Constitutional crisis?

Robert Singh, Professor of Politics at Birkbeck, defends the US constitution at a time when many say it offers more problems than solutions. His ideas are explored further in his new book In Defense of the United States Constitution, available from Routledge. 

According to that eminent politics scholar, Morrissey (Spent the Day in Bed), we should stop watching the news, “because the news contrives to frighten you.” As far as politics in the United States goes, he surely has a point. Breathlessly excitable news coverage and learned academic pronouncements of the “death” of democracy together induce a sense of bewilderment, producing more heat than light about what ails America. And invariably this is traced to the ultimate political “original sin,” the US Constitution, faulty more by defective design than cack-handed execution.

Nowhere more is this true than the Trump presidency, whose macabre logic – feed a craven media that thrives on outrage with its daily dose of “controversy” – rarely fails to produce the desired ratings hit. Opinion surveys confirm the resulting disenchantment: in 2017, only 46 percent of Americans were satisfied with how democracy was working. In 2018, a mere 50 percent said their system was basically sound. 81 percent thought the Founders would be upset with the functioning of federal institutions while only 11 percent imagined they would be happy. Four in five Americans were either dissatisfied (60 percent) or angry (20 percent) at Washington.”

But is the Constitution, as many scholar-activists assert, the source of, rather than the remedy to, US problems, from gun violence to agitated air passengers invoking the “right” to travel with “emotional support animals”? Does Trump’s presidency again reveal its inherent fragility, proclivity to periodic crisis and the hollowness of eighteenth-century parchment promises? These altogether more problematic claims are triply doubtful.

First, we should separate politics from constitutionalism and beware the all-too-promiscuous use of the term “crisis.” A genuine constitutional crisis requires a disagreement about constitutional obligations that is impossible to resolve via constitutional means. The Civil War was the one undisputable such crisis in US history: an existential conflict posing a choice between alternatives that allowed no compromise. Others, from Watergate and Iran-Contra to Monicagate and today’s lurid charges, are more resolvable political crises with constitutional dimensions.

Second, while Trump has undermined multiple norms and conventions previously taken for granted, the extent to which these indict the constitutional design is questionable. Even if a Democratic House of Representatives begins impeachment proceedings against him in January 2019, the question of whether Trump’s alleged violations of statute law rise to the standard of “high crimes and misdemeanours” is ultimately a political, not a legal, one. Trump’s tempestuous encounter with the Constitution has proven only his most recent and important instance of serial infidelity. But it has damaged, not endangered, the republic.

Third, there exists a powerful case – which impeachment would vindicate, not repudiate – that “the system worked.” The political circus since January 2017 may have been compelling viewing in its car crash qualities, but it also demonstrates certain enduring structural strengths of the US design. Trump has not had his way on public policy, despite his own party controlling both houses on Capitol Hill. The courts have been able and willing to strike down laws and executive actions they deemed unconstitutional. Civil society remains a cacophonous and vibrant force.

None of this is to suggest that all is right with things constitutional. The Constitution is far from flawless and some modernizing fine-tuning would not go amiss, regarding the composition of the US Senate, the method of allocating votes in the Electoral College, and the amendment process. But it merits neither rubbishing nor romanticizing. A rare focus for unity in an otherwise fractious polity, the Constitution is not the source of today’s problems (the Second Amendment, for example, does not prohibit strong firearms regulation). Nor are constitutional “fixes” the solution. Radical change, where feasible, is mostly undesirable, and where desirable, mostly unfeasible. It is politics – above all, the deeply entrenched partisan polarization that preceded and will outlast the 45th president – that is responsible for contemporary maladies.

On most comparative metrics, the Constitution performs well and emerges much better than others. An effective constitution should provide a stable framework for government by channelling societal conflict into everyday politics, allow the expression in law and policy of majority preferences while safeguarding protections for individual rights and liberties, ensure the peaceful transfer of power, and permit the means of its own revision through amendments and interpretation. The Constitution meets these core requirements, and its own Preamble’s six objectives, now more fully than at any time in US history. It is not merely adaptive but “antifragile”: gaining strength from the tests to which it is periodically subject.

All of which suggests: Keep calm and carry on constitutionalizing. The republic has not been read the last rites. The Constitution has not been trampled under goose-steps. American democracy is not in its death throes. The news might frighten you, but the US Constitution should be a cause for enduring comfort rather than disquiet.

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Just Enough for the City!

Dr William Ackah is a lecturer in Community and Voluntary Sector Studies at Birkbeck. He is a co-convenor of the Transatlantic Roundtable on Religion and Race and a Fulbright All Disciplines award holder based at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary for the academic year 2016-17.

Growing up as young man in East London the words and music of Stevie Wonder had a profound influence on me. I would play the powerful and evocative songs emanating from albums like Songs in the Key of Life, Fulfilling his First Finale and Talking Book for hours and hours. I would think about what kind of society could exist where “love was in need of love today”? Or who indeed was Mr Know it all? One song that affected me then and still does today is the chilling but epic tale of youth migration from rural to urban America;  Living Just Enough for the City. Even as I write this piece the harsh sounds and those cutting words ‘back in the cell’ still send chills down my spine. Stevie’s profound lyrics come to mind as I sit here in my room in Pittsburgh one of the key stopping points on the great migration of African Americans from the South to the North in the twentieth century. Pittsburgh historically has had a great reputation as a centre for Jazz and was the home of the one of the great American playwrights August Wilson. Most of his impressive body of work – some of which I have had the pleasure to see in London – are set in the Hill District in Pittsburgh. It was all these reasons and more that have drawn me to the city.

Hill District, Pittsburgh is undergoing regeneration

Hill District, Pittsburgh

I have the privilege of being in Pittsburgh this academic year as a Fulbright Scholar, based at the Metro Urban Institute of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. I am here to conduct research on the impact of regeneration and gentrification on African American church congregations in two neighbourhoods: Larimer and the Hill District. I will be exploring the role that the Black Church plays when neighbourhoods experience economic and social change as a result of urban redevelopment. I have seen in London over the past twenty years areas of the city with large Black and Minority Ethnic populations which were considered undesirable and  plagued by crime, poor schools and lack of amenities, get investment and rapidly become very desirable places to live. With desirability comes rising house prices that then make those areas unaffordable for those same Black and Minority Ethnic populations that had lived through and endured the difficult times in those neighbourhoods.

A sign about regeneration in Larimer district, Pittsburgh

A sign about regeneration in Larimer district, Pittsburgh

What is happening in parts of London is not unique; these same processes of urban redevelopment have and are impacting African American communities in a number of US cities including Pittsburgh. What should be the role of the Church when these things are happening? The Black Church historically has been the key social institution in the African American community and is still a major institutional force throughout Africa and the African Diaspora.  In the US context it was the incubator of credit unions and schools, it birthed the doctors, lawyers, intellects, workers and leaders that enabled Black communities to endure the horrors and indignities of racism and to win important rights and freedoms. The church was also an incubator for black creativity and although its relationship to some creative forms has been tense at times, the spiritual energy of the Church has birthed some of the most amazing musical and artistic forms the world has known. In the post-civil-rights era, however, the importance of the Black Church to the wider community has increasingly been called into question. As poor urban areas have suffered from the blight of drugs, under-employment mass incarceration and police brutality it has been said of the Church that it has become so heavenly minded that it is of no earthly good! That it has not been pro-active in protecting it’s communities from these injustices. Is this however really a fair assessment? It can be argued that the Black Church has never been a monolithic entity and that over the years it has had many strands of engagement with urban communities ranging from social and political activism to non-engagement.

The past however is the past. What can the Church do in the 21st century?  Can it be an incubator for social housing, enabling poorer residents to stay in their communities? Can it be a champion for youth development, rupturing the school to prison pipeline? Can the church be an example for sustainable urban living, promoting positive ways for diverse communities to flourish together in changing contexts?

I do not think it is the role of the Church to do everything in a neighbourhood, as it virtually did in the past but as a key social institution it can create and nurture spaces that enable marginalized and excluded communities not just to live but be able to flourish in the city. I hope to discover some evidence of this during my Fulbright year in Pittsburgh.

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