Democratic theorists agree that in a democracy the people should be sovereign. However, they cannot give democratically acceptable criteria for telling who precisely the people are. According to some theorists, this “paradox of popular sovereignty” can lead to disastrous consequences such as territorial disputes and ethnic cleansing. By contrast, others hold that this paradox is productive. Using the tools of Comparative Political Theory (CPT), this article enters into the controversy by providing new evidence of how this theoretical paradox has influenced political practice. The article shows that the problem was already apparent in early nineteenth-century Spanish America, where two different conceptions of the people had contrasting consequences. The article argues that the main effect of the paradox was to bring to the fore the ineradicable discrepancies between political praxis and juridical form. This effect should be seen as an opportunity to be seized rather than a problem to be solved.
Paulina Ochoa Espejo is Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at Yale University, New Haven, CT 06520.