Hannah Arendt: The Trouble With Representative Government in the US

Why does radical reform only come about on the heels of a desperate grassroots movement? Why do people need to starve before policies are changed? In this column, I take a look at political philosopher Hannah Arendt’s conception of the public sphere and the map it presents us today.

In my view, Arendt presents a truly innovative way of conceiving of society often ignored in the tussle between liberal and conservative politics. In a radical way, Arendt cuts down both the traditional conservative view or libertarian view of society, that people’s lives should be totally free of politics and government influence, and the traditional liberal view that government’s role is to care for the people. Drawing on the Greek ideal of the polis or the public sphere, Arendt explains that neither is correct. Instead, all life, outside of one’s personal life, is political. And freedom can hardly be conceived of less it be understood in the context of a political society and public sphere. In addition, she explains that government should not be a body which decides for people – it should be a body which is comprised of people, who decide for themselves what kind of society they will live in. According to Arendt, as long as people are cared for rather than given a space to care for themselves true democracy will always be an unborn ideal.

Arendt and Civil Society

Russian dissident and post-communist scholar Vladimir Tismaneanu defines civil society “as the ensemble of grassroots, spontaneous, nongovernmental (although not necessarily antigovernmental) initiatives from below that emerge in the post-totalitarian order as a result of a loosening of state controls and the decline of the ideological constraints imposed by the ruling parties.”[1] He quotes Moshe Lewin in writing that civil society is comprised of “networks and institutions that either exist and act independently of the state or are official organizations capable of developing their own spontaneous views….” Advocates of civil society join together a group of private citizens, attempting to “control it and to limit” the “expansionist drive” of the state, according to Lewin. Indeed, Tismaneanu holds that among the keys to transforming society into one that is sufficiently open is “the formation of a political elite (class), which despite all natural divergences would be able to agree on the ultimate value characteristic of an open society, including the role of the market, the protection of the individual, and the indispensable guarantees for minorities.”[2]

It’s understandable why those who experienced human rights violations under the Soviet Union are suspicious of government expansion. But it seems as if they are placing too much confidence in the private sphere, where corporate domination and elite rule has proven to be closely akin to the elite control of the communist government. Private networks also have the ability to subvert true democratic discourse, creating a hegemonic totalitarian order all of their own. A clear example of the unjust domination of the public sphere by private interests is depicted in the documentary “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.” The work documents the CIA’s backing of an attempted coup against the democratically elected and popularly supported president Hugo Chavez. The work details how privately owned enterprises, specifically media enterprises, were used to manufacture a coup attempt, manipulating the military, government, and people at the expense of democracy. This of course is the inversion of the problem presented by communism; but capitalism has presented a similar problem with the domination originating in the private sphere among moneyed elites only to seep directly into the government via the high-cost game of lobbying and public relations. The problems we face in a “free” nation like the United States are made clear by Hannah Arendt’s concept of the civil society and the public sphere. She shows the dangers when too great a power is given to private interests in the public sphere.

Arendt believes the Greek model of democracy around the polis is ideal. Against those who believe government must be abolished in order for freedom to reign, Arendt explains that you cannot abolish political life in the public sphere. It is everywhere. According to the Greeks, once you stepped beyond the private sphere of your household and family life, you stepped into the public-political realm. The attitude that the people should leave the public realm or political affairs up to one leader was viewed as a form of tyranny.[3]The participation in the political realm was, according to the Greeks, at the very heart of liberty. Whereas many today see freedom as a place where the government does not dwell and politics are unspoken, the Greeks understood that all outside of the home and family was political; that “political faculty” was “the very essence of freedom,” and to be deprived of such was to be deprived of freedom.[4]

Beyond Representative Government in the US

Arendt (like Habermas) points to the rise of special interests, which originate in the private sphere, and how they corrupt the public sphere. Arendt explains that since voters operate from a private perspective, they fail to truly become part of the public sphere, and, as a result, fail to act as members of a community: “Through pressure groups, lobbies, and other devices, the voters can indeed influence the actions of their representatives with respect to interest, that is, they can force their representatives to execute their wishes at the expense of the wishes and interests of other groups of voters. In all these instances the voter acts out of concern with his private life and well-being, and the residue of power he still holds in his hands resembles rather the reckless coercion with which a blackmailer forces his victim into obedience than the power that arises out of joint action and joint deliberation.”[5] This is certainly the trouble with representative government in the United States.

Having good representatives isn’t enough. In fact, if you think about it, how on earth can individuals honestly represent the interests of such large bodies of people and their vast views?  Moreover, how involved are we really? We vote, choosing candidate A or B. We have our views expressed via polls. We side with MSNBC over FOX News. Let’s face it, representative government isn’t all its cracked up to be.

Arendt complains that in a representative government the masses and even individuals have nothing more than moods, not reasoned opinions, because they are not true participants in public life. “In this system the opinions of the people are indeed unascertainable for the simple reason that they are non-existent. Opinions are formed in a process of open discussion and public debate, and where no opportunity for the forming of opinions exists, there may be moods-moods of the masses and moods of individuals, the later no less fickle and unreliable than the former-but no opinion.”[6] In a parliamentary government, writes Arendt, the role of the party has been to supply the government with enough support to justify its “right” to act on behalf of the governed. In this way, voting is merely the formal allocation of the individual’s right to act to the government.[7]

Instead of being encouraged to participate in the continual evolution of their society, citizens in the United States are urged to respect the laws and Constitution of our government as a Christian respects the Bible. But, in her essay, “The Revolutionary Tradition and Its Lost Treasure,” Arendt explains that Thomas Jefferson was reluctant to support the Constitution because he wished to preserve the foundational fervor found among those who were literally creating their own nation. Jefferson and Thomas Paine were aware of the absurdity of presuming to have the knowledge and the right to create a new nation and body of laws which future generations would forever be bound by. Paine went so far as to state that it would be terrible if America went more than twenty years without a rebellion. He was specifically referencing the Shay’s rebellion in Massachusetts, which he thought was misguided. Nevertheless he wrote that “the tree of liberty must be refreshed, from time to time, with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure.”[8]

One of Arendt’s main concerns is the way in which revolutions had missed opportunities to create a true revolution of systems. Time and time again, revolutions, including the American revolution, failed to recognize the township or council model of governance, in which all citizens are permitted freedom not merely to exist in a kind of happy state, privately; but also have the public freedom to participate in the decision making process. Even Jefferson was aware of the shortcomings of the codification of the American Revolution. He knew “that the Revolution, while it had given freedom to the people,” writes Arendt, “had failed to provide a space where this freedom could be exercised. Only the representatives of the people, not the people themselves, had an opportunity to engage in those activities of ‘expressing, discussing, and deciding’ which in a positive sense are the activities of freedom.”[9] The design of even the state and administrative governments were incompatible with direct citizen participation; the people’s delegates, not the people themselves, came to constitute the public realm: “But state government and even the administrative machinery of the country were by far too large and unwieldy to permit immediate participation; in all these institutions, it was the delegates of the people rather than the people themselves who constituted the public realm, whereas those who delegated them and who, theoretically, were the source and the seat of power remained forever outside its doors.”[10]

According to Arendt, public happiness and freedom are dependent upon having a share in public power: “If the ultimate end of revolution was freedom and the constitution of a public space where freedom could appear…then the elementary republics of the wards, the only tangible place where everyone could be free, actually were the end of the great republic whose chief purpose in domestic affairs should have been to provide the people with such places of freedom and to protect them. The basic assumption of the ward system, whether Jefferson knew it or not, was that no one could be called happy without his share in public happiness, that no one could be called free without his experience in public freedom, and that no one could be called either happy or free without participating, and having a share, in public power.”[11]

Before we set out to remake or even just reform our nation, let’s have a clear vision of what we want it to look like when we’re done. Let’s not aim to bring an end to government; let’s not aim to use government to care for others; let’s aim to reclaim the very idea of citizenship and make each person part of the decision making process, part of a government. It’s time for the American public to revolt and take back the power to decide for itself. 


Jeff Nall is writer, activist, academic, and speaker. His book, Perpetual Revolt: Essays on Peace & Justice and The Shared Values of Secular, Spiritual, and Religious Progressives (Howling Dog Press, 250 pages, $15.95), is available at his website: www.JeffNall.com. Email: PublicRevolt@yahoo.com


1. Vladimir Tismaneanu, Reinventing Politics: Eastern Europe from Stalin to Havel (New York: The Free Press, 1992), 171.

2. Tismaneanu, 287.

3. Hannah Arendt, Between Past and Future (New York: Penguin Classics, 1993), 104-105.

4. Ibid., 105.

5. Hannah Arendt, “The Revolutionary Tradition and Its Lost Treasure,” The Portable Hannah Arendt (New York: Penguin Classics, 2003), 525.

6. Ibid., 524-525.

7. Ibid., 527.

8. Quoted in Arendt, “The Revolutionary Tradition and Its Lost Treasure,” 509.

9. Arendt, “The Revolutionary Tradition and Its Lost Treasure,” 511.

10.Ibid., 513.

11. Ibid., 516.