Though the study of popular sovereignty has long been beset with fundamental disagreements, the conflicting series of propositions associated with the discourse of popular sovereignty have propelled, rather than stymied, its emergence as the ground of modern democracy. Popular sovereignty thrived, as it were, on its many claimants and detractors. Reflecting on the revolutionary origins of the idea of popular sovereignty, Hannah Arendt speculated that “if this notion [le peuple] has reached four corners of the earth, it is not because of any influence of abstract ideas but because of its obvious plausibility under conditions of abject poverty.”

I do not share the assumption that “abstract ideas” of the people were unimportant in the global career of popular sovereignty, or that “abject poverty” has a universal political import. However, Arendt’s underscoring of the singular global reach of the popular sovereignty discourse captures a point of utmost importance: if democracy has now acquired the status of the sole “secular claimant” of political legitimacy, it is primarily because of the incontestability of the foundation of popular sovereignty

While representative and centralised forms of democratic government faced much scepticism in the global nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the sovereignty of the people, as an ideal, met with no meaningful normative challenge. After storming the heaven of sovereignty, the “people” seemed to have conquered the globe sometime between the great 18th-­century revolutions and mid-­20th-century decolonisation, and somewhere behind the main stage of social and economic history.

The story of this singular conquest is generally told with reference to the tremendous social and economic transformations of the 19th and 20th centuries. But alongside these changes, the global rise of the people was also a story of intellectual transformations. The stubborn persistence of diffusionist approaches in the global history of democracy means that the framework of dissemination and reception tends to obfuscate the transformation and reconstitution of democratic ideas themselves. As we shall see, anticolonial aspirants for popular sovereignty were locked in a conflict with an imperial project that had however contradictorily sought to derive its legitimacy from a contesting, global narrative of peoplehood. It is partly due to the history of this conflict that the age of decolonisation doubled as the global vindication of popular sovereignty.

The strength and ubiquity of popular sovereignty lie in its roots as a discourse of authorisation. The modern recognition that the figure of the people no longer amounts to a “visibly identifiable gathering of autonomous citizens” shifted the primary stake of the popular sovereignty discourse to the processes of claiming authorisation from the abstraction called “the people.” Invocations of the people in political modernity are necessarily an exercise in speaking in the name of an entity that does not empirically exist as a homogeneous, empirically locatable subject. This foundational abstraction of “the people” notwithstanding, much of the contemporary theoretical dispute around popular sovereignty concerns not whether the people are the ultimate political authority but instead how to enact and institutionalise the authority vested in it.

Regardless of how critical of popular rule a contemporary liberal political thinker might be, the procedure of popular consent which traces the sovereignty of the state to the people is essential. Radical democrats while overwhelmingly critical of representative democracy articulate their extra-institutional vision of democracy through the figure of the people. Deliberative democratic theorists too find it necessary to account for a procedural authorisation of rights and laws in the will of the people, notwithstanding their attempts to render the people as “‘subjectless’ forms of communication circulating through forums and legislative bodies.”

Though disagreements over what exactly constitutes popular authorisation and how it must be politically instituted are abundant, what has come to be beyond dispute, barring some residual protestations, is the idea that democratic legitimacy requires authorisation from the people.

The distinction between sovereignty and government was crucial to the formation of modern popular sovereignty as an authorizing ideal. The concept of sovereignty, since its medieval origin, had implied that “authorising the actions of a government” is not the same as “governing.” Sovereignty thus meant not so much the holding of political offices as the power to decide who would constitute the government and to pass fundamental legislation. As Richard Tuck has shown, the sovereignty-government distinction was constitutive of the idea of popular sovereignty since Jean Bodin and ran through canonical modern political philosophers ranging from Thomas Hobbes to Jean-­Jacques Rousseau. The very emergence of a constitutional theory of public authority in the early modern era was likewise indebted to the incipient doctrine of popular sovereignty. The limited government of the constitutional order had become theoretically possible owing to the “unlimited” power ascribed to the people.

It was, however, only with the two classical revolutions of the late 18th century the French and the American that popular sovereignty began to acquire the public legitimacy that it now enjoys. The French and American revolutionaries vigorously debated the meaning of popular sovereignty, taking paths that were neither identical nor short of novel challenges. The limited government of American constitutionalism and the transformative vision of French republicanism both nevertheless emboldened the idea that the people are the source of authority and the foundation of legitimacy.

For all its centrality to the modern constitutional order, popular sovereignty has been no less salient to extraconstitutional claims of political authorization. The invocation of popular sovereignty both by institutional and extra-­institutional actors, as Jason Frank has argued, is enabled by the fact that “the people” is more of a claim than a determinate object. The “constitutive surplus” of popular sovereignty the surplus that remains despite institutional authorization derived from the people tends to outlive the founding event and continues to serve as a reservoir for popular claim-­making.

Modern democracy rode the waves of many popular insurrections, and the founding power associated with the self-­authorizing people shaped institutional ideals of democracy as much as the dictions of popular politics. To complicate the matter further, the essential claimability of the people means that both governmental and extragovernmental actors could invoke the name of the people, thus transcending strict constitutional protocols for popular authorization. Indeed, as Bryan Garsten argues, the multiplication and contestability of “governmental claims to represent the people” is a germane feature of modern representative democracy.

Excerpted with permission from Waiting for the People: The Idea of Democracy in Indian Anticolonial Thought, Nazmul Sultan, HarperCollins India.