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The Will of the People: A Modern Myth

The Will of the People: A Modern Myth

Albert Weale

ISBN: 978-1-509-53326-8 November 2018 Polity 120 Pages


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Democracies today are in the grip of a myth: the myth of the will of the people. Populist movements use the idea to challenge elected representatives. Politicians, content to invoke the will of the people, fail in their duty to make responsible and accountable decisions. And public contest over political choices is stifled by fears that opposing the will of the people will be perceived as elitist.

In this book Albert Weale dissects the idea of the will of the people, showing that it relies on a mythical view of participatory democracy. As soon as a choice between more than two simple alternatives is involved, there is often no clear answer to the question of what a majority favours. Moreover, because governments have to interpret the results of referendums, the will of the people becomes a means for strengthening executive control – the exact opposite of what appealing to the people’s will seemed to imply.

Weale argues that it’s time to dispense with the myth of the will of the people. A flourishing democracy requires an open society in which choices can be challenged, parliaments strengthened and populist leaders called to account.

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  • Table of Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • Preface
  • Chapter 1 In the Grip of a Myth
  • Chapter 2 Nostalgic Myths
  • Chapter 3 What is a People?
  • Chapter 4 Majority Willing?
  • Chapter 5 The Mythical Sovereign
  • Chapter 6 On Being Outnumbered
  • Chapter 7 Democracy without Myth
  • Chapter 8 The Ethics of Responsibility
  • Notes
‘An accessible and incisive critique of populism and referendums by a true democrat. The Will of the People is a magisterial contribution of academic political theory to our troubled and confused public debate. Essential reading.’
Cécile Laborde, University of Oxford

‘In this lucid and engaging essay, Albert Weale enlists insights of modern political analysis to enlighten public debate. He cogently shows that the manipulative ideal of a singular 'will of the people' is both fallacious and antithetical to fundamental values of democratic politics.’
Jack Nagel, University of Pennsylvania