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A Constitutional Crisis May Not Be What You Think It Is

We sat down with an expert to cut through the talking points.
Posted at 9:09 AM, Aug 30, 2017

The term constitutional crisis gets thrown around a lot. But not always in the right way.

"It's possible to use it so often and to cry wolf so often that people don't believe it when there may actually be a crisis," Princeton professor Keith Whittington told Newsy. 

Obviously, the constitution sets out the rules for U.S. democracy. It guides every decision, vote and law. And when it's working properly, all of the branches are equal and working together. 

But constitutional crises happen when the constitution isn't performing its central functions. Basically when the system itself seems to be broken in some fundamental way and can't handle the crisis. 

"Such that the constitution is not accomplishing the goals it's supposed to accomplish in allowing us to make political decisions and implement them," Whittington said. 

Princeton professor Keith Whittington is an expert on all this.

Constitutional crises can be broken down into two main categories: crises of constitutional operation and of constitutional fidelity. An operational crisis means there is an issue with the constitution itself. 

"That can happen because the constitution is unclear. It could be because the constitutional rules conflict with one another such that we have these irresolvable conflicts even though everybody is behaving in the way that is constitutionally allowed," Whittington said. 

According to Whittington, there are two different types of operational crises: formal and practical.

A formal crisis is when everyone is following the rules but there is so much disagreement on the end result that the government can't move forward. A practical operational crisis happens when some type of external pressure requires action, but the current constitutional system won't allow us to do anything. 

A fidelity crisis is when the constitution requires something and we're just not willing to comply with it. "So from our perspective, that rule that we all agree is a real rule in the constitution and yet we also come to the conclusion we're just not going to obey it," Whittington said. 

Basically, an operational crisis is about the constitution itself, while fidelity is about how the government interacts with the constitution. But remember: just because something is unprecedented doesn't mean it's a constitutional crisis.

"The mere fact that this is not business as usual should not lead us to say all bets are off because these are very dangerous circumstances," Whittington said.