Popular Sovereignty and Representation: Ideal or Illusion?

This paper asks why a constitutional order based on the ideals of popular sovereignty and representation is such a difficult system to operate. It will show that both ideals are fraught with conceptual paradoxes. The doctrine of popular sovereignty demands that the constitution be conceptualized as the embodiment of the people’s sovereign will, and yet, without the constitution, the people cannot be presumed to have a coherent will. The idea of representation demands that representatives accurately reflect the interests of their constituencies, and yet, prior to the process of representation, the constituencies and their interests cannot be ascertained with any degree of clarity. Taking its cue from Edmund Morgan’s claim that popular sovereignty is a ‘fiction’ and Claude Lefort’s idea of the ‘empty place’ of power, this paper will suggest that popular sovereignty and representation should be understood as a metaphor or allegory. Otherwise, tyranny will not be far down the line.