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Resisting democratic backsliding: An essay on Weimar, self-enforcing constitutions, and the Frankfurt School


What, if anything, can constitutions do to resist democratic backsliding? The collapse of the Weimar Republic has led scholars of comparative politics to conclude that constitutional forms and institutions can do little to resist the breakdown of democracy and the rise of autocracy. This paper offers a constitutionalist response. The outlines of that answer can be found in decades-old policy documents produced by a set of German émigré scholars during and in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War: Franz Neumann, Herbert Marcuse, and Otto Kirchheimer. The secret reports root constitutional stability in the creation of a framework for bounded partisan pluralist contestation among political parties that track the principal social and economic cleavages, and that is rooted within, and does not seek to overthrow, the underlying political economy. Second, the secret reports highlight the importance of constitutional design in creating a constitutional infrastructure for bounded pluralistic political contestation, especially with respect to the role of political parties. Third, the secret reports suggest a counter-narrative of the German Basic Law as creating a framework for political contestation that reinforces constitutional stability instead of undermining it.

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1 Stefan Foa, R and Mounk, Y, ‘The Danger of Deconsolidation: The Democratic Disconnect’ (2016) 27(3) Journal of Democracy 5 .

2 Linz, J and Stepan, A (eds), The Breakdown of Democratic Regimes (Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, MD, 1978).

3 Lowenstein, K, ‘Autocracy Versus Democracy in Contemporary Europe, I’ (1935) 29 American Political Science Review 571, 579. For a contemporary discussion of these concerns, see Issacharoff, S, ‘Fragile Democracies’ (2007) 120 Harvard Law Review 1405 and Issacharoff, S, Fragile Democracies: Contested Power in the Era of Constitutional Courts (Cambridge University Press, New York, NY, 2015).

4 Ibid 580.

5 Levitsky, S and Ziblatt, D, ‘Is Donald Trump a Threat to Democracy?’ New York Times (16 December 2016).

6 Neumann, F, Marcuse, H and Kirchheimer, O, Secret Reports on Nazi Germany: The Frankfurt School Contribution to the War Effort, edited by Laudani, R (Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 2013).

7 Issacharoff, S and Pildes, R, ‘Politics as Markets: Partisan Lockups of the Democratic Process’ (1998) 50 Stanford Law Review 643 .

8 Mittal, S and Weingast, B, ‘Self-Enforcing Constitutions: With an Application to Democratic Stability in America’s First Century’ (2013) 29 Journal of Law, Economics and Organization 278 . Also see Levinson, D, ‘Parchment and Politics: The Positive Puzzle of Constitutional Commitment’ (2011) 124 Harvard Law Review 657 .

9 Lowenstein, K, ‘Law and the Legislative Process in Occupied Germany: II’ (1948) 6 Yale Law Journal 994 .

10 Ibid 996.

11 Ibid 997.

12 Ibid.

13 Kirchheimer, O, ‘Remarks on Carl Schmitt’s Legality and Legitimacy’ (1933) 68 Archiv für Sozialwissenschaft und Sozialpolitik 457 in Scheuerman, W (ed), The Rule of Law Under Siege: Selected Essays of Franz L. Neumann & Otto Kirchheimer (University of California Press, Berkeley, CA, 1996) 64.

14 Ibid 70.

15 Ibid.

16 Ibid.

17 Schmitt, C, The Crisis of Parliamentary Democracy (MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 1985).

18 Ibid 5.

19 Ibid.

20 Ibid 49–50.

21 Kelsen, H, ‘On the Essence and Value of Democracy’ in AJ Jacobson, and Schlink, B (eds), Weimar: A Jurisprudence of Crisis (University of California Press, Berkeley, CA, 2001) 84. For a helpful discussion of Kelsen’s views, see Y Mersel, ‘Hans Kelsen and Political Parties’ (2006) 39 Israel Law Review 158, 160–5.

22 Ibid 92 (original emphasis).

23 Ibid 92, 93.

24 Ibid 92 (original emphases).

25 Ibid 94 (‘Anchoring political parties in the constitution also makes it possible to democratize the formation of the will of the community within this sphere.’) (original emphasis).

26 Rawls, J, Political Liberalism (Columbia University Press, New York, NY, 1993).

27 Kirchheimer, O, ‘Legality and Legitimacy’ (1932) 9 Die Gesellschaft 820, in Scheuerman, W (ed), The Rule of Law Under Siege: Selected Essays of Franz L. Neumann & Otto Kirchheimer (University of California Press, Berkeley, CA, 1996) 44, 44.

28 For a similar argument, see Almeida, F, ‘The Emergence of Constitutionalism as an Evolutionary Adaptation’ (2014) 13 Cardozo Public Law & Policy Journal 1.

29 Weingast, B, ‘The Political Foundations of Democracy and the Rule of Law’ (1997) 91 American Political Science Review 245, 262.

30 Ibid.

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Global Constitutionalism
  • ISSN: 2045-3817
  • EISSN: 2045-3825
  • URL: /core/journals/global-constitutionalism
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