Rousseau’s Democracy of Passions


The Framers’ constrained and inhibited popular government stands in stark contrast to majoritarian democracy advocated by individuals with a more rosy view of human nature.  For them, representative government is a poor excuse for a more robust democracy of the people with fewer undemocratic elements.  The basis of their beliefs is easily traceable to the influential 18th century political theorist Jean Jacques Rousseau, who rejected representation and constitutionalism as illegitimate expressions of the people’s interests. 


Because Rousseau believed that the only true democracy was the direct vote of the entire popular assembly of all adults, he regarded representative democracy as an oxymoron.[28]  He viewed representation as a form of enslavement.  The only time citizens of a representative democracy are free is on election day when they cast their votes for their representatives.[29]   Rousseau also rejected any constitutional limitations on the direct expression of the people’s desires.  A law passed last year could not be binding for this year’s citizens, who are subject only to the current majority. 


Undergirding his rejection of representation and constitutional limits was Rousseau’s belief in the innate goodness of humanity.  In a well-constituted state where the goodness of nature rules, “good sense, justice, and integrity” belong to everyone equally.  Therefore, the general assembly will inevitably reflect that goodness in its laws.  The natural passions and appetites are the very sources of goodness in humanity.  Virtue is spontaneous, natural, and within the grasp of anyone at any time, and not the result of arduous self-discipline.  Decisions made by the popular assembly should be nearly unanimous, since justice is achieved not by “long debates, dissensions, and tumult,” but by harmony and agreement.[30]  Deliberation only signifies that humanity’s natural inclinations are being corrupted by reason, according to Rousseau.


Rousseau’s distrust of the anti-majoritarian character of the U.S. Constitution finds modern expression in prominent political theorists like Robert Dahl.  Dahl contends that the Framers, while nobly seeking to defend civil rights, erroneously constructed a government “adverse to the majority principle, and in that sense to democracy.”[31]  In effect, the Constitution, argues Dahl, favors privileged minorities and thwarts the wishes of the majority at every turn.  In their effort to protect inalienable rights, the Framers undermined democratic procedures by favoring elite minorities.  In the place of the constitutional democracy established to reflect transcendent justice, Dahl puts forward a procedural democracy.[32]  In a procedural democracy, fair procedures take precedence over particular ends; justice is defined by the orderly democratic process.  There is no concern about whether the decisions of that process are right or wrong, since they are “correct,” by definition.[33]


Rousseau and Dahl demonstrate the implications of a rejection of transcendent truth for the American Experiment.  Their common view of humanity’s natural goodness led them to advocate government that encourages uninhibited majorities and where appetites find greater and more immediate political expression.  The more popular culture adopts the basic outline of their worldview, the more their models for governance are accepted by the populace.







[28]               Jean-Jacques Rousseau.  "On the Social Contract"  in  The Basic Political Writings, trans. Donald A. Cress (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 1987), 198.


[29]               Rousseau, On the Social Contract, 154


[30]               Rousseau, On the Social Contract, 205.


[31]               Robert Dahl,  “On Removing Certain Impediments to Democracy in the United States,” Political Science Quarterly (Spring, 1977), 5.


[32]               For an excellent exposition of the difference between procedural and republican democracy, see Michael Sandel, Democracy’s Discontents (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996).


[33]               In the 17th century’s Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes also entrusted the power of defining justice to the state, making him a forerunner of the post-modern rejection of transcendent justice.  Although he entrusted all power to the sovereign ruler and proceduralists entrust it to the people, both insist that justice is only what the state defines it to be, and nothing more.