J Laurence Clough Director

From the Director

I’m delighted to welcome you to the Clough Center for the Study of Constitutional Democracy.

The Center strives to reinvigorate and reimagine the study of constitutional democracy in the twenty-first century – and to provide a vibrant forum to reflect on democracy from multiple perspectives.

By taking an international and interdisciplinary approach, we seek to foster original research and thoughtful reflection on the promise and challenges of constitutional government in the United States and around the world. The Center also aims to make available unparalleled and life-changing educational opportunities to students at Boston College and to create a nurturing and vibrant intellectual environment for the entire academic community. We contribute to BC’s collective engagement with the world by supporting civic internships, research and fieldwork on the many facets of democratic systems.

Approaching its fifteenth year of life, the Center’s role is especially critical today. On the one hand, the number of democracies binding themselves to a written statute has grown considerably in recent generations. More than half of the world’s population lives under democratic regimes. On the other hand, the 21st century has proven to be rocky terrain for constitutional democracy. The alarming incidence of coups d’état and the degradation of democratic institutions and norms in many countries give reason to wonder about the general trajectory.

The “war on terror” after 9/11 heightened sensitivity to the link between national security and the spread of democracy abroad. That period also reintroduced debates about the reach and duration of emergency powers in democratic contexts. The delicate balance of personal liberty and public interest was tested again during lockdowns and travel restrictions in response to Covid-19. The years of pandemic also brought into relief other urgent issues such as racial inequalities and widening social divisions. After decades of debate over spreading democracy worldwide, events at home turn our attention to the performance and resilience of US democracy itself. 

Constitutional democracy is much more than just elections and the sum of its branches of government. To get beyond a logic of simple majority rule requires the mutual respect of political opponents and a willingness to find common ground. It takes breathing room for civil society and religious communities, space for social movements, and a protected role for news media.

These are some of the areas of research and public debate that will animate programming at the Clough Center in the coming years, and I invite you join our discussions – online and in person.

Jonathan Laurence

Director, Clough Center for the Study of Constitutional Democracy
Professor, Political Science


Chuck Clough

From the Benefactor

Charles I. (“Chuck”) Clough Jr.

When we established the Clough Center for the Study of Constitutional Democracy there was little concern that the advance of democracy would ever come under threat. Today it is threatened on numerous fronts.

In his current biography of Winston Churchill, Andrew Roberts describes the 1941 meeting between Churchill and President Roosevelt in Newfoundland. It took place at the lowest point in WW2 and there they designed and ratified the Atlantic Charter. That document laid out a set of principles that formed the blueprint for many of the institutions that guaranteed the success of democracy across Western Europe once the war was won. Many call it the Liberal Order. Out of that came the inspiration for the United Nations, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, and NATO. Collectively these institutions contained communism and launched generations of prosperity and peace. They guaranteed a global system characterized by rule of law, human rights and democracy. All of this came to fruition in 1989 when the Berlin Wall fell and the old Soviet Union, then the heart of communist socialism, disintegrated. Over the next 30 years, democratic capitalism became the dominant economic system across the globe. It lifted billions out of poverty and brought unprecedented prosperity. to our own country and elsewhere. For the millions who once lived under communism but now live in a democratic capitalist system, the quality of life improved dramatically. Economic freedom led to a 6-8x increase in GDP in Poland, in Hungary and in the Czech Republic. Capitalism proved it is not only morally but also economically superior.

But of course history never stops. Thirty years after a major political change seems to be the point at which the old frustrations reemerge. Thirty years after the French Revolution, the Bourbons were back, though perhaps in a lighter version than Louis XVI. Thirty years after the Peace of Versailles that ended WWI, Europe experienced another, more brutal and existential war. And thirty years after the end of communism, and what seemed universal acceptance of the democratic capitalist model, if polls are to be believed, a majority of young people in our country claim to believe a system of government control and socialism is the preferred model. In parts of the former East European communist states, there are those who today look back nostalgically to a world defined by walls, barriers and armed guards prepared to shoot at anyone who tried to escape.

Liberal democracy may not be in retreat but it is in crisis in much of the world. Authoritarians rule in Russia, Turkey, throughout most of Central Asia, Hungary and China. Many folks who watched the spectacular rise of China believe that China’s state run market economy is a superior economic model. What they do not understand is that China’s rise from the inhumanity and devastation of Maoism only took place when the government allowed China’s aspirational civilian population to run the economy on a market based system. As someone who has traveled to China often over the past 35 years, I am distraught to see Xi and the communist authoritarians around him trying to roll the country back toward the time of that Maoist horror.

Today we are in a different world, one that is more unstable. A rash of populism and extreme nationalism has emerged, and nations find themselves hopelessly split politically. The United States, the bulwark behind the postwar spread of liberal democracies, is toying with the idea of building walls and going it alone without its longtime allies. Are we about to see Great Britain, torn almost in half over the Brexit issue, turn away from Europe and retreat to its own home island? Will Germany respond to the flood of immigrant refugees by submitting to the politics of the Alternatif fur Deutscheland which, with a few far left parties, now holds a political majority in a number of Eastern German states.

The momentum does seem to be with the autocrats. Xi controls his country with the tightest grip since Mao. Re-education camps are back in China, as are surveillance states. Russia, whose economy is less than one-tenth the size of the US, through subterfuge and determination is able to infiltrate and influence public policy in countries as distant from Moscow as Madagascar.

But let’s get specific. Why was the Clough Center started? 

There are two common visions of democratic government. One calls for a government of, for and by the people, founded on the bedrock of debate and compromise with the objective of creating a society in which basic human rights of freedom of speech, sanctity of private property, and minority rights exist. The other is based on the simple concept of rule by the majority; whoever gets the most votes wins as in “I won; you lost.” Once ensconced in power, 51% of the population can pummel the other 49%. Usually a strongman is involved, like Ergodan, Madero, Orbin, or Putin. All were popularly elected by the way.

Unfortunately, many people, including many academics, see simple majority rule as the ultimate expression of a democratic system. The majority rules, period. The catalyst for the Clough Center emerged from observing a town-wide campaign for a special tax to support the local schools. As is the case with most political issues, the town divided into two camps, one for and one against, based on individual interests. The proponents were almost all parents of schoolchildren who understandably wanted good schools. The opponents were largely the elderly who lived on low or fixed incomes and found the proposed tax unaffordable. Each side brought the usual arguments to the table: good schools, which provided quality education and physical training, were not only a social good, but would enhance property values. It was in everyone’s interest. But early in the campaign efforts to convince the other side ceased and everyone concentrated their efforts on pulling a larger gang to the polls than the opposition did.

Most people begin and end their understanding of the meaning of democracy in such simple terms. It takes a lot of willpower to be a political activist and such folks will go to any length to defeat the opposition. They begin with the belief that no political opposition has any legitimacy. If that sense is allowed to continue in our political life, the ultimate result is an oppressive, unchecked state.

I win. You lose.

The point is it is too easily assumed that open, free and fair elections are a necessary condition for a democratic society. Fair enough! But the framers of the US Constitution knew otherwise. Elections are a necessary component of a free and democratic society but not a sufficient one.

The Populism emerging today is brute rule by the majority. Once the “people” have spoken, their will must be done immediately without regard to minority rights, rule of law, or separation of powers. All issues are portrayed as “emergency situations” whether they relate to immigration, or identity issues or social issues, anti-elitism or inequality. Anyone obstructing policy must be crushed. We see India marginalize Kashmiris, the alt-right emerge in Germany, Myanmar banish the Rohingya. Turkey’s government jails thousands of political opponents on the flimsiest of grounds. Journalists stop being journalists and become protagonists, losing all sense of perspective. Rigid minds are attracted by extremes. Social media allow voters to be gamed and moved to extreme positions they would have not supported earlier. 

I would hope a student’s experience with the Center would leave him or her with a different perspective.

In my view, there are three essential requirements for a free, democratic and vibrant society. (1) Aspiration, (2) investment and (3) Christian principles of governing. Successful economies have institutions which support those three: aspiration, investment and Christian values.

None of those exist in a socialist system.

A good government must provide a society that encourages aspiration, and where people have the opportunity to learn and work to fulfill those aspirations. Today inequality is one of the defining issues of our time. There are any number of causes that are believed to be responsible for it, but many see it as a flaw in the capitalistic system. Increasingly, young people in particular want to jettison it in favor of an economy in which the government has total control. No one makes the case for free markets anymore for fear of being shouted down. It does not lend itself to easy sound bites. What do you mean millions of people make billions of price decisions every day that efficiently allocate capital? 

Now some think of the old East Germany as a caring government while capitalist states are viewed as uncaring and overly competitive. That can sound appealing. But in a planned economy; there was no room for aspiration. Young people were told where they would go to school or to work. They were told what they could and could not do. The state had no use for individual aspiration.

It goes without saying there is no investment in a socialist state because there are no resources for investment. The acquisition of wealth in the private sector is frowned upon and confiscated so socialist economies eat their seed corn and eventually deteriorate into failed states. Loyalty to the regime is all that matters. It is the only way to get favored status. And finally there is little or no contact with churches, no ability to understand the Judeo-Christian tradition on whose principle of the sanctity of the person western civilization was built. There is no room for opposite points of view. You will be hard pressed to find a socialist economy that is successful. I have never seen anyone hijack a boat in Miami to escape to Havana, or Caracas. 

Allow me to finish by giving you one more perspective. Free speech is under attack on many of our campuses and many believe that has not happened before but it has. A hundred years ago, Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote an opinion that gave birth to our modern understanding of free speech. Lower courts had often routinely approved the censorship of books and films, street corner speeches were prohibited and labor protests were banned. In the midst of World War I, Congress passed an Espionage Act which made it a crime to protest the draft and a Sedition Act which prohibited disloyal speech. Here is what he said:

“But when men have realized that time has upset many fighting faiths, they may come to believe even more than they believe the very foundations of their own conduct that the ultimate good desired is better reached by free trade in ideas—that the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market, and that truth is the only ground upon which their wishes safely can be carried out.”

In other words we should protect free speech not to promote the liberty of the individual over the interests of the majority. We should protect free speech because doing so promotes the collective interest, in other words, the interests of us all. It did not carry the majority of the court that day but it established the basic principle that eventually won out. 

The Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions at Boston College was established to provide students the opportunity to learn the meaning of political life, to learn to transcend above the politics of self. Democracy holds certain values sacrosanct; free speech, constitutionalism, judicial independence and human rights.

What to do? Student elections do have consequences and are good habit training grounds. Debate and open discussions such as those presented by the Center build good habits for later political life. Unfortunately, micro-aggression politics and political correctness inhibit this. But the biggest risk is the move toward single-issue candidates. We see this in the immigrant issues that dominate politics today. People who are very attached to their party display greater mental rigidity relative to those who are moderately attached. Ideologies offer the clarity those rigidly inclined prefer. Be willing to try new things and listen to opposing points of view, especially contrarian arguments. 

When he spoke at Boston College David McCullough told us to read history. Ask yourself; is my mind becoming inflexible? Try new things and be as informed as possible. Socrates notes that people who are well read and know the most know how little they know.