Sujit Choudhry: For the Sake of Democracy, Autocracy Must Be Called by Its Name

Sujit Choudhry: For the Sake of Democracy, Autocracy Must Be Called by Its Name

January 7, 2020 0 By Stephen Callahan

Sujit Choudhry is an internationally recognized authority on comparative constitutional law and politics. The founding director of the Center for Constitutional Transitions, his research focus spans across a wide variety of comparative constitutional law and politics issues. He has recently composed a book chapter that is planned for release in Constitutional Democracies in Crisis.? In it, Professor Choudhry brings up several intriguing points regarding the current political climate in the nation.


The first is an elaboration of as well as a commentary on a new slogan that was adopted by the Washington Post last year: “Democracy Dies in Darkness.” According to Professor Choudhry, this slogan highlights the central and essential role of the media in democracy as it has the ability to bring to light any and all exercises of public power, even those that governments would prefer to remain unpublished. Furthermore, by linking darkness to the death of democracy, Choudhry suggests that the press is using this slogan as a call to action. As such, the role of media is pivotal not just in the proper functioning and health of democracy, but it is essential for its survival.


Choudhry further comments on the slogan, explaining how it links political action, constitutions and democratic stability. He goes on to write that there is a set of unwritten norms that are the support structure for a strong constitution – and these norms are to be followed to preserve institutions’ resilience against an implicit treat that Choudhry dubs as a “would-be autocrat.” In terms of these norms, Choudhry further writes that “Steve Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, in How Democracies Die, term these norms forbearance – the refusal to exercise power to its full legal limits – and mutual toleration – the acceptance of the legitimacy of the political opposition.” Along the same lines, Choudhry mentions that according to Sam Issacharoff, these norms are under political strain in the U.S. and that what is the current reality, namely that the President is exercising his executive power to prosecute political opponents, was once unthinkable. “Yet now, chants of “lock her up” take center stage at rallies of the Republican Party, urged on by President Trump himself.”


Professor Choudhry goes on to explain that the importance of the norms is within their power to preserve the intended purposes of the institutions and rules of constitutional democracy. According to him, the norms are in place “to allow for collective decision-making under conditions of, and to preserve, political pluralism.” “Without those norms, those very same institutions and rules could be perversely weaponized to undermine the constitutional democracy and political pluralism they are designed to defend,” he writes. These unwritten norms, which he also calls conventions, are part of a constitutional culture rather than a constitutional design.


In his chapter, Professor Choudhry highlights that appropriate political anchors can be used as means to fuel political support for the very same unwritten norms that are behind the courts’ effectiveness, namely to “make the causal arrow in both directions. And, “To do so, courts must fearlessly call autocracy by its name,” Choudhry suggests.


Sujit Choudhry is the founding director of the Center for Constitutional Transitions and an I. Michael Heyman Professor of Law at the University of California, Berkeley. Prior to that, he worked as a constitutional advisor to emerging democracies across the world. He is currently also a member of the United Nations Mediation Roster and consultant to the World Bank Institute at the World Bank and the United Nations Development Program.


sujit choudhry


Choudhry has also been a constitutional advisor for over two decades. He is an expert in facilitating public dialogue sessions with civil society groups and other stakeholders, leading stakeholder consultations, performing detailed advisory work with technical experts, training civil servants and bureaucrats, engaging party leaders and parliamentarians, and drafting technical reports and memoranda in the field. He is currently also a member of the United Nations Mediation Roster and consultant to the World Bank Institute at the World Bank and the United Nations Development Program.


The Center for Constitutional Transitions generates and mobilizes knowledge in support of constitution building by assembling and leading international networks of experts to complete thematic research projects that offer evidence-based policy options to practitioners. It partners with a global network of multilateral organizations, think tanks, NGOs, and universities. In partnership with the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, Professor Choudhry is currently co-leading three global collaborative research projects: Dealing with Territorial Cleavages in Constitutional Transitions, Security Sector Reform and Constitutional Transitions in Emerging Democracies, and Security Sector Oversight: Protecting Democratic Consolidation from Authoritarian Backsliding and Partisan Abuse, which will yield a series of research and policy outputs to be published in 2017.


Professor Choudhry’s publication record includes over ninety articles, book chapters, working papers and reports. He is author of several books and a member of the Executive Committee of the International Society of Public Law, the International Advisory Council of the Institute for Integrated Transitions, the Scientific Advisory Board of the International Journal of Constitutional Law, the Editorial Board of the Constitutional Court Review, the Editorial Advisory Board for the Cambridge Studies in Constitutional Law, and is an Honorary Member of the Advisory Council of the Indian Constitutional Law Review. More information on Sujit Choudhry can be found on his personal website as well as on LinkedIn, Twitter (@sujit_choudhry), Instagram (@sujitchoudhry) and on Facebook @SujitChoudhryLaw.