Adversary Democracy

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Jane Mansbridge:

"By accepting some conflict as legitimate and by instituting the formal procedures of one-citizen/one-vote and majority rule, Athens became the first society to move away from unitary democracy while preserving the democratic ideal of involving all full citizens in a decision. Many other assemblies in ancient Greece, Rome, and medieval Europe also adopted the vote and a formal system of majority rule, but they probably, like the Athenian Polis and the English Parliament, made most of their decisions by consensus. It was not until the advent of the large-scale nation-state and the market economy that the foundations were laid for a full-fledged system of adversary democracy.

The fourteenth, fifteenth, and sixteenth centuries in Europe saw a feudal, traditional, and theoretically immutable system of "just" prices, "discovered" laws, and personal ties transformed into a national, fluid, and permanently transitory system of shifting prices, positive law, and a mobile self-interested citizenry. The new market economy demanded labor and capital, free to move where opportunities developed, free to contract at rates that shifted with supply and demand, and free to move on again when the market required it. Personal loyalties, local ties, and complex networks of mutual obligation obstructed this process.

In a parallel development in the political realm, the 17th century saw the introduction, at first much-resisted, of a philosophy that human beings were driven by an unceasing desire for power after power that brought them into irreconcilable conflict, and that political institutions must build upon this conflict, not resist it. It saw the English parliament for the first time use majority rule more than consensus, and the word "political party" loses its derogatory connotation.

Over the generations, this idea, that a democracy should weigh and come to terms with conflicting selfish interests rather than trying to reconcile them or to make them subordinate to a larger common good, gradually gained acceptance. Modern political theorists have taken this line of development to its logical conclusion. In current adversary theory, there is no common good or public interest at all. Voters pursue their individual interests by making demands on the political system in proportion to the intensity of their feelings. Politicians, also pursuing their own interests, adopt policies that buy them votes, thus ensuring accountability. In order to stay in office, politicians act like entrepreneurs and brokers, looking for formulas that satisfy as many, and alienate as few, interests as possible. From the interchange between self- interested voters and self-interested brokers emerge decisions that come as close as possible to a balanced aggregation of individual interests.

At bottom, this theory of adversary democracy is remarkably similar to modern laissez-faire economics. Like economists, many modern political scientists believe either that equally weighted votes, majority rule, and electoral competition can in principle aggregate millions of selfish political desires into one common good, or that, because no one can know the common good, the aggregation of selfish political desires is the best substitute.

Because both adversary democracy and laissez-faire economics are founded on self-interest, there is no room in either system for arguments that the interests of some people are better than those of others. Politically, therefore, each individual's interests should carry equal weight. The central egalitarian ideal in an adversary democracy thus becomes the equal protection of interests, guaranteed by the equal distribution of power through the vote.

Yet equal voting rights coupled with majority rule does not always protect interests equally. As a winner-take-all system, it does not usually produce a proportional distribution of benefits, and it can create permanent minorities. If some one minority is always on the losing side, few would say that the minority's interests were being protected, let alone that they were being protected equally.

The adversary system also has another, more serious, drawback. The mechanical aggregation of conflicting selfish desires is the very core of an adversary system. But this idea verges on moral bankruptcy. It accepts, and makes no attempt to change, the foundations of selfish desire. It is the democracy of a cynical society. It replaces common interest with self-interest, the dignity of equal status with the baser motives of self-protection, and the communal moments of the face-to-face council with the isolation of a voting machine." (

Discussion: Balancing Unitary vs. Adversary Democracy

Jane Mansbridge:

"The distinction between unitary and adversary has helped me to see that when democrats have defended unequal power they have always assumed common interests between the leaders and the led. Arguments for equal power, on the other hand, have usually assumed conflicting interests. I conclude that we value equal power not as an end in itself, but as a means to the end of protecting interests equally. When interests do not conflict, equal power is not necessary for self-protection. If everyone has the same interests, the more powerful will protect the interest of the less powerful automatically. Equal power is also a means to two other ends - maintaining a community of equal respect and promoting personal growth. But these ends too are met by other means when respect does not derive from power and when everyone in a community has the opportunity to take political responsibility. Thus equal power is a conditional value, not an absolute one. Rather than opposing "democracy" to "elitism" as if equal power were an end in itself, members of a group should spend their scarce resources on making power more equal only when equal power is most needed - when interests most conflict, when equal respect cannot be generated from other sources, and when citizens are atrophying from not having enough power and responsibility.

The second lesson balances the first by recognizing that no group is purely one type or the other. Whatever the predominate type, it is still necessary to include some elements from the other approach. For example, a national polity can try to make some forms of the unitary experience available to its citizens. The safest place to do this is on the most local level, either in the workplace or the neighborhood, where the greater information each citizen can have about any decision helps guard against false unity. With such decentralization, a nation operating primarily as an adversary democracy need not condemn its citizens to selfishness and amorality, any more than a state with no established church need condemn its citizens to atheism.

Moreover, even on the national level, some unitary, or almost unitary, moments can be preserved. First, even in a primary adversary democracy, citizens must agree to a significant extent on the ideals that sustain the adversary process itself and place them, by genuine consensus, somewhat beyond the adversary process.

Second, the pursuit of a higher goal - often responding to an external threat - can give citizens some common interests and convince them briefly that these are the only interests that count. These moments are precious, even though they must also be transitory.

Third, in the uninspiring arena of administration, a national bureaucracy can increase the frequency of a common good by handling technical decisions competently and by trying to resolve conflicts of interest on the basis of a rough principle of equal protection rather than denying the legitimacy of conflict.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, an interdependent, less competitive economy can vastly increase the average worker's experience of common interest with others. A nation interested in expanding its citizens' unitary experience can always use its control over the economy to help achieve that end.

Thus by fostering decentralized and highly participative units, by maintaining a few crucial remnants of consensus, by instituting primarily cooperative economic relations, and by treating adversary methods not as an all-encompassing ideal but as an unavoidable and equitable recourse, a nation can maintain some of the conditions for community, comradeship, selflessness, and idealism without insisting that on most matters all its citizens have a common interest.

Even so, the national polity poses, at its most difficult, the problem that arises even in small groups when they try to move back and forth between unitary and adversary approaches: We find it hard to dip in and out of the adversary mode without being tainted by it, hard to be selfish now and selfless ten minutes later. We can reach common interest with others in part by making their good our own, yet a too frequent recourse to adversary procedures undermines the habits of thought and feeling that induce such behavior.

The subversive effect of adversary procedure on unitary feeling makes it essential that the necessary dominance of adversary democracy in national politics not set the pattern of behavior for the nation as a whole. The effort to maintain unitary elements in the nation in turn depends on widespread rejection both of the cynical doctrine that interests always conflict and the credulous assumption that they can always be harmonious." (

More Information

  1. Unitary Democracy
  2. The book: Beyond Adversary Democracy