yielding the risk of an inward look, myopia and even blindness to some societal needs and opinions. This is easy to condemn, but is an outflow of the neccessary sharing of a morality of conduct. However, elites cannot afford to ignore those needs, and they are disciplined by periodic elections. Nevertheless, correctives are needed such as an ombudsman or courts of appeal. Social media can give opportunities for direct contact, horizontalisation, between citizens and representatives, bypasssing or influencing representation, but in practice they often derail in invective, vindictiveness and outrageous conspiracy theories.
Highly J.H. and M. Burton 2006, Elite foundations of liberal democracy, Plowman & Littlefield.
Schonfeld, W.R. 2008, ‘The foundations of liberal democracy’, Contemporary Sociology, 37/3.
Pakulski, J. 2012, ‘John Highly’s work on elite foundations’, Historical Social Researcg, 37/1: 9-20.