Political constitutionalism and populism

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Criticisms of political constitutionalism's relationship to populism point in two opposed directions. Legal constitutionalists consider it too open to, and even as legitimating, populist politics, whereas radical democrats consider it too closed to popular participation, prompting an anti-system politics of a populist character. I dispute both these views. Underlying these contrasting assessments are differing conceptions of populism and constitutionalism. This article distinguishes right- from left-wing populism, and limited government from non-arbitrary rule, as constitutional ideals. Legal constitutionalism typically embraces the first ideal. However, that can be a driver of both right- and left-wing populism, and allow types of arbitrary rule that democratic backsliding and illiberal regimes can (and do) exploit. By contrast, political constitutionalism involves the second ideal and is antithetical to right-wing populism while potentially friendly to the legitimate demands of left-wing populism. Nevertheless, the practical reality of political constitutionalism in the United Kingdom (and elsewhere) often falls short of its ideal theoretical potential. Addressing these shortcomings, however, requires strengthening democracy rather than the legal constitution, not least through electoral reform.




Bellamy, R. (2023). Political constitutionalism and populism. Journal of Law and Society, 50(S1), S7–S25. https://doi.org/10.1111/jols.12401

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