A Defense of Democratic Populism

In his most recent book, Revolutionary Constitutions, Sterling Professor of Law and Political Science Bruce Ackerman ‘67 argues that the indiscriminate condemnation of “populism” is a big mistake. Though it has become a term of derision, he argues that many of the greatest constitutional achievements of the modern era owe their success precisely to mass popular mobilizations that succeed in repudiating illegitimate power structures imposed by the old regime.

Book cover: Revolutionary Constitutions by Bruce Ackerman

Ackerman outlines the four stages of this revolutionary dynamic: mobilized insurgency, triumphant constitutionalization of principles committing We the People to a revolutionary new beginning, managing a succession crisis as the revolutionary generation dies off, and consolidating the founding legacy in ways that creatively confront the challenges of succeeding generations.

According to Ackerman, each stage presents formidable difficulties for populist movements. The first half of the book presents four cases in which revolutionary systems have succeeded in moving through the life cycle: India, South Africa, post-war France, and Italy. Next, the book considers the ways in which other revolutionary cases — from the Gaullist Fifth Republic to Polish Solidarity, from the Zionist struggle for an independent Israel to the Iranian struggle for an Islamic Republic to Myanmar’s current efforts to overthrow its military dictatorship — complicate the analysis.

In the final chapter, Ackerman turns to the United States and considers how these worldwide constitutional revolutions permit a new perspective on the 20th-century American experience. He invites readers to reflect on the achievements and mistakes of other countries as they confront the 21st-century challenges of sustaining a constitutional democracy in the name of We the People of the United States.

In succeeding volumes in this series, Ackerman considers countries that have travelled non-revolutionary paths to constitutional democracy and demonstrates that these nations confront very different predicaments as they seek to sustain their traditions of liberal democracy for future generations.