Parchment Barriers: Political Polarization and the Constitution

United States Capitol seen from the United States Supreme Court, Washington, DC

Parchment Barriers: Political Polarization and the Limits of Constitutional Order

Edited by Zachary Courser, Eric Helland, and Kenneth Miller

Parchment BarriersThe United States has become ever more deeply entrenched in powerful, rival, partisan camps, and its citizens more sharply separated along ideological lines. The authors of this volume, scholars of political science, economics, and law, examine the relation between our present-day polarization and the design of the nation’s Constitution. The provisions of our Constitution are like “parchment barriers”—fragile bulwarks intended to preserve liberty and promote self-government. To be effective, these barriers need to be respected and reinforced by government officials and ordinary citizens, both in law and in custom. This book asks whether today’s partisan polarization is threatening these constitutional provisions and thus our constitutional order.

The nation’s founders, clearly concerned about political division, designed the Constitution with numerous means for controlling factions, restraining majority rule, and preventing concentrations of power. In chapters that span the major institutions of American government, the authors of Parchment Barriers explore how partisans are pushing the limits of these constitutional restraints to achieve their policy goals and how the forces of majority faction are testing the boundaries the Constitution draws around democratic power. What, for instance, are the dangers of power being concentrated in the executive branch, displaced to the judiciary, or assumed by majority party leaders in Congress? How has partisan polarization affected the nature, size, and power of the administrative state? And why do political parties, rather than working to facilitate the constitutional order as envisioned by James Madison, now chafe against its limits on majority rule? Parchment Barriers considers the implications of polarization for policy, governance, and the health of American democracy.

JMC fellow Zachary Courser has edited and contributed to this collection, and JMC fellows Benjamin Kleinerman and George Thomas have contributed essays.

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Zachary CourserZachary Courser is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Government at Claremont McKenna College, where he co-directs Policy Lab, an innovative new undergraduate course focused on public policy analysis of real world problems in coordination with a DC think tank. He is also the Research Director of the Dreier Roundtable. Professor Courser previously served as a Senior Program Director and fellow for the Legatum Institute in London, where he acted as the Executive Director of the Wellbeing Commission. Professor Courser is a frequent elections commentator on NPR affiliate KPCC in Los Angeles and has published many articles on the connection between political parties and democratic participation. His latest book, entitled Democratic Discontent, is a collaborative research project on the rise of populism in the U.S. and Europe.

Professor Courser is a Jack Miller Center fellow.

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Benjamin KleinermanBenjamin A. Kleinerman is Associate Professor of Constitutional Democracy at James Madison College, Michigan State University. He also serves as the Chair of the American Political Thought section of APSA. He has published articles in Perspectives on Politics (APSA), American Political Science Review, Texas Law Review and several edited volumes including Nomos and The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln. Professor Kleinerman has also been invited to give talks at Yale University, the University of Notre Dame, Xavier University, Kenyon College, and the University of Cincinnati. His first book, The Discretionary President: The Promise and Peril of Executive Power (University Press of Kansas, 2009), has been reviewed in The New Republic and Political Science Quarterly. He teaches classes on both political thought and political institutions. Professor Kleinerman has also published on other subjects including literature and politics and American political history.

Professor Kleinerman serves on the Jack Miller Center Board of Directors.

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George ThomasGeorge Thomas is the Burnet C. Wohlford Professor of American Political Institutions at Claremont McKenna College. He is the winner of the American Political Science Association’s 2006 Alexander L. George Award for the Best Article on Qualitative Methods and serves as an officer for the American Political Thought section of APSA. Professor Thomas specializes in the topics of American constitutionalism, American political thought, constitutional law, and the Supreme Court. He has written extensively on the Constitution, the Founders, and the history of American education. His latest book is The Founders and the Idea of a National University: Constituting the American Mind (Cambridge University Press, 2015), and he has published articles in Perspectives on Politics, Polity, National Affairs, and Critical Review, among others.

Professor Thomas is a Jack Miller Center fellow.

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