Myths of parliamentarism

Myths of parliamentarism

If its domination became widely appreciated and its implications recognised, then this could then debunk, and thus de-legitimate, the underlying myth of parliamentarism as the pre-eminent means for democratic self-governance through open deliberation by the people’s elected representatives.

Schmitt implies that constitutional analysis thus needs to both see through and look behind the mythic images of liberal constitutionalism by subjecting the actual practice of decision-making to disenchanted scrutiny. This would address the implications of the silent power of specific vested interests to influence – if not always entirely control – the political process. This is combined with the near-autonomy of a majority government in relation to a legislature comprised almost exclusively of representatives controlled, in practice, by powerful party machines.

According to Schmitt, these material factors, undergirded and disguised by mythic beliefs, render Parliamentary proceedings little more than ‘an antechamber’ to the corridors of power controlled by society’s ‘invisible rulers’. Contradicting belief in parliamentary governance taking place through free and open discussion, the practice of modern government is – if anything – far more secretive and subject to extended arcane practices than ever before. From Schmitt’s perspective, there is thus a need for a close and critical comparison between the contents of these mythic beliefs and empirically ascertainable practices of governance, followed by a close sociological study of the nature of the ideological functions performed by such myths. For Schmitt, myths of parliamentary sovereignty and ‘government by discussion’ are major topics for a realistic form of constitutional analysis insofar as they can be shown to effectively shield the operation of concealed extra-parliamentary power (Schmitt 1988: 7).

Schmitt contrasts the normative expectations expressed and implied by a continuing myth of a discursively achieved ‘rational balance’ within legislative debate, with what he claims has become the comparatively debased reality of law-making within a mass democracy dominated by party political machines (Schmitt 1988: 67–72). Parliament has degenerated in a mere ‘show case’ for party political contests and a training ground for careerist politicians anxious to build up their own power base (Schmitt 1928: 325). Through an evocative image, Schmitt notes that the legitimations of parliamentarism in ‘deliberative’ terms – themselves predicated on the essentially independent judgement of individual legislators – cannot even be articulated, at least not without immediately raising doubts as to their continued pertinence and overall credibility. Yet, the rhetorical effectiveness of these myths lies precisely in their capacity to forestall such critical reflection. Although political myths typically deploy striking imagery, emblems and symbolism to both convey and naturalise their messages as self-evident truths, Schmitt’s graphic rhetoric reverses this strategy:

Many norms of contemporary parliamentary law, above all provisions concerning the independence of the representatives and the openness of sessions, function as a result like a superfluous decoration, useless and even embarrassing, as though someone has painted the radiator of a modern central heating system with red flames in order to give the appearance of a blazing fire.

(Schmitt 1988: 6)

In making this criticism, Schmitt is not committed to accepting the mythic image of parliamentary deliberation as true, in the sense of historically accurate. Instead, he claims only that his account of the myth’s contents and implications, which draws upon classic intellectual-ideological sources of liberal constitutionalism, is a historically accurate reconstruction. Schmitt suggests that an empirically appropriate characterisation of political myths formulated as part of a specific constitutional rationale can, in principle, provide jurists with a resource for conducting a strictly ‘immanent’ form of institutional criticism: one that contrasts the mythic rationale with evidence of the institutional reality, and thereby exposes a range of possible discrepancies (Pearson and Salter 1999).

Given this context, a Schmittian form of constitutional scholarship subjects to a decidedly critical form of analysis the mythic claim that independent representatives of ‘the people’ meet and debate divergent ideas concerning policies, and thereby decide matters of state on the basis of the outcomes of rational argumentation, counter-argument and persuasion. This myth has become, to a greater or lesser extent, an enduring legend. Because it plays a specific function in terms of the legitimation of concrete power relations, it merits recognition as a distinctly political myth.

One goal of Schmitt’s public law analysis of belief in parliamentarism is to formulate an analytical model capable of explaining how a constitutional rationale of this liberal type has attained a mythical status. Another is to assess its actual and potential concrete implications for questions of the legitimacy of the legislation and constitutional processes.