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The Adaptability Paradox: Constitutional Resilience and Principles of Good Government in Twenty-First-Century America

  • Stephen Skowronek and Karen Orren


Faith in the resilience of the US Constitution prompts many observers to discount evidence of a deepening crisis of governance in our day. A long history of success in navigating tough times and adapting to new circumstances instills confidence that the fundamentals of the system are sound and the institutions self-correcting. The aim of this article is to push assessments of this sort beyond the usual nod to great crises surmounted in the past and to identify institutional adaptation as a developmental problem worthy of study in its own right. To that end, we call attention to dynamics of adjustment that have played out over the long haul. Our historical-structural approach points to the “bounded resilience” of previous adaptations and to dynamics of reordering conditioned on the operation of other governance outside the Constitution’s formal written arrangements. We look to the successive overthrow of these other incongruous elements and to the serial incorporation of previously excluded groups to posit increasing stress on constitutional forms and greater reliance on principles for support of new institutional arrangements. Following these developments into the present, we find principles losing traction, now seemingly unable to foster new rules in support of agreeable governing arrangements. Our analysis generates a set of propositions about why the difficulties of our day might be different from those of the past in ways that bear directly on resilience and adaptability going forward.



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Versions of this article were presented at the University of Oregon Law School, Swarthmore College, the Rothermere American Institute in Oxford, and Sciences Po in Paris. We are grateful for comments and criticisms received on those occasions. We also received thoughtful readings from Stuart Chinn, Chris Edelson, Eldon Eisenach, William Forbath, Michael Fotos, Desmond King, Eileen McDonagh, Sidney Milkis, Bruce Miroff, Carol Nackenoff, and the editor and anonymous reviewers of this journal. John Dearborn, Jack Greenberg, and Benjamin Waldman provided able research assistance.



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The Adaptability Paradox: Constitutional Resilience and Principles of Good Government in Twenty-First-Century America

  • Stephen Skowronek and Karen Orren


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