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What is Constitutionalism?

By Matthew F.
Updated May 16, 2024
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Constitutionalism is a concept in political theory that explains that a government does not derive its power from itself, but gains its power as the result of there being a set of written laws that give the governing body certain powers. This concept is in sharp opposition to monarchies, theocracies, and dictatorships, in which the power does not derive from a pre-drawn legal document. In a monarchy, the power is derived as an inalienable right of the king or queen. In a theocracy, all of the power of a governing party is derived from a set of religious beliefs, which are thought to exist as a result of the will of God, and in a dictatorship, the power is derived from the will of a single or group of people and their ideology, which does not necessarily represent the will of the people.

Constitutionalism therefore naturally prescribes a system of government in which the government’s powers are limited. Government officials, whether elected or not, canot act against their own constitutions if they see fit. Constitutional law is the highest body of law in the land, which all citizens, including the government, are subjected to. Several nations around the world have adopted forms of constitutionalism in their governments.

,In the United States, not only does the constitution itself limit the power of the government, it prescribes that the three different branches of the government limit the powers of the other branches of government by imposing a system of checks and balances. For example, in the United States, the president, who is the chief of the executive branch of government, may not declare war on another nation without congressional approval. The United States Constitution was set up in this way to limit the power of any one branch of its government.

Another form of constitutionalism in the world exists in the United Kingdom, New Zealand, and Israel. These nations all have uncodified constitutions. An uncodified constitution is not a written constitution, but rather a system of unwritten laws, which depend heavily on legislative precedence and parliamentary procedure. Regardless of the lack of an actual physical document in which the supreme law of the land is used, the “constitution” may be referred to in court in these nations, to which the government themselves must also submit and cannot act against.

There is also a different interpretation and usage of the term constitutionalism in political discussion. In prescriptive constitutionalism, the concept focuses on “constitutional questions,” or differing opinions on what a constitution ought to have in its content. An example of this form of constitutionalism exists in American politics, whenever the differing sides of an political debate argue over whether or not the constitution ought to be amended, which the United States Constitution allows to occur.

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Discussion Comments
By burcidi — On Jan 28, 2014

@ZipLine-- Popular constitutionalism is a constitutional government that derives its power from the people -- like the US. We have a constitution but the government is elected by the people. Constitutionalism just refers to a government with a constitution, but there are different types and the article mentioned some of them.

Most governments in the world today, regardless of the system they use, have some type of constitution to govern the country. Elected or appointed officials need a set of rules when making decisions. They can't just do whatever they want.

By ZipLine — On Jan 27, 2014

What is the difference between constitutionalism and popular constitutionalism?

By SarahGen — On Jan 27, 2014

@Glasis-- Precedence exists in the United States as well. The first court ruling on an issue is the precedent for all similar cases thereafter.

I personally think that the US constitution is extremely well drafted. The founders thought of everything and could foresee future problems. This is why the American system has worked so well.

I agree that there can be problems in terms of interpretation. Global politics and the demographics of the US is very different today. Some of the terms used by the founders in the Constitution may carry different meanings now. But the basics remain the same and the Constitution is the best guarantee of democracy our nation has.

By Glasis — On Jan 26, 2014

Although it would seem that working off of unwritten constitutional values would be much more confusing than relying on a written document, this form of constitutionalism has its advantages.

Specifically, if the laws are based on past precedence and not one document, that allows the law to be tailored more to each individual case.

In addition, problems arise in countries, like the United States, where the written document was based on concerns the founders had at the time the constitution was drafted but that may not apply in modern times.

In either case, there may never be a solution for resolving conflicting interpretations of constitutional law.

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