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The Making and Breaking of Constitutions

With the United States and the United Kingdom on the verge, if not already in the throes, of constitutional crises, understanding the dynamics of constitutional change at times of political tumult has become an urgent necessity. A new book by renowned legal scholar Bruce Ackerman offers a fresh look at how constitutions evolve and break down over time.

PARIS – Longstanding constitutions are facing unprecedented challenges across the democratic world. And nowhere is the assault on constitutional principles and the rule of law more pronounced than in the world’s oldest democracy, the United States, where President Donald Trump is trying to recast the political order in his own authoritarian populist image.

Trump’s strategy is not unique. Since the founding of the American republic, most presidents have claimed to have a mandate from the people to alter or even repudiate the legacy of previous administrations, including their understandings of the Constitution. Early precedents for radical, president-initiated institutional change can be traced back to administrations as diverse as those of Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson.

Between 1993 and 2018, Yale University law professor Bruce Ackerman detailed this history in his fascinating trilogy We the People, which not only fueled a healthy controversy but also revolutionized how we view the US Constitution, its origins, and its evolution. By examining how different political regimes have won legitimacy in the US over time, Ackerman shows that constitutional changes have not always occurred through formal amendments adopted under Article V of the Constitution.