Sovereignty and nationalism 3: Popular sovereignty and disavowed racism

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In this post, Chris Gilligan continues his discussion of the topic of sovereignty and nationalism. Here he looks at ways in which one-sided conceptions of ‘the people’ are employed by advocates of popular sovereignty, in ways that disavow the racism inherent in popular sovereignty.

In my previous blogpost I briefly outlined Bernard Yack’s argument that both an ‘ethnic’ conception of ‘the people’ as a ‘national community’ and a ‘civic’ conception of ‘the people’ as a ‘political community’ are integral to the doctrine of popular sovereignty. In this post I draw on the distinction between ‘national community’ and ‘political community’ to explore attempts to disavow racism, on the part of some advocates of popular sovereignty.

The ‘ethnic’ conception of ‘the people’ is inherently racializing. It does not necessarily involve explicit notions of racial inferiority and superiority, but it is compatible with the idea that ‘our’ national culture is superior to that of other national peoples. A superiority/inferiority distinction may not be essential to an ‘ethnic’ conception of ‘the people’ as a national community. The idea that a ‘national community’ is a community that shares a common culture, which marks them off as culturally different from other ‘national’ communities, is, however, essential to the ethnic conception of the people found in the doctrine of popular sovereignty. The conception of ‘the people’ as a ‘national community’ is inherently racializing because it is rooted in a conception of humanity as being divided up into distinct peoples, each of whom share a common heritage, (sometimes this heritage is conceived in biological terms, but always it is conceived as having a cultural component), and who pass this heritage from one generation to the next. The distinction between different national communities is used, by states, as a basis for granting rights and resources to their ‘own’, and withholding them from other, ‘nationals’. So, although the ethnic conception does not require a distinction between peoples as inferior or superior people, it does provide a basis for states to discriminate between people in ways that advantage some people over others.

Some advocates of popular sovereignty attempt to deny, (or minimise the relevance of), the racializing dimension of the promotion of popular sovereignty. This evasion of the reality of racism takes various forms. A common tactic is to operate with a narrow definition of racism, usually by making it synonymous with colour-based discrimination. When racism is defined this way other forms of racism – such as xenophobia or Islamophobia – are removed from view. Another way of narrowing the definition is to make racism synonymous with racial prejudice, so that it is discussed as a matter of individual psychology, rather than state policy (consequently policies like the War on Drugs, or immigration controls, are ignored). Another approach is to accuse anti-racists of being the real culprits, because they bring ‘race’ into ‘everything’. We can see this, for example, in contentious debates over the school curriculum, which has seen attempts to ban the teaching of Critical Race Theory in schools in some US states and demands for a ‘balanced’ approach to teaching about the British Empire in UK schools, one that acknowledges the positive benefits of Empire as well as the negative. Those who accuse anti-racists of racializing society often counterpose universalist Enlightenment ideals of ‘liberty, equality and fraternity’, to particularist ‘identity politics’. In doing so, they gloss over the ways in which their presentation of the Enlightenment often becomes a form of particularist identity politics itself.

In the UK, many advocates of Brexit invoke the language of popular sovereignty alongside expressions of disavowed racism. It is evident in Conservative Party figures like Boris Johnson, Priti Patel and Michael Gove. It evident in the utterances of Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party. And it is evident in think tanks and pressure groups like Policy Exchange. It is also evident amongst some left-liberal Brexiteers. In my next Blogpost I will illustrate the co-existence of the promotion of popular sovereignty and disavowed racism, on the self-ascribed Left, through an examination of a pamphlet produced by two eminent academics for the left-liberal The Full Brexit pressure group in 2017.

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