The leaders of the French Revolution agreed with Jean-Jacques Rousseau that the general will of the people is the only legitimate basis for political rule. Reference to the law as an expression of the general will in the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen was almost certainly directly inspired by Rousseau. It represents a radical transformation in the foundations of legitimate government.
Rousseau was a democrat but not a liberal. He argued that democracy requires its citizens to put the public good above their own private good, as in ancient Sparta. That is why many 20th century liberals have condemned Rousseau as a ‘totalitarian democrat’.
But not everyone who rejects the liberal form of democracy is necessarily a totalitarian. Rousseau is better understood as a precursor of what is now called ‘national populism’. He saw a basic incompatibility between liberalism and democracy and took his stand with the latter. What seems new to us today is really a resurgence of a much older debate that goes back to Rousseau’s time, before the 19th century foundation of liberal democracy, which is the dominant form of democratic rule in the West.
Increasingly, the relationship between liberalism and democracy is being challenged. The rise of democratic populism has provoked many liberals to sharpen their attacks on more direct forms of democracy (such as referendums) in favour of diluted, representative forms, like earlier, classical liberals of the nineteenth century, who perceived the rising power of ordinary citizens as a threat to the idea of man as a ‘progressive being’. Against this, many populists are now increasingly impatient with liberal, cosmopolitan values, which they view as the ideology of an elite detached from the lives and concerns of ordinary citizens. Nationalist democratic politicians typically see liberalism as weakening democratic solidarity and identity, whereas liberal democrats see liberalism as essential to democracy. Such challenges to the liberal conception of democracy are likely to grow, echoing the language and ideas of Rousseau, a thinker whose time has come again, for better or for worse.