Autocratic Legalism

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Pisa, Italy: Scuola Superiore Sant’Anna – Populism, Constitutional Democracy, and the Rule of Law workshop

Addressing the idea of Autocratic Legalism today at the workshop was Professor Kim Lane Scheppele, Laurance S. Rockefeller Professor of Sociology and International Affairs in the Woodrow Wilson School and the University Center for Human Values, Princeton University, USA.

Professor Scheppele observed that buried within the general phenomenon of democratic decline is a set of cases in which charismatic new leaders are elected by democratic publics and then use their electoral mandates to dismantle by law the constitutional systems they inherited.  She contends that these leaders aim to consolidate power and to remain in office indefinitely, eventually eliminating the ability of democratic publics to exercise their basic democratic rights, to hold leaders accountable, and to change their leaders peacefully.  Further, because these ‘legalistic autocrats’ deploy the law to achieve their aims, impending autocracy may not be evident at the start, but that observers can learn to spot the legalistic autocrats before autocratic constitutionalism becomes fatal because they are often following a script using tactics that they borrow from each other.  The intent of the Professor’s paper is to explain the paths that these autocratic legalists take, the danger signals that accompany their legal reforms, and the methods they use to dismantle liberal constitutions, and also to suggest how the legalistic autocrats may be stopped.