Democratic sovereignty

By “sovereignty” we refer to the ultimate authority within a given polity. During the Middle Ages the sovereign was a person, typically the monarch. With the advent of the modern nation state, the sovereign became an impersonal agency: the nation. The nation can be an elusive entity. At first, it entails no definitive bond between the people that make it up. Secondly, it is interpreted as atemporal, which implies that whatever common bond may exist, it is not only between the generations in existence. By that we mean that a nation is not equivalent to the actual citizens or people of a given state, as it also encompasses all possible citizens or people of the state. There ostensibly is no finality to the nation.

Notwithstanding some of the mysticism involved in defining the nation, international relations are very much dependent on this concept. No wonder they are inter-national. However, the contemporary international order does adopt a prosaic view of nationhood, stripping it of its early modern pretences on temporal transcendence. A nation qua sovereign can only be a nation state. This is a reflection of the actualised right of peoples to self-determination. Nation states transcend the life span of any given generation of their people only for as long as that is deemed necessary, and only by means of convention. A stateless nation may indeed be talked about as a nation, but it is never considered sovereign.

Sovereignty, or else self-determination realised as state-formation-state-institution, means that the state legitimised by its people, and recognised as such by the international community, can pursue its own policies without intervention from other states. This is a centuries-old conception of statehood that is often termed “Westphalian” in reference to the Peace Treaty of Westphalia (1648 C.E.). The Westphalian tenets of statehood imply the following:

  • Territoriality: every state must have a clearly defined territory over which its sovereignty may be made manifest and be applicable;
  • Continuity: every state continues to exist as a state even if its people may change or its legal order undergoes a period of crisis;
  • Independence: the capacity for self-determination that, when applied globally, entails the principle of non-intervention in the internal affairs of another state;
  • Equality: every state is equal to any other state in its capacity as a state;
  • Uniformity: the state is understood as the primary actor of diplomatic affairs in the international order and is treated as a single personality;
  • Nationhood: the identification of the state with a given culturally-defined people.

Perhaps a more precise concept for describing this type of sovereignty is “national sovereignty”, which is in terms of statehood equivalent to “nation state sovereignty”. From a democratic perspective, there is nothing intrinsic to national sovereignty which guarantees the normative ends of the decentralised distribution of power. The “national will” or the “national interest” can be—and has been—evoked by all sorts of abusers of powers as a means of justifying their machinations. Various states in the international community are indeed recognised as sovereign nations even though they do not have strong, adequate, or any institutions in place to preserve the decentralisation of authority. As such, a normative theory of statehood cannot remain limited to the understanding of sovereignty as national sovereignty, unless it attaches to it its own significations to the point where it has nothing in common with the prevailing definition.

While it may be useful and perhaps tactically prudent to interpret nationhood in a way that it incorporates democratic principles, it generally is preferable to coin new terms for the sake of avoiding confusion. If a certain notion can be both democracy and its opposite, then it does not really help us understand what a certain proposition’s actual meaning may be. One shrewd enough can use such polysemy to their advantage or, conversely, one sloppy enough may inadvertently obfuscate some of the issues involved.

We sometimes come across the phrase “popular sovereignty”, while there is a certain alter-establishment tendency to interpret “populism” as a positive term that indicates the capacity of the people to be sovereign. These views are interesting and fecund, yet they are insufficient to a democracy.

Their first limitation is that they place a disproportionate emphasis on the internal aspects of sovereign authority. This forces them to downplay the importance of the essence of the Westphalian state: non-interference from other states. A sovereign people without a strong state that has an equal standing in the global order, will always be exposed to external threats or to pressures that may undermine its conventions. Sovereignty of such a sort would be a sovereignty manqué.

The second tension in this line of over-evaluating the populace, is that it cannot easily fit with the vertical dimension of political organisation, especially for more complex formations of state, such as a federal system. If it is only or primarily the people who are sovereign, then the legal-institutional order of the state will have to be very weak so as not to impede or limit the popular will. A near-obsolete framework of rules can eventually be the cause of disorder, either due to the inability of the system to place sufficient constitutional checks on the distribution and exercise of power, or because the popular sovereign will descend into an ochlocratic tyrant.

Democracy is a compound term made up of the words “demos” and “kratos”. The former signifies the body of citizens, those who participate in the commons. The latter means state, understood as an interweaving web of laws, institutions, and convention-based intersubjective relations. As was considered in the previous chapter, democracy is not the “rule of the many”. It is the instituted decentralisation of power.

For sovereignty to entail democracy, we need to adopt an eclectic and synthetic approach which will isolate and indeed combine the positive elements from the seemingly polar views of [nation] state sovereignty and popular sovereignty. We may rework these into a democratic sovereignty, which will stand for the virtuous cycle of legitimation and accountability between the demos and the kratos, the citizens and their state.

The feedback loop of democratic sovereignty can be understood in light of the following:

  • Within a given political tradition (a civic nation), the body politic proceeds to delegate its authority to various groups of decision-makers. This typically occurs through periodic elections.
  • In such a national tradition, the body of citizens does not act in a legal-institutional vacuum. There are rules in place which guarantee the horizontal and vertical decentralisation of power.
  • The political representatives are bestowed with the authority to take decisions on behalf—and in the interest—of the demos. Among the decisions are the promulgation of laws, the distribution of scarce resources, the qualitative features of cultural experience, the conduct of environmental policy, and so on. These set precedents for future processes of legitimation.
  • The judiciary operates in parallel as an arbiter of the applicability of the laws. Its jurisprudence has an impact on the polity, for it sets parameters within which certain policy initiatives may be realised.
  • The judiciary does not decide arbitrarily. It accounts for the prevailing conditions, the legal order, and its jurisprudential traditions to deliver rulings that are in line with practical necessity and the state’s primary law. A judiciary that would seek to become a tyrant on the rest of the state would be overruled by means of a constitutional reform, or the state would implode.
  • A constitutional reform will, at some point involve the body of citizens, either directly via a referendum, or indirectly, via their representatives.
  • The representatives cannot permanently deviate from their voters’ concerns, for that may eventually impact their status as representatives.
  • The citizens of a state are not defined independently of the state’s legal-institutional framework. It is a certain set of legal provisions that may make one a citizen of the state.

Under the scope of democracy, state and citizens cannot be seen as separate. National sovereignty alone implies a distorted version of the common good. Popular sovereignty in its own capacity entails a very weak institutional framework that may expose the state to external threats or to internal self-destructive propensities for injustice. Whereas the combination of these two means that the culturally-historically defined demos will operate within a certain milieu of laws, institutions, and statehood to realise the res publica as practical morality that is indeed common to all and universally good.

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Protesilaos Stavrou

EU policy analyst. Philosopher. Web developer.
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