top of page

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

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

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, democratic theorists often conflate the two notions. These conflations tend to obscure the distinct political implications each concept once had.

This book argues that, for modern French political thinkers who are often credited with laying the conceptual foundations of modern democracy, public opinion and popular sovereignty provided two distinct ways of conceptualizing the power of the people. Rather than seeing public opinion as constitutive of democratic politics, as we tend to do today, these theorists associated democracy with popular sovereignty exclusively.

Using actors’ categories, the book traces the distinction between the people's two powers to Rousseau, before exploring how political theorists in France designed distinct representative systems based on how they understood popular sovereignty, public opinion, and the relationship between the two in shifting contexts, namely the French Revolution, the Napoleonic era, and the experiment with constitutional monarchy.

During the Revolution, Condorcet and the Montagnards attempted to give full expression to Rousseau's two powers by supplementing the pressure of public opinion on elected deputies with mechanisms of direct popular sovereignty, including referenda. In reaction to the Terror, Sieyès' organized democracy entrusted to expert bodies the exercise of popular sovereignty and the framing of public opinion. After Bonaparte’s ascent to power, the Bonapartists advocated a combination of plebiscitary popular sovereignty and manufactured public opinion. This was democracy purged of its inconveniences. After the downfall of Napoleon, Benjamin Constant rejected popular sovereignty and championed a wakeful public opinion instead. His preferred representative system was government by opinion. Finally, Tocqueville, upon observing American in the 1830s, defended divided popular sovereignty as the essence of democratic rule while warning about the pitfalls of public opinion. Tocqueville theorized federal democracy.


Today, democratic theorists tend to see public opinion as a democratic mode of participation par excellence. Yet modern French theorists of democracy did not associate democracy with a well-functioning public opinion. In fact, they associated democracy with popular sovereignty, and those who identified public opinion as the best and exclusive way of theorizing popular power rejected democracy.


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

bottom of page