The idea of a crisis of democracy is frequently invoked to explain a range of phenomena plaguing European states in the era of declining national sovereignty: disaffection, polarisation, fragmentation. The crisis is usually understood as a crisis of legitimacy, and so as a failure of gathering consent through representation. This project challenges that understanding of the crisis by proposing a novel account of legitimacy, driving a wedge between consent and representation. Traditional theories of democratic legitimacy are voluntaristic: representation legitimises the exercise of political power through consent, by making it receptive to the will of those over whom it is exercised. This project challenges democratic voluntarism in all its forms: those grounded in actual or hypothetical consent, as well as those grounded in deliberative and aggregative proceduralism. It abandons voluntarism by acknowledging that legitimate authority is necessarily coercive, but does so without thereby falling into an idea that ‘might is right’. The alternative proposal is critical responsiveness: political coercion can be legitimate when it is responsive to stakeholders’ values (vetted for ideological distortions). 

The shift from a voluntarist to a values-based theory of legitimacy enables exploration of two key, related, questions posed by globalisation to European democracies: 

  • What is the proper remit of the supranational authority of the European Union? 
  • To what extent can the transnational political power wielded by economic actors (corporations, IMF, WTO) be made compatible with liberal democracy? 

Theories of legitimacy should solve Rousseau’ paradox: ‘Man is born free: but everywhere he is in chains.’ This project responds to the insight that solutions that dissolve the chains’ that is, that show that legitimate authority is not coercive’ are not satisfactory. The way to tackle the paradox is ask whether the chains make sense in the light of the values of those who bear them.

NWO Vidi (2016-2021) Project Page