Why have democratically elected leaders with autocratic aspirations appeared across such a wide array of democratic governments at once? How have they undermined constitutional government and yet claimed democratic legitimacy? What can be done to restore the promise of constitutionalism? These are some of the questions addressed by Prof. Kim Scheppele in her lecture hosted by the Albert Hirschman Centre on Democracy on 29 October as part of its lecture series on "Dismantling the Rule of Law?".
In her talk entitled “The Life and Death of Constitutions”, Kim Scheppele, professor of sociology and international affairs at Princeton University – where Albert Hirschman himself spent several decades of his career – argued that recent debates about populism conflate two distinct phenomena. The first is ideological, and could be associated with politics that concerns itself with the identity of the nation and issues such as migration. The second is institutional, and can be associated with the erosion of checks and balances on executive power. The conditions for the former are often associated with popular political disenchantment and the rotation of leaders. The conditions for the latter, however, do not entail popular support. Rather, they entail political techniques shared between, and adopted by, illiberal leaders to entrench their power. These techniques can only be effective as a result of the decline of political parties as grassroots bodies. For Kim Scheppele, the institutional dismantling of the constitutional state is thus an undesirable byproduct of ideological politics, owing to the weakened institutional environment of today’s democracies. In response, she calls for the revitalisation of party politics along truly transnational lines, to link local concerns to transnational movements.