politics Reviews

‘How to Save a Constitutional Democracy’ review: Of, by, and for the people

As right-wing populists hold sway across the world, two writers argue that only public action and collective mobilisation can neutralise democratic collapse

The rise of right-wing populists across the world has destabilised constitutional democracy, a form of government that protects citizens against the brute power of majorities on the one hand, and limits the proclivity of elected governments to hold and exercise immense power on the other. Citizens are shielded, and governments controlled by constitutions, institutions, the rule of law, an independent judiciary, fundamental rights, and democratic civil societies.

Populists relentlessly undermine constitutional safeguards by appeals to an undifferentiated and amorphous category called ‘the people’, and focus on elections that have brought them to power. Though populists claim that they have reclaimed power from the iron grip of corrupt elites and institutions, citizens have been rendered more not less vulnerable. Unsurprisingly, a veritable publishing industry has grown around the deleterious effect of right-wing populism on constitutional democracy, democratic erosion and decline.

The book under review comes as a proverbial breath of fresh air because it spells out in some detail what the core components of constitutional democracy are. The argument is crisp and clear. The two authors prefer to concentrate on a minimalistic and legalistic approach to democracy, and eschew the complications that presumably stalk political philosophy. Conventional wisdom, they argue, about what properly counts as democracy is hazy. It tends to concentrate heavily on the subjective preferences of voters for ‘this’ party over ‘that’. The core institutions of liberal constitutional democracy, that mutually reinforce each other, are electoral competition, the right to free speech and association, and the rule of law.

Autonomous bureaucracy

The first two are self-explanatory, but the rule of law demands various preconditions: a bureaucracy that is autonomous of the executive, rule-following, and an independent judiciary.

The argument is interesting and weighty tomes can be, and have been written on each of these core components. For example, the preconditions of competitive electoral politics are a level playing field for all parties. Each vote counts for just one, no one should be privileged because he is far, far more influential than others, and no one disadvantaged because she is not influential at all. In political philosophy, however, the right to free speech is tracked by anxious debates on, for example, what counts as limits on this right: sedition, defamation, pornography, incitement to hate and violence, and blasphemy. Finally, the rule of law raises vexed questions about the nature of law, whether law can be its own source and justification, and the right to civil disobedience.

Curbs on media

The problem with a minimalistic institutional approach to democracy is that the power of each one of these institutions can be insistently subverted by, as the authors themselves register, threats that curb the autonomy of the media. Corporate ownership of media houses assures that a compliant media truncates free speech. Rabid nationalism and an irresponsible social media places limits on the right. Above all, draconian laws inhibit opposition. Finally, the authors ask us to imagine a situation where the awesome communicative skills of a leader are combined with (a) an ability to exploit government and (b) tactical skills. Each right-wing populist studied by the authors fits the bill. Populists appeal to, and are elected by social groups who detest inherited privilege, distrust institutions, and above all resent ‘immigrants’ and ‘strangers’ who have appropriated land, resources, and employment. No matter that these so-called immigrants might have contributed to the wealth of society through labour.

At the end of the argument, the authors recognise that only public action and collective mobilisation can neutralise democratic decline and erosion. The specific recommendations they make are meant for the United States but hold relevance for us in the postcolonial world. For instance, political parties must not compromise on democratic principles, so that civil and political society can work together. “Put otherwise, laws and institutions are tools. And the effects of tools depend upon the motives and good faith of those who wield them.”

In the final instance, the effectiveness of institutional design is dependent upon deep political commitment to the value that democracy places upon each citizen. This commitment might be incipient, it might well be sparked off by a social movement or campaign. What is important is that such movements stretch across the political divide and reach out to those who support populist leaders.

Civil society must be inclusive not exclusionary. Right-wing populism can only be fought by a democratically aware civil society. Ultimately, the two authors recognise the power of politics. Politics can be messy but it can be occasionally creative.

How to Save a Constitutional Democracy; Tom Ginsburg and Aziz Z. Huq, Oxford University Press, ₹1,595.

Neera Chandhoke is a former professor of Political Science of Delhi University.

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Printable version | Apr 3, 2020 1:43:18 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/books-reviews/how-to-save-a-constitutional-democracy-review-of-by-and-for-the-people/article30357506.ece

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