Since 1789, constitutions worldwide have come and gone. According to University of Chicago Law professor Tom Ginsburg, the median lifespan of a national constitution is eight years—which former Boston Review columnist and leading legal scholar Pamela Karlan has quipped is “roughly the life expectancy of a Great Dane.”
But the U.S. Constitution continues to limp on. Indeed, amendments to the Constitution are starting to gain traction amongst progressives, with the Electoral College, the distorted representation in the Senate, life tenure for federal judges, and a campaign finance system dominated by the rich topping their list of woes. But in a recent essay from emeritus Harvard Law professor Mark Tushnet, he argues that our constitutional crisis won’t be fixed by simply tackling a few isolated reforms. “If we are truly committed to revitalizing democracy,” he writes, “we must consider more thoroughgoing changes to constitutional design from the ground up.”
Formally a constitutional monarchy, Thailand is also amidst a crisis of its own. As Peera Songkünnatham explains in a new essay, the king’s insistence that he is above the constitution rather than bound by it has angered many Thai people and resulted in some of the largest protests the country has ever seen. We also look abroad to India in today’s reading list, with Ashutosh Varshney exploring how the country’s constitutional history suggests a framework for creating democracy in unlikely settings.
Lastly, two recent pieces argue that the U.S. Constitution has much further to go when it comes to protecting the rights of people of color and women respectively. In the former, Jefferson Cowie explores the history and persistence of what he terms the “Slaveholder’s Constitution” and how it led to a particularly white form of American “freedom”. And while Virginia recently became the crucial thirty-eighth state to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment, renewed efforts to quash it stand to wipe out a hundred years of women’s work as constitution-makers. “What does it say about the United States as a nation, and the Constitution as its law,” Yale law professor Julie Suk asks, “if it bars a constitutional amendment guaranteeing sex equality because of procedure?”
This year Virginia became the crucial thirty-eighth state to ratify the ERA. Renewed efforts to quash it stand to wipe out a hundred years of women’s work as constitution-makers.
The median lifespan of a national constitution is roughly the life expectancy of a Great Dane. Why has the U.S. Constitution endured?
In a political season of dog whistles, we must be attentive to how talk of American freedom has long been connected to the presumed right of whites to dominate everyone else.