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“Popular Sovereignty and Nationalism” by Bernard Yack


This paper is a critical evaluation of “Popular Sovereignty and Nationalism” By Bernard Yack.

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In his article, Yack proves the relationship between nationalism and popular sovereignty and shows that against popular belief, modernization is not a prelude to nationalism but rather a result of nationalism to some extent. His argument in this revolves around historical events that have nationalism connotations such as the French revolution. He says that popular sovereignty has been exploited for political gains through different channels which he introduces as a national community and political community with the latter being used in spreading nationalism like in the case of the French revolution. Thus the author seeks to explain the connection or the mechanism behind the linking of popular sovereignty with national sovereignty and eventually nationalism. He argues that popular sovereignty replaces the governmental sovereignty of the people. Sovereignty according to Yack in this perspective lies in the distinction between the power to establish or disestablish government forms as well as the power that is delegated to the rulers. In the article, Yack shows that the indirect sovereignty that the modern doctrine of popular sovereignty gives a major contribution to nationalism. His attempt to present the national community and political community as two different entities but with deep-rooted influences on each other does not show clear boundaries. Nationalism according to Yack lies on the Nation and the people. The two words can be used interchangeably to explain nationalism and disentangling them will be difficult as it will deplete the true nationalism and the image of the community. The heritage that people share plays an important role in binding us as a national community. While he says that political communities are most responsible for spreading nationalism, he says that national communities precede political communities. While this may be true his assertion that there is nationalism without national communities contradicts the fact that national communities cannot establish nationalism where it is the same community that develops into a political community responsible for spreading nationalism.

National communities according to Yack, which for relevance are linked to national sovereignty, are imagined communities with a specific point of origin into an infinite future. Yack notes that the people are an imagined community over space. He says that national communities offer a bridge between generations while the “people” offer a bridge between individuals. Thus the “people” are eternal and do not change, unlike the national community that undergoes different cycles such as rising or crisis as Yack explains. Therefore, going by his argument, nationalism is supposed to be more apparent in the “people” than in the community as the source of a territory’s collective authority.

Nationalism can also be said to be linked to democracy through this according to Yack does not hold as dictators also ride on popular sovereignty to govern their subjects. Western understanding of popular sovereignty is more reliant on democracy denying authority to an individual or group but conceding it to an imagined community consisting of the people other than a definitive group. This according to Yack leads to two communities one of the people in political institutions and a pre-political one that forms political institutions which is sovereign. This he calls indirect sovereignty. The traditional understanding of popular sovereignty on the other hand treats it the same way as democracy as we know it and he calls this constituent sovereignty. His argument that modern popular sovereignty is governed by an imagined community does not reflect on the real situation. This is because as much as there are no individuals or groups with absolute power, the imagined community he talks about has no active role in deciding what the legitimate bodies or individuals do with their power.


Yack’s analysis of nationalism takes into account two major aspects in which he places a strong relationship. The people and the community which is a subject of the shared heritage. He emphasizes the role of individuals as people or community in building and developing nationalism and highlights the philosophical aspects in “people” and “community” that determine how nationalism develops.


Yack, Bernard “Popular Sovereignty and Nationalism” Political Theory, Vol. 29, No. 4. 2001, pp. 517-536.

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StudyCorgi. "“Popular Sovereignty and Nationalism” by Bernard Yack." October 18, 2021.


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StudyCorgi. (2021) '“Popular Sovereignty and Nationalism” by Bernard Yack'. 18 October.

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