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The Problem(s) of Constituting the Demos: A (Set of) Solution(s)


When collective decisions should be made democratically, which people form the relevant demos? Many theorists think this question is an embarrassment to democratic theory: (1) because any decision about who forms the demos must be made democratically by the right demos, which itself must be democratically constituted and so on ad infinitum; and (2) because neither the concept of democracy, nor (3) our reasons for caring about democracy, determine who should form the demos. Having distinguished between these three versions of the demos problem, we argue that each of them can be solved.

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  1. 1.

    Others refer to the problem as the ‘boundary problem’ (Whelan 1983) or the ‘inclusion problem’ (Dahl 1989; cp. Goodin 2007, pp. 40-41n1).

  2. 2.

    For a helpful but substantively different taxonomy of distinct ‘boundary problems’, see Arrhenius (2015, p. 14). The distinction we are after here is different from the commonly drawn distinction between procedural and substantive conceptions of democracy (see Dworkin 1996, pp. 1–35; Waldron 1998). First, a conception of democracy speaks to many issues other than the issue of how the demos should be constituted, e.g., the issue of whether judicial review might promote or restrict democracy. Second, taking a certain view on how the demos should be constituted often leaves open many of the issues which divide friends of procedural and substantive conceptions of democracy, e.g., whether abiding by democratic decision procedures holds value in itself or only in virtue of the likely consequences of doing so.

  3. 3.

    In support of our claim that clarification is needed, consider: Arash Abizadeh’s (2008, pp. 45–46) view that because, as procedural matter, the ‘question of membership ultimately cannot itself be settled by a principle of participation: for we would once again have to ask, whose participation must be sought to answer the question of membership, which in turn raises a second-order membership question, ad infinitum’, it follows that ‘[d]emocratic theory is incapable of legitimating the particular boundaries that, once we assume the demos is inherently bounded, it presupposes’, thus ignoring the analyses of the concept and value offered by democratic theory; Luis Cabrera’s (2014, pp. 229, 243–244) contention that what he calls the ‘intrinsic approach’ and what, in our view, amounts to an attempt to address the value-focused version of the demos problem is faced with the ‘democratic paradox’ that ‘who “the people” actually are… cannot be decided democratically’—a fact that is only a problem for the procedural approach in our view; Hans Agné’s (2010, p. 385) complaint against a nationalist, value-based approach to the (our italics) ‘democratic paradox’ that ‘if a nation has not been democratically founded, how could it confer [democratic] legitimacy on a state’, thereby assuming that this approach is best understood as a solution to the procedural version of the demos problem; David Owen’s (2012, pp. 130, 143–148) discussion of the all-affected principle—in our view, a principle that, offhand, can either be seen as a response to the conceptual or to the value-focused versions of the constitution problem—as a response to what he calls a ‘general paradox [our italics] of founding for democracy in that any act of legitimate democratic constitution of “the people” or “demos” would itself already require a legitimately constituted “people” or “demos” to engage in that act’—a paradox which, in our view, only captures the procedural version of the demos problem; Rainer Bauböck’s (2015, p. 822) description of the demos problem as the problem of ‘whether a demos can determine its own boundaries through applying democratic procedures or principles’—a formulation which most naturally is read to refer to either, or both, the procedural or the conceptual version of the demos problem; and, finally, Johan Schaffer’s contention (2012, p. 328) that ‘when we try to determine the demos by means of the all-affected principle we enter an infinite regress of constitutive decisions from which the all-affected principle offers no escape’, thus implying that the all-affected principle is supposed to solve the procedural version of the demos problem, while it—in our view—is better seen as either a response to the conceptual or the value-focused version thereof.

  4. 4.

    The impossibility claim is clearly true if we have empirical impossibility in mind. But arguably, it is also true if it is understood to be conceptual impossibility (cp. Goodin 2007; Miller 2009, p. 204).

  5. 5.

    Others will supplement that since we know in advance that democratic decisions are possible, we know that either the strong procedural requirement or the impossibility claim (or both) is false (cp. López-Guerra 2005, p. 218). A clearheaded proponent of the procedural problem who is acutely aware that the procedural version of the demos problem entails that no democratic decisions are possible and, thus, that it cannot be the case that we ought to make political decisions democratically (since ‘ought’ implies ‘can’) might accuse López-Guerra and us of begging the question at this point. However, not all proponents of the procedural version of the demos problem are clearheaded in this way. Some are undecided about whether democratic decisions are possible and some do believe that we ought to decide political decisions democratically (thus contradicting the entailments of their own embrace of the procedural version of the constitution problem). There is a reason why the constitution problem is labelled a ‘paradox’. Additionally, many proponents of the procedural version see the constitution problem as a challenge to identify a mistake in our theoretical assumptions or the theoretical resources that are available to us and which the procedural version of the constitution problem ignores. As David Miller puts it: ‘Clearly then, the domain problem cannot be solved by appeal to democratic procedure. But this does not mean that it cannot be solved by appeal to democratic theory, understood to mean the underlying values, such as political equality, that justify procedures like majority voting. It is too quick to conclude, as Whelan does, that “democratic theory cannot itself provide any solution to disputes that may—and historically do—arise concerning boundaries” on the grounds that “democracy, which is a method for group decision-making or self-governance, cannot be brought to bear on the logically prior matter of the constitution of the group itself, the existence of which it presupposes.” This conflates democratic theory, as a set of normative ideals, with democratic method, as a procedure or procedures that reflect these ideals’ (Miller 2009, p. 204; see also Arrhenius 2005, p. 19, 23; Goodin 2007, p. 47). Against proponents of the procedural problem of these types, our arguments, and the present contention by López-Guerra, do not beg the question.

  6. 6.

    Other theorists who accept the procedural version of the demos problem include Agné (2010, p. 382), Doucet (2005), Honig (2007), Miller (2009, p. 204), Nagel (2005, pp. 145–147), Näsström (2007, pp. 627–629), Näsström (2011, p. 126), Espejo (2011, p. 174), Espejo (2014, pp. 466–469); and Rosseau (1997, p. 71), even if some, but not all, of them eventually reject it.

  7. 7.

    Admittedly, Dahl is sceptical of that assumption, and in the very same passage, he introduces the notion of constitution as a ‘purely hypothetical event’ (Dahl 1973, p. 61).

  8. 8.

    Admittedly, to submit that democratic decisions are possible in principle, because the concept of democracy is such that it entails no procedural requirements which are impossible to fulfil, is to make a claim about the concept of democracy. However, that claim is a very modest, negative one and is consistent with denying that the concept of democracy offers any guidance for how to individuate different demoi for the purpose of democratic decision-making; i.e., it is consistent with affirming the no-implication claim (see below). Hence, one could consistently claim that the procedural version of the constitution problem can be solved and yet think that the conceptual version cannot.

  9. 9.

    The concept of democracy determines which empirical facts are relevant, e.g. if the all-affected principle is part of the concept of democracy, facts about who are affected are relevant facts.

  10. 10.

    We thank an anonymous reviewer for pointing out the need for this restriction.

  11. 11.

    As an alternative to the all-affected and to the all-subjected principles, Rainer Bauböck (2015, p. 825) proposes the stakeholder principle: ‘those and only those individuals have a claim to membership whose individual autonomy and wellbeing is linked to the collective self-government and flourishing of a particular polity’. Since our focus in this article is on the constitution problem and not primarily different principles which are supposed to solve the problem, and because Bauböck seems to favor the stakeholder principle at least partly on grounds other than that it solves the constitution problem as we understand it here, e.g., the desirability of the long-term stability of the demos, we set aside the ways in which this principle differs from the more commonly discussed all-affected and all-subjected principles—most importantly, that it is input- and not output-focused according to Bauböck (2015, p. 823) and, thus, presupposes a ‘world of bounded polities’, the boundaries of which the stakeholder principle does not purport to assess. Whether one accepts Bauböck’s stakeholder principle should make no difference to our analytical point regarding how the constitution problem really divides into three distinct problems (see also Bauböck 2015, p. 825 on the three ‘specific tasks’ that the ‘three principles of democratic inclusion’ mentioned here are assigned).

  12. 12.

    Goodin could be interpreted as first and foremost proposing a value-focused understanding of the demos problem since he suggests that the ‘principles [for constituting the demos] somehow internal to the standards of democracy for preferring the demos be constituted one way or another’ (Goodin 2007, p. 47). We turn to the value-focused version of the constitution problem in the next section.

  13. 13.

    Brighouse and Fleurbaey (2010, pp. 137–138) think that ‘power should be distributed in proportion to people’s stakes in the decision under consideration’ because that better promotes social justice aims. Additionally, they believe that such a distribution ‘corresponds better to how democracy is intuitively understood by many people nowadays’ (Brighouse and Fleurbaey 2010, p. 138).

  14. 14.

    Rejecting the no-implication claim regarding the value of democracy is consistent with affirming the no-implication claim regarding the concept of democracy which we discussed in Sect. 3. Indeed, it is the possibility of affirming the latter which renders it possible for theorists to disagree about what justifies democracy and different delimitations of the relevant demoi rather than simply to address different topics using the same label to refer to them.

  15. 15.

    Valentini (2012, p. 177) claims that there is no a priori correct account of the nature of the value of democracy.

  16. 16.

    Making it slightly more precise, perhaps one should say that it is desirable that people have an equal chance to influence collective decisions by which they are equally influenced.

  17. 17.

    Considered in isolation, this claim has no implications for whether it would be desirable for people who are not socially related to democratically make decisions together. However, at the very moment they start making such decisions, they are ipso facto socially related.

  18. 18.

    Schumpeter might have taken a different view himself (unless he takes the idea of democracy not to include the values underpinning democracy): ‘In his [Schumpeter’s] view, the idea of democracy contains no categorical constraints on how to constitute the demos’ (Song 2012, p. 41f).

  19. 19.

    Some indeterminacy might also apply to Kolodny’s social relational account of the value of democracy. Suppose a set of people relate to one another socially. Suppose also that they split into two equal-sized demoi, each governing themselves democratically, and the two states they form relate as equals. It is not clear that this situation is not perfectly compatible with Kolodny’s justification of democracy. Again, we think such cases are marginal and that a solution to the demos problem is consistent with indeterminacy at the margins.

  20. 20.

    It might be suggested that while the value-based solution might offer a solution to the demos problem, there is no particular reason to think that this solution is a democratic solution (cp. Nili 2017, p. 119; see also note 12). Suppose that it turns out that, ultimately, democracy is valuable because, and only because, it maximizes welfare. On this assumption, the value-based solution recommends that demoi should be constituted in such a way that welfare is maximized. On some views of welfare and given the existence of widespread, strong external preferences, this could, in principle, lead to most surprising delimitations of the demoi. In response, we note first that, arguably, this implication demonstrates not a problem with the value-based solution to the demos problem, but a problem with the supposition that we are concerned with democracy because, and only because, we are concerned with maximizing welfare. The present challenge draws its force from the difficulties that we have in taking onboard the assumption that our reasons for caring about democracy are purely utilitarian, because if indeed they were, there would be no moral complaints against a purely utilitarian individuation of different demoi. Second, other accounts of the value of democracy, e.g. Kolodny’s relational account, appear much less counterintuitive, if indeed to any degree at all.

  21. 21.

    Miller agrees with our view that the value-focused version of the constitution problem can be solved (Miller 2009, p. 204). However, he thinks that it can only be partially solved on the basis of the value underpinning democracy—while we think that, setting aside other moral concerns, it can be fully solved on that basis (Miller 2009, p. 226; see also Christiano 2006b, p. 82).


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A previous version of this paper was presented at ECPR in Hamburg, 23 August 2018. We thank Andreas Brøgger Albertsen, Ludvig Beckman, Didde Boisen Andersen, Göran Duus-Otterström, Jonas Hultin Rosenberg, Søren Flinch Midtgaard, Lasse Nielsen, Andrei Poama, Viki Møller Lyngby Pedersen, Tore Vincents Olsen and Fabio Wolkenstein for helpful comments. We are especially grateful to Robert Huseby for written comments on an earlier draft. Kasper Lippert-Rasmussens was funded by the Danish National Research Foundation (DNRF144) during part of the time he worked on this article and he thanks DNRF for its support.

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Lippert-Rasmussen, K., Bengtson, A. The Problem(s) of Constituting the Demos: A (Set of) Solution(s). Ethic Theory Moral Prac 24, 1021–1031 (2021).

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  • All affected principle
  • Democracy
  • Demos problem
  • Relational egalitarianism