Cautionary Tales From Other Populist Regimes

This is a post from Kim Lane Scheppele, at Princeton University, which is chillingly accurate, as Kim usually is, and which I am re-posting with her permission from the lawcourt and conlawprof listservs:

While we’re on the subject of learning a lot from regimes that have been in this difficult place before, I recommend this powerful piece by Turkuler Isiksel, assistant professor of political theory at Columbia (and former LAPA fellow at Princeton):   https://www.dissentmagazine.org/blog/trump-victory-regime-change-lessons-autocrats-erdogan-putin .  She watched Turkey fall under the control of a populist autocrat who won democratic elections and sees some of the same danger signals in the US.   A summary:

Confidence in the exceptional resilience of American democracy is particularly misplaced in the face of today’s illiberal populist movements, whose leaders are constantly learning from each other. Trump has a wide variety of tried and tested techniques on which to draw; already, he has vowed to take pages out of Putin’s playbook. Defenders of liberal democracy, too, must learn from each other’s victories and defeats. Below are some hard-earned lessons from countries that have been overrun by the contemporary wave of illiberal democracy. They could be essential for preserving the American republic in the dark years to come.

I just came back from Chile, where I gave some lectures on the creeping advance of illiberal constitutionalism around the world.   People there asked me how Trump could have been elected in the US, and I showed them this data:  Nearly one quarter of young Americans no longer believe in democracy and since 9/11, faith in the way America is governed has plunged to all-time lows (raised slightly in election years when Obama was elected, but then plunging back again):

[Her first chart, which I cannot copy here, from the World Values Survey, shows older Americans very supportive of our system of government but dissatisfaction rising among younger age groups at twice the rate here as in Europe. Her second chart, from Gallup, shows dissatisfaction rising and from 1972-2013.l

These are danger signals that should have alerted us earlier to the possibilities of Trump.    I might add that very similar danger signals appeared before the election of other populist autocrats of both left and right:  Putin, Erdogan, Orbán, Kaczynski, Correa, Chavez.

There’s a clear pattern here.  First people lose faith in the system.  Then they vote to break it.   And when the new leader decides to trash the constitutional system, he is cheered on by those who want change at any price.   When people wake up to the damage done, it is too late because their constitutional system has been captured.

What I’m worried about — and what Turku Isiksel also observes — is that these populist autocrats learn from each other.   Trump’s affinity for Putin has gotten the most attention, but we should also note that Trump has been exceptionally friendly with Erdogan while Michael Flynn, his new national security advisor, has been knee-deep in ties to the Turkish government (see https://www.bloomberg.com/view/articles/2016-11-17/why-turkey-s-erdogan-is-so-happy-about-trump-s-victory and http://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/20/world/europe/turkey-flynn-erdogan-gulen.html .  In addition, Trump has struck up a friendship with Hungarian “illiberal democrat” Viktor Orbán (see http://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-trump-hungary-idUSKBN13K0ON  and http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2016/11/trump-putin-nato-hungary-estonia-poland-orban/508910/ ).    All of these illiberal leaders have borrowed autocratic techniques from each other (as my new research project shows).   The techniques have to be adapted anew to each constitutional system that is “cracked” in illiberal ways, but the techniques are not at all dependent on ideology and therefore can be used by regimes of very different political flavors.     (And just to clarify here, I’m not objecting to conservative governments, but to illiberal ones that no longer believe in checked and balanced powers or in the rotation of power from one party to another.)

What is striking about the new autocrats is how legal they are and how they borrow the worst practices from the best countries to shut down the democratic opposition.  For example, Russia’s notorious NGO law that requires all NGOs to report foreign support and register as foreign agents is modeled on the 1938 Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) of the US.      ( See the Venice Commission expert report on the Russian NGO law including an analysis of the Russian government’s claim that it was copying FARA at p. 9-10:  http://www.venice.coe.int/webforms/documents/default.aspx?pdffile=CDL-AD(2014)025-e .)   After Hungary lowered the judicial retirement age to get rid of the top tier of judges in 2012 so they could replace them with appointees of their own political flavor, Mohamed Morsi did the same in Egypt.   How many of us have argued for fixed terms of judges or fixed judicial retirement ages in the US?   Imagine if those proposals were to gain ground as a political movement just now?     Several populist autocrats in Latin America have added a line-item veto to their powers, which effectively neutralizes parliamentary compromises, erases any hard-won traces of parliamentary opposition, and strengthens the dictatorial powers of the president.  But don’t some American reformers still want the line-item veto – even now?  Just see how that works in Latin America, and be very afraid.    In short, many proposals to reform the “broken” American system have already been used by populist autocrats to consolidate their power through constitutional capture, and we should be very wary of the particular proposals that will be made by a president-elect who has already proposed to govern outside the Constitution as we know it.

If you think constitutional capture can’t happen in the US, then you didn’t know how unlikely autocracy seemed in these other countries before it occurred.    But as Jack Goldsmith has recently argued:  libertarian panic may be the best weapon we have against awful things to come:   https://lawfareblog.com/libertarian-panic-unlawful-action-and-trump-presidency because it at least means we are paying close attention.

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One Response to Cautionary Tales From Other Populist Regimes

  1. […] Now we are finding out that only a quarter of Americans still believe that it is important to live in a democracy. And we’ve elected a president who befriends autocrats – autocrats who destroyed democratic governments, censored the press, put opponents in prison, and took over. […]

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