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Abstract

Contemporary political thought has fetishized a product of its own invention: the elite theory of democracy. This dissertation explores how this distinctly modern category of democratic thought came into existence, how it acquired such a stronghold in twentieth century American political science, and why it is based on suspect premises. It is generally taken for granted that Gaetano Mosca, Vilfredo Pareto, Robert Michels, and Joseph Schumpeter are responsible for the 100-year-old tradition called democratic elitism, or elite democratic theory, which identifies democracy as electoral alternation of office. While it may certainly be the case that these authors became the referents of what was to become the aforementioned tradition, I offer a competing genealogy of the intellectual history, highlighting moments of transition from their original thought to our contemporary understanding of what constitutes democratic elitism. I argue that those who interpret Mosca, Pareto and Michels as “elite theorists” fundamentally distort their political thought and completely ignore their main objective: containing plutocracy in the age of modern mass politics, partially by disassociating election from popular sovereignty, and consequently, from democracy. Somehow, the cynical views of elite domination and its perversion of the democratic process expressed by Mosca, Pareto, Michels, and even Schumpeter have become, in the hands of Seymour Martin Lipset, Robert Dahl, Carol Pateman, Adam Przeworski and others, celebrations of electoral competition and representative government. I aim to convince readers that we ought to think of Mosca, Pareto, Michels and Schumpeter not as elite theorists of democracy, but rather as democratic theorists of elitism. The project isolates three constitutive ‘moments’ in the tradition, surveying authors whose work exhibits this evolution within the century of the reception. Part I focuses on the first moment, or the early phases of the evolution of this interpretive tradition represented by Mosca, Pareto, and Michels. I unearth their critiques of plutocracy in modern representative government, a long-neglected area of their political thought. Part II offers an alternative reading of Schumpeter’s seminal Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy, in which I suggest that we read the work as a dare, or in the hypothetical spirit in which it was originally offered—and not as an ideal prescriptive model of democratic politics. The final chapter of Part II investigates the reception of the Italian School and Schumpeter’s thought in the early development of American political science as a discipline. The chapter assesses how American political scientists such as Robert Dahl, Peter Bachrach, Carol Pateman and Adam Przeworski took Schumpeter up on his dare to redefine democracy as competitive election, thereby transforming both the original contributions of the Italian School and the thrust of Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy as a whole. In sum, my alternative narrative questions whether we should continue to identify modern democracy as synonymous with fair and free elections, and in so doing, unearths a theory of democracy which might help us disassociate these two concepts in our political vocabulary. The point of this endeavor does not seek to eliminate elections from democratic theory. Rather, I argue, deflating the democratic expectations of electoral politics can help restore the legitimacy of elections and actually revive their proper role in modern popular government.

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