Is Constitutional Design Really Useless? Democracy without Democrats (with Aziz Huq)

Authoritarian populists exploit gaps in constitutional design, searching out the weak spots that allow them to take over the system. Such incrementalism and experimentalism would seem to render constitutional design useless as a tool for combating populists. It is true that no design is foolproof, and institutions only speedbumps. Yet we can learn something from recent cases of “near misses” in which democracy survives a threat from authoritarian populism. We identify the phenomenon of “Democracy without Democrats,” in which elected officials lack the necessary disposition to maintain democratic competition, while non-elected actors have both the incentives and the capabilities to take actions that preserve democracy. This paradoxical situation has an important implication for constitutional design, one that draws on Madisonian principles. Multiple institutions of accountability provide the best prevention of total takeover, as with the “near misses” of democratic backsliding.