Democratic Legitimacy: Plural Values and Political Power


403 pages
Contains Bibliography, Index
ISBN 0-7735-2232-8
DDC 321.8




Reviewed by Eric P. Mintz

Eric P. Mintz is an associate professor of political science and
environmental studies at Sir Wilfred Grenfell College, Memorial
University of Newfoundland.


On what basis can democratic governments rightfully claim their
authority to rule? Frederick Barnard argues that the accountability of
government is crucial to a meaningful democracy. In modern states
characterized by a plurality of interests and values, democracy requires
the mediation of competing interests and values. The rightfulness of
government cannot be reduced to the application of universal moral
principles. Instead, legitimacy should be based on governments’
honoring the obligations that they have undertaken, watched by a
vigilant citizenry. To achieve this objective, government needs an
autonomous space in which to act and citizens need some autonomy from
government so as to exercise a vigilant scrutiny of government.
Advocating direct democracy based on popular participation is
unrealistic given the level of public interest in politics; such an
approach inaccurately assumes that there is a potential “oneness” or
“general will” in modern polities, and could have the effect of
undermining the ability of citizens to hold government accountable for
its actions.

To some extent, this book can be read as a defence of liberal,
representative democracy against a variety of critics. However, Barnard
does not see democracy as simply a neutral set of procedures; he is
concerned with the development of public standards and of a sense of
civic belonging. In addition to placing limits on political power, he
suggests that movement in the direction of social democracy may be
needed to limit excessive power in the economic sphere. Another
important theme running through this book is the importance and
distinctiveness of the political. Barnard is critical of those who would
reduce politics to the moral, philosophical, or economic, and those
whose proposals would depoliticize the modern state.

Democratic Legitimacy raises important questions based on an informed
discussion of both classic and contemporary political philosophers and
democratic theorists. Rather than presenting a polemic advocating a
particular course of action, Barnard is interested in encouraging
dialogue about the appropriate balance among competing values and
objectives. Unfortunately, however, this book is densely written and
will likely be read primarily by academic political philosophers.


Barnard, Frederick M., “Democratic Legitimacy: Plural Values and Political Power,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed April 23, 2024,