The opportunism of populists and the defense of constitutional liberalism

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Liberal constitutionalism is under attack from a new breed of autocrats broadly classified as populist. These populists understand the weaknesses of constitutional liberalism and attack their opponents with criticisms that take advantage of internal weaknesses of the theory. But a closer analysis of theoretical framework used by populists to substitute for constitutional liberalism reveals that they are not really committed to populism in any serious sense. Instead, they have abandoned liberalism in the quest for raw power. Focusing on Viktor Orbán of Hungary and his chief ideologist András Lánczi, this article shows how their public critique of liberalism has attempted to wrong-foot their critics and how their recipe for gaining and wielding political power is only populist to the extent that these leaders are determined to (and often succeed in) winning elections. By peeling back the cover of populist ideology to look at the theories of legitimation under which they rule, however, we can see that the new breed of autocrats aims at primarily constitutional deconstruction through the concentration of political power in one leader. This sort of challenge to liberal constitutionalism is easily countered.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)314-331
Number of pages18
JournalGerman Law Journal
Issue number3
StatePublished - Apr 1 2019
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Law


  • Christian democracy
  • Constitutional liberalism
  • Illiberal theory


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