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Representative Democracy versus Government by Opinion

Democratic theorists often associate public opinion with democracy and associate public opinion with popular sovereignty. They usually trace these two associations to the French Revolution. In this article, I reconsider them by returning to French Revolution–era debates on extraelectoral participation. For Condorcet, the Montagnards, and the liberal theorist Germaine de Staël, I argue, public opinion and popular sovereignty provide two distinct ways of conceptualizing political participation beyond election. Condorcet and the Montagnards defended the direct exercise of popular sovereignty beyond election as constitutive of democratic politics. Staël rejected that exercise and offered public opinion instead as the best and exclusive way of conceptualizing extraelectoral participation. This controversy reveals that public opinion has no timeless connection with democracy. Rather, government by opinion was conceived of in reaction to early advocacies of representative democracy.