A Conversation with Paul Gowder


By Shanice Harris

Faculty Scholarship
Professor of Law Paul Gowder

Paul Gowder joins the Northwestern Law faculty as a professor of law. His expertise in political theory, constitutional law, and social science has made him a go-to analyst of critical race theory and economic equality. Gowder’s recent scholarship focuses on his expansion of his theory of the “rule of law” for the United States—a study of what it means for government to be under law, and what is the distinctively American, as opposed to global, conception of the rule of law.

Gowder was previously a professor of law and the O.K. Patton Fellow in Law at the University of Iowa, where he taught for eight years. He earned a BA from California State University, Los Angeles, a JD from Harvard Law School, and a PhD in political science from Stanford University. Before his time at the University of Iowa, he was a visiting professor of law at Boston University. Gowder is the author of The Rule of Law in the Real World, which was published by Cambridge University Press in 2016.

What drew you to your interest in political theory and social science?

I’ve always had one foot in political science, one foot in law. I knew that I was going to go to law school when I was about 10 or 12, something like that. And I have always been a person who’s been a lot more drawn to what we can think of, sort of pretentiously, as the really big, heavy questions rather than the really light questions.

What are you working on now?

My last book was about the rule of law, this idea of what it means for government to be under law. And so my next book is going to be, how do we apply that abstract theorizing to the history of the United States and its present? What is the distinctively American, as opposed to global, conception of the rule of law? How has it developed through American history? And how well is America actually living up to those ideals? Preview: not very well.

The other book I’m working on is a little more off of my usual track. It’s about governance of internet platforms. Right now, a lot of people have started to recognize that big internet platforms like Facebook, Amazon and so forth are behaving like governments. And so my idea is, ‘Hey, maybe we can think about all of the things that we’ve learned about how to govern governments, and apply some of those to these platforms.’

Can you expand on your theory of the rule of law?

The rule of law is a classic requirement of justified government power, that requires that power only be used pursuant to law, as opposed to the whims of officials or the wealthy and high-status. Conventionally, scholars and practitioners have thought that the rule of law is primarily a feature of the organized political institutions of a country—whether its judges are independent, for example, and whether its laws respect private property rights. And they have thought that the key moral point of the requirement is individual liberty—that when power is controlled by law, people can plan their lives and achieve more of their private goals without government interference.

In my 2016 book, The Rule of Law in the Real World, and a series of related articles, I argue that actually, the rule of law is about a kind of public culture of commitment to collectively holding the government to account for its compliance with the law, that the formal structures of government only matter, for rule of law purposes, primarily to the extent they facilitate that commitment, and that the moral point of the ideal is actually equality. In a lawful state, people stand as legal equals, both to one another and to important public officials. 

One of my current book projects now turns to the specific case of the rule of law in the United States, trying to discern what conception or conceptions of the rule of law lie underneath our constitutional system in particular, how it has developed, and the extent to which we comply with it.

What are you most looking forward to in your new position at Northwestern?

Honestly, right now what I’m most looking forward to is getting back in the classroom. Being a law professor is the best job in the world, but a lot of what that comes from is being able to interact with the students, [serve] as a mentor to students who are looking to do really good things in the world… that’s always so exciting to me.

You’ve lived all over the country—you grew up in Los Angeles, went to school in Massachusetts, and worked in Oregon, Washington DC, and New Orleans. What attracted you to Chicago?

Number one is just that Northwestern is an amazing school in an amazing community, and I feel so privileged to be here. I haven’t met a lot of students yet, but the students that I have met, and that I’ve had the chance to talk to, have all just been so completely amazing and incredible. The other thing, of course, is Chicago itself. It’s a world-class city with everything going on, at least after the pandemic ends. And at the same time it is actually livable, and you can afford to buy a place without mortgaging the entire rest of your life away. Chicago is it.