Skip to main content

Popular Sovereignty

Popular sovereignty is government based on the consent of the people. The government’s source of authority is the people, and its power is not legitimate if it disregards the will of the people. Government established by the free choice of the people is expected to serve the people, who have sovereignty, or supreme power.

There are four ways that popular sovereignty is expressed in a democracy. First, the people are involved either directly or through their representatives in the making of a constitution. Second, the constitution made in the name of the people is ratified by a majority vote of the people or by representatives elected by the people. Third, the people are involved directly or indirectly in proposing and ratifying amendments to their constitution. Fourth, the people indicate support for their government when they vote in public elections, uphold the constitution and basic principles of their government, and work to influence public policy decisions and otherwise prompt their representatives in government to be accountable to them.

Popular sovereignty was asserted as a founding principle of the United States of America. The Declaration of Independence of 1776 asserts that legitimate governments are those “deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed.” Later, in 1787, the framers of the U.S. Constitution proclaimed popular sovereignty in the document’s Preamble: “We the people of the United States . . . do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.” Popular sovereignty was also expressed in Article 7 of the Constitution, which required that nine states approve the proposed framework of government before it could become the supreme law of the land. The people of the several American states chose representatives to ratifying conventions who freely decided to approve the Constitution in the name of those who elected them. Popular sovereignty was also included in Article 5 of the Constitution, which provides the means to amend the Constitution through the elected representatives of the people. Finally, popular sovereignty is reflected in two different parts of the Constitution that require members of Congress to be elected directly by the people: Article 1 pertaining to the House of Representatives and Amendment 17 concerning the election of senators.

The founding of the United States and the framing of its Constitution heralded the idea of popular sovereignty as the standard by which popular government should be established and sustained. The American example, exceptional in the late 18th century, has become a world-class standard of legitimacy for governments in the 21st century. No country can realistically claim to be a democracy unless it proclaims constitutionally and implements functionally the principle of popular sovereignty.

This standard has been upheld in the constitutions of democratic nation-states today. For example, Article 2 of the 1993 constitution of the Czech Republic says, “All state power derives from the people . . . The state power serves all citizens and can be exercised only in cases within the scope stipulated by law, and by means specified by law.” The 1988 constitution of Brazil asserts in Article 1, “All power emanates from the people, who exercise it by means of elected representatives or directly as provided by the constitution.” And Article 2 of the 1992 constitution of the Republic of Lithuania says, “The State of Lithuania shall be created by the people. Sovereignty shall be vested in the people.” Further, Article 4 says, “The people shall exercise the supreme sovereign power vested in them either directly or through their democratically elected representatives.”

Popular sovereignty as the legitimate source of authority in government has become so widely recognized among the democracies of our world that even non-democracies try to claim it in order to justify their exercise of power. For example, the constitution of the People’s Republic of China is, according to its preamble, established in the name of the people and “led by the working class and based on the alliance of the workers and peasants.” In reality, the Communist Party of China has appropriated power for itself, which it exercises dictatorially to suppress any organized opposition to its authority. Although economic freedom has increased dramatically in China in recent years, the party still tightly controls political life.

SEE ALSO Accountability; Authority; Constitution; Constitutionalism; Democracy, Representative and Constitutional; Participation; Republic; Republicanism