The Boundary Problem of the Demos: Criteria for a Solution
Who belongs to the political community and who should decide who should belong? These questions point to an important puzzle at the heart of democratic theory. The so-called ‘boundary problem of the demos’ is constituted by the fact that the subject of democratic decision-making is unable to democratically legitimise its own composition. I address this puzzle by asking what form a solution to the boundary problem needs to take. My main thesis is that a combined approach consisting of substantive and procedural elements is necessary in order to outline a democratic way to determine who should belong to the political community. First, I systematise the current debate along the lines of a distinction between substantive and procedural approaches and argue that neither present convincing solutions to the boundary problem. Purely substantive approaches focus exclusively on the values that allegedly underpin democracy in order to provide a normative justification for a specific composition of the demos, while proceduralists prefer a process of political legitimation and leave the question entirely for the existing demos to decide. This is troubling, given the practical importance of the boundary problem for current political debates about migration, secession, and global democracy. Second, on the basis of an analysis of the respective strengths and weaknesses of purely substantive and purely procedural approaches, I formulate five criteria that a solution to the boundary problem needs to meet. Most importantly, I argue that it has to provide a plausible account of the interaction between normative justification and political legitimation. These criteria could either be used to develop a convincing combined approach to the boundary problem or to evaluate existing approaches.