Popular Sovereignty VS a Popular Sovereign
Since at least the late XVIII Century the nature of sovereignty has been
changing in the world, particularly and starting in the western world. A
dramatic example of this was seen with the creation of the United
States of America. Having discarded the monarchy, and with it the
concept of having a single individual as the sovereign, a personal
sovereign one might say, the new Union of republican states instead
embraced the concept of “popular sovereignty”. This meant that, ideally
anyway, that everyone was sovereign. The people collectively were the
sovereign of this new country rather than an individual person who sat
on a throne and wore a crown. This is why, to this day, in legal cases
on a national level, cases are known as “the People vs. John Doe”
whereas in Canada or the United Kingdom such a case would be known as
“the Crown vs. John Doe” because America has popular sovereignty whereas
the British and Canadians have a monarch who is the sovereign,
represented in legal terms by “the Crown”.
The United States, however, was not nearly so influential or had nearly
so great an impact as many people today like to think, their perception
being warped by either how powerful the United States has become or by
their own exalted view of the country. For most of its early history,
the USA was seen as a relatively minor collection of former British
colonies on the edge of a distant wilderness, a sort of geopolitical
oddity that was not likely to long endure. Much more significant and
consequential was the larger, more radical and more horrific French
Revolution which again saw a sovereign (King Louis XVI) replaced by
popular sovereignty. That regime did not long endure but it had a huge
impact and would come back again and again until the crowned heads of
Europe began to feel compelled to make some sort of accommodation with
its concepts. So it was that emperors suddenly became more popular and
more numerous in the western world and there was, for a relatively brief
time, a fascination with the concept of what is known as “popular
Now, if these two concepts; popular sovereignty and representative government, are not one and the same, why address them both together? I address them both together because it seems to me, in light of current events and recent history, that they have come together to create a ‘perfect storm’ of thoroughly bad government. Representative government, particularly after the French Revolution and the rise of mass involvement in government by the populace through the franchise, gave rise to politics as we know it today. It led to the creation of political parties and competing ideologies that formed warring tribes struggling to dominate the levers of power, none of which had existed before. This, in my view, has been extremely detrimental to civilization. However, representative government was able to make a good case for itself and that in accordance with traditional authority and what became known as popular monarchy or constitutional monarchy more broadly. Representative bodies, such as the Westminster Parliament in England or the Estates-General in France or the Imperial Diet in Germany were meant to be, originally, advisory bodies. They were to assist the monarch in the governing of the country by putting forward ideas, refined by vigorous debate and examination, as well as to provide a mild reflection of popular sentiment so that the boundaries of what the public would be willing to tolerate would be known. This could be, and at times was, quite beneficial.
Take, for example, the ongoing problem of mass movement of peoples. Be it waves of people from the Middle East and Africa coming into Europe or the rush of people from Central America coming into the United States, there is a great deal of this going on across the so-called First World group of countries. This actually has a great deal to do with sovereignty and brings up some fundamental questions about the very concept of representative government which, unfortunately, I have yet to see any prominent person ask or address the issue in any way. It comes down to the observation that the politicians in countries like the USA, Germany or Sweden do not seem to feel themselves limited to representing the people who put them in office but rather that they must represent the interests of various and sundry peoples all around the world.
This is a major problem for the concept of representative government in the world today, the very fundamental nature of the concept itself seems to be changing and no one is really talking about it or offering any explanation. I remember saying this when America was dealing with the flood of illegal immigrants, all claiming refugee status, from Central American countries like Honduras or Guatemala. I said at the time that if, as many are arguing including President Obama, the United States is responsible for these people, that they must accept them and care for them because their quality of life in Guatemala is so bad, you are effectively saying that the United States is responsible for how Guatemala functions, its security and its economy, in which case the Marines should be landed, the American flag raised, a Governor appointed and we should start teaching them all English because Guatemala is not really an independent country but belongs to the United States!
Is this a result of the change in how we view sovereignty? I cannot say, but it is certainly a thought worth considering in my view because I think a good case can be made. Sadly, few people seem interested in pondering the point. There are, though, some cases one could point to that the issue of sovereignty in general is something that some people in some countries at least are willing to look at. In Europe, of course, this usually involves the European Union as people in Britain and more recently in France and Italy have begun to reject or at least question the authority of the European Union which contradicts the assertion that member countries are truly sovereign states. I have also been encouraged by recent events in Japan where the efforts to enact constitutional reform have included proposals to end the frankly bizarre status quo and reassert the status of the Emperor as Head of State, which His Majesty effectively is but legally is termed only as the “symbol” of the state since the post-war constitution brought the concept of popular sovereignty to Japan. If, as the conservative reformers wish, the Emperor is placed above the constitution rather than being subject to it, that will come extremely close to reverting back to the Emperor being the Japanese sovereign and away from popular sovereignty even if the change is not made specifically. I think that would be a good thing.