Around the world, populists are wreaking havoc on constitutional democracies by engaging in high-stakes games of political hardball. In a grave setback for Poland’s independent judiciary, for instance, the country’s new government enacted legislation seeking to control the Constitutional Tribunal. When the judges struck down the legislation, the government simply refused to publish the decision in the country’s official journal. Under Polish law, no act of a public authority, including no decision of the Constitutional Tribunal, can produce effects unless it is published in the journal. The court’s power in that case? Gone.
Understanding the populist threat and identifying ways to combat it has become a priority of Boston College’s Clough Center for the Study of Constitutional Democracy. Under the direction of Professor of Law Vlad Perju, students, emerging scholars, and professors from many disciplines and from all over the world ponder these issues together. The center has also hosted luminaries such as the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas, and Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen, inviting them to reflect on the state of constitutional government around the world. Perju recently sat down with BC Law Magazine to talk about his vision for the center.
How did you and benefactor Chuck Clough connect around a shared vision for the multidisciplinary Clough Center?
Vlad Perju: Chuck and Gloria Clough understood ahead of many others that, around the world, constitutional democracy was coming under extraordinary pressure. Their insight, which has turned out to be visionary, was that defending constitutional democracy would require an all-out effort, one that transcended both national and disciplinary boundaries. The center that the Cloughs established at Boston College brings together political scientists, lawyers, historians, theologians, philosophers, sociologists, and economists, and invites them to engage with the urgent questions of our time.
What is today’s biggest challenge to constitutional democracy?
VP: There are many challenges, but populism stands out. Around the world, we see political parties win elections and then deploy the constitution’s formal mechanisms in ways that are profoundly antithetical to its spirit, in an effort to undo constitutional government. One only has to look at developments this past summer, from Turkey to Venezuela and from Hungary to Poland, to get a sense of the magnitude of this challenge.
What is an example of a challenge posed by populism?
VP: When Viktor Orbán of Hungary returned to power in 2010, he started implementing an elaborate plan of taking over independent institutions, including Hungary’s then well-respected Constitutional Court. He pushed out a large number of judges by imposing a new age limit for retirement, in what the European Court of Justice later held to be in violation of Hungary’s obligations under EU law. Orban then naturally proceeded to appoint new constitutional judges loyal to his agenda, in addition to continuing to curtail the court’s jurisdiction and powers. His methods have become a template of undermining judicial independence and have been adopted by populists around the world. Understanding that phenomenon helps to understand developments closer to home, such as President Trump’s comments about “so-called judges.”
What draws you personally to this subject?
VP: I grew up in Romania in the 1980’s and saw first-hand the implosion of the communist regime. The question of what had happened to my country after the Second World War was an urgent one, as was the question of how we could recover during the democratic transition that started in the early 1990’s. All this drew me to politics and public life more generally. It drew me to questions about the nature and relation between law and politics. Eventually, as I moved to the US to pursue a doctorate in constitutional thought at Harvard, I started asking these questions on a broader scale.
What is the Clough Center doing to propel conversations about the constitutional troubles we are seeing?
VP: We rely on the reputation and resources of Boston College to support the research of creative scholars and to give our students life-changing opportunities to pursue the common good through public service. We are trying to do justice to the vision that the Cloughs have about our center and the university. For example, we were one of the first places in the world to bring together leading scholars from Central and Eastern Europe to study the constitutional methods deployed by populists in those jurisdictions and then to publish the papers in a special issue of the International Journal of Constitutional Law, which is the leading journal in comparative constitutional law. Another example is a conference on the future of journalism, specifically foreign reporting. Under great economic pressure, more and more newspapers have had to close their foreign bureaus, which of course has had an erosive impact on that reporting at a time when the world needs informed and thoughtful journalism so much. We brought to Boston College many of the major players, from the executive editor of the New York Times to the foreign correspondents of Le Monde, The Guardian, and other major foreign newspapers to explore this phenomenon and discuss possible solutions. These are just two examples. Many more are available on the Clough Archive.
How dangerous are the threats to constitutional democracy that we see today?
VP: There is a very strong argument that they are extraordinarily dangerous. If you live in Hungary or if you live in Venezuela or if you live in Turkey, then these forces have essentially eroded the foundation of your society and they have set the clock back by a considerable number of years. At the Clough Center, we are trying to understand the causes of this phenomenon and what resources constitutional democracy has to resist it. We see this as a battle for the future of that extraordinary promise, that people should have the chance to live good lives in free communities of equals, that human society should be just, and that its members should be able to deliberate and decide about what justice requires.
You are writing and traveling widely to present on these issues. What are your own scholarly interests?
VP: I am interested in the comparative, doctrinal, and philosophical aspects of how constitutional democracy can respond to the challenge of populism. I have long been interested in questions about cosmopolitanism and pluralism, specifically how the promise of constitutional democracy might require us to move beyond the nation-state, not by rejecting its accomplishments, but by incorporating them into a bigger political structure.
What is your vision for the Clough Center?
VP: It is simply for the Clough Center to be one of the most significant and important centers for the study of constitutional democracy in the world, helping to preserve the vitality of constitutional democracy and keeping its flame alive.
Interview conducted, edited, and condensed by contributing writer Jeri Zeder.