Early Returns

What Is a 'Constitutional Crisis,' Anyway?

Jonathan Bernstein's morning links.

I put an item up late last night on the aftermath of the James Comey firing, but I'll add just a little here about the notion of a "constitutional crisis." In short: I'm not a big fan of that phrase. I don't know what it means, and I don't think most people do, either, including those who use it. I think the main problem is that constitutions are flexible, and the U.S. Constitution extremely so. It's possible, I would think, to retain the form of the Constitution without any of the spirit of democracy behind it at all; it's also possible to violate the letter of the Constitution in all sorts of ways that are irrelevant to the question of a republican form of government, or could even strengthen it. 1  

To put it another way: Both the rule of law and what we think of as constitutional government depend quite a bit on democratic norms, not all of which can be enforced by law.

So I don't really know whether the Donald Trump presidency constitutes a "constitutional crisis." What I do believe is that Trump's contempt for democratic norms, as expressed in his action Tuesday and in many other examples, plainly constitutes a threat to democracy and the rule of law. I think there's plenty of room for argument about the exact nature of the threat, including how serious it is and what should be done about it, but I'm afraid anyone who doesn't see the threat at all is making a serious error. 

1. Verónica Hoyo and William M. Chandler at the Monkey Cage look at the French election.

2. Important: Yemile Bucay, Vittoria Elliott, Jennie Kamin and Andrea Park at Columbia Journalism Review have a map of U.S. "news deserts."  

3. At Lawfare, Jack Goldsmith on White House counsel Don McGahn and what Sally Yates said during the Senate panel hearing. 

4. Greg Sargent on Democratic plans to use the House Republican health-care plan as part of a broader attack against Trump and the Republicans.

5. And Katie Kilkenny at Pacific Standard on presidents in the arts. Nice piece -- but where's Ronald Reagan? 

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This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

  1. Sorry, nitpickers: I follow political theorist Robert Dahl in using "democracy" and "republic" as synonyms in most cases. 

To contact the author of this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Brooke Sample at bsample1@bloomberg.net

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