This article discusses the democratic side of Locke's political thought, which is generally not appreciated. How is it that Lockean constitutionalism is also “popular government,” institutions, that is, but institutions considerably informed by a democratic spirit? The answer involves Locke's three characteristic innovations in institution-planning: “civil” government, a supreme “legislative” power coupled with a responsible executive, and, inter alia, a vigilant “majority”—a party or movement of the people with authority to elect to government and to rebel against any non-popular government. While Locke does raise up a powerful executive, he also makes it dependent as a rule on a rather democratic legislative. What Locke wishes to induce over time is something like parliamentary government, with the executive vested in a cabinet and the whole more or less responsible to the people in his sense, especially to a majority.
To what extent are liberal democracies democratic? That question guides this reconsideration of the first and fundamental plan for liberal government, that of John Locke. I shall argue that Locke's plans are more democratic, and more radical too, than is generally believed. True, important parts of Locke's teaching correspond to undemocratic features with which we are now quite familiar. Liberal democracies have more or less capitalist economies in which wealth and big corporations are protected, they are moved not only by public opinion but also by liberal opinion-leaders of one stripe or another, they are governed not by the people in assembly but by constitutional governments.