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Article: On the Demos and its Kin: Nationalism, Democracy, and the Boundary Problem

Updated: Jun 22, 2021

Abstract: Cultural-nationalist and democratic theory both seek to legitimize political power via collective self-rule: their principle of legitimacy refers right back to the very persons over whom political power is exercised. But such self-referential theories are incapable of jointly solving the distinct problems of legitimacy and boundaries, which they necessarily combine, once it is assumed that the self-ruling collectivity must be a pre-political, in-principle bounded, ground of legitimacy. Cultural nationalism claims that political power is legitimate insofar as it expresses the nation’s pre-political culture, but it cannot fix cultural-national boundaries pre-politically. Hence the collapse into ethnic nationalism. Traditional democratic theory claims that political power is legitimized pre-politically, but cannot itself legitimize the boundaries of the people. Hence the collapse into cultural nationalism. Only once we recognize that the demos is in principle unbounded, and abandon the quest for a pre-political ground of legitimacy, can democratic theory fully avoid this collapse of demos into nation into ethnos. But such a theory departs radically from traditional theory.

(c) 2012 American Political Science Association

Photo: Eugène Delacroix 1830 La Liberté guidant le peuple

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