Signatories to the Constitution of the United States. Photo credit: Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons.

The idea for a symposium in Public Seminar on “Constitutional Politics” grows out of a two-day conference on Liberalism & Democracy: Past, Present, Prospects. I organized these conversations at the New School in February 2019, in collaboration with Helena Rosenblatt, a historian at City University of New York Graduate Center. 

One of the key participants was Aziz Rana of Cornell University, who I invited because of his brilliant study of The Two Faces of American Freedom. A pioneering reinterpretation of the American political tradition from the colonial period to modern times, it places issues of race relations, immigration, and presidentialism in the context of shifting notions of empire and citizenship. 

The other participants ranged from Bill Kristol (The Bulwark) and Yuval Levin (National Affairs) on the conservative right, to Astra Taylor (author of Democracy May Not Exist, but We’ll Miss It When It’s Gone) and Natasha Lennard (The Intercept) on the radical left. E.J. Dionne, Jr. (Washington Post), and Michael Tomasky (Democracy) occupied, more or less, the liberal center. 

I was surprised to hear how fervently Kristol and Levin sang the praises of liberalism, which both understood to encompass principles and values, such as freedom of speech, and toleration for minorities, and religious freedom, that remained crucial for American conservatives such as themselves. But equally striking was the antipathy Kristol and Levin especially felt for the radical views expressed by Taylor and Lennard, both veterans of Occupy Wall Street. Taylor and Lennard championed the radical democratic ideals that had animated French revolutionaries like Condorcet and socialists like Rosa Luxemburg. But both of the never-Trump conservatives pledged allegiance to American constitutionalism, understood as a prudent compromise between protecting liberal values and giving ordinary people some strictly limited measure of political power. (In effect, they were renouncing the right-wing Tea Party populism that both Kristol and Levin had helped unleash in the Republican Party.)

Late on the final afternoon, when the disagreements among these participants had become vehement, Aziz Rana intervened. Calmly, as I recall, he questioned whether the reverence expressed by Kristol and Levin for American constitutionalism was in fact compatible with serious efforts to create a more democratic society in America.  

It was the kind of question that will quiet a room—and it was, I thought, exactly the right question to raise at that moment. 

After the conference was over, I asked Rana what he was working on—and he told me that he was writing a book on the sacralization of the United States Constitution during the twentieth century.  

Ever since, I have wanted to bring together a group of thinkers and scholars to delve more deeply into the strange fate of America’s evolving form of modern democracy. 

Our distinctive form of democracy has been sharply limited—and arguably crippled by—key undemocratic features of the federal Constitution, notably the Electoral College; the composition of the U.S. Senate; and the powers vested in the federal Supreme Court. We are presented a paradox: American Presidents from Woodrow Wilson on had often intervened by force in the affairs of other countries to make “the world safe for democracy,” even though our federal constitution has never been a model of real democracy, despite various reforms (such as the abolition of slavery and extending the vote to women).

Once Rana had finished his book manuscript, I convinced him that we should organize a symposium around what his research had uncovered. The results are in this special issue.

We agreed to invite Samuel Moyn (Yale) and Sanford Levinson (University of Texas-Austin). To broaden the frame, I suggested we also ask Jennifer Piscopo (Occidental) to describe what was happening in Chile, which had voted in a referendum to convene a Convention to write a new constitution for the country. 

Anthony Barnett ( joined from England, where he has been active in debates over creating a new written constitution for the United Kingdom. Moyn decided to co-author a very provocative piece with Ryan Doerfler (University of Chicago).  

As the papers came in, it was clear there were real disagreements among our authors—and every reason to continue the conversation with different responses to Moyn and Doerfler from Levinson and Rana.

This week Public Seminar truly resembles an actual seminar—with a real back and forth between a fine group of first-rate thinkers.  

As Rana writes in the issue’s conclusion, these essays, taken as a whole, “invite reflection on the question of whether a focus on “constitutional law,” or the convening of conventions to draft new constitutions, aid or distract “from the project of democratizing society.” 

It’s a timely and fraught question: the prospects for a democratic liberalism and a more democratic society hang in the balance.  

James Miller, co-Executive Editor of Public Seminar, teaches at The New School for Social Research. His most recent book is Can Democracy Work? A Short History of a Radical Idea from Ancient Athens to Our World (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018).