Civilizing Left Populism: Towards a Theory of Plebeian Democracy

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This article discusses how to overcome the limitations of liberal democracy whilst remaining committed to a constitutional political order based on individual rights. Combining insights from Hispanophone and Anglophone scholarship, we argue that the tradition of specifically plebeian republican political thought offers resources for overcoming the perennial liberal problem that socio-economic divisions beyond the state are rendered politically invisible, leaving democracy vulnerable to oligarchic capture. Thus, we outline an institutional vision of plebeian democracy based on two insights. First, starting from a republican notion of liberty as material independence we understand social (property) rights as constitutive for the democratic body politic on a par with political-juridical rights. Second, we advocate the need for separate institutions of elite accountability as checks on oligarchy. To connect theory and praxis, we illustrate this framework through a critical-affirmative analysis of the discourse of Bernie Sanders and Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias. Although both are viewed as “left populists” due to their invocations of an elite-people antagonism, they are more accurately described as plebeian democrats, who share an ideal of democracy as a civic and rights-based, republican model of government
Original languageEnglish
JournalConstellations: an international journal of critical and democratic theory
Issue number4
Pages (from-to) 591-606
Publication statusPublished - 2019

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