Reimagining popular power: Towards a theory of plebiscitary democracy
This dissertation pursues a novel, "plebiscitary" model of democracy which, unlike dominant approaches (deliberative democracy, pluralism, aggregation), understands the everyday citizen primarily as a spectator of politics rather than as a decision-maker. At the heart of a plebiscitary account of democracy is an ocular paradigm of popular power that treats the People's eyes as the central organ of popular empowerment, as opposed to the normal privileging of the People's voice. When conceived according to this ocular model, the object of popular power is the leader (not the law), the mechanism of popular power is the People's gaze (not its decisions), and the critical ideal associated with popular empowerment is the candor of leaders (not the autonomous authorship of laws). In developing this plebiscitary theory of democracy, I rely primarily on two early plebiscitarians—Max Weber and Joseph Schumpeter—as well as on supplementary contributions that anticipate plebiscitarianism, including Aristotle's concept of "being-ruled," Shakespeare's Roman plays, and Benjamin Constant's theory of public inquiries.
Chapter one provides a critical introduction to the concept of plebiscitary democracy and proposes that, contrary to the widespread tendency of democratic theorists to treat it as a pejorative, the term might also legitimately refer to an account of popular empowerment specific to contemporary conditions of mass democracy. In chapter two, I argue that spectatorship is definitive of everyday political experience, that leading approaches to democracy ignore this fact, and that a plebiscitary theory grounded in political spectatorship is therefore worth pursuing. Chapters three and four identify and critique the traditional and still dominant view that the People must be conceived in terms of voice: i.e., as an expressive and vocal entity that realizes itself in the content of government legislation. Chapter five locates the ocular model of popular power in the political thought of Max Weber. Chapter six turns to practical applications of plebiscitarianism, demonstrating how a commitment to candor, the key ideal of plebiscitary democracy, would produce a democratic politics different from existing modes of democratic progressivism. Chapter seven concludes with a defense of the value of this plebiscitarian alternative and an elaboration of how it empowers the People.