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What’s a real constitutional crisis?

September 28, 2019


The term constitutional crisis gets thrown
around a lot. But not always in the right way. “It’s possible to use it so often and to cry
wolf so often that people don’t believe it when there may actually be a crisis,” Princeton
professor Keith Whittington told Newsy. Obviously, the constitution sets out the rules
for U.S. democracy. It guides every decision, vote and law. And when it’s working properly, all of the
branches are equal and working together. But constitutional crises happen when the
constitution isn’t performing its central functions. Basically when the system itself seems to
be broken in some fundamental way and can’t handle the crisis. “Such that the constitution is not accomplishing
the goals it’s supposed to accomplish in allowing us to make political decisions and implement
them,” Whittington said. Princeton professor Keith Whittington is an
expert on all this. Constitutional crises can be broken down into
two main categories: crises of constitutional operation and of constitutional fidelity. An operational crisis means there is an issue
with the constitution itself. “That can happen because the constitution
is unclear. It could be because the constitutional rules
conflict with one another such that we have these irresolvable conflicts even though everybody
is behaving in the way that is constitutionally allowed,” Whittington said. According to Whittington, there are two different
types of operational crises: formal and practical. A formal crisis is when everyone is following
the rules but there is so much disagreement on the end result that the government can’t
move forward. A practical operational crisis happens when
some type of external pressure requires action, but the current constitutional system won’t
allow us to do anything. A fidelity crisis is when the constitution
requires something and we’re just not willing to comply with it. “So from our perspective, that rule that we
all agree is a real rule in the constitution and yet we also come to the conclusion we’re
just not going to obey it,” Whittington said. Basically, an operational crisis is about
the constitution itself, while fidelity is about how the government interacts with the
constitution. But remember: just because something is unprecedented
doesn’t mean it’s a constitutional crisis. “The mere fact that this is not business as
usual should not lead us to say all bets are off because these are very dangerous circumstances,”
Whittington said.

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