Both cultural nationalism and democratic theory seek to legitimate political power by rendering it compatible with the freedom of those over whom it is exercised, i.e., by appeal to a notion of collective self-rule. Both doctrines thus advance a self-referential theory of political legitimacy: their principle of legitimation refers right back to the very persons over whom political power is to be exercised. Since self-referential theories base legitimation in a collective self, they must necessarily combine the question of legitimation with the question of boundaries. The problem is that it is impossible to solve both problems together once it is assumed that the collectivity in question is in principle bounded. Cultural nationalism claims that political power is legitimate insofar as it authentically expresses the nation's pre-political culture, but it cannot fix the nation's cultural boundaries pre-politically. Hence the collapse into ethnic nationalism. The democratic theory of bounded popular sovereignty claims that political power is legitimate insofar as it expresses the people's will, but cannot itself legitimate the pre-political boundaries of the people it presupposes. Hence the collapse into cultural nationalism. Only a theory of unbounded popular sovereignty avoids this collapse of demos into nation into ethnos, but such a theory departs radically from traditional theory. It abandons the notion of a pre-politically constituted "will of the people," supports the formation of global democratic forums, and challenges the legitimacy of unilaterally controlled political boundaries.
Arash Abizadeh is an associate professor in the Department of Political Science and an associate member of the Department of Philosophy, McGill University, and specializes in contemporary political theory and the history of political philosophy. His research focuses on democratic theory and questions of identity, nationalism, and cosmopolitanism; immigration and border control; and seventeenth- and eighteenth-century philosophy, particularly Hobbes and Rousseau. He is currently finishing a book titled The Oscillations of Thomas Hobbes: Between Insight and the Will.