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On the Demos and Its Kin: Nationalism, Democracy, and the Boundary Problem

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  19 September 2012

McGill University
Arash Abizadeh is Associate Professor, Department of Political Science, McGill University, 855 Sherbrooke Street West, Montreal, Quebec, CanadaH3A 2T7 (


Cultural–nationalist and democratic theory both seek to legitimize political power via collective self-rule: Their principle of legitimacy refers right back to the very persons over whom political power is exercised. But such self-referential theories are incapable of jointly solving the distinct problems of legitimacy and boundaries, which they necessarily combine, once it is assumed that the self-ruling collectivity must be a prepolitical, in principle bounded, ground of legitimacy. Cultural nationalism claims that political power is legitimate insofar as it expresses the nation's prepolitical culture, but it cannot fix cultural–national boundaries prepolitically. Hence the collapse into ethnic nationalism. Traditional democratic theory claims that political power is ultimately legitimized prepolitically, but cannot itself legitimize the boundaries of the people. Hence the collapse into cultural nationalism. Only once we recognize that the demos is in principle unbounded, and abandon the quest for a prepolitical ground of legitimacy, can democratic theory fully avoid this collapse of demos into nation into ethnos. But such a theory departs radically from traditional theory.

Research Article
Copyright © American Political Science Association 2012

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