Public Opinion as Popular Sovereignty: Reactivating the Represented People in Liberal Democracy through Lippmann, Schmitt and Dewey
The present paper suggests that contemporary political theory should reinvestigate and defend public opinion as an active, crucial expression of popular sovereignty in representative democracy. It does so by recovering and critically studying a missed piece in the mosaic of 20th century political thought history, i.e. the debate among Walter Lippmann (1922: Public Opinion), Carl Schmitt (1923 and 1926: The Crisis of Parliamentary Democracy) and John Dewey (1927: The Public and its Problems). From different perspectives, all of them questioned the traditional understanding of the people/ public opinion/ popular sovereignty relation and provided a clash of liberal and anti-liberal perspectives with long lasting implications on the canon of XX century political philosophy. I argue that revisiting Schmitt’s visceral anti-liberalism and his theory of the public from the standpoint of Lippmann and Dewey’s diverging liberalisms sharpens the teeth of contemporary liberal democracy against present-day plebiscitary and populist challenges. In particular, via Dewey I suggest that conceptualizing public opinion as one side (together with electoral will) of popular sovereignty helps countering both recent trends in populist ideology, monopolizing the appeal to ‘the sovereign people’ and depicting citizens as a monolithic entity (à la Schmitt), and the skeptical elitism à la Lippmann, conceiving the people as uninterested, depoliticized economic actors incapable of reflective sovereignty and political action vis-à-vis technocratic government. Taking a step further than Dewey, I argue that when public opinion is understood as an everyday set of claims and counter-claims by the people, it becomes a ‘negative’ power subjecting to perpetual scrutiny the actions of the representatives beyond the anti-liberal myth of a univocal ‘we’ and the neo-Schumpeterian image of passive individuals intermittently and remotely engaged into politics through elections. Rephrasing Canovan’s language, it proves to be the tool democratic citizens have at their disposal as ‘people in reserve’ to reemerge as ‘people in action’ in everyday political life.