I research how power distorts our understanding of social reality, and what that says about the legitimacy of social and political institutions--a question I address from an epistemic rather than moral point of view. I try to show that there are empirically observable phenomena that yield normative political judgments. More specifically, I try to arrive at empirically-grounded evaluative judgments driven by epistemic normativity. I try to show that there are empirically observable phenomena that yield evaluative political judgments. The rough idea is this. When we believe in the legitimacy of power as a result of the workings of that very power, epistemically flawed ideologies become prevalent, and this is normatively suboptimal insofar as it impairs our capacity to make good political decisions.
More generally, I'm concerned with the relationship between the descriptive and the normative study of society and, therefore, with questions of method in political theory. I maintain that 'ethics first', moralistic political theory often misses what's most important about politics, and is at risk of ideological distortion. I see my work as contributing to the radical realist research programme: an approach that is suspicious of moral argument in politics and embraces empirical evidence, but without foreclosing far-reaching social and political change.
Here at the UvA I'm an associate professor (universitair hoofddocent) in the Department of Political Science, and the co-director of the Challenges to Democratic Representation Programme Group. I also co-edit the European Journal of Political Theory. I did my PhD in philosophy, at St Andrews.
Most of my publications, preprints, and working papers can be freely downloaded from here (the automatically-generated list of publications on this site is more or less complete, but it lacks many links and full-texts). This small selection of published and forthcoming work gives a sense of my current interests:
NWO Vidi Grant (2016-2022)
The idea of a crisis of democracy is frequently invoked to explain a range of phenomena plaguing European states in the era of declining national sovereignty: disaffection, polarisation, fragmentation. The crisis is usually understood as a crisis of legitimacy, and so as a failure of gathering consent through representation. This project challenges that understanding of the crisis by proposing a novel account of legitimacy, driving a wedge between consent and representation.
Traditional theories of democratic legitimacy are voluntaristic: representation legitimises the exercise of political power through consent, by making it receptive to the will of those over whom it is exercised. This project challenges democratic voluntarism in all its forms: those grounded in actual or hypothetical consent, as well as those grounded in deliberative and aggregative proceduralism. It abandons voluntarism by acknowledging that legitimate authority is necessarily coercive, but does so without thereby falling into an idea that 'might is right'.
The alternative proposal is critical responsiveness: political coercion can be legitimate when it is responsive to stakeholders’ values (vetted for ideological distortions). The shift from a voluntarist to a values-based theory of legitimacy enables exploration of two key, related, questions posed by globalisation to European democracies:
Theories of legitimacy should solve Rousseau’s paradox: “Man is born free: but everywhere he is in chains.” This project responds to the insight that solutions that dissolve the chains—that is, that show that legitimate authority is not coercive—are not satisfactory. The way to tackle the paradox is ask whether the chains make sense in the light of the values of those who bear them.