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February 3, 2017

‘We the People’ Brings Cultural Identity: Law Professor Explains Symbolic Praise of Constitution

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The famous words of our nation’s constitution ‘We the People’ have held a deep cultural meaning for citizens throughout the 20th century onward, described Prof. Aziz Rana, law.

Rana explained the phenomenon of the exceptional rise of Constitutional veneration to a full Kaufmann Auditorium in Goldwin Smith Hall at a lecture on Thursday.

Rana drew his talk from a book manuscript he is currently writing that outlines how the Constitution became a document of near unanimous support over the course of the 20th century.

“There has been a consensus story that has dominated political life about the goodness of the Constitution,” Rana said. “What that highlights is that a veneration [of the Constitution] in recent years isn’t just a kind of empty gesture, but actually has real, symbolic and political bite.”

Although people have disagreed with regard to their interpretations of the Constitution, Rana argued that there is a “recognition that stands behind such disagreements.”

“There are terrible stains on the collective past: slavery, indigenous expropriation,” he said. “But the idea is that it’s the Constitution as a common language, grounded in liberal equality, that’s moved the country in pluralistic and rights respecting directions.”

Along with this consensus, Rana admitted that the Constitution is challenged today both by the political left and right, particularly following the 2016 election.

Challengers from the left often argue that the Constitution goes against the principles of the nation’s democratic principles.

“Since the financial crisis of 2008 there has been a sustained argument that you have with various left social movements that say ‘no, the Constitution in some fundamental way is un- or anti-democratic,’” Rana said. “The most common accusations of which have been made against the Electoral College following the 2016 Election results.”

On the right, Rana said the classic story of constitutional veneration has also faced challenge. This time less from those arguing that it’s undemocratic and more from newly emboldened white nationalists who locate its value less in pluralistic and inclusive traditions and more in the idea of the Constitution as a “white inheritance.”

Despite these oppositions, Rana stressed the implications of his discussion surrounding the Constitution for scholarship today.

“To understand the meaning of the Constitution in American life, scholars have to think of it as not only a document of courtroom adjudication, but also as site of broad political contestation and cultural meaning, well beyond debates over case law.”