The doctrine of popular sovereignty was propounded by Jefferson in the American Declaration of Independence and was incorporated in the Preamble of the Constitution by asserting that government derived its authority from the consent of the governed.
An echo of it is found in Abraham Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address: “This country, with its institutions, belongs to the people who inhabit it. Whenever they shall grow weary of the existing government, they can exercise their constitutional right of amending it, or their revolutionary right to dismember or overthrow it.” This is Rousseau’s theory of popular sovereignty in radical form. Since then popular sovereignty has become, as Bryce says, “the basis and watchword of democracy.” In spite of our unflinching democratic faith in the dogma of popular sovereignty, it must be admitted that it is highly vague and indeterminate.
We fail to determine and definitely say who these sovereign people are. Do we mean the entire unorganised mass of people living in the State, including women, children, idiots, insolvents and criminals? If so, then the sovereignty of the masses has no meaning in practical politics. The mass of the people cannot be organised and without organisation they constitute a mob, a babel of tongues, who can act neither actively nor effectively.
Organisation is the foundation of sovereignty. But if people become organised and follow their leaders, where is their sovereignty? Sovereignty of the people, Gettell says, by the very definition of the State, is a contradiction in terms. If by the State we mean a people organised for law within a definite territory, “some organisation and method of government is the legal one, otherwise no State exists.” It has been suggested that popular sovereignty refers to the sovereignty of the electorate. But sovereignty of the electorate has no legal basis unless it is expressed through channels prescribed by the constitution. The voters, in a representative form of government, do not themselves exercise actual sovereign power.
They elect their representatives and it is through them, as members of the legislature, that the sovereign power is expressed. It, therefore, embraces manhood suffrage and the control of the legislature by the representatives of the people. But as a matter of reality, the control of the legislature rests in the parliamentary majority party which is determined by the majority of the voters who had elected them. Out of this majority party, too, emerges a ruling coterie who wield actual power. “The sovereignty of the people, therefore, can mean nothing more than the power of the majority of the electorate in a country where a system of approximate universal suffrage prevails, acting through legally established channels, to express their will and make it prevail.” Opinion, otherwise expressed by voters, however powerful that opinion may be, is not valid unless clothed in legal form.
The exercise of suffrage is not a true indication of popular sovereignty. In a modern democratic State not all the people are entitled to vote, and many who are entitled to vote are disinterested in the political process. They remain inarticulate. Therefore, the actual electors form a much smaller portion of the entire population. According to Gettell, not more than one-fifth of the population in any modem State is voters and within that number a majority would be but little more than one-tenth of the citizens. Even these one-tenth of the citizens are not legally sovereign. Popular sovereignty cannot be equated with sovereignly of the electorate. The idea of popular sovereignty is, indeed, highly confusing.
At the same time, we cannot ignore the popular appeal it has. Ritchie and other political thinkers have tried to establish that the ultimate repository of political power is always found in the mass of the people. The State exists for the people and the mechanism of the State, that is, government, should function in accordance with the wishes of the people. While sovereignty in the legal sense may not be placed in the people, yet they are potentially a check on the legal sovereign. No legal sovereign can for long brash aside the will of the people. If it does, there are possibilities of revolution. In fact, the tendency with every modem State is to make legal sovereignty responsive to the popular demand as quickly as possible.
We cannot, under the circumstances, ignore the force of “popular sovereignty.” Gilchrist, however, suggests that “popular control” better indicates the idea underlying popular sovereignty. This is a correct analysis and the modem democratic States have developed certain institutional devices, as referendum and initiative, to manifest the will of the people. Also, there are consultative councils and advisory bodies which surround every department of government in a democratic State and all matters pertaining to a department are referred to the relevant advisory body for its opinion and advice.