Annual Princeton ConLaw Schmooze

Constitutional Breakdown

Date: 
Fri, 12/09/2011 to Sat, 12/10/2011
Location: 
by invitation only


Participant Info

This workshop is the Princeton version of the Constitutional Law "Schmooze." The "Schmooze" has brought together major scholars in both law schools and political science departments for decades now. The Fourth Annual Princeton Schmooze carries on the tradition of bringing legal and political experts together to discuss a topic of general and pervasive importance in the field.

The workshop will be held on Friday-Saturday 9-10 December 2011, starting at noon on Friday and continuing through dinner on Saturday.

Our theme this year is “Constitutional Breakdown.” The theme recognizes that we live in difficult times. The public sphere is highly polarized in many countries; serious problems mount while no one can govern.  Populism and nationalism fight expertise and reasonable compromise in state after state. Political deadlock is everywhere.  The global financial crisis has opened up even larger gaps between rich and poor around the world and has made almost everyone feel insecure.  Governments have to work in concert with each other to achieve economic stability, but there is waning goodwill and even ability to do so.  Some have blamed the lack of effective government on a failure of leadership; others have said that constitutional governance itself has been tested and it has failed badly.   Constitutions may seem more important than ever in some respects – who would want to live without one? – but the imperfections and even mortal failings of existing constitutions are also more evident than ever. 

While there are many causes of our present malaise, the Schmooze this year will focus on the topic of constitutional breakdown.  How are constitutions falling apart in our age of crisis?  How do constitutions exacerbate conflict, prevent problem-solving, sharpen differences and increase inequality?  How does the very entrenchment and super-political aspiration of a constitution make everyday governance harder to achieve?  Are constitutions failing universally under the stress?  Are there any success stories from which we can learn?  

In some countries, like the US, the constitution itself is attacked by some for making governance impossible even as it is treated by others as a religious text whose every word must be literally followed.  The impossibility of direct constitutional change in the US has led to intensified conflict over the meaning of the text, accompanied by extraordinary polarization and deadlock.  In other places, like Hungary, the constitution has been used opportunistically as a device that can seal partisan political victories for decades. In still other countries, like many in the European Union, constitutional governance these days seems to produce weak leadership that cannot manage to align the interests of domestic voters with the interests of their states in the regional system.  In places like Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen and other countries on the fragile frontlines of the war against terrorism, the constitutional order doesn’t seem to reach all of the way to the ground so people are turning to other sources of law and order.  

That said, constitutional breakdown is not necessarily bad – nor is it happening everywhere.  When authoritarian constitutions finally crack and collapse, constitutional breakdown can be a cause for celebration.  Most notably in those countries affected by the successful revolutions of the Arab Spring, new constitutions are being considered in a moment of optimism – but they are debated even as the deep conflicts among those who fought together to topple dictators are becoming more apparent.  In other places, a new “constitutionalism of the global south” is emerging in places like Colombia, South Africa and India, accompanied by an optimism unmatched elsewhere.   What is the secret of their success?  Are these places immune from global constitutional malaise—or do they only appear so from a distance? Why? 

Never has the world so valorized constitutions – and never have so many constitutions been so seriously stressed at once.  In the Princeton Schmooze this year, we will take stock of the state of our international constitutional order.