A central idea in modern democracies is that the coercive powers of the state are legitimate only if they derive from the people. The significance of this idea can be found in the numerous constitutional documents where popular sovereignty is highlighted as key principle, or where “we the people” is declared the ultimate source of the constitutional order. But in recent decades, “the people” itself has become a controversial. A variety of groups compete today for the title of the sovereign people. The people as the ultimate source of public power is challenged both by eroding faith in nationalism as a unifying force in plural societies and by different groups’ mobilization for self-determination. Indigenous peoples are a case in point, a critical case, as the right to self-determination challenges the unified understanding of “the people” in popular sovereignty.

This project studies the problem of the people in popular sovereignty empirically as well as theoretically by distinguishing between constitutional self-definitions of the people and popular self-definitions of the people. The former refers to the legally defined people, its attributes and powers, whereas the latter refers to acts by individuals and groups to constitute themselves as collective entities. Varieties of these distinct and often conflicting conceptions of the people are studied by the collection of three unique sets of data including: (i) descriptions and categories of the people in national constitutions; (ii) the recognition and rights of indigenous peoples in national constitutions; and (iii) rules of membership in tribal and indigenous constitutions.

The project contributes to constitutional and democratic theory by addressing three distinct challenges to the ideal of popular sovereignty. First, the problem of self-definition holds that peoples are never able to define themselves but are always the creations of exercises of public power. What is the status of the people as the source of normative legitimacy given the problem of self-definition? Second, the problem of sovereignty concerns the conflicting aspirations of national and indigenous peoples towards popular sovereignty. Is the ideal of popular sovereignty viable given the challenges of indigenous people to existing constitutional definitions of the people? Third, the problem of liberal equality concerns the tensions between the values of nondiscrimination and equal treatment, on the one hand, and indigenous/tribal attempts towards self-definition, on the other hand. Are rules of membership based on kinship, decent or genealogy consistent with the defining values of liberal democracy?

The project generates new knowledge by systematically exploring – on the basis of a unique data collection – the problem with the people in national and indigenous peoples’ constitutions. The focus on the problem of popular sovereignty contributes to previously ignored issues in democratic and constitutional theory. The project also generates important results from a social point of view when it gives us new knowledge about the formal status and rights for indigenous peoples in the world, and how their continuing struggle for recognition is established by constitutional politics.

Participants: professor Ludvig Beckman (Stockholm University), associate processor Kirsty Gover (University of Melbourne), associate professor Ulf Mörkenstam (Stockholm University, principal investigator) and associate professor Sofia Näsström (Uppsala University).