Political Philosophy Colloquium
Abstract: This paper brings together two intersecting discussions in democratic theory. This first one revisits ‘the people’ in the face of populist rhetorical appropriation of ‘the people’ as a justificatory narrative for authoritarian executive actions. The second is a reinvigorated debate about referendums that moves away from seeing them as a form of direct democracy standing in opposition to representative democracy. These two developments come together to produce a complex view of how we should think about the rule of the people especially in relation to majoritarian institutions like referendums. The first part of the paper canvases several responses to populism including left populism, minimalist theories of democracy, and liberal proceduralist theories. I ultimately endorse a deliberative proceduralist view that articulates what Habermas calls “communicatively fluid sovereignty.” The second half of the paper draws out concrete and institutional implications of fluid popular sovereignty with special attention to the design and function referendums. Thinking about referendums (even and especially constitutional referendums) through the lens of communicatively fluid sovereignty can help us see how the people can rule with the help of majoritarian decisions but without defining that rule as majority decisions. I end with a comparison of communicatively fluid sovereignty and Helene Landemore’s recent proposal for open democracy and argue that the latter throws the proverbial baby out with the bathwater.
Bio: Simone Chambers is Professor of Political Science at the University of California, Irvine. She has written and published on such topics as deliberative democracy, referendums, constitutional politics, the public sphere, secularism, rhetoric, civility, and the work of Jürgen Habermas and John Rawls. She is working on two book projects, The State of Contemporary Democratic Theory a critical survey of new developments in democratic theory and a book of collected essays: Deliberation and the Future of Democracy: A realistic but not realist political theory.
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