Popular Sovereignty and Populism

people-people-people-1439564How can “The People” (a dispersed and ever changing collective) be the highest source of authority in a political community? This is the question that motivates my work, and it leads to the backbone of my research program: the concept of popular sovereignty. Understanding how or whether the people can be sovereign is central for understanding democracy. In the last ten years there has been a surge of interest in this question, which has important consequences for debates over identity and membership, constitutionalism, and populism. I have contributed to these debates by studying popular sovereignty from three interrelated perspectives: one historical, which seeks to understand how “the people” became the sovereign over time; one contemporary, which seeks to understand who precisely are the people in contemporary democratic theory; and one comparative, which studies how the problems in the concept of popular sovereignty have been dealt with in different areas of the world.

1. Popular Sovereignty in the History of Political Thought

This project seeks to understand the historical origins of the concept of popular sovereignty. The project started as a dissertation entitled: The Time of the People: Political Theology and the Democratic State. The project was structured around Carl Schmitt’s influential thesis that sovereignty is a “secularized theological concept.” According to Schmitt, the concept of sovereignty cannot be thoroughly secular due to the structure of the arguments in which the concept is embedded, and thus, democracy retains a trace of divine command. This autocratic element surfaces in exceptional circumstances, when rulers make sovereign decisions. In the dissertation, I challenged this thesis. I turned to neglected thinkers in our philosophical tradition, such as Nicholas Cusanus, Henri Bergson, and Alfred North Whitehead, to look for alternative views on the sovereignty of God and state. With their help, I argued that the thesis of political theology does not entail Schmitt’s conclusion either logically or historically: the concept of popular sovereignty is related to religious formulations, but does not depend on them.This thesis advances the debates over the historical origin of sovereignty because it provides an argument against sovereign “exceptionalism” from a new perspective. While liberal thinkers simply ignore religious influences in arguments legitimizing the state by resorting to the idea of “political not-metaphysical” foundations, and proponents of “political theology” often hold that there is an unbridgeable gap between reason and revelation, in this project I argued that the influence of religious thinking comes from many historical and philosophical sources, and some sources (notably those that include panentheistic conceptions of God) are more compatible with democracy than others.This project produced four published papers: “World Citizenship vs. State Sovereignty: Decisionism, Political Theology and the Possibility of Democracy without a State”(Distinktion. Scandinavian Journal of Social Theory), “On Political Theology and the Possibility of Superseding It”(Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy), “Does Political Theology Entail Decisionism? (Philosophy and Social Criticism), and “Creative Freedom: Henri Bergson and Democratic Theory” (Bergson, Religion and Politics, Duke University Press). Even though my current research takes a more contemporary focus, I maintain an active interest in the question of political theology and the secularization of the concept of sovereignty. I hope to return to these questions in the future, and finish two unpublished papers, one on the thought of Nicholas Cusanus, and another on Claude Lefort’s political theology entitled “Between a Rock and an Empty Place.”

2. Popular Sovereignty and “The People” in Contemporary Democratic Theory

This is my primary research project, which builds on my dissertation research. It also deals with popular sovereignty, but this time from a contemporary perspective. It seeks to understand who are “The People” in a democracy, and how to deal with a crucial difficulty at the heart of the contemporary democratic theory: In a democracy, by definition, the demos or “People” is sovereign, but it is impossible to define democratically who precisely the people are. It is impossible, because to honor the principle of equality that animates democracy, everybody should participate in the decision of who gets to belong to the demos. But if we need an election to delimit the demos, how do we choose the electors? I call this “the problem of popular indeterminacy.” In political theory, the problem matters because it destabilizes the people, which is a basic assumption of ideal liberal democracy as formulated by Dahl and Rawls. In practice, the problem arises when immigrants, or the disenfranchised challenge practices of membership; or when politicians and revolutionaries appeal to the people to legitimize their claims to power. In my book, The Time of Popular Sovereignty: Process and the Democratic State (Penn State University Press, 2011), I argued that to deal with this problem, the people cannot be conceived as a collection of individuals; rather, the people should be seen as a series of events, an ongoing process unfolding in time. This thesis advances a debate on the problem of indeterminacy that has been raging in the last decade. Scholars such as Ackerman and Habermas had proposed that we conceive the people as a procedure within institutional state mechanisms, but their critics, such as Kalyvas and Mouffe have argued that this view of institutional procedure makes the sovereign people, who starts a revolution or creates a new state, unintelligible. My idea of the “people as process” allows us to interpret the popular sovereign within and outside institutional constraints over time. This conclusion contributes to debates on identity and membership, constitutionalism, and populism.

This project evolved into a second project of populism. I edited The Oxford Handbook of Populism with Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser, Paul Taggart and Pierre Ostiguy. I contributed a paper on “Populism and the Idea of the People” to the volume and wrote a couple of follow up papers : “Re-examining ‘The People’ in the Theory of Populism,” (in  Latin America Since the Left Turn. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017) and “Power to Whom? The People between Procedure and Populism” (in The Promise and Perils of Populism: Global Perspectives. UKP, 2015).

3. Popular Sovereignty in Comparative Perspective

My third project evolves from the previous one. It retains popular indeterminacy as a research problem, but uses a different methodology to deal with it. In this project I use Comparative Political Theory to understand how the idea of popular sovereignty has shaped the politics and history of Latin America, and how it differs from the concept in the United States and Western Europe. In my current research on people and territory, I have found a rich vein of material in the concept of el pueblo. “Pueblo” can be translated into English as “the people” or “the town,” and it has a special status in traditional Spanish legal thinking. A pueblo is a corporation with legal personhood, which is composed of neighbors or vecinos. A vecino enjoyed a type of territorially bound citizenship, based on performance, rather than filial ties or place of origin. I think that a contemporary elaboration of this form of membership could help us navigate the current tension between universal human rights and popular sovereignty because it better conforms to liberal democratic principles than do identity-based conceptions of membership. So far this project has produced one published article: “Paradoxes of Popular Sovereignty: A view from Spanish America” (The Journal of Politics). I am excited about this project, and suspect that fully developing this idea could keep me busy for years to come.