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, we have forgotten the distinct political implications each concept once had.


This 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, I argue, key political theorists saw public opinion and popular sovereignty as two distinct ways of conceptualizing the power of the people.


The book traces this distinction to Rousseau's Geneva, before exploring how political actors in France designed distinct representative systems based on how they understood public opinion, popular sovereignty, and the relationship between the two in shifting contexts, namely the French Revolution, the Napoleonic era, and the restored monarchy.


During the Revolution, Condorcet and the Montagnards attempted to give full expression to Rousseau's two powers in a large country. The result was competing accounts of "representative democracy." In reaction to the Terror, Bonapartists curtailed the exercise of popular sovereignty and the manifestation of public opinion. Sieyès and Bonaparte advocated "organized democracy." During the restoration, liberals rejected popular sovereignty and championed a vivid public opinion instead. Mme de Staël, Constant, and Guizot offered distinct theories of "government by opinion." Finally, Tocqueville, upon observing American democracy in the 1830s, rehabilitated popular sovereignty while warning about the pitfalls of public opinion.


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. I stress that, with the exception of Tocqueville, none of the authors discussed in the book associated democracy with public opinion, as we tend to do today. Rather, they associated democracy with popular sovereignty.


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