Princeton and Humboldt Faculty and Graduate Students Convene To Discuss The Rise of Authoritarian Constitutionalism

Nov. 8, 2017

By Will Freeman

Last year, the Brexit referendum and the election of Donald Trump triggered debate among pundits, academics and the public over how best to understand the rise of illiberal political leaders and movements in developed democracies. Yet public debate has rarely centered around the way in which illiberal politicians make use of legal and constitutional tools to advance their agendas.

“The Rise of Authoritarian Constitutionalism: Historical, Legal, and Normative Perspectives,” a recent two-day workshop convened by Jan-Werner Mueller, professor of politics at Princeton University, and Silvia von Steinsdorff, professor of social sciences at Humboldt University, offered faculty and graduate students the opportunity to develop a clearer conceptual understanding of authoritarian constitutionalism. Attendees also discussed how authoritarian constitutionalism operates in practice in cases including Poland, Hungary, Russia, Turkey and Venezuela.

The workshop was the culminating event of a six-week interdisciplinary graduate seminar, POL 531: “The Rise of Authoritarian Constitutionalism,” which brought together Princeton and Humboldt graduate students on Princeton’s campus.  The workshop, administered by the University Center for Human Values and cosponsored by the Princeton-Humboldt Strategic Partnership and Princeton’s Department of Politics from the Bouton Law Lectures Fund, provided students an opportunity to present research papers and works-in-progress.

The workshop’s first panel focused on developing a conceptual framework for understanding authoritarian constitutionalism. The speakers included Laurance S. Rockefeller Professor of Sociology and International Affairs and the University Center for Human Values Kim Lane Scheppele; professor Christoph Schönberger (University of Konstanz), and recent Humboldt University graduate student Felix Petersen. Professor Scheppele addressed “autocratic legalism,” or the use of electoral mandates and constitutional change to advance illiberal projects. Professor Schönberger and Peterson discussed how we distinguish between authoritarian and liberal constitutionalism, and how liberal democrats and populists understand popular sovereignty differently. 

Next, political scientist Andrew Arato (The New School) and law professor David Landau (University of Florida) shifted the focus to understanding why authoritarian constitutionalist regimes emerge when and where they do. Arato emphasized deficits of democratic legitimacy and welfare provision and Landau cited the application of constitutional change and replacement.

The morning’s theoretical discussion was enriched by the presentation of empirically-grounded work on authoritarian constitutionalism in Russia, Iran and Turkey by Alexei Trochev, Nura A. Hossainzadeh and Ece Göztepe. Throughout the first day, the conversation between the presenters and the audience highlighted the ways in which constitutional texts and their political contexts—especially those characterized by defective institutions—mutually influence one another.