Democracy’s Inevitable Elites

Issue Date January 2020
Volume 31
Issue 1
Page Numbers 75-87
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Robert Michels’s seminal treatise Political Parties: A Sociological Study of the Oligarchical Tendencies of Modern Democracy (1911) offers an important theoretical exposition of the core belief that underlies populist politics: namely, that the elites (inevitably) capture democracy from the common people. Michels’s disillusionment with the elitist betrayal of democracy led the sociologist to embrace Mussolini’s fascism, a biographical note that seems to validate contemporary fears about populism’s logical endpoint. Our answer to the theoretical challenge raised by Michels’s “iron law of oligarchy” is likely to depend on how we view representative democracy: Is it an inherently inferior alternative to direct democracy, at best a necessary evil in large and complex societies? Or is the representative character of modern democracy in fact a major asset, one that serves to correct inherent shortcomings of the classic democratic model?

About the Author

Ghia Nodia is professor of political science at Ilia State University and director of the Caucasus Institute for Peace, Democracy, and Development in Tbilisi, Georgia. He is a member of the Editorial Board of the Journal of Democracy.

View all work by Ghia Nodia