This interview was conducted by Javier Toro.
Kevin Olson is a Professor of Political Science at the University of California, Irvine. He is the author of Imagined Sovereignties: The Power of the People and Other Myths of the Modern Age.
Ideas like “the power of the people” are one of our primary ways of understanding contemporary politics. They reflect the dominance of democratic ideals in our culture. For people in cultures that share in this heritage, the concepts, metaphors, and images of democracy just feel correct. As a result, they’re useful and available forms of expression. If you want to say something about contemporary politics, if you want to justify some opinion or belief, these elements of the democratic imagination just make sense.
These ideas about the people are ones that we fashion and refashion, continually reimagining them for new purposes. They are part of a cultural heritage that is shared in important ways across the globe, yet one that varies from place to place and person to person. It provides a common reference point for imagining particular forms of democracy, rendering particular things “natural” and “correct” without careful argument. Because of that, however, it can also justify certain kinds of things without close scrutiny. In short, “the people” is one of the primary features of our democratic heritage, yet it is also so deeply embedded there that we tend to take it for granted.
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