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Unser Video der Woche

The crisis of representative democracy (2)

Democracy and the principle of embodiment

Prof. Dr. Paula Diehl (Chair of Political Theory, History of Ideas and Political Culture, Christian-Albrechts-Universität Kiel)

Part 1: Representation as a testing ground for the crisis
Part 2: Democracy and the principle of embodiment
Part 3: Vulnerability to crisis

How did the symbolic basis of democracy come about? Historically, its emergence is a modern achievement. The discovery of the people as a political actor as we know it today is a product of the revolutions of the eighteenth century. In the Middle Ages, there was no concept of the people as a collective subject. The people belonged to the communitas, to a community held together by the religious bond to God. In this context, the king was the link between God and the Christian community. He embodied the community and incarnated God or God’s will.(1) Without the figure of God, political representation lost its legitimacy. Symbolically, the legitimization of the ruler by God was expressed in the anointing of the king, which confirmed the king’s role as God’s representative. Because of this mediator position, it was also believed that the king possessed the ability to heal the sick. Rituals of laying on of hands were part of religious and political practices in the Middle Ages. Until the Enlightenment, politics and religion, state and church were merged. In this context, political representation was characterized by the incarnation of God in the royal body.

This changed with the Enlightenment, when man discovered himself as an autonomous being and sought explanations for the political order other than that of religious dogma. Politics and religion differentiated and acquired different principles of legitimacy. The sphere of religion continued to find its legitimacy in God’s will, while political power sought to legitimise itself through reasons of state, peace and the common good. Increasingly, the state established itself as an independent principle of order. Absolutist representation emerged. It was part of the absolutist order that the person of the king was merged with the institution of the state. There was no separation between person and office. The sentence of the French king Louis XIV “The state is me” is paradigmatic of this. This had serious consequences for political representation. In the absolutist configuration, the king’s body was the symbolic locus of power. The king personalised the state and the nation. The people, on the other hand, were not yet an independent actor, but belonged to the nation like the territory. The absolutist king therefore embodied everything: power, state and nation.

With the American and especially the French Revolutions, a radical break with this form of representation took place. With them, the idea spread that the people were a political actor, even the actual sovereign. The principle of popular sovereignty became the “symbolic matrix”,(2) the generator of meaning and the legitimizing instance of democracy. It was at this time that the symbolic basis emerged that is still valid for democracy today. For the principle of popular sovereignty states that power belongs to the people and thus to all. Thus, democratic representation is founded on a paradox: If power belongs to all, then no one may claim power for themselves, personalize it or embody it. Its symbolization succeeds only as an empty place.(3)

This symbolic basis affects both the representation of the people and the role of political representatives. The power of the people can only be exercised by representation, and political representatives must point out that the people, not they, are the sovereign. Popular sovereignty, equality, freedom and human rights advance to become the main principles of democracy. In the democratic constellation, the political and social order becomes the product of collective (symbolic) action and is therefore understood as changeable, which is why politics in democracy is open to modulation by the people.

Democracy opens the perspective for the plurality and changeability of the people because with every new generation and every new experience the people changes. Sociologically, such transformations characterize all societies. The difference with democracy is that change is one of the democratic design principles. This makes the idea of society dynamic, and the people can no longer be symbolized as a homogeneous unit. This is because the political order has to adapt to the society that produces this order. In democracy, there is no longer a king who personalizes power and embodies the people, partly because power belongs to the people and partly because the people can no longer be represented as an unchangeable entity.(4) Part of the democratic basis is that political representatives may only exercise power by proxy. It is the departure from the principle of embodiment.(5)

(Translation by Thierry Simonelli)


  1. Cf. Kantorowicz, E. H. (1997). The King’s Two Bodies: A Study in Mediaeval Political Theology (Reprint Edition). Princeton University Press.
  2. Claude Lefort, The Question of Democracy, in: Ulrich Rödel (ed.), Autonome Gesellschaft und libertäre Demokratie, Frankfurt/M. 1990, pp. 281-297.
  3. Cf. ibid
  4. This also applies to existing monarchies. Queens and kings today have to come to terms with a strong constitutional corset.
  5. Cf. Paula Diehl, Das Symbolische, das Imaginäre und die Demokratie. Eine Theorie politischer Repräsentation, Baden-Baden 2015, esp. ch. 4.