Against Plebiscitary Sovereignty: Popular Will in Constitutional Theory and Practice

Gabe Levine, Politics

Wed, 12/12/2018 - 12:00pm
LAPA Conference Room, 348 Wallace Hall
Event Category: 
Graduate Students
Policy Students

RSVP requested: Click here.

LEGS, or "Law-Engaged Graduate Students," meets during the academic year to discuss a work in progress by one of our Graduate Associates. Academic papers, dissertation proposals, and dissertation chapters have been presented at these meetings, to an audience of fellow graduate students.

Abstract:  "What would it mean for “the People” to be sovereign within a polity? Prominent constitutional theorists have argued that popular sovereignty requires the People to speak with one voice, without governmental mediation—through constitutional plebiscites, for example. In this paper, I reject that view. I argue, first, that “plebiscitary” theorists of popular sovereignty provide no way of specifying when the People should speak. Plebiscitary theories therefore cannot explain how to avoid the twin perils of pure direct democracy or Schumpeterian minimalism. I then argue, second, that even if constitutional plebiscites are useful, in some circumstances, they are unlikely to express the People’s collective will. General, empirical features of politics, likely to hold across contexts, mean that plebiscitary results will almost certainly be 1) not the People’s; 2) not collective; and 3) not acts of will, in any strong sense. I conclude by suggesting that popular sovereignty would be better understood as requiring equal popular control of officeholders."


Gabe Levine

Gabe Levine is a second-year PhD student in Politics and a JD student (on leave) at Yale Law School. His primary interests include constitutional theory, American constitutional and political development, and the intellectual history of American environmentalism.