Global Perspectives on Constitutionalism and Populism


After watching the images of the January 6 Capitol riot, many Americans concluded that right-wing populism threatens the basic rules of our constitutional order. In this view, the U.S. Constitution establishes a universal order that is detached from any particular orientation and provides the neutral ground upon which differences can be discussed, while populists upset the rules of discussion and destroy the basis of a common project. Consequently, since populism is at odds with the Constitution, the solution would be to try to reimpose a measure of rationality upon the unruly. Yet the nagging concern behind this perspective is not just the violation of rules but the suspicion that populism is ultimately motivated by racism and sexism. In this case, the real opposition would not be between constitutionalism and populism but between two understandings of the Constitution, that is, two conceptions of the character of the people, one egalitarian and the other racist. The difficulty is that the laws of a constitution cannot exist independently of a people with a specific history. Rules cannot be neutral but imply a perspective on the world, and the conflict between constitutionalism and populism may in fact be a symptom of a conflict between two factions within the people, each of which is attempting to establish itself as the proper representation of the will of the people as a whole.


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