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Popular sovereignty without populism: autonomy, democracy, and citizen endorsement

Josse, Peter (2019) Popular sovereignty without populism: autonomy, democracy, and citizen endorsement. PhD thesis, University of Essex.


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This thesis consists of a social criticism of contemporary populism, alongside an investigation into how we should understand democracy’s fundamental value. It examines the concerns that drive contemporary populist movements and then considers three implicit understandings of democracy’s value that embody those concerns. First, populism can be seen as form of anti-elitism motivated by the intrinsic importance of dividing political power equally: it reacts and seeks an institutional correction to elites’ arrogating to themselves disproportionate power in the political process. Second, populism can be seen as a form of anti-elitism that is motivated by the view that political institutions should show equal respect for the decision-making capacities of all citizens and thus reacts to an elitism that gives preference to the views of “experts” in the political process. Third, populism can be seen as a movement that is driven by a perceived dramatic loss in autonomy on the part of its members who see themselves as lacking control over important political outcomes. The dissertation rejects the first two interpretations of populist concern and offers a reconstruction of the third: it construes democracy’s value as inhering in its unique capacity to protect the personal autonomy of citizens. However, I argue that it is mistaken to view the personal autonomy of citizens as requiring them to have substantive control over the political decisions that constrain their lives and, drawing on the compatibilist tradition in the free will debate, maintain, instead, that their endorsement of the decision-making system itself is sufficient for their autonomy. I label this view of democracy’s value, the “constitutive view” since it presents democracy as constitutive of the autonomy of citizens. Finally, I consider some institutional implications of the constitutive view with respect to the use of the referendum instrument for political decision-making.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Subjects: J Political Science > JC Political theory
Divisions: Faculty of Social Sciences > Government, Department of
Depositing User: Peter Josse
Date Deposited: 24 Apr 2019 08:46
Last Modified: 24 Apr 2019 08:46

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