Harvard University, Faculti — An Online Media Platform for Ideas
In this brief interview, Professor Richard Tuck speaks about his work in tracing the historical role of referendums and plebiscites in the formation of early-modern democratic states. While these processes have remained under theorized in the last 100 years, he argues that they are surprisingly relevant in how we tend to think about the changes undergoing modern politics today. In particular in light of their recent revival in response to the stresses emerging from the European Union that have been forcing citizens into new constitutional arrangements but also into thinking about democratic legitimacy.
In the second part of the interview, Professor Tuck briefly discusses the contextualist methodology which he employs in his work and describes as combining on the one hand a genuinely history inquiry in locating what theorists have argued in the past in their own contexts, with, on another, contemporary ways of thinking. This, he insists, is not to treat theorists as having a continued contemporary influence, but that understanding the past, i.e., the historical background to their arguments and the theorist, proves always useful to contemporary thought and politics. As he says, it is more about “shuttling backwards and forwards between the two modes in thinking about politics and about the history of political theory and the more modern philosophical”.
In the latter parts of the interview, Professor Tuck explains that his work has uncovered a tendency since the 16th century to think about the modern state as compatible with democracy but that has proven difficult within the paradigm of democracy as a small scale polis where citizens can gather and argue. He argues however that for those involved in the creation of the early modern democratic state this did not prove a convincing argument against democracy. They made a distinction between, on the one hand, having consultative events on matters of fundamental importance such as constitutional principles and rules where citizens can have their impact and vote, and on the other, representative democracy and government. Professor Tuck further argues that this idea which was available in the 17th century became as of the 18th century the foundation of the American States and that of France.
We should therefore not conclude that representative democracy is the only type of politics available to a modern democratic state. The early American States and that of France certainly thought that there was more than just to send representatives in legislative council but also participate in the generation of the “fundamental principles of their society” in which they were governed. While some of them believed that everyone could participate in government, which was “catastrophic” in the case of the French Revolutions with the Jacobins, most of the people involved in the formation of the modern democratic states believe that, as Professor Tuck says,
“as long as we have democratic control over the fundamental principles, we don’t need democratic or full democratic control over what they call the government. And so they devise what turns out in the end to be modern principles of referendums, plebiscites and so on where you appeal to people intermittently and on very important issues”.
This shows for Professor Tuck how important the move towards referendums and plebiscites in the formation of early-modern democratic states have been. It may be something that we have very well forgotten today.