Agents of Popular Sovereignty

Published date01 June 2019
Date01 June 2019
Subject MatterArticle
Political Theory
2019, Vol. 47(3) 338 –362
© The Author(s) 2018
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/0090591718786232
Agents of Popular
Fabio Wolkenstein1,2
Popular sovereignty requires that citizens perceive themselves as being able
to act and implement decisions, and that they are de facto causally connected
to mechanisms of decision making. I argue that the two most common
understandings of the exercise of popular sovereignty—which center on
direct decision making by the people as a whole and the indirect exercise of
democratic agency by elected representatives, respectively—are inadequate
in this respect, and go on to suggest a complementary account that stresses
the central role of internally democratic and participatory political parties in
actualising popular sovereignty, drawing on the democratic theory of Hans
popular sovereignty, political parties, Hans Kelsen, the people, intra-party
Popular sovereignty is the doctrine upon which modern democracy is built.
Its central idea is that a democratic polity is one in which power ultimately
vests in “the people.” In the earliest writings on the topic, perhaps most
famously in the work of Jean Bodin, this is not taken to mean that the people
actively engages in collective self-rule.1 While the people is conceived as the
subject to whose will the original constitution of the polity can be traced, it is
also made clear that that subject is normally ruled by others, becoming active
1Aarhus Universitet, Institut for Statskundskab, Aarhus, Denmark
2Universiteit van Amsterdam, Faculteit der Maatschappij-en Gedragswetenschappen,
Amsterdam, Netherlands
Corresponding Author:
Fabio Wolkenstein, Assistant Professor of Political Science, Aarhus Universitet Institut for
Statskundskab, Political Science, Bartholins Allé 7, Aarhus, DK 8000, Denmark.
786232PTXXXX10.1177/0090591718786232Political TheoryWolkenstein
Wolkenstein 339
only in periods of constitutional founding or change. Later accounts of popu-
lar sovereignty tend to advocate a more agentive view of the people.2 Most of
these accounts likewise declare the people the final authority over the consti-
tution, but they do not limit its exercise of agency to the exceptional moments
when the basic shape of the polity is articulated and re-articulated. Instead,
popular sovereignty is taken also to extend to “ordinary” democratic law-
making, the business of parliaments and parties.
This second, more agentive understanding of popular sovereignty is argu-
ably more widespread today than the earlier, more restrictive view, at least in
the sense that few would agree that a polity whose members are given no say
in ordinary law-making can be called democratic.3 How exactly can the peo-
ple exercise political agency on a regular basis? If we follow the larger part
of theoretical scholarship on the topic, we find that two different answers are
available. The first holds that popular sovereignty properly conceived can be
exercised only directly and by the people as a whole, as in a nation-wide
referendum.4 I call this the radical approach to popular sovereignty. The
second perspective conceives the exercise of popular sovereignty in indirect
terms, that is, as exercised not directly by the people but by authorised repre-
sentatives who seek to produce a general will in parliamentary procedures.5 I
call this the indirect approach to popular sovereignty.
The argument of this article is that, under contemporary political condi-
tions, neither of these approaches to popular sovereignty are adequate from
the point of view of citizens’ agency. The radical approach to popular sover-
eignty is susceptible to becoming a mere mechanism of acclamation that
often excludes citizens from determining the issues on which they are to
make a sovereign decision. The indirect approach, on the other hand, with its
insistence on a strict division of democratic labour between representatives
and represented, leaves too little room for citizens’ active engagement in
political life. To be sure, this may not in and of itself be problematic so long
as representative institutions reliably facilitate a close linkage between citi-
zens and their political representatives. But that is arguably not the case in the
democracies of our age. Since traditional representative mechanisms are
widely failing, what we need is a more robust mechanism for connecting citi-
zens to government.
Against this backdrop, the article seeks to reclaim an alternative account
of popular sovereignty that appears better placed to facilitate the effective
exercise of citizens’ agency than the two standard approaches. The figure to
whom it looks for inspiration is Hans Kelsen, who is widely known for dis-
missing the notion of popular sovereignty as a “political fiction” that only
serves to legitimise the autonomy of parliament, but in fact developed a dis-
tinctive theory of popular sovereignty centred on inclusive and participatory

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