Frontiers

The Eyes of the People

Political scientist Jeffrey Green challenges the notion of vox populi.
April 2010

We ordinarily think of democracy as the form of self-government in which ordinary citizens have a say in decisions that affect their lives. “We the People” are empowered, we generally assume, because we have a voice in elections and in public opinion through which are heard the vox populi.

The metaphor of voice has long been part of theorizing about representative government observes political scientist Jeffrey Green. In his new book, The Eyes of the People: Democracy in the Age of Spectatorship, he contends that expressing opinion and steering political decision making are not how people typically experience politics. “Most citizens most of the time are not decision makers, relating to politics with their voices,” he writes, “but spectators who relate to politics with their eyes.”

Green is an Assistant Professor of Political Science. His teaching and research interests include democratic theory, ancient and modern political philosophy, and contemporary social theory. “My interest in this topic arose from my frustration with the law and political-science courses I had taken,” he explains. “It seemed the accounts of democracy were always too sunny, too out of keeping with the lived experiences of ordinary people around me.” The Eyes of the People is his attempt to be more honest about and take seriously the everyday structure of political life.

“The book is an attempt to acknowledge that the ordinary citizen does no more than vote, and that it is ideological in the worst sense to believe that this occasional, reactive, often binary practice of voting can be translated into substantive control over policies.” – Jeffrey Green

“Most thinking on democracy today overrates what citizenship means and exaggerates the opportunities available for meaningful political action,” Green says. The metaphoric shift from voice to eye, he argues, is a way of capturing the political effects of mass-communication technologies, especially television, on how we really take part in politics.

“The fact that most people engage with politics primarily with their eyes,” he says, is a deep and unsettling “problem” afflicting democratic life in the 21st century. Although citizens of ancient Athens were in some sense spectators too, they were also actors who could step forward in the assembly and have their voices heard. “The relationship between actor and spectator, in its current form,” Green writes, “threatens the political equality prized by democracy.”

Today’s mass media brings political elites “before the eyes of the People” in the forms of the photo op, the sound bite, the press leak and political celebrity, he maintains, undermining public discourse and rendering ordinary citizens relatively powerless. (The eye metaphor of spectator democracy encompasses the ear as an organ of spectatorship.) “The book is an attempt to acknowledge that the ordinary citizen does no more than vote,” he says, “and that it is ideological in the worst sense to believe that this occasional, reactive, often binary practice of voting can be translated into substantive control over policies.”

Green bases his book on the “unideal circumstance of spectatorship,” which, he argues, falls short of what democratic government was meant to be. Still, he maintains that there are better and worse forms of spectatorship—political images can be more or less democratic. How do we promote better self-government under the eyes of spectator citizens rather than through the voice of political actors? “My answer here is that when leaders appear under conditions they do not control, such as debates, some types of press conferences and other venues when they do not fully manage the event, these appearances constitute an empowered form of spectatorship. I call this principle of leaders not controlling the conditions of their publicity ‘candor.’”

Candor in Green’s sense does not demand that politicians be sincere, only that their public appearances be spontaneous rather than pre-packaged, stage-managed manipulations. In a word, he argues for making political events “real.” A better, more democratic outcome for political spectatorship would be that “the public appearances of political elites show themselves to be worthy of being watched,” he writes, and the ideal of candor best defines what worthy political spectacle is.

“If the many are relatively powerless, that means the few are powerful,” Green states, “and democratic thinking needs to be targeted against these few. The principle of candor is one effort to re-channel democratic energies toward the regulation of powerful elites.”