Restoring the Assembly: Equality in Speech and Democratic Power


Public apathy and political ignorance are a fundamental fact today, beyond any possible dispute; decisions are made by political leaders, not by popular vote, which at best has only an occasional veto power after the fact. The issue is whether this state of affairs is, under modern conditions, a necessary and desirable one, or whether new forms of popular participation, in the Athenian spirit though not in the Athenian substance, if I may phrase it that way, need to be invented.

M.I. Finley[i]


Rights and Representation in the Liberal Constitution

Writing in support of the recently drafted United States Constitution in the spring of 1788, James Madison was explicit about the difference between the ancient democracies and the modern republican system that he and his fellow Federalists proposed for post-revolutionary America:

[…] the principle of representation was neither unknown to the ancients nor wholly overlooked in their political constitutions. The true distinction between these and the American governments lies in the total exclusion of the people in their collective capacity, from any share in the latter, and not in the total exclusion of the representatives of the people from the administration of the former.[ii]

This total exclusion is a defining feature of the modern American republic. The popular will can only express itself through the choice of representatives in a social order where individual freedom depends on constitutionally recognised rights.

Madison saw two great advantages to a republic that excluded the people in this way. Firstly, representative republics can govern far larger territories. Secondly, representative systems are less likely to succumb to tyranny than democracies organized around an assembled citizenry.

Representation serves “to refine and enlarge the public views by passing them through the medium of a chosen body of citizens, whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country and whose patriotism and love of justice will be least likely to sacrifice it to temporary or partial considerations”. On the other hand, direct democracy is structurally doomed to chaos and misrule: “In all very numerous assemblies, of whatever characters composed, passion never fails to wrest the sceptre from reason. Had every Athenian citizen been a Socrates, every Athenian assembly would still have been a mob.”[iii]

The Madison of the Federalist Papers was not a straightforward oligarch. He believed that “the cool and deliberate sense of the people ought … ultimately prevail over the views of its rulers.” But he took it as axiomatic that they might sometimes be induced “to call for measures that which they themselves will be most ready to lament and condemn.”[iv] By removing them “in their collective capacity” he sought to protect the Republic from the fevers of popular enthusiasm.

While Madison thought that the people should prevail over their rulers when motivated by “justice and the general good”,[v] he was terrified by the thought of national majorities possessed by “a rage for paper money, for an abolition of debts, for an equal division of property, or for any other improper or wicked project.”[vi] There were certain policy demands that could never qualify as being “cool and deliberate.” The Federal constitution was explicitly intended to prevent them from being passed into law. The alternative, he warned, would be the creation of “a will in the community independent of the majority – that is, of the society itself.”[vii] Protect the propertied minority from the rest, or expect dictatorship.

It is now clear that the federal constitution’s combination of positive freedom to appoint representatives and a suite of liberal protections cannot secure the interests of the bulk of the population against oligarchic depredations. Stable majorities in the United States favour policies that both their representatives and the bulk of public speech routinely deride for being hopelessly unrealistic. Even proposals that fall far short of Madison’s nightmare of an equal division of property, such as a national system of public health insurance, cannot assert themselves in the systems of representation.[viii]

Stubborn and unresponsive representatives could not hope to achieve more than a temporary delay to proposals that enjoy strong popular support if they were subject to the attentions of a truly free press. But the media of communication on which most people rely have now been greatly concentrated. A mixture of inducements and threats has brought these media into line with other public and private elites, and with elected representatives above all: journalists are as reliant on official sources for their stories, and hence their salaries, as publishers are reliant on official subsidies for their profits; commercial pressures help ensure a proper deference to the demands of property.[ix]

In such circumstances it is all too easy to persuade citizens that their peers don’t want the policies they want, that manufactured emergencies must take precedence over domestic reforms in the popular interest, or that some technical or material objection makes it impossible for their demands to be met. And of course, accurate descriptions of this state of affairs must also pass through only a handful of narrow channels if they are to reach a mass audience. There are ample opportunities to suppress them along the way.[x]

Even if individuals and small groups can develop coherent legislative programmes that address reasonable objections they will not be able to present them to wide publics, much less elect enough representatives to enact them. Those who possess office will do everything they can to frustrate attempts to break their self-serving cartel. The few on the inside combine against the many outside.[xi]

Just as the description of high politics is severely constrained by concentrated public power, so too the citizens’ freedom of speech is all too often reduced to a nullity by concentrated private power. In many countries we can say what we like, but we can’t make a living if our superiors take exception to it.

The democratic quality of the early American republic, to the extent that a slave-owning, land-grabbing project in which women are denied citizenship can be called democratic, derived from the survival of “the people in their collective capacity” outside the formal constitution. The political geography was characterised by small towns, habits of both ecclesiastical and secular self-government, owner-occupied farms and independent small businesses. Furthermore the press was fragmented, highly competitive, and with very low barriers to entry. Any national coordination of opinion from above took time and was subject to sustained challenge. In these conditions the people were able to develop a robust sense of their collective interests and to assert themselves repeatedly against the centralising forces that Alexander Hamilton and others wanted to favour in the federal constitution.

In Machiavellian Democracy, John P. McCormick suggests that, “perhaps one reason that the American founders failed to provide a formal institutional equivalent of the tribunate is this: their late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth-century faith in the power of a widely proliferating free press operating within an increasingly literate public sphere kept virtually all framers of modern constitutions from seriously considering an institutional watchdog by, of, and for common citizens exclusively.”[xii] This surely applies at least as much to the assembly, the institutional form that Madison specifically wanted to exclude.

A fractious and diverse free press provided the people with a check on scheming representatives. An economy characterised by self-employment limited the scope for intimidation in the workplace. Parochial self-government provided citizens with an ongoing education in the uses and abuses of power. Popular control of representatives in the formal constitutional order was possible because the people “in their collective capacity” persisted as an informal fact through widespread participation in political communication and instruction. It is only after the Civil War and the assassination of Abraham Lincoln that the balance of power begins to tilt away from face-to-face publics towards the institutions of national authority – most notably the federal government and its creature the industrial corporation.

The Madisonian reliance on rights and representation has dominated the constitutional imagination ever since.[xiii] While democratic reformers have sought to qualify the monopoly on decision-making enjoyed by elected representatives through recall mechanisms, ballot initiatives and referenda, until recently there has been little interest in restoring the people in their collective capacity as a consistently active element in the formal constitution. The rare moments of popular decision-making that do occur take place on a terrain dominated by elected representatives and their partners in the media. The extent to which referenda, for example, prompt the mass of people to engage in public life varies greatly, and depends in large part on decisions made by those same elected representatives.[xiv]

The modern representative democracy does not include any institutions that Madison would have called democratic. Indeed, the exclusion of the people is so complete that we have almost entirely forgotten how the majority once expressed and exerted themselves. Before we discuss how to re-instate the people in the constitutional order, we should take some time to understand how they were once included.


Democracy and the Assembly 

In the Politics Aristotle explains that democracy is based on a twofold conception of liberty. It is both the sovereign power of the many over the few and the minimum of rule, with that minimum exercised by turns. From this general conception he goes on, in a somewhat borgesian passage, to derive the specific features a democratic constitution, which are essentially those of Athens in the 4th century BCE.

In a democracy, Aristotle writes, all citizens are eligible for office and can vote; there is “rule of all over each and of each by turns over all”; offices are filled by lot when they do not require experience or skill; there are no property qualifications for office, or those that exist are not set very high; office circulates among as many citizens as possible; the terms of office are kept short; there is universal participation on juries and these adjudicate on the most important matters, “such as those affecting the constitution, scrutinies, and contracts between individuals”; the assembly is sovereign; citizens are paid for their work in the assembly, in the courts and in office; public life is characterised by participation by the poor and those in mechanical trades; there is no perpetual occupation of office and where offices do have this character they are stripped of power and filled by lot.[xv]

The assembly was the sovereign political institution in the Athenian democracy. In it all citizens were equally eligible for most offices and, crucially, they enjoyed isegoria. Although this is sometimes glossed as “freedom of speech”, it is more accurate to call it “the right of every citizen to address the assembly”.[xvi] Isegoria confers an individuated power to speak publicly to the state’s sovereign decision-making body. At the assembly an official would ask “who wishes to address the assembly?” and citizens would then line up for their chance to address their peers. The freedom to speak that mattered was integrated with the ordinary business of government. It mattered because it could shape consequential public decisions by plausibly describing the citizen body to itself.

Isegoria is so central to the Athenian system of government that Herodotus uses the word when trying to account for the previously obscure city-state’s victories over Persia’s universal monarchy.[xvii] Similarly, Polybius invokes it when explaining the success of the Achaean League in the final years of Greek independence:

It seems to me that the reason is that one would be hard put to find equality and the right to speak one’s mind in assembly [isegoria and parrhesia] – in short, the system and principles of true democracy – in a purer form than among the Achaeans.[xviii]

Not only was the assembly sovereign, it was also Athens’ apex communicative form. Indeed its sovereignty and its communicative supremacy were indivisible. In assembly citizens had direct access to the views of their fellow citizens and experienced their status as self-governing citizens without mediation or representation. Each could make proposals and each could oppose them. Attempts to characterise the mood of the assembly could be challenged or simply disproved in real time. The citizenry might sometimes be bamboozled or seduced. It could not be durably estranged from itself. In this classical democracy, as Madison notes with something approaching panic, “a communication and concert results from the form of government itself.”[xix]

All constitutional settlements are communicative orders. They are inseparable from the ways in which information about them is distributed among citizens. As Aristotle puts it in the Ethics, “it is political science that prescribes what subjects are to be taught in states, and which of these the different sections of the community are to learn, and up to what point”.[xx] Tyranny, oligarchy and democracy all imply their particular distributions of knowledge. Serious democratic reform implies that the current distribution changes.

In the Athenian democracy each citizen repeatedly and unavoidably discovered himself as a citizen. This status simultaneously derived from, and was made visible and intelligible through, the lawful conduct of public business. The citizenry saw itself speak, and its speech becoming law. More generally, the conduct of government entailed a very wide distribution of political knowledge. Jury duty and appointment to office by lot would have acted as a permanent programme of demystification. Even when a post required specialist knowledge and expertise, the citizenry were responsible for assessing performance after the fact and for punishing derelictions of duty.

Our system, on the other hand, leaves elected representatives to decide on, and then convey knowledge of, the substance of the political to the people. To the extent that they reduce the media of communication to a state of dependence they are free to treat the citizenry as the audience of a drama. This theatre only intermittently informs, and does so in line with the wishes of this oligarchy “in their collective capacity.”

The media and communications resources of a modern democracy determine how political institutions are understood, and indeed whether the citizenry as a whole understand these institutions at all. Yet an enormous obscurity surrounds this apparatus of instruction. Compare the open discussions of an assembly with the sessions of a congress or parliament. Even when the latter are nominally public they will impinge on public awareness only when they are declared newsworthy, according to standards of judgement that are an uncertain mixture of commercial tradecraft and the raw exercise of power. It is important to note that we can’t ever know for sure how much power the plutocrats and professionals of the press enjoy relative to the elected representatives they cover. But it is more important for our purposes that a tiny minority, however constituted, effectively control the main avenues of information.

Yet the media stand in for the citizens’ assembly. That is, newspapers and broadcasters (and more recently digital platforms) provide us with specifically political information, including information about the preferences of citizens we don’t know. The media form part of the constitutional order, in that they determine, to a very great extent, what we know about ourselves, each other and the world beyond our direct experience, including the various institutions of government. Hence the media play a part in establishing the conditions in which these institutions operate.

The conventions governing this substitute assembly are very different from those that applied in Athens. While the modern media do not enforce exclusions based on gender or legal status, in practice they deny almost everyone the means to speak before any significant fraction of their fellow citizens. Those who speak to large audiences do so because they meet a formidable property qualification; they own, or can afford to rent, major media, they enjoy the confidence of someone who does, or they possess elected office.[xxi] Our access to politically relevant information depends on the good faith and selfless candour of a propertied minority who have every incentive to deceive us if they can do so while retaining our trust. And, as Machiavelli points out, “the few always act in the interest of the few”.[xxii]

Like the Athenian assembly, the modern media provide repeated and unavoidable instruction to the citizen about the kind of constitution we live in. They tell us that we have no right to speak in publicly consequential ways, that our perceptions of the world have no purchase on the conduct of public life, that we are permanently inferior to those who can speak, and whose perceptions do matter.

Each of us is gagged and stalled so that we can only see the speakers on the rostrum. They tell us what our neighbours think, and what is possible. Every now and again they might call on a group of us to provide the raw data for an opinion poll. But they will decide on the questions, and will interpret the answers. If we attempt to address citizens we don’t know on any day other than Election Day, at best we will be treated as an impolite nuisance, at worst as a menace to public order. Oligarchic control of this communicative equivalent of the assembly is vital to the continued domination of both the state and the economy by those who possess wealth, office or access to privileged positions in the corporate and financial bureaucracies.

The spectrum of admissible opinion excludes almost anyone who does not treat this state of affairs as an uncontroversial fact of life. We should expect this organization of effectually public speech to marginalise popular concerns and discredit policy options that would strengthen the majority in political terms and improve their material conditions.

This process of exclusion applies most rigorously in matters of war, credit and property. More careful scrutiny shows an equal, if necessarily more obscure, effort to misinform the population about the media. Consider the scorn and derision that open communicative forms and critical fields of research attract. The same penumbra of contempt that surrounds citizens’ band radio and the blogosphere attaches itself to sociology and media studies. Consider, too, the ludicrously inflated reputation enjoyed by those economists whose work derives elegant conclusions from premises that do not include the facts of class power or the reality of rent. Meanwhile the philosophers that sought to discredit 4th century Athenian democracy are bathed in the bright sunlight of both academic and journalistic respectability.[xxiii]

A tiny minority have considerable freedom to promote ideas, assumptions and descriptions that serve their interests. A somewhat larger body provides intellectual guard labour by reproducing these ideas and denouncing those who object. Troublesome experts can be dismissed as cranks and helpful cranks recast as experts. As a result, widely shared and authoritative representations of the social world can diverge from reality for long periods of time. Even when, as in the 2007-2008 crisis, the approved version collapsed under the weight of events there was no serious attempt at a reckoning. The architects and publicists of the conventional fantasy presided over the post-mortems and declared the whole affair an unfathomable mystery.

Oligarchic power itself is so thorough and unexamined that belief in its existence is sometimes treated as evidence of a conspiratorial turn of mind. According to a recent article in the New York Times, the statement “even though we live in a democracy a few people will always run things anyway” qualifies as a “conspiracy claim”.[xxiv] If acknowledging the broad outlines of social reality is disreputable, any attempt to describe it in detail struggles to find expression in ways that reach large audiences. After all, why should we pay attention to conclusions that flow from the premises of the paranoid imagination?

Although we now pay more attention to the leverage moneyed interests enjoy over elected representatives, it is the pervasive shaping of the general field of publicity that does most to frustrate the popular will and entrench oligarchic control. After all, representatives often respond to public opinion when it manages to assert itself effectively. The task is to provide this public opinion with the facts of power so that the majority can, in an orderly fashion, sweep away organized and collusive resistance to their legitimate wishes. If we want to change the conduct of representatives so that they favour popular constituencies instead of themselves and their partners in oligarchy, then we must change the communicative order in which they act. In this isegoria, one of the core features of actually existing democracy, has an important role to play.


Restoring the Assembly 

So far we have noted the exclusion of the people in their collective capacity from the federal constitution and its many imitators around the world. We have gone on to discuss the assembly as the sovereign political body and the apex communicative institution in the classical democracies. We’ve also compared the ancient assembly with its equivalents in the modern media-political (that is, constitutional) order. If we are to revive democracy and challenge the tendency towards oligarchy in the Madisonian system of representation, it makes sense to consider how best to re-admit the assembly characterised by isegoria as an element of constitutional design.[xxv]

Here we come to a dilemma. As an agent of direct administration, the assembly is limited to very small areas of operation. It cannot hope to serve the needs of even a small modern nation state, much less those of a large compound republic like the United States or a shame-faced federation like the European Union. But it is useful here to make a distinction between the administrative and communicative functions of the classical assembly. It is these latter that are crucial to a democratic restoration. Unless we can speak to one another as equals and develop ideas and bodies of knowledge autonomously we will not be able to coordinate successfully against oligarchic power.

The practical revival of the communicative assembly consists in this; the allocation of resources on an egalitarian basis to support the production of effectually public speech. This is the most direct way to revive isegoria, understood as equality in public speech. In concrete terms this would require that the constitution give each citizen a sum of money to spend as they wish on journalism, research and analysis, as well as on publications and communication platforms.

This sum could be set annually by the legislature, subject to some defined minimum calculated as a multiple of the median wage, such that the citizen body could, with a minimum of prudence, employ enough people and resources to both supply and structure public speech. This total could be set at the same level as the current expenditures on corporate public relations, think tanks and media.[xxvi]

Let us consider some of the benefits that will accrue from the creation of an array of communicative spaces given autonomy and resources by the constitutional order. The assembly understood in this sense will greatly increase our ability to raise issues. It will tend to prevent both cognitive capture of the majority by their representatives, and of representatives by domestic magnates and foreign powers.

We will be able to make independent inquiries into “that most dreaded and envied kind of knowledge”, knowledge of “the character and conduct” of our rulers[xxvii]; there will be greater communicative parity between the rich and the rest – the majority will be able to create venues for communication that rival the golf clubs and other fraternities where the oligarchy plan their raids on the future; we will have the means to develop and share a refined understanding of both public and private power, and of the obscure connections between them.[xxviii] The language of technical expertise will be subject to reasoned challenge and public discussion can be conducted in a manner consistent with effective democratic control.

This opportunity to allocate resources will secure for vulnerable employees the power to shape public speech, to give their grievances a civic character and to discover their own remedies. It will mean that individuals subject to prejudicial treatment in the existing avenues of communication can work with others to build their own bodies of knowledge and make good on their formal right to equal treatment in the public arena.

The exercise of isegoria in this way does not require the same rigours of exposure as the classical assembly. Individuals can use their powers to shape speech anonymously and to form communities at will. Self-defined groups, including those currently marginalised, will be able to develop programmes of inquiry and promote political initiatives without having to enter the gendered and prejudicial space of political performance.

Perhaps most crucially, this addition to popular power will enable the citizenry to develop and refine digital platforms that protect anonymity, secure a proper equality in speech, and allow a steady and unrelenting pressure to be exerted on elected officials. We are currently moving from a communicative system dominated by broadcast to one in which digital platforms take a central position. This change is taking place with almost no public debate, as we would expect in an oligarchic system of government.

At the moment, the vast majority of us have nothing but the blunt instrument of the vote, supplemented by protests that the media can describe as they wish, or petitions that representatives can cheerfully ignore. The control of funds to shape public speech will give us a regular opportunity to change the minds of our fellow citizens, and for them to change our minds. Journalists will work directly for their audiences and will therefore be subject to different incentives. This matters because only a citizenry that enjoys substantive isegoria will be able to make sense of contemporary conditions and develop “a cool and deliberate” sense of its wishes, in the face of attempts at subversion by an energetic, intelligent and well-resourced oligarchic opposition.

Isegoria will need popular institutions to safeguard it. Civic juries seem especially promising in this regard. Juries could be used to review the individuals and organizations that seek public funds. These juries would not necessarily be able to proscribe those they disliked, but they would have powers to make their dislike, and the reasons for it, widely known. Juries could also assist in the development of digital platforms that safeguard anonymity, promote civility and equality, and engage positively but unabashedly with the institutions of power.

The partial restoration of the assembly through the autonomous funding of speech, while necessary, will not be sufficient to provide popular interests with effective counterweight to oligarchic power. Isegoria is a matter of equality in public speech. There is no point in each of use being free to address an empty assembly, And while it is vital that we are free to develop and refine forms of speech in self-governing groups, in order to be effective, this speech must find its way into the wider circuits of publicity.

To this end, local assemblies could be convened to discuss the findings of research that residents consider relevant and worthy of more general consideration. “Viewers’ panels” appointed regularly by lot could be used to assess particular fields of inquiry and present edited selections from publicly funded projects on public service media. General votes at regional and national level could be used to similar effect. In this way, the power to discover information will be twinned with the power to shape the distribution of general attention.

Given these powers, we will be able to ensure that public speech – the information and analysis, the criticisms and proposed remedies that reach the ordinarily distracted individuals of a large polity – reflects our concerns and interests. While the citizens of even a small nation state cannot practically convene in the same time and place, securing a degree of popular control over the content found in shared communicative spaces will enable us to approximate the assembly as an experience in daily, democratic life. The oligarchic monopoly on public speech will be broken.

I do not wish to pronounce here on the virtues or defects of other proposals for democratic empowerment through juries, ward assemblies or tribunician offices.[xxix] But the success of all these efforts to revive self-government will depend at least in part, and perhaps to a very considerable extent, on how these institutional forms are understood by broad publics, and on how their day-to-day operations are described. A communicative order that remains effectively oligarchic will have every incentive to persuade audiences that juries and assemblies are misguided or dangerous, or, in a more conciliatory tone, that it is unfair to demand so much from ordinary and inexpert citizens. Without effective isegoria, these necessarily fragmentary and incomplete participatory institutions will be easy meat for the oligarchs.[xxx] It is the universal experience of a right to public speech that brings democratic principle into the realm of lived experience.

Similarly, absent isegoria, competition for office, including for tribunician posts, will still take place around issues the citizenry do not choose. And in circumstances where most people lack first- or second-hand knowledge of the candidates, paid consultants will still be able to build popularly appealing brands around candidates who are resolutely committed to the interests of the oligarchy.

The invigilating citizenry will need to spend time and exercise discretion when deciding how to spend money to improve the general stock of descriptions. And their work will generate rich dividends, in terms of the public good. A sustained attempt to understand and then reform the financial sector, for example, will pay for itself many times over in a more productive and more equal economic order. Similarly, even those who nominally control national tax systems are often woefully ill-informed about them. More careful public scrutiny will lead to better assessment and collection.

So the revival of isegoria is a way to reframe the debate about universal basic income. No one seriously suggests that public relations executives, commissioning editors and elected representatives should work for nothing. If the citizen body takes on some of their responsibilities, then it is only right that it should also be given material support to do so. Besides, if universal payments are not accompanied by powers to inquire into the mainsprings of economic obligation they will soon be devoured by monopoly charges on land in the form of rents and debt repayments. Citizens were paid to attend the assembly and to serve on juries in Athens and it is hard to argue that a modern industrial economy is less able to support widespread public deliberation than an ancient city-state.[xxxi]



The communicative powers proposed above are intended to meet, and ultimately overawe, the power of elected representatives. In another idiom they might be described as a means to make good on a collective right to information that is reasonably safe to believe. The field of descriptions is at least as vulnerable to private enclosure and pollution as the natural environment and the effective preservation of the latter depends crucially on a communicative order characterised by candour and equality of voice. Indeed, we might go so far as to say that the right to participate effectively in the shaping of generally held beliefs is the guarantor of all other rights. We will never be safe while fictions that serve the oligarchy are allowed to roam around unchallenged.

Although the reassertion of isegoria as a constitutional principle might seem unfamiliar and impractical, it offers a number of benefits. In the immediate term, everyone who is interested in constitutional remedies for oligarchy stands to gain from a renewed emphasis on equality in public speech. After all, the success of other reform efforts requires that we create constituency for change that achieves a “communication and a concert” before it alters the form of government. It is not enough to exhort people to be more civic-minded. We must describe the difference that reform will make to the material conditions of life and, wherever possible, inscribe that difference in our organizations.

With this in mind, we might look to promote research that is anti-oligarchical by design. For example, we might create large juries to pursue knowledge of subjects currently characterised by widespread apathy and ignorance. The enlightening impact of material support for deliberation between equals could be subject to both scholarly assessment and dissemination through partnerships with independent media. Even more pointedly, the output from these juries could be compared with the current state of understanding in the relevant academic disciplines. James S. Fishkin and others have given us good reason to think that democratic deliberation helps to refine and improve public opinion.[xxxii] We might also discover that juries are less vulnerable to oligarchic subversion than universities.

An emphasis on isegoria also provides us with a language to connect the cause of constitutional reform with debates about the media. A media-political regime in which radio, large circulation newspapers and, especially, television were central is giving way to one in which digital platforms predominate. The nature of this emerging communicative order is a matter of deep constitutional significance. It is also, as the controversy over “fake news” demonstrates, a matter of serious public concern. But the regulatory impulse is at best aristocratic in spirit, for all its appeal to a certain kind of liberal. As such it is less likely to attract popular support than proposals to make public speech more robustly democratic by opening up its production to the citizen body as a whole.

Isegoria also gives us a way of assessing private initiatives to improve media coverage. To the extent that news media allow their audiences to shape the priorities, and discuss the implications, of their journalism, they begin to re-constitute the media space as an egalitarian assembly. A project like Wikitribune offers us a real world example that can act as a rough working model of a media system that embodies communicative equality, or as a warning of what goes wrong when democracy principle is overlooked.[xxxiii] By focusing on the need to establish equality in speech, constitutional reformers can help to build institutions in the present that make their proposals for state-level change seem increasingly commonsensical.

Without the general right to effective public speech, the oligarchs will regroup and seek to recapture any ground they lose to reformers. Efforts to revive popular power will struggle in a communicative order that is itself hostile to democracy. By giving it a more directly democratic character, isegoria makes constitutional reform to diminish oligarchic power more likely to happen. It also makes it more likely to succeed.


[i] M.I. Finley, Democracy Ancient and Modern (London, 1985), p. 36.

[ii] James Madison, Alexander Hamilton and John Jay, The Federalist Papers (Oxford, 1987), Number 63, p.373.

[iii] ibid, Number 55, p.336. Madison’s claim here is entirely baseless, of course.

[iv] ibid, Number 63, p.371.

[v] ibid, Number 51, p.322.

[vi] ibid, Number 10, p.128.

[vii] ibid, Number 51, p. 321.

[viii] On foreign policy, for example, see Benjamin I. Page and Marshall M. Bouton, The Foreign Policy Disconnect: What Americans Want from Our Leaders But Don’t Get (Chicago, 2006). Extensive US polling data is available on support for public healthcare. See, for example, ‘More American say government should ensure health care coverage’, Kristen Bialik, Pugh Research Center, January 13, 2017.

[ix] As Justin Lewis notes, elected representatives have increased this pressure , thereby making advertising the dominant broadcast genre, “with little consultation or discussion”. Justin Lewis, Beyond Consumer Capitalism: Media and the Limits to Imagination (Cambridge, 2013), p.66. Advertising provides media companies with moment-by-moment intelligence about the preferences of other economic sectors. Meanwhile, a shared structure helps ensure that media companies embrace the existing order of property and its accompanying political mentality.

[x] The digital platforms like Twitter and, especially, Facebook seem to be contradict this claim, at least in part. But they are commercial operations and will no doubt be brought into line with the needs of representatives, who have a very vigorous way with threats to their control of the news agenda. The US-UK secret state has already integrated the major platforms with its programme of information dominance. In the “fake news” drama of early 2017 we can perhaps now see, as if from a great distance, a move by elected representatives to remodel Facebook and Google into orderly means of transmission from themselves to a passive electorate. See, for example Rachel Revesz, ‘Boris Johnson Calls Google Disgusting for Profiting from Extremist Content’, Independent, March 26, 2017.

[xi] In 1985 Walter Karp reported that ‘58 percent of the thirteen-year-olds tested by the National Assessment for Educational Progress think that it is against the law to start a third party in America.’ As he noted, this was not “a sad educational failure” but rather “a remarkably subtle success.” See Walter Karp, Buried Alive: Essays on Our Endangered Republic (New York, 1992), p.54.

[xii] John P. McCormick, Machiavellian Democracy (New York, 2011), p.179.

[xiii] These rights sometimes extend beyond the individual, to encompass collective claims on education, health and other public goods. But they have not been accompanied by popular powers to enforce them. See Geraldine Van Bueren, ‘Take Back Control’, Times Literary Supplement, March 10, 2017, p. 23-5.

[xiv] In the UK a referendum on Scottish independence held at the instigation of that country’s largest party was voted on by 84.6% of the electorate. A referendum on voting reform held at the instigation of one of the smaller national parties, the Liberal Democrats, managed to attract only 42.2% of those eligible to vote.

[xv] Aristotle, The Politics (London, 1992), p.362-3.

[xvi] J.D. Lewis, ‘Isegoria at Athens: Where Did It Begin?’, ‘Historia: Zeitschrift für Alte Geschichte’, BD 20, H.213 (2nd Qtr, 1971), pp. 129-140.

[xvii] Herodotus, Histories (London, 1972), p. 369.

[xviii] Polybius, The Histories (Oxford, 2010), p. 106.

[xix] James Madison, Alexander Hamilton and John Jay, The Federalist Papers (Oxford, 1987), Number 10, p. 126.

[xx] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics (London, 1976), p. 64.

[xxi] Office is a particularly gratifying kind of property, even if the owners prefer not to describe it as such. Still, possession of office is rarely enough on its own. The media look to party leaders for cues on whose words are newsworthy.

[xxii] Niccolò Machiavelli, Discourses on Livy (Oxford, 1997), p. 40.

[xxiii] See, for example, Andrew Sullivan’s recent, widely praised revival of Plato’s highfalutin gibberish about the perils of democratic power, broadcast on January 18th, 2017 by Newsnight, BBC television’s main late night news analysis programme. It is available on Newsnight’s Youtube channel with the title, “What can Plato teach us about Donald Trump?”

[xxiv] Brendan Nyhan. ‘Why More Democrats are Embracing Conspiracy Theories’, New York Times, February 15, 2017.

[xxv] I am very conscious that this is to draw on a very narrow and problematic range of sources. Democracy was not invented by the Athenians out of nowhere and there many other democratic traditions that repay study. But Athens is useful to democrats, as oligarchs know all too well.

[xxvi] We do not want or need to ban oligarchic speech. We only need to provide a check and balance in the form of democratic speech.

[xxvii] Richard D. Brown, The Strength of a People: The Idea of an Informed Citizenry in America, 1650-1870 (Chapel Hill, 1996), p.56.

[xxviii] The current relationship between elected officials and economic power is clearly one of master and slave, even if it is maddeningly difficult to work out which is which.

[xxix] I will say that I hope that juries will be convened to make a permanent study of credit, communication and the corporate form, healthcare and land use.

[xxx] Elite hostility to popular innovations is amply documented. See, for example, Lawrence LeDuc, ‘How and Why Electoral Reform Fails: Evaluating the Canadian Experience’, presented at the ECPR Joint Sessions Workshops, Lisbon, April 14-19, 2009, available online at

[xxxi] In time the majority might decide to relieve investment managers and banking executives of their duties. This will free up fresh resources to pay the public for the great work of democratic self-government. It will also occasion the hard-pressed masters of the universe a much-needed rest.

[xxxii] James F. Fishkin, When the People Speak: Deliberative Democracy and Public Consultation (New York, 2011)



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