What is Democracy? (3): Popular Sovereignty

Democracy and absolute, uncontested or unquestioned power are incompatible. In a democracy, one is allowed and even required to criticize and, if necessary, reject those in power. And if one is able to convince a majority of the people, then the people will remove those in power. The people give power and can take it away. Nobody can acquire or claim power in a permanent way, as if it were his or her private property instead of a public matter. Nobody can personify, embody or crystallize power. Power in a democracy is undefined, or at most temporarily defined and subject to formal and legal rules that make it possible to criticize power. This criticism, depending on its severity, its force and its success, will lead to either the removal of people from power or the renewal of their mandate.

In a democracy, power is the provisional and temporary result of a power struggle between those who want to change the government or its policies and those who want to keep it. This struggle should not be abolished and should continue indefinitely according to stable and foreseeable legal rules and procedures (for example those regulating the elections and the election campaigns). Periodically, the struggle reaches a climax. Elections are a temporary decision of the struggle in favor of one or a few of the parties. Power is, therefore, an object of temporary use rather than property, and is always the result of conflict, criticism, struggle and competition between opposing views on good government.

In a democracy, you can only have power on a temporary basis because your power is the result of an election victory, and you have to undergo the test of future periodical elections in which you make yourself accountable for the things you have done or failed to do. You return to the electorate on a regular basis in order to ask for its judgment and to see whether some or other form of criticism carries sufficient weight. After a political struggle between candidates (incumbents and others) and between points of view regarding the record of the government and the promises of the opposition, the electorate decides who can have or use power and who should stop using power. If it decides that it no longer wishes to obey a certain person in power, for example because that person mad a mistake of failed to do what he or she was asked to do – which is pointed out by political opponents in the course of the pre-election struggle – then the electorate takes away the power from this person. The leaders do not appoint themselves. They are appointed by the people, and have to render account of their actions to the people. If the people consider that the leaders made the wrong decisions or failed to do what they were instructed to do, then the people can dismiss them. Nobody’s power is a matter of course. Power is not self-evident. It must always be assigned, reassigned and legitimized by way of accountability and refutation of criticism.

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