Theses Doctoral

Leviathan Run Aground: Carl Schmitt's State Theory and Militant Democracy

Schupmann, Benjamin A.

Can a constitution commit suicide? How should a liberal democratic state respond when social movements threaten war with one another and against the state itself? How should liberal democrats respond when extremist parties are strong enough to cooperate in parliament and obstruct essential legislation? Can an illiberal antidemocratic party legitimately obtain power through elections and then kick the ladder down by legally amending democracy and liberalism out of the constitution entirely?
Beginning in 1929, theoretical questions like these suddenly became both practically and existentially relevant for Weimar Germany. The share of the vote Nazis and Communists received in elections swelled until, combined, they were the majority. Neither movement accepted the legitimacy of liberal democracy and both were explicit that their only goal in running for seats in parliament was to gain a strong enough majority to amend the Weimar Constitution out of existence. Until then, they cooperated across the aisle, so to speak, to constitute negative majorities and prevent the SPD, Zentrum, and other parties from being able to pass legislation to respond to the economic, social, and political crises Weimar faced. By 1932, the Nazis held a plurality. In January 1933, exhausted with alternatives, Hindenburg appointed Hitler Chancellor.
This dissertation extrapolates Carl Schmitt's state theory and looks at how it was conceived in response to Weimar's legitimation crisis. It shows how Schmitt looks back to the tradition of state theory to address this crisis. In particular, it shows how he models his solution on Thomas Hobbes, whose Leviathan was also a response to civil war and the breakdown of political order. This dissertation argues Schmitt updates Hobbes' state theory to respond to the unique problems of the 20th century, especially modern mass democracy. Modern mass democracy was the product of universal suffrage, mass media, and advances in psychology. Disingenuous social movements exploited the media and whipped up an emotionally charged base, obtaining for themselves a veneer of democratic legitimacy and the means to parliament. Once in parliament, they exacerbated Weimar's crises and struggled against each another to advance their particular goals. Schmitt saw these conflicts as the 20th century equivalent of the Confessional Civil Wars and he saw himself as the 20th century Hobbes. He theorized ways to neutralize those conflicts and restore the state's sovereign authority.
But, besides that, Schmitt thought these issues begged the basic question of constitutionalism: are there any objective limits to a goal "the people" want, even if 99 percent of citizens support that goal? Can "the people" legitimately be bound to the mast? Can democracy be tyrannical?
Schmitt's peers, such as Hans Kelsen and Richard Thoma, answered in the negative and argued that there was no basis to deny a democratic will that had formed through proper procedures.
Schmitt disagreed. He argued the constitution imposed hard limits on democracy. Through this answer, this dissertation argues Schmitt's state theory anticipated what is today known as militant democracy. Militant democracy is a type of liberal democratic constitution that guards against certain forms of popular sovereignty and prevents constitutional suicide. Its institutional mechanisms include the entrenchment of core constitutional principles, such as basic rights, and political bans on certain illiberal and antidemocratic parties. Although one finds militant democracy embedded in constitutions around the world today, it has been undertheorized. Because Schmitt's theory of militant democracy rests on his substantive state theory, this dissertation concludes he offers us a foundation for developing a normative theory of militant democracy - something invaluable for making sense of its legitimacy and its limits today.

Geographic Areas


  • thumnail for Schupmann_columbia_0054D_12421.pdf Schupmann_columbia_0054D_12421.pdf application/pdf 3.63 MB Download File

More About This Work

Academic Units
Political Science
Thesis Advisors
Cohen, Jean L.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
November 21, 2014