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Why the Constitution Matters

Happy Constitution Day! In Why the Constitution Matters, Harvard Law professor Mark Tushnet poses a seemingly simple question and provides us with a thoroughly unexpected answer, forcing us to question our understanding of the Constitution. He broadens our understanding of the Constitution and shows us how this document structures our politics, and therefore ultimately affects us as citizens. Tushnet focuses on the ways this document serves as a framework for political debate and not just a blueprint for democracy. In doing so he reveals not only why the Constitution matters but also, perhaps more importantly, how it matters. The following is an excerpt from Why the Constitution Matters.

The issues we care about are decided by politics, not by the Constitution; politics is conducted by political parties that are themselves not recognized in the Constitution. How could the Constitution matter? Basically, because it creates the structure within which our parties operate. The United States has a system in which the president and members of Congress are elected separately, in contrast to parliamentary systems in which the prime minister is chosen by elected party officials. It has a federal system in which political parties are organized on the state level, and state political parties join forces for presidential political campaigns, after which they revert to their local focus. In short, the Constitution matters because political parties matter, and the Constitution has some influence on the way parties operate.

Only some influence, though. Political party organization has changed recently: presidents have been more effective recently in sustaining a national-level political party that provides guidance to party members in Congress—more effective, but not completely so. The national-level parties have become more ideologically coherent, organized less as coalitions of local parties with varying interests and ideological concerns and more as parties with programs to which every member at every level—local, state, House of Representatives, and Senate— is committed. This has occurred, in turn, in part because of greater attention by national party leaders to recruiting candidates for congressional and Senate races. These changes result from political decisions by politicians, about which the Constitution has little to say.

[ . . . ]

The real question is not why the Constitution matters, but how it matters. The Constitution matters because politics matters. The Constitution affects politics in many ways, most of those indirect, but we shouldn’t overestimate how much it matters.

Why X Matters is a series of books that present a concise argument for the continuing relevance of an important person or idea by featuring intriguing pairings of authors with subjects.

Featured Image: Scene at the Signing of the Constitution of the United States by Howard Chandler Christy via Wikimedia Commons in the public domain

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