Why the people must be sovereign
Anti-populists denigrate democracy and render citizenship meaningless.
Sociologist and social commentator
Anti-populist rhetoric in the 21st century is not unlike the anti-democratic invective hurled against the people in Ancient Athens. Both are inspired by contempt towards the people, those whom classical philosophers called ‘the many’.
Such condescension towards the many was accompanied by the belief that politics is best conducted by ‘the few’. Anti-populist ideologues – then and now – are therefore profoundly anti-majoritarian. They assume that the many, who constitute the majority, will use their potential power to intimidate and coerce everyone else. Today, such anti-populist sentiments are common currency in political- and cultural-elite circles. Take, for example, this passage from a recent comment piece:
‘Populists abhor restraints on the political executive. Since they claim to represent “the people” writ large, they regard limits on their exercise of power as necessarily undermining the popular will. Such constraints can only serve the “enemies of the people” – minorities and foreigners (for right-wing populists) or financial elites (in the case of left-wing populists). This is a dangerous approach to politics, because it allows a majority to ride roughshod over the rights of minorities.’
It is important to note that the supposed threat posed by the tyrannical behaviour of the majority is being used to justify anti-majoritarian politics and institutions.
Moreover, to legitimate the rule of the few, anti-populist crusaders often question and criticise three ideals: popular sovereignty, democracy and citizenship. During their history, these three ideals have often been interlinked. Already in Ancient Athens, the concept of the demos was closely associated with that of citizenship and with the belief that citizens own their government (1). In response, limiting the role of the citizen and downgrading its moral status was, and continues to be, the hallmark of the oligarchical anti-populist outlook.
Popular sovereignty is founded on the conviction that the legitimacy of the state is created by the will or consent of its people. From this standpoint, it is the people who are the source of all political power. And it is this that has disturbed those who believe that politics ought to be mainly the affair of experts and the elites. Anti-populists’ preference for the few over the many is also motivated by their negative view of the capability of the masses, whom they deem unable or unfit to influence the direction of society. Hence popular sovereignty is perceived as a threat to society – indeed, a threat to the maintenance of order and political stability.
Even some liberal-minded critics express reservations about the role of popular sovereignty. They recognise that the legitimacy of a government depends on its capacity to gain public consent for its actions and policies. Indeed, they rhetorically affirm democracy. But their affirmation is restricted and caveated. This was the case even during the American and French Revolutions, when the modern concept of popular sovereignty gained prominence.
Differing attitudes towards popular sovereignty are determined by an assessment of the intellectual and moral capacities of the people. Most commentaries on popular sovereignty express the belief that the many cannot be trusted to play a constructive role in public life. Popular sovereignty is dismissed not only as an abstraction but also as a fiction used to enable ‘the few to govern the many’ (2). Anti-populist writers assert that the people invariably become pawns of a manipulative elite.
Even Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who is often credited with being one of the principal founders of the modern ideal of popular sovereignty, had profound reservations about the ability of the people to assume control over the affairs of the state. Rousseau argued that:
‘…if we take the term in the strict sense, there never has been a real democracy, and never will be. It is against the natural order for the many to govern and the few to be governed. It is unimaginable that the people should remain continually assembled to devote their time to public affairs, and it is clear that they cannot set up commissions for that purpose without the form of administration being changed.’ (3)
Rousseau also believed that a ‘democratic sovereign assembly would inevitably fail and be corrupted’. He proposed a new kind of democracy, one in which citizens ‘could be the true legislators in fundamental matters but leave the less fundamental ones to their agents’ (4).
Since the 18th century, most Western societies have attempted to reconcile popular sovereignty with parliamentary sovereignty, through a form of representative democracy. However, for many anti-majoritarian commentators even parliamentary sovereignty is too directly influenced by the will of the people. Consequently, they often prefer to look to the judiciary, the courts, experts and transnational institutions to minimise the influence of popular opinion on the work of decision-makers. As one account of the workings of this outsourcing of political decision making in postwar Europe explained:
‘Insulation from popular pressures and, more broadly, a deep distrust of popular sovereignty, underlay not just the beginnings of European integration, but the political reconstruction of Western Europe after 1945 in general… the “postwar constitutional settlement” was all about distancing European polities from ideals of parliamentary sovereignty and delegating power to unelected bodies, such as constitutional courts, or to the administrative state as such.’ (5)
An important unelected body – not mentioned above – is that of the transnational institution, many of which have only emerged over the past few decades. Think of international courts, of the EU, the IMF and the UN – they all implicitly and, increasingly, explicitly call into question sovereignty and the role of a citizen. Such institutions are themselves championed by advocates of globalism, for whom the free circulation of goods, services and people, and the ascendancy of human-rights law, have undermined the meaning of national or state sovereignty (6). This undermining goes hand in hand with the de-authorising of popular sovereignty and devaluation of citizenship.
The attempt to de-nationalise the people
In recent decades anti-populist arguments questioning the wisdom and competence of the masses have been supplemented by the claim that popular sovereignty encourages unhealthy expressions of nationalism. Since the 1940s, nationalist sentiment has often been represented as almost indistinguishable from the ideologies that led to the rise of fascism. Alternatively nationalism, even just the taking of pride in one’s nation or national identity, is often portrayed as a form of discrimination or prejudice.
Presenting national identity as a sign of xenophobia allows critics to devalue popular sovereignty by association. So as one critic of popular sovereignty notes, ‘Even a brief glance at modern history suggests that there is an important connection between popular sovereignty and the rise and spread of nationalism. For wherever popular sovereignty leads, nationalism seems to follow.’ (7) From this standpoint the promotion of popular sovereignty leads to the ‘nationalisation, or culturalisation, of politics’, which, it is supposed, is likely to lead to the oppression of minorities and foreigners.
The current anti-nationalist critique of popular sovereignty recycles the old fear of the tyranny of the majority as the exclusion of a minority by an ethnically or culturally different majority. The old complaints about the tyrannical behaviour of the many have been supplemented by the assertion that their national affiliation is also likely to make them xenophobic and exclusionary. That is why current attacks on popular sovereignty are closely allied to the denunciation of national sovereignty.
The association of exclusionary impulses with national identity rests on the belief that it is fundamentally wrong to afford rights to the citizens of a nation that are denied to non-citizens. From this standpoint, the exclusion of non-citizens or total strangers from the electoral franchise, for instance, is similar to discriminating against someone on the basis of race, ethnicity or religion. According to one account, citizenship is arbitrary, since ‘none of us chose our place of birth, and we deserve neither advantages nor disadvantages for it’ (8).
The devaluation of the status of citizenship
Anti-populist arguments are not simply directed towards the people, then, but the citizen, too. Critics of populism frequently assert that people living in a particular nation state should have no special rights relative to the territory they inhabit. Citizens and foreigners alike should enjoy the same privileges. Historian and political theorist Josiah Ober marshalls cosmopolitan and global-justice arguments against ‘state-based restrictions on immigration and rights of citizenship’, which he regards as ‘inherently illegitimate’ (9). Such arguments aim to de-nationalise the people inhabiting a common geographical space, and detach citizenship from any special rights and duties.
The philosopher Seyla Benhabib offers a cosmopolitan critique of national citizenship. She views ‘each individual as equally entitled to moral respect and concern; legally, cosmopolitanism considers each individual as a legal person entitled to the protection of basic human rights in virtue of their moral personality and not on account of their citizenship or other membership status’ (10). From this standpoint, what matters are individuals and not people. Their rights are underwritten by a transnational humanitarian ethos, which apparently trumps the status possessed by a citizen of a nation.
The anti-populist, transnational imagination is not simply hostile to the people but also to the ideal of the citizen. It delegitimises national citizenship by idealising a global and transnational humanity where every individual is afforded the same rights and privileges. By projecting human rights as fundamental, the rights of a national citizenry are presented as secondary. That is why, from a transnational cosmopolitan perspective, the rights of citizenship ought not to possess any advantages over those rights to which all humans are entitled.
Outwardly human rights are about the promotion and protection of the right of each individual human being. However, human-rights advocates simultaneously downsize popular and national sovereignty, and weaken the status of citizenship. They explicitly argue that their laws efface the distinction between nations and between citizens and non-citizens. As sociologist Saskia Sassen puts it:
‘Human rights are not dependent on nationality, unlike political, social and civil rights, which are predicated on the distinction between national and alien. Human rights override such distinctions and hence can be seen as potentially contesting state sovereignty and devaluing citizenship.’ (11)
Sassen contends that, with the ascendancy of human-rights institutions and laws and the growth of mass immigration, a ‘shift of rights of individuals regardless of nationality has occurred’. She adds that ‘in accumulating social, civic and even some political rights in countries of residence, immigrants have diluted the meaning of citizenship and the specialness of the claims that citizens can make on the state’ (12). Mass immigration, then, and the rights that human-rights conventions assign to migrants, are seen by cosmopolitan thinkers as a force that implicitly corrodes national sovereignty.
In reality, the cosmopolitan de-nationalisation of citizenship does not only empty citizenship of any meaning — it also deprives politics of any real content. Citizenship and its exercise are fundamental to the workings of a democratic society. Citizens possess important political rights, and also have responsibilities and duties towards other members of their community. Though the possession of citizenship through birth may seem arbitrary, it should still be seen as an inheritance that a citizen shares with others. That common inheritance among members of a nation state provides the foundation for solidarity.
Moreover, citizenship, essentially a civic institution, is inherited by everyone who is born into it, including the children of families of former immigrants. This identification with the nation helps citizens – old and new – acquire a sense of intergenerational continuity, indeed a bond not just with one’s contemporaries, but with one’s predecessors, too. It is this that gives a certain confidence to a democratic society, a sense that despite differences, citizens are bound by a deep sense of commonality. As Margaret Canovan cautioned critics of national identity:
‘Nations are not just common worlds; they are inherited common worlds, sustained by the facts of birth and the mythology of blood… this natal element in political allegiance is crucially important, and is regularly forgotten by political theorists anxious to recommend a non-national version of political community.’ (13)
As the political philosopher Hannah Arendt explained, the inheritance of a common world binds people together in a manner that allows them to identify with one another and with their public institutions. This forging of a bond with others allows citizens to develop a sense of solidarity and take responsibility for the welfare and future of their society.
Criticism of national sovereignty and of the status of citizenship is often made through appealing to the superiority of universal and humanitarian values. However, universalism becomes a caricature of itself when it is transformed into a metaphysical force that stands above prevailing institutions through which human beings make sense of the world. The attempt to de-territorialise sovereignty and citizenship rights reduces people to their most abstract individual qualities. And, in doing so, they are deprived of any of the cultural values through which they give their lives meaning.
Humanity does not live above or beyond the boundaries and institutions it created through great struggle and effort. That is why Arendt insisted that a citizen’s ‘rights and duties must be defined and limited, not only by those of his fellow citizens, but also by the boundaries of a territory’. As she explained:
‘Politics deals with men, nationals of many countries and heirs to many pasts; its laws are the positively established fences which hedge in, protect, and limit the space in which freedom is not a concept, but a living political reality. The establishment of one sovereign world state, far from being the prerequisite for world citizenship, would be the end of all citizenship. It would not be the climax of world politics, but quite literally its end.’ (14)
Whatever its advocates’ motives, the project of de-territorialising citizenship and weakening national sovereignty represents a grave threat to democracy and public life. Whatever one thinks of nation states, there can be no democratic public life outside their confines. It is only as citizens interacting with one another, within a geographically bounded entity, that democratic decision-making can work and achieve remarkable results.
Narrow nationalism is a scourge on public life. But identification with people born into a common world is the main way that solidarity between people can acquire a dynamic political character. People exercising their citizenship rights have interests that are specific to their circumstances and which provide the foundation of their solidarity. If they were dispossessed of those interests, they would unwittingly destroy the public space within which they are able to act as responsible citizens. Paradoxically, the best protection for refugees is provided by nation states, where citizens feel confident about their role and where, as a result, they are able to extend their solidarity to those beyond their national borders.
No doubt the relationship between the many and the few will continue to be a source of bitter controversy, which is why it is so important to challenge the influence of anti-populist culture in Western society. The concept of popular sovereignty retains its significance in the battle to re-appropriate democratic values. Fighting for it does not demand an uncritical stance towards the people. Instead, to attain a higher degree of popular sovereignty requires the transformation of the people into responsible citizens. It is only by acting as citizens that sovereign individuals can influence their destiny.
It is important to remind ourselves that popular sovereignty today cannot be separated from national sovereignty. The conduct of public life and the development of democratic institutions presuppose a solidarity that is in part achieved through an identification with the common world into which members of a polity have been born. Unlike the so-called citizen of the world, whose relationship to others is entirely biological, those who are members of a national polity share a political destiny. Only a sovereign people can potentially influence the future direction of a world it shares in common.
Frank Furedi is a sociologist and commentator. His latest book, Populism And The Culture Wars In Europe: The Conflict Of Values Between Hungary and the EU, is published by Routledge. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)
(1) Demopolis: Democracy Before Liberalism in Theory and Practice, by J Ober, Cambridge University Press, 2017, p30
(2) See Inventing the People: The Rise of Popular Sovereignty in England, by Edmund Morgan, WW Norton, 1988
(3) Cited in The Sleeping Sovereign: The Invention of Modern Democracy?, by R Tuck, Cambridge University Press, 2016, p134
(4) Cited in The Sleeping Sovereign: The Invention of Modern Democracy?, by R Tuck, Cambridge University Press, 2016, pp140-142
(5) ‘Beyond Militant Democracy’, by Muller, J-W, in New Left Review, 73, 2012
(6) See the discussion in ‘A reappraisal of the state sovereignty debate: The case of migration control’, by V Guiraudon and G Lahav, in Comparative Political Studies, 33(2), 2000, pp163-195
(7) ‘Popular sovereignty and nationalism’, B Yack, in Political Theory, 29(4), 2001
(8) See Global Political Philosophy, by M Risse, Palgrave, 2016, p160
(9) Demopolis: Democracy Before Liberalism in Theory and Practice, by J Ober, Cambridge University Press, 2017, pp168-9
(10) ‘The new Sovereigntism and Transnational Law: Legal Utopianism, Democratic Scepticism and Statist Realism’, by S Benhabib, in Global Constitutionalism, 5(1), 2016, pp113-114
(11) Losing control? Sovereignty In An Age of Globalisation, by S Sassen, Columbia University Press, 1996, p92
(12) Losing control? Sovereignty In An Age of Globalisation, by S Sassen, Columbia University Press, 1996, pp92-96
(13) ‘Is there an Arendtian case for the nation‐state?’, by M Canovan, in Contemporary Politics, 5(2), 1999, p108
(14) Men in Dark Times, by H Arendt, Harvest Books, 1970. p81