Power  /  Q&A

Aziz Rana Wants Us to Stop Worshipping the Constitution

A conversation with the legal scholar on why it is unusual that the Constitution is core to American national identity.

DSJ: There’s an interesting moment early in your book where you try to explain the ambivalence that marks contemporary liberal views of the Constitution. Some, you say, are clearly aware of the antidemocratic features of the Constitution, be it the Electoral College, or the fact that the Senate “gives more power to voters in Wyoming than California,” or federal judges who serve for life, and so on. At the same time, you observe that many liberals today see the Constitution as the “salvation” of the Democratic Party, especially in the age of Trump. What explains this tension?

AR: I see this tension as tied to the role the Constitution plays in the US, which is critically different from the role that written constitutions play in many countries. Outside the US, constitutions are often rules for governing, which may or may not remain effective. When these legal-political orders break down or social upheaval brings new elites and alliances to power, old documents can be jettisoned and new ones written. Societies typically do not treat their written constitutions as being at the core of their national identity.

But in the United States, the 1787 Constitution has become wrapped up with a very specific account of what it means to be American. In particular, the Constitution is often treated as the concrete mechanism for fulfilling what Swedish sociologist Gunnar Myrdal called the “American Creed,” the idea of the US as being committed from the founding to principles of liberal equality. For some liberals, at a moment when this vision feels like it is under attack from resurgent white nationalism, holding on to the Constitution can feel especially culturally essential.

The problem, of course, is that the divided liberal mind—which details constitutional flaws even as it depicts the text as “salvation” from Trump and Trumpism—is effectively an invitation to reaffirm the very arrangements that have facilitated, both today and in the past, the authoritarian brand of politics that liberals condemn. Moreover, such an approach fundamentally misunderstands the challenge of the present. The country today is wracked by a series of unfolding crises—intense police and military violence at home and abroad, financial crisis, extreme class inequalities, the carceral state’s generational effects on poor and minority communities, white authoritarianism, and ecological disaster, to name a few. Our political class has seemed paralyzed in the face of these crises, and our constitutional system has only intensified them.