Cases of contemporary populism

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Our project has several points of focus on the interrelations between modern forms of populism with liberal democracy, authoritarianism, politics, and law, particularly constitutional law.

Involving an investigator team with extensive comparative insight into major politico-legal shifts of the 20th and 21st centuries, and a range of collaborators on national case studies, we will be looking hard at the ways that populism – in practice and in power – deploys law in anti-constitutionalist directions, discerning the types of law and legal institutions that are especially prone to such anti-constitutionalist and anti-democratic deployment, and those that are more resilient in this respect.

In particular, we are looking at:

  • countries at the forefront of the ‘third wave’ of democratic transformation, where several now appear to be backsliding into rather less democratic conditions for society; and
  • the USA, as something of a control comparison that exhibits several features of populism as extreme as those found in third wave states, but differs in the longevity of its constitutional traditions, practices and institutions.

The distinctively law-related ambitions, connections, and engagements of the new populists directs our emphasis to various uses of law and particularly constitutional law – which in the practices of contemporary populism can arise not just through express constitutional amendment but also through its creative reinterpretations.

Importantly, those who wield power in newly populist regimes have created distinctive relationships with pivotal elements of democracy.  For example, they may pay lip service to liberal constitutional guarantees and institutions (such as constitutional courts, freedom of assembly), but in practice subvert their original meaning to serve the populist order.

Unlike earlier forms of populism, when in power the new populists display, even flaunt, close engagement with law, principles of the rule of law, and constitutionalism, yet such regimes appear relentlessly hostile to liberal values, practices, and institutional constraints.

Importantly, the particular role of law in sustaining and guiding the authority of illiberal, populist regimes is only beginning to be explored, and this will be central to our investigations.