Book Project: The People's Two Powers: Public Opinion and Popular Sovereignty

Expected Completion Date: Summer 2023. Invited for Submission to Cambridge University Press.

In contemporary political theory, public opinion and popular sovereignty are considered as two core concepts of democracy. Multiple books have studied the genealogy of public opinion and popular sovereignty respectively. To this day, however, little work has investigated how past political actors understood public opinion in relation to popular sovereignty. As a result, we have forgotten the distinct political implications each concept once had and the different ways in which public opinion and popular sovereignty have been combined in the past.

 

My book project returns to the French Revolution and its aftermath a key moment in the development of the vocabulary and practice of democracy. At this juncture, many political theorists saw public opinion and popular sovereignty as two distinct ways of conceptualizing the power of the people. The main three chapters identify three successive systems of representation  representative democracy (1792-99), purified democracy (1800-15), and government by opinion (1815-30) based on how their respective theorists in France understood public opinion, popular sovereignty, and the relationship between the two in shifting contexts. I show that these theorists (Condorcet and Robespierre; Sieyès and Roederer; Staël and Constant) agreed that public opinion could create the kind of social and intellectual climate that enables the exercise of popular sovereignty. But they disagreed on the modes of exercise of popular sovereignty and the types of public opinion that could facilitate that exercise. I stress that none of them saw public opinion as constitutive of democratic politics, as we tend to do today.

In a preliminary chapter, I explain how each system originated in Rousseau’s seminal distinction between public opinion as soft power and popular sovereignty as binding power. The last chapter examines how Tocqueville, upon observing American democracy in the 1830s, returned to Rousseau to criticize these three models and reconsider the relationship between public opinion and popular sovereignty. Breaking with earlier theorists, Tocqueville also finally associated public opinion with democracy. In the introduction and the conclusion, I examine how the distinction between public opinion and popular sovereignty can help us to frame contemporary debates in democratic theory from a different historical perspective.

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Claude Nicolas Ledoux, Coup d'oeil du théâtre de Besançon (1804).