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Posted: August 30th, 2023

PLCY702 W1. What do political scientists

PLCY702 W1. What do political scientists mean when they speak of constitutionalism? What does it mean to speak of constitutionalism as distinct from particular constitutions? What are some of the features of modern constitutionalism that may account for it having become, in effect, the only form of government recognized as legitimate?

Constitutionalism: Unveiling its Significance and Distinctiveness

Constitutionalism, a term often invoked in political discourse, carries profound implications for the structure and functioning of governments across the globe. As political scientists delve into this concept, they seek to unravel its intricacies and the factors that have propelled it to the forefront of discussions on legitimate governance. In this discourse, the distinction between constitutionalism and specific constitutions emerges, shedding light on the attributes of modern constitutionalism that have cemented its status as the preeminent form of recognized government legitimacy.

Decoding Constitutionalism

Political scientists, when referring to constitutionalism, are alluding to more than just the mere existence of a constitution. Constitutionalism encompasses a set of principles and values that emphasize the rule of law, the separation of powers, the protection of individual rights, and the establishment of mechanisms for checks and balances within a governing system. In essence, it reflects a commitment to limiting the powers of those in authority and safeguarding the rights of citizens.

Diverging from Particular Constitutions

While a constitution is a tangible legal document outlining the fundamental framework of a government, constitutionalism transcends the specifics of any individual constitution. It signifies an abstract framework of principles that guide the creation, interpretation, and implementation of these constitutions. A constitution is a vessel through which constitutionalism finds expression, adapting its principles to the unique context and needs of a nation.

The Essence of Modern Constitutionalism

Modern constitutionalism, distinguished by its evolving nature, encapsulates several features that contribute to its widespread recognition as the sole legitimate form of governance:

Protection of Individual Rights: One of the cornerstones of modern constitutionalism is the emphasis on safeguarding individual rights. Constitutions often enshrine a bill of rights, ensuring citizens’ liberties are shielded from government encroachment.

Rule of Law: Constitutionalism underscores the supremacy of the law above all, ensuring that even those in power are subject to legal regulations. This principle mitigates arbitrary exercise of authority.

Checks and Balances: The separation of powers is a central tenet of constitutionalism, distributing authority among different branches of government. This division prevents any one branch from amassing unchecked power.

Democratic Governance: Modern constitutionalism aligns closely with democratic ideals. Constitutions commonly outline processes for free and fair elections, enabling citizens to participate in governance.

Judicial Independence: An impartial judiciary is pivotal in upholding constitutionalism. Independent courts serve as arbiters in disputes, ensuring adherence to constitutional principles.

Constitutional Review: Many jurisdictions empower courts to engage in constitutional review, evaluating laws’ compatibility with the constitution. This mechanism upholds the constitution’s sanctity.

The Singular Legitimacy of Modern Constitutionalism

The prevalence of modern constitutionalism as the predominant form of recognized government legitimacy can be attributed to its adaptability and resonance with fundamental human values. Its focus on individual rights, the rule of law, and democratic principles resonates across cultures and societies, offering a framework that balances authority with accountability. The evolving nature of modern constitutionalism also allows it to accommodate societal progress and changing dynamics, thereby maintaining its relevance.

In conclusion, when political scientists discuss constitutionalism, they are referring to a concept that transcends the mere text of a constitution. It embodies a set of principles that guide the creation and operation of constitutions, fostering accountable governance, protection of rights, and adherence to the rule of law. The distinction between constitutionalism and specific constitutions clarifies the abstract and practical dimensions of the concept. The enduring prominence of modern constitutionalism rests on its adaptability, alignment with democratic ideals, and its role in safeguarding individual liberties.


Ackerman, B. A. (2017). The Decline and Fall of the American Republic. Harvard University Press.
Elster, J. (2018). Constitutionalism and Democracy. Cambridge University Press.
Rosenfeld, M. (2016). The Identity of the Constitutional Subject: Selfhood, Citizenship, Culture, and Community. Routledge.
Tushnet, M. (2020). Advanced Introduction to Comparative Constitutional Law. Edward Elgar Publishing.

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