A New Statesman Book of the YearA critical analysis of the transformation of constitutionalism from an increasingly irrelevant theory of limited government into the most influential philosophy of governance in the world today.Constitutionalism is universally commended because it has never been precisely defined. Martin Loughlin argues that it is not some vague amalgam of liberal aspirations but a specific and deeply contentious governing philosophy. An Enlightenment idea that in the nineteenth century became America’s unique contribution to the philosophy of government, constitutionalism was by the mid-twentieth century widely regarded as an anachronism. Advocating separated powers and limited government, it was singularly unsuited to the political challenges of the times. But constitutionalism has since undergone a remarkable transformation, giving the Constitution an unprecedented role in society. Once treated as a practical instrument to regulate government, the Constitution has been raised to the status of civil religion, a symbolic representation of collective unity.Against Constitutionalism explains why this has happened and its far-reaching consequences. Spearheaded by a “rights revolution” that subjects governmental action to comprehensive review through abstract principles, judges acquire greatly enhanced power as oracles of the regime’s “invisible constitution.” Constitutionalism is refashioned as a theory maintaining that governmental authority rests not on collective will but on adherence to abstract standards of “public reason.” And across the world the variable practices of constitutional government have been reshaped by its precepts.Constitutionalism, Loughlin argues, now propagates the widespread belief that social progress is advanced not through politics, electoral majorities, and legislative action, but through innovative judicial interpretation. The rise of constitutionalism, commonly conflated with constitutional democracy, actually contributes to its degradation.
Do citizens of a nation such as the United States have a moral duty to obey the law? Do officials, when interpreting the Constitution, have an obligation to follow what that text meant when ratified? To follow precedent? To follow what the Supreme Court today says the Constitution means?These are questions of political obligation (for citizens) and interpretive obligation (for anyone interpreting the Constitution, often officials). Abner Greene argues that such obligations do not exist. Although citizens should obey some laws entirely, and other laws in some instances, no one has put forth a successful argument that citizens should obey all laws all the time. Greene’s case is not only “against” obligation. It is also “for” an approach he calls “permeable sovereignty”: all of our norms are on equal footing with the state’s laws. Accordingly, the state should accommodate religious, philosophical, family, or tribal norms whenever possible.Greene shows that questions of interpretive obligation share many qualities with those of political obligation. In rejecting the view that constitutional interpreters must follow either prior or higher sources of constitutional meaning, Greene confronts and turns aside arguments similar to those offered for a moral duty of citizens to obey the law.
Here in a newly annotated edition are the two founding documents of the United States of America: the Declaration of Independence (1776), our great revolutionary manifesto, and the Constitution (1787–88), in which “We the People” forged a new nation and built the framework for our federal republic. Together with the Bill of Rights and the Civil War amendments, these documents constitute what James Madison called our “political scriptures” and have come to define us as a people. Now a Pulitzer Prize–winning historian serves as a guide to these texts, providing historical contexts and offering interpretive commentary.In an introductory essay written for the general reader, Jack N. Rakove provides a narrative political account of how these documents came to be written. In his commentary on the Declaration of Independence, Rakove sets the historical context for a fuller appreciation of the important preamble and the list of charges leveled against the Crown. When he glosses the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and the subsequent amendments, Rakove once again provides helpful historical background, targets language that has proven particularly difficult or controversial, and cites leading Supreme Court cases. A chronology of events provides a framework for understanding the road to Philadelphia. The general reader will not find a better, more helpful guide to our founding documents than Jack N. Rakove.
“Eminently readable, and anybody who cares about the future of American democracy in these perilous times can only hope that it will be widely read and carefully considered.”—James Pope, Washington Post“Fishkin and Forbath’s accessible work serves as both history lesson and political playbook, offering the Left an underutilized—and perhaps counterintuitive—tool in the present-day fight against social and economic injustice: the Constitution.”—Benjamin Morse, Jacobin“Aims to recover the Constitution’s pivotal role in shaping claims of justice and equality…in engaging, imaginative prose that makes even the present court’s capture by the ideological right a compelling platform for a revived social-democratic constitutional politics.”—New RepublicOligarchy is a threat to the American republic. When too much economic and political power is concentrated in too few hands, we risk losing the “republican form of government” the Constitution requires. Today, courts enforce the Constitution as if it had almost nothing to say about this threat. But as this revolutionary retelling of constitutional history shows, a commitment to prevent oligarchy once stood at the center of a robust tradition in American political and constitutional thought.Joseph Fishkin and William Forbath demonstrate that reformers, legislators, and even judges working in this “democracy-of-opportunity” tradition understood that the Constitution imposes a duty on legislatures to thwart oligarchy and promote a broad distribution of wealth and political power. These ideas led Jacksonians to fight special economic privileges for the few, Populists to try to break up monopoly power, and Progressives to battle for the constitutional right to form a union.But today, as we enter a new Gilded Age, this tradition in progressive American economic and political thought lies dormant. The Anti-Oligarchy Constitution begins the work of recovering it and exploring its profound implications for our deeply unequal society and badly damaged democracy.
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