Framed: America's 51 Constitutions and the Crisis of Governance


In his widely acclaimed volume Our Undemocratic Constitution, Sanford Levinson boldly argued that our Constitution should not be treated with "sanctimonious reverence," but as a badly flawed document deserving revision. Now Levinson takes us deeper, asking what were the original assumptions underlying our institutions, and whether we accept those assumptions 225 years later.

In Framed, Levinson challenges our belief that the most important features of our constitutions concern ...

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In his widely acclaimed volume Our Undemocratic Constitution, Sanford Levinson boldly argued that our Constitution should not be treated with "sanctimonious reverence," but as a badly flawed document deserving revision. Now Levinson takes us deeper, asking what were the original assumptions underlying our institutions, and whether we accept those assumptions 225 years later.

In Framed, Levinson challenges our belief that the most important features of our constitutions concern what rights they protect. Instead, he focuses on the fundamental procedures of governance such as congressional bicameralism; the selection of the President by the electoral college, or the dimensions of the President's veto power—not to mention the near impossibility of amending the United States Constitution. These seemingly "settled" and "hardwired" structures contribute to the now almost universally recognized "dysfunctionality" of American politics.

Levinson argues that we should stop treating the United States Constitution as uniquely exemplifying the American constitutional tradition. We should be aware of the 50 state constitutions, often interestingly different—and perhaps better—than the national model. Many states have updated their constitutions by frequent amendment or by complete replacement via state constitutional conventions. California's ungovernable condition has prompted serious calls for a constitutional convention. This constant churn indicates that basic law often reaches the point where it fails and becomes obsolete. Given the experience of so many states, he writes, surely it is reasonable to believe that the U.S. Constitution merits its own updating.

Whether we are concerned about making America more genuinely democratic or only about creating a system of government that can more effectively respond to contemporary challenges, we must confront the ways our constitutions, especially the United States Constitution, must be changed in fundamental ways.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"From America's greatest revolutionary constitutionalist, a profoundly important book, that will be at the center of the next reform movement."—Lawrence Lessig, author of Republic, Lost

"Anyone who cares about America's future should read Sandy Levinson's book. His fresh thinking illuminates old debates and his understanding of political nuance gives power to his analysis. You don't have to agree with him to know you are in the presence of a scholar who is a constitutional giant."—Senator Bill Bradley

"Sandy Levinson has authored an important, and cautionary, book-one that needs to be read as much by those who disagree with him as by those who share his analysis."— Glenn Harlan Reynolds, Professor of Law, University of Tennessee College of Law, founder of Instapundit

"I've been Framed! Levinson sparks a long-overdue conversation about the relationship between America's current governing crisis and the American Constitution-or rather, 'constitutions,' since he takes the unusual and valuable step of looking at state constitutions as well. His message: Pay attention to the 'Constitution of Settlement,' the established rules of the political game, not just the 'Constitution of Conversation' that sparks continuing legal dispute. It is a measure of the success of his stimulating book that he makes what once seemed settled appear newly ripe for debate."—Jacob S. Hacker, Stanley Resor Professor of Political Science, Yale University; co-author, Winner-Take-All Poltics

"Instead, he primarily assesses the wisdom of provisions whose meaning is perfectly clear. ...Framed is a series of thoughtful and interesting essays discussing strengths and weaknesses of various structures established by our Constitution. The book offers an enlightening comparison of those structures with those adopted by states and foreign governments in dealing with similar issues. ... His book is well worth reading." — The New York Review

Kirkus Reviews
Constitutional law scholar Levinson (Law/Univ. of Texas; Our Undemocratic Constitution: Where the Constitution Goes Wrong (And How We the People Can Correct It), 2006, etc.) studies the many flavors and occasional flaws of the constitutions that vie to hold our allegiances. "There is a connection between the perceived deficiencies of contemporary government and formal constitutions," Levinson writes, noting, for instance, that few people would observe the slow disintegration of state government and its attendant services in California without referring to the "particularities of its state constitution." The author proposes that constitutions be considered as "frames," preambles to them as proposals for means to the ends that the constitutions promise. In that light, given that frames are supposed to be portable and movable, he suggests that both frames and constitutions can be dangerous if they do not adapt to changing times and circumstances. That view, of course, might align the author with the liberal of constitutional thought, one that might propose that in the light of latter-day mass murders on a certain nation's streets, a little more effort to curb gun possession is in order. But Levinson resists easy categorization, defending the Electoral College here, likening the vice presidency to a duck-billed platypus there, and urging throughout that we all be attentive to "the inherent limits of language." The author also explains why it is that we should have curbs that prevent Arnold Schwarzenegger from running for president or Bill Clinton from seeking a third term in the White House. "One simply does not understand American constitutionalism," he writes, "if one knows only about the national Constitution." An illuminating look at sacred cows and sacred documents.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780199890750
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press
  • Publication date: 4/3/2012
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 448
  • Product dimensions: 6.50 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.50 (d)

Meet the Author

Sanford Levinson is Professor of Law and Political Science at the University of Texas-Austin. His books include Our Undemocratic Constitution, Constitutional Faith, and Wrestling with Diversity.

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Table of Contents

1 Introduction
2 Of Compromise and Constitutions
3 What is the pint of preambles?
4 How does a "Republican Form of Government" differ from "Democracy"?
5 Elections and a Republican form of government
6 Bicameralism
7 If two opinions are good, is a third opinion (with the power of most of the time absolutely to kill the decision of the first two opinion-makers) even better?
8 Presidentialism (and "gubernatorialism")
9 So what, precisely, does one get, as a constitutional matter, upon being elected president?
10 Presidential duration in office, the possibility of impeachment, and the role of the vice president
11 Divided government
12 How "independent" a judiciary do we really want?
13 On the judiciary (and Supreme Court) as guardian of the Constitution
14 Federalism
15 Amendment
16 Emergency Powers
17 Conclusion

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