Building Democracy 2.0: Rousseau and ‘the Will of the People’

This is part 8 in a multi-part series examining ways to build an inclusive democracy for the 21st century.

[Special Note:  This topic is especially timely in light of current events. The contestation over the presidential election on November 3 reflects a pattern that began at least in the 1990s where the losing party questions the outcome of the election.  This pattern has grown increasingly severe over time with the incumbent president now rejecting results based on claims of fraud.  This essay explains why such a pattern is a direct threat to democracy. Upcoming parts will address the reasons for this pattern and offer a path to break it.]


As we saw in previous essays, institutions we take for granted can have profound effects on the functioning of democracy.  Similar to political parties, we seldom think about our electoral system.  We tend to take it as a given.  While we are vaguely aware that other democracies have different electoral systems, we do not pay much attention to them.  At their most basic level, electoral systems are the rules that determine how elections are conducted and the results determined, including how votes are translated into seats won by parties and candidates.  Majority/plurality voting, proportional voting or mixed voting systems along with ballot structure and district magnitude shape the way votes result in seats.  These different systems are critical to shaping political culture, and thereby, democracy.

Like other aspects of American democracy, there were few models for voting available at the time of the Constitutional Convention.  Recall the arguments made in Federalist 10 comparing direct democracy and representative democracy.  Madison made a case for large districts to overcome factions.  However, the Founding Fathers said relatively little about how votes would translate into seats apart from apportioning U.S. House seats according to state population.  The Progressive Movement produced a few significant changes to the electoral system such as the secret ballot and direct primaries.  Otherwise, the electoral system in the U.S. has seen few changes.

Nearly 250 years have passed since the Declaration of Independence.  Many more nations have joined the democratic club.  In fact, there was a recent burst of activity in the 1990s with the fall of the Iron Curtain and a desire by developing countries to strengthen their democratic institutions. Suddenly, new democracies in Asia, Africa, the former Soviet Union, Eastern Europe and South America began looking at models that could be applied in their countries.  We now have a multitude of electoral systems in place.  We can observe them in action.  We can see how electoral systems impact political culture and the functioning of democracy.  Systems can influence the level of factionalism, the strength of political parties, and the role of candidates.  Systems also affect how parties and candidates campaign, how elites behave politically and how voters make decisions.

Responding to the demand for assistance in setting up electoral systems, the international community established the Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA), first publishing a Handbook of Electoral System Design in 1997.  Since then, the Handbook has been updated a number of times.  It sets forth the types of systems and provides advice for electoral system designers.  One particular challenge is that once a system is in place, parties and individuals adapt to the incentives and form a resistance to change.  It can take a crisis on a massive scale to cause a nation to revisit its electoral system.  For a democracy as old as the United States, resistance to change is substantial.

This section of essays will focus on the main types of electoral systems.  To simplify the variation among the systems, the next essay will examine the majority/plurality system adopted by the U.S. and a handful of other nations – mostly those in the British Commonwealth.  The following essay will focus on proportional and other systems that rely on multi-member districts.  The last essay on electoral systems will survey the range of proposals for electoral reform making their way onto the policy agenda in the U.S.  These essays will consider the mechanics of the systems and the pros and cons associated with each type.  This will provide a foundation for understanding the role electoral systems play in light of the current challenges to democracy in America and point the way toward concrete solutions.

Before examining the types of electoral systems, it is important to revisit a topic introduced in Essay Two:  what is the meaning of voting in a democracy?  Suriewecki’s Wisdom of the Crowd provides a lens to explain why humans gravitated toward democracy as a way for society to make decisions over public goods such as infrastructure, welfare, education, taxes and national defense.  As a human adaptation, democracy has proven superior to other systems based on a central authority.  It has done so by relying on the concept of “the will of the people.”  This idea posits that elections reveal the collective sentiment of the people.  Elections serve as a sacred event and should have consequences in the form of laws.  Citizens are bound to honor the outcome of an election because it expresses the common good – at least until the next election occurs.  This view of elections begs a question the answer to which has profound implications for electoral systems:  is it reasonable to believe voting systems can actually express the will of the people?  This essay will seek to answer this question.  In doing so, it will establish a framework for assessing electoral systems.

Rousseau and “the Will of the People”

Perhaps no one has shaped the way we look at voting more than Jean-Jacques Rousseau.  He wrote his most influential work, The Social Contract, a little more than a decade before the American Revolution and died a year after the Declaration of Independence.  Rousseau immortalized the concept of “the will of the people.”  He described a society governed by the people rather than a central authority.  More importantly, he articulated what it means to live in a democracy and how to understand elections.  A look at his work helps provide a framework for assessing whether electoral systems can reveal the will of the people.

Rousseau was born in Geneva, Switzerland in 1712.  His mother died shortly after he was born.  His father enjoyed the rank of citizen of Geneva, a status few others had.  That status afforded his father the right to vote in certain elections.  He provided his son an informal education up until the age of 10.  After fighting in a duel, his father had to flee Geneva to avoid arrest.  Rousseau continued to receive his education from a pastor and then a noblewoman.  Despite the lack of formal education, Rousseau emerged as a brilliant thinker.  He traveled to Paris to devise a numerically-based system of music.  Although the French Academy rejected his system, Rousseau met many of the luminaries of the French Enlightenment, including Voltaire and Diderot.  By the age of 30, he began writing contributions to Diderot’s Encyclopedie.

Unlike others in his orbit, Rousseau was an iconoclast.  He challenged prevailing norms and eventually attacked his friends and cultured society. Ultimately, he left Paris for the countryside and began his most productive period in the late 1750s.  After achieving success as a novelist, Rousseau embarked on The Social Contract, a relatively brief tome started years earlier as a more ambitious work on political thought.  Although the book leaves many unanswered questions, it marked a major step forward in democratic theory by describing what it means to live in a society governed by its people.

At this time, political debate nibbled at the edges of the absolute power enjoyed by monarchs.  As we saw with John Locke’s Two Treatises of Government published in the previous century, the debate over government at this time centered on the concept of a social contract.  In return for protection and stability, citizens granted authority to a sovereign power.  In such a construct, freedom was limited – only that which a central authority agreed to cede.  In contrast to the legal theorists who advanced this theory, Thomas Hobbes insisted that sovereignty should be unified and absolute:  people have a choice between an absolute ruler and security or a free society and anarchy.  Rousseau studied Hobbes’ work as well as the legal theorists.  He took Hobbes’ concept that a sovereign must have absolute authority and turned it on its head by placing such authority in the hands of the people.  Perhaps ironically choosing the title The Social Contract, Rousseau blew up the framework of the legal theorists and argued that humans only have security if they are free and rule themselves.

Rousseau begins The Social Contract with a simple question:  “My purpose is to consider if, in political society, there can be any legitimate and sure principle of government, taking men as they are and laws as they might be.”  Without saying it explicitly, Rousseau is asking whether a legitimate government can exist if people are free.  He then famously states, “Man was born free, and he is everywhere in chains.  Those who think themselves the masters of others are indeed greater slaves than they.  How did this transformation come about?  I do not know.  How can it be made legitimate?  That question I believe I can answer.”  Rousseau acknowledges he is not a prince or legislator.  However, he says he is qualified to answer this question because he was born “the citizen of a free state and a member of its sovereign body” and “the very right to vote imposes on me the duty to instruct myself in public affairs, however little influence my voice may have in them.”  By identifying as a free citizen, Rousseau announces his standing to describe a legitimate government.

The General Will

With that humble beginning, Rousseau embarks on describing a society that can be both free and secure.  Instead of ceding power to an authority that stands apart from the people, Rousseau places authority in the form of the “general will.”  This concept is no more than the summation of the interests expressed by the people comprising a society.  He does not state explicitly that an election is required to reveal the general will, but a republican form of government is an obvious way to achieve this result.  Such “general will” forms “the basis of this common interest that society must be governed.”  In other words, the will as expressed by the people rules society rather than a monarch:

What then is correctly to be called an act of sovereignty?  It is not a covenant between a superior and an inferior, but a covenant of the body with each of its members.  It is a legitimate covenant, because its basis is the social contract; an equitable one, because it is common to all; a useful one, because it can have no end but the common good; and it is a durable covenant because it is guaranteed by the armed forces and the supreme power.

No one had expressed democracy in these terms. The legal theorists assumed only a monarch, whose authority had to be bargained in a contract, had legitimacy.  Rousseau said that the general will could replace the monarch and still maintain legitimacy.  A social contract, as previously understood, was no longer necessary.

Importantly, Rousseau connected equality to democracy.  Anyone who participates in establishing the general will must be treated equally under its authority:

Whichever way we look at it, we always return to the same conclusion:  namely that the social pact establishes equality among the citizens in that they all pledge themselves under the same conditions and must all enjoy the same rights.  Hence by the nature of the compact, every act of sovereignty, that is, every authentic act of the general will, binds or favors all the citizens equally, so that the sovereign recognizes only the whole body of the nation and makes no distinction between any of the members who compose it.

In such a society, the sovereignty or government must treat each member equally.  Concomitantly, each member must have an equal voice in producing the general will.  Each citizen has the same weight in creating the general will, and we each have the same rights under a government produced by such general will.

Rousseau posits that any democracy must also possess the capacity to act upon the general will.  The general will must lead to action.  The logical way for that to happen is through the enactment of laws.   He wrote:  “if the state, or the nation, is nothing other than the legal person the life of which consists of the union of its members and if the most important of its cares is its own preservation, it must have a universal and compelling power to move and dispose of each part in whatever manner is beneficial to the whole …” He says an election constitutes “a declaration of will,” which is tantamount to an act of sovereignty no less than law.  Distinguishing between administrative acts which carry out the law, Rousseau declares that the general will produces laws.  In other words, the will of the people must be reflected in the enactment of laws consistent with such will.

Without providing details of its operations, Rousseau says that a democratic government has absolute authority regarding matters of mutual concern.  He recognizes, however, that such power extends no further than the “concerns of the community.”  In addition, such power does not infringe on “the natural rights which [private persons] ought to enjoy as men.”  We relinquish our autonomy relating to “the concern of the community,” but the sovereign leaves private matters to our discretion:

Sovereign power, wholly absolute, wholly sacred, wholly inviolable as it is, does not go beyond and cannot go beyond the limits of the general covenants; and thus that every man can do what he pleases with such goods and such freedom as is left to him by these covenants; and from this it follows that the sovereign has never any right to impose greater burdens on one subject than on another, for whenever that happens a private grievance is created and the sovereign’s power is no longer competent.

Therefore, government is limited to the public domain, but within that realm, a democratic government has absolute power to act according to the will of the people.

Threats to the General Will

Next, Rousseau identifies two familiar threats to democracy:  private interest and factions.  He clearly wants citizens to act out of public duty.  But he recognizes that it is not a fatal defect to the general will when some act out of private interest.

There is often a great difference between the will of all [what individuals want] and the general will; the general will studies only the common interest while the will of all studies private interest, and is indeed no more than the sum of individual desires.  But if we take away from these same wills, the pluses and minuses which cancel each other out, the sum of the difference is the general will.

Rousseau intuitively understands the concept of the collective mind – diverse individuals acting independently on private information can express the common good when all views are expressed:   “From the deliberations of a people properly informed, and provided its members do not have any communication among themselves, the great number of small differences will always produce a general will and the decision will always be good.”  Therefore, private interests can be subsumed through the compilation of all interests in a society.

Rousseau identifies factions as an agglomeration of private interests.  Unlike individual private interests, factions pose a danger because they can combine such interests into a majority.  He saw factions as a direct threat to the collective mind as expressed by the general.  He wrote:

[When] sectional associations are formed at the expense of the larger association, the will of each of these groups will become general in relation to its own members and private in relation to the state; we might then say that there are no longer as many votes as there are men but only as many votes as there are groups.  The differences become less numerous and yield a result less general.  Finally, when one of these groups becomes so large that it can dominate the rest, the result is no longer the sum of many small differences, but one great divisive difference; then there ceases to be a general will, and the opinion which prevails is no more than a private opinion.

Presaging Federalist 51, Rousseau argues the general will cannot exist unless factions are controlled.  Unlike Madison, he does not articulate a way to avoid factions only stating, “it is imperative that there should be no sectional associations in the state and that every citizen should make up his own mind for himself….”  Simply put, Rousseau describes how individuals relate to a democracy.  When they contribute to the general will by acting independently and in the common interest, they strengthen democracy.  When they join forces with a faction, they undermine it.

By submitting to the general will, members of society achieve the vision set forth by Rousseau:

… they have profitably exchanged an uncertain and precarious life for a better and more secure one; they have exchanged natural independence for freedom, the power to destroy others for the enjoyment of their own security; they have exchanged their own strength which others might overcome for a right which the social union makes invincible.

This vision was ambitious.  While others may have conceived a democratic society, Rousseau was the first to articulate it in such terms.  He described a reordering of society governed by the expression of each citizen.  He said the combination of such expression is absolute and leads to outcomes in the form of laws or legislation.  He also set forth the implications of democracy to public duty, governance, equality and freedom.  Shortly after publishing The Social Contract, Rousseau fled France.  From that point forward, his life was upended.  His willingness to challenge the prevailing norms of his time proved costly.  But the price he paid may have inspired our Founding Fathers to revolt rather than negotiate with a monarchical ruler.

A Critique by Social Choice Theory

Since its publication, The Social Contract has inspired countless political theorists, philosophers and revolutionaries.  Some have twisted Rousseau’s work to justify totalitarian rule, viewing the general will as a static rather than dynamic force.  They argue that once established, a ruler has absolute power to act for the people. This is particularly sad because Rousseau treasured freedom.  His identity as a proud citizen of Geneva gave him the confidence to take on the judicial theorists of his day.  He challenged their acquiescence to the notion that freedom could be bargained for security.  Instead, Rousseau claimed we can be free and rule ourselves.

More recently, proponents of Social Choice Theory have attacked the concept of “the will of the people.”  They see it as a flawed way to understand voting in a democracy.  Recall Kenneth Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem in which he exposes the challenge of translating individual preferences into social preferences through the mechanism of voting.  If the summation of individual preferences does not accurately reflect the general will, how can lawmakers claim support for any particular legislation following an election.  This question goes to the heart of electoral systems.

In Liberalism Against Populism, William Riker sets up Rousseau’s idea of “the will of the people” as a strawman.  Riker argues this concept allows “rulers to believe their programs are the ‘true’ will of the people and hence more precious than the constitution and free election.”  In contrast, Ryker says a “liberal” view of voting merely “requires regular elections that sometimes lead to the rejection of rulers.”  Ryker concludes:  “Outcomes of voting cannot, in general, be regarded as accurate amalgamations of voters’ values.  Sometimes they may be accurate, sometimes not; but since we seldom know which situation exists, we cannot, in general, expect accuracy.  Hence we cannot expect fairness either.”  This is because “the method of counting partially determines the outcome of counting.”  As a result, social choice theory assigns no significance to the results of an election:  “If the people speak in meaningless tongues, they cannot utter the law that makes them free.”

Ryker and other social choice theorists believe we will come to realize elections hold no special significance.  At most, elections provide a way to remove undesirable people from office.  But if the calculus of voting reveals anything, it is the act of voting depends on intrinsic motivations.  A single vote rarely affects the outcome of an election.  It takes time and effort to register, learn about candidates and make it to the polls.  Therefore, we need a compelling reason to vote.  We need to believe our actions are part of a larger social enterprise.

For this reason, Rousseau’s concept of “the will of the people” endures.  We want to believe that voting has meaning.  We want to believe an election expresses the common interest of the people and informs lawmaking until the next election occurs.  While social choice theorists have provided good reason to question the role electoral systems play in driving the results of elections, their theory rests on an outdated model – one that says we only act in self-interest when expressing individual preferences.  Rousseau understood citizens can act upon the common good when expressing individual preferences, especially when voting about public goods rather than private ones.  As importantly, citizens consider how their vote matters within an electoral system that, while not perfect, expresses the interests of a society.

The Meaning of Voting and Elections

Through this lens, it is still possible to find meaning in “the will of the people.”  Recall Surowiecki’s typology of problems to which groups of people are adept at solving:  cognitive, coordination and cooperation.  Voting and elections do not fall neatly into any one category.  When viewed as a single act – a single election – it could be cognitive (i.e., expressing the right answer given the societal needs at that moment).  When considered over a succession of elections, voting becomes an act of cooperation.  We vote on candidates to establish an output that represents the common interest.  We accept the common interest as reflected in an election even if our personal views depart from that output.  We do so knowing that other participants implicitly agree to cooperate in accepting the results of a future election that may more closely align with our views.

There is reason to believe the cooperative aspect of voting deserves greater emphasis than the cognitive one.  Social Choice Theorists assert that voters act rationally in a self-interested way.  However, more recent evidence suggests humans tend to act in a “pro-social” way.  A number of cross-cultural studies using game theory have demonstrated that people will choose mutual gain over self-interest.  For example, Ernst Fehr and Simon Gachter used game theory to test decisions about public goods.  They concluded that people tend to fall into one of three categories:  25% act in a self-interested (rational) manner and a small percentage are altruistic. The largest group are termed “conditional consenters.”  This latter group will act cooperatively, believing such behavior will benefit them in the long-run.

However, this natural affinity for humans to exhibit “pro-social” behaviors has limits.  It is conditional. When people believe others are taking advantage of them by not following the same norms, cooperation collapses.  Political scientist Robert Axelrod wrote, “The foundation for cooperation is not really trust … [but] whether the conditions are ripe for [the players] to build a stable pattern of cooperation with each other.”  He calls this “the shadow of the future.”  Typically, there must be some sanction for noncooperative behavior in order to establish a cooperative pattern.  In short, most humans tend toward cooperation – a primary reason humans ascended to the top of the food chain.  They easily acquire skills of cooperation when they see a stable pattern of others exhibiting similar behavior.  That is when reciprocity lifts the fortunes of all participants.

Rousseau understood this aspect of voting.  While the general will speaks to the meaning of an election, Rousseau placed an equal importance on the cooperation required in the aftermath of an election.  Once the will of the people is established, we are duty bound to honor it until the next election.  He wrote:

This formula shows that the act of association consists of a reciprocal commitment between society and the individual, so that each person, in making a contract, as it were, with himself, finds himself doubly committed, first, as a member of the sovereign body in relation to individuals, and secondly as a member of the state in relation to the sovereign.

Everyone must submit to the general will:  “every individual gives himself absolutely, the conditions are the same for all, and precisely because they are the same for all, it is in no one’s interest to make the conditions onerous for others.”  Only by requiring complete acceptance of the general will – even if an individual’s “private interest may speak with a very different voice from that of the public interest” – can we establish a pattern of cooperation, which is needed to forge a democratic society.  That is the only way a legitimate society can square freedom with order.

The Measure of Electoral Systems

If elections are more than “meaningless tongues” as suggested by Social Choice Theory, what then can we expect of them?  At a high level, we can measure electoral systems in relation to their impact on society rather than a compilation of individual preferences.  Does the system act in a way that strengthens society, making it more cohesive and efficient?  Or does it spur anti-social behaviors that drain resources and threaten stability?  Rousseau identified the key elements of effective electoral systems in terms of how a democratic society should operate.  They include:

  1. Participation. The will of the people requires full participation of the electorate.  Any society that governs itself rests on the engagement of its people.  Otherwise, the will of the people fails to capture the full expression of the people.  While Rousseau wants participants to act in the public good, he recognizes many will register their self-interest.  And that is okay since the diversity of such perspectives will cancel each other out.  Therefore, electoral systems must encourage popular participation.
  2. Equality. Electoral systems should treat all people equally.  The general will represents the common interest of all.  It cannot be “alienated.”  In other words, it cannot treat people differently nor can it recognize private interests.  A corollary to this principle is the general will must reflect the input of the people equally.  In other words, each person’s voice must count equally in comprising the will of the people.  Certain voices should not matter more than others.  Therefore, electoral systems must ensure each vote carries equal weight in expressing the will of the people.
  3. Choice. Establishment of the general will implies agency on the part of voters.  Voters must, through independent judgment, produce an outcome among a set of options.  Otherwise, the collective mind has no value.  But it is important to see the relationship between choice and the electorate.  Rather than a simplistic stacking of political philosophies, elections must offer choices that are meaningful to voters at a particular moment in time, recognizing those choices can be narrow.
  4. Formation of majorities. Rousseau believed that the general will should take the form of law.  It should lead to outcomes expressed in the form of legislation (as opposed to administration of government).  In other words, elections should have consequences.  As we have seen in the early stages of American democracy, legislative action requires the formation of majority voting blocs.  Parties help create such blocs.  Any electoral system must translate votes into outcomes that allow officials to form voting blocs consistent with the outcome of an election in order to advance promises made during campaigns.
  5. Shifting coalitions. Factions threaten democracy because they place a private interest above the common interest.  Rousseau understood this just as the Founding Fathers did.  It is imperative that no faction comprise a majority.  More importantly, the strength of democracy depends on the instability of majority coalitions so that private interests do not overtake the common good.  In order for the general will to produce laws consistent with the common good, majorities have to be nimble and flexible to mirror changes in the general will.


Electoral systems are critical to democracy because they determine how elections express “the will of the people.”  Rousseau understood that such an expression when made sovereign could reorder society – one governed by the people rather than a central power.  To work, democracy requires cooperation among voters to accept the will of the people.  Otherwise, we devolve to dictatorship.  Democracy has succeeded as a human adaptation because it has produced societies more cooperative, cohesive and efficient than those that rely on authority to maintain stability.  By seeing democracy as a social act, we can derive a framework for assessing electoral systems.  Do they encourage participation in voting and on equal terms?  Do they provide meaningful choices that lead to the formation of majorities so that elections can produce laws?  Do they discourage private interests from acquiring and holding onto power?  The answers to these questions determine whether an electoral system strengthens democracy or weakens it.

Mack Paul is a member of the state advisory board of Common Cause NC and a founding partner of Morningstar Law Group.

Parts in this series:

Introduction: Building Democracy 2.0

Part 1: What Is Democracy and Why Is It Important?

Part 2: How the Idea of Freedom Makes the First Innovation Possible

Part 3: The Second Innovation that Gave Rise to Modern Democracy

Part 4: The Rise and Function of Political Parties – Setting the Record Straight

Part 5: How Political Parties Turned Conflict into a Productive Force

Part 6: Parties and the Challenge of Voter Engagement

Part 7: The Progressive Movement and the Decline of Parties in America

Part 8: Rousseau and ‘the Will of the People’

Part 9: The Dark Secret of Majority Voting

Part 10: The Promise of Proportional Voting

Part 11: Majorities, Minorities and Innovation in Electoral Design

Part 12: The Misdirected Attempts at Electoral Reform in the U.S.

Part 13: Building Democracy 2.0: The Uses and Abuses of Redistricting in American Democracy

See More: Voting & Elections